Monday, May 12, 2008

On Whaling

G.K. Chesterton defined tradition as the democracy of the dead. Tradition is that which does not discriminate a man simply for the fact that he is no longer living. Tradition is the living voice of the past, which echoes down passages that are thousands of years long. Those voices that are most powerful and true will continue to echo down the years when weaker voices fall to whispers on the rock.

I think it is a cul-de-sac of human existence which makes life is too complicated to figure out as one goes along. Those in my generation were left to do just that. For fear of restricting our freedom, our fathers stopped our ears to the voices echoing down that long passageway of years. Was it fear of restricting our freedom, or something else?

The voices from the past continue to echo.

There is a passage in Melville's Moby Dick, which is at once beautiful and erroneous. There are many such passages in Moby Dick. Melville relates how some whales, after being killed, float while some others sink. The "sinkers" will arise after a few days and begin to attract carrion birds. Other sailors, seeing these birds, get the mistaken impression that the birds indicate shallows upon which ships would run aground. Guided by caution, they make note of these shallows upon their charts and these notes are copied to other charts by sailors from other vessels. Thus the error is perpetuated and other ships needlessly give these imaginary islands a wide berth. Melville ends, "There's orthodoxy!"

A respectable challenge, but one that fails to take responsibility for the freedom thus assumed.


Anonymous said...

What Melville does not seem to recognize, which can only be recognized by the supernatural gift of faith, is that Christian orthodoxy is infallible. Worldly wisdom has with it at least the potential for being like a false shallow caused by a dead whale; and this is usually called "convention". But if the Holy Spirit was sent by Christ to keep the Church's Magisterium free from error on all matters of faith and morals, the possibility of error does not exist. Hence, worldly convention and sacred Traditon must always be kept distinct from each other.

This Liberal said...

That's a very good point, Paul.

The Church also teaches that there is value in purely human cultures, quite apart from development within the Church. I think that Melville is missing that, as well.

Human convention can be silly and ignorant at times, but it also carries the majority of the cultural influence that we all receive. The Church doesn't transmit enough "magisterially" to give someone all of the guidance required to make their way through life. It gives guidance on the most important, or pivotal, moral issues. But the majority of the guidance we receive is tranmitted by the culture.