Two Fallible Heads are Better Than One
No person now living consented to our present institutional order. What do we do with our inheritance? According to Thomas Paine (1792),
There never can exist a Parliament… possessed of the right or the power of binding or controuling posterity to the ‘end of time.’ Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it.
On the other hand, G.K. Chesterton (1908) views tradition as
an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils.
Paine warns against a slavish devotion to the past; Chesterton warns against a heedless dismissal of the collective wisdom of our forebears. The two intuitions are reconcilable though the tension remains. Each generation is free to decide for themselves how they shall order their lives together, but it is not as if each generation constitutes a discrete group partitioned from all others in a constant succession. Likewise, it is never as though any generation creates its world de novo as if having suddenly fallen from the sky and told “figure it out.” It is a great grace to us that our ancestors have something to pass on, even if they possess no claim to infallibility.
C.S. Lewis (1944) sees this very tension even in the books we read. We should balance our diet of new and old books because:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
Two sets of fallible heads are better than one.