Democracy of the Dead among the Roots
As metaphors go, Russell Kirk’s “roots” goes well with G.K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” Both figures of speech draw our attention to the underworld, where roots grow and burials occur. Both seek to convey how something out of sight nevertheless exerts a powerful influence on the living. Both mount a defense for keeping the best traditions alive.
The roots metaphor illustrates how the culturally vital nutrients of a civilization are transmitted from generation to generation. Roots are organic. They do not grow like crystals in a Cartesian grid. Rather, they spread their dendritic empire into the richest content they can. Although out of sight, a plant’s roots are vital conduits of water and nutrients. They provide structural support for the organism. If seriously damaged, the organism dies.
So it is with the roots of cultures, nations, and civilizations. Kirk and Chesterton argued that the roots of Western civilization, like those of the United States, are largely out of sight. In their intricate complexity, they stretch down deep, entangled with other roots in a dark, moist underworld — the place figuratively inhabited by the democracy of the dead. It is important to keep this democracy alive in the minds and hearts of the rising generation. By knowing it and defending it against the erosion of time and neglect, a people can be sustained.
Chesterton’s good deed was to challenge modern sensibilities that were prone to exalt democracy but to forget the dead:
“Tradition means giving a vote 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” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 4).
Kirk’s good deed was to push the narrative of America back much deeper than 1776 or 1492. He revived
“nineteenth-century accounts of Western civilization [that] understood the West to have four roots. Athens stood emblematically as the source of the West’s philosophical traditions. Jerusalem was the source of the West’s religious traditions. Rome was the source of the West’s legal traditions. And Germany — the German forests, in which had dwelt the Gothic tribes — was the source of the peculiarly Western spirit of liberty, contract, and self-government.” [See more here.]
The Paradox of Order: It Does Not Come into Being in an Orderly Fashion
Neither Kirk nor Chesterton was saying that there was a straight line from civilization to civilization. Our pilgrims were not the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Our universities are not the direct descendants of Plato’s Academy or Athens’s agora. Our founders were not the direct descendants of Roman republicans. Our institutions are not directly descended from those of the Gothic tribes. Roots are complex, entangled. The democracy of the dead is a cacophony of very different voices. Take your pick of metaphors: Our deep past, like that of all nations, is an entangled network of roots — or a cacophony of very different voices.
To play upon the obvious paradox: order does not come into being in an orderly fashion — not in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, and not in any of the great cities before it. Neither in Jerusalem nor in Athens nor in Rome nor in London was the establishment of order orderly.
Entanglement by Syncretism: Herod’s Palestine
There are two ways civilizational roots become entangled. One way occurs when people consciously attempt to harmonize different traditions. A striking example of syncretism can be seen in the work of Herod the Great. Ethnically, Herod was an Idumaean Jew; culturally he possessed Hellenistic sensibilities; politically he was a creature of Rome since it was Caesar Augustus who made him a client king of Judea. So Herod was constantly trying to ingratiate himself to Augustus, while at the same time satisfying the demands of the local population. In this one cosmopolitan ruler, then, you see the convergence of Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences. Herod could travel with ease in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. (How many of us could say that?)
Herod is famous for two things. He was the king of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the single greatest builder in the history of the Holy Land. The architecture he commissioned reflected his ambition to merge three different civilizations to please the three different populations in his kingdom: native Jews, Hellenized Gentiles, and Roman administrators and visitors.
One excellent example of Herod’s syncretism was his rebuilding of Solomon’s Second Temple. While the content inside the temple remained Jewish, the form was Greek. It bore similarities to a Greek temple set in the middle of an agora that was conceived on the scale of a Roman forum. Adding to the classical touches were a basilica and stoas along the perimeter, with inscriptions in Greek and Latin — Greco-Roman flourishes for the Jews who came up to the Temple Mount.
Another spectacular example of the king’s syncretism was his creation of the port city of Caesarea Maritima on the site of an old Persian village. The new city was populated by people who carried three different civilizations into the community — Hellenized Gentiles, Roman administrators, and a strong Jewish minority. Named in honor of Caesar Augustus, Caesarea Maritima was laid out in the Roman style. It featured a finely engineered harbor (the archaeological ruins of which are still visible from the air) with a Greek lighthouse modeled after the Pharos at Alexandria.*
To make the point about syncretism another way: Caesarea is mentioned several times in the Book of Acts, where the Gentile writer, Luke, writes in Greek about a Hellenized Jewish apostle who claimed Roman citizenship. His name was Paul.
Entangled roots, indeed — or a cacophony of voices.
Entanglement in the Clash of Traditions
— in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London
Roots also become entangled when there are confrontations between the various traditions. Within each of the four cities Russell Kirk writes about, there were struggles for dominance by competing factions. And there were different winners in each. As a result, the civilizations associated with these four cities did not embody identical worldviews and values. Au contraire, each city, even at its core, was the scene of fierce conflicts over worldviews and values. Consider a few examples of the “entangled roots” of our deep past:
- Ancient Jerusalem was not always monotheistic (belief in the existence of one God). There were periods when the Jewish people practiced monolatry* (belief in the existence of many gods while worshipping only one of them). The practice of monolatry, indeed, divided the ten northern tribes from the two southern ones. Moreover, in the wake of Alexander the Great, many Jewish people were seduced back into polytheism. By the first century A.D. various sects — Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes — were battling to define the essence of Judaism. Then Jesus proclaimed he was the Messiah and introduced a radically new sect into Judaism — the followers of Christ.
- Jesus presents a stew of syncretism. Although reared in Nazareth in the Jewish tradition, he grew up in a Hellenized region of the world only four miles from the Roman administrative town of Sepphoris.* Even his name is complex. Jesus in Latin is Iesus, from the Greek Iesous. This Hellenization of the Hebrew Jeshua or Joshua comes from two Hebrew words meaning “Yahweh rescues.” Christ comes from the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, meaning “the anointed one.” So the name “Jesus, the Christ” derives from Hebrew, Greek, and even Roman sources.
- The quest for meaning took radically different routes in the different cities. As Francis Ambrosio observes, two of the early cities gave the world contrasting prototypes of how human beings might find meaning even as they stand in awe before the mystery of existence. Looking into the vast impersonal forces of nature, Athens taught us to revere the hero and strive for nobility among men. Gazing into a creation charged with divine presence, Jerusalem taught us to imitate the saint and pray for humility before God.
- Athens’s political history is complex. Our focus tends to be on its direct democracy, but this radically different form of government was slow to coalesce in the late 6th century B.C. and abruptly ended at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.
- The worldview of Jerusalem and that of Athens were at odds. The Jews put emphasis on one God (even when they practiced monolatry); the polytheistic Athenians, on many gods.
- Athens was a direct democracy for less than 200 years; Rome for many centuries was a republic and for many more centuries an altogether different thing, an empire.
- Rome’s religious evolution is maddeningly complex. At the time of Jesus, the city was riotously polytheistic, having added numerous Greek deities to its own. Moreover, a great leader like Julius Caesar or a beloved emperor like Caesar Augustus could undergo a popular apotheosis. In this hodgepodge, it was official Roman policy sometimes to persecute Christians, and sometimes to leave them alone. There were some dozen persecutions in all. In 313 the emperor Constantine officially recognized Christianity as one of the religions that would be tolerated in the empire. Only in 380 did a Roman emperor, Theodosius I, proclaim that Christianity would be the sole religion of the empire. Perhaps ironically for conservative Americans looking back on this history, within a century of adopting Christianity, the Western Roman Empire “fell.”
- At the core of the British experience was London, which after encountering the New World could not decide what it wanted to be: Catholic or Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist or latitudinarian, an absolute monarchy or a constitutional monarchy with a strong Parliament … or even a republic. In the span of 150 years, it experimented with everything from regicide to revolution (that of 1688). Ask yourself: How would America be different today had this cacophony of voices turned out differently?
It’s a bloody history, most of it. When reading Kirk’s Roots, keep in mind the friction points within and among these civilizations. Much violence is involved in transmitting cultural DNA from generation to generation and civilization to civilization. Because cultures vary one from another, there are frequent and ferocious clashes, and who wins these clashes — and how they win — greatly influences the eventual formation of worldviews and values. The formation of American worldviews and values is no exception.
We well know the story of how Philadelphia clashed with London from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1761 (in John Adams’s opinion, the true starting point) to the end of the War of 1812, when the War for Independence was finally resolved. We less frequently ask how Jerusalem’s ideals clashed with those of Athens, how Athens’s ideals clashed with those of Rome, and how Rome’s ideals clashed with those of London. Yet these civilizational clashes are critical to understanding our roots as Americans. So let us look at a couple of clashes in greater detail.
David vs. Goliath: Jew vs. Greek?
It’s not something most of us learned in Sunday school, but the story of David and Goliath may well have foreshadowed future conflicts between Jerusalem and Athens. In the 11th century B.C., both Mycenaean Greeks and Jews wanted to control Palestine. What were Mycenaean Greeks — called “Philistines” in the Hebrew Scriptures — doing in Palestine in the 11th century B.C.? It’s a good question. One theory is that Mycenaean civilization collapsed suddenly around the time the Greeks returned from the Trojan War. The collapse forced the Greeks to flee their homeland and seek refuge in other parts of the Mediterranean. The Mycenaean Sea Peoples who made the successful voyage to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean would have included Goliath’s ancestors in search of a new homeland. But they ran afoul of King Saul, who was establishing a monarchy for the Jewish people in the region.
Given his size and reputation as a warrior, it is not improbable that Goliath was a descendent of one of the Mycenaean Greeks who had besieged Troy.* It’s uncanny that another great book of the ancient world — the Iliad — features a similar fight in which young Nestor slays the giant Ereuthalion (in Book 7). But in the David and Goliath story, the tables are turned, and it is the Mycenaean warrior who comes out on the losing end. Indeed, when the Bible describes David holding the decapitated head of Goliath up as a trophy (in 1 Samuel 17v51), it is as though the Jews are proclaiming their supremacy over the Mycenaean Greeks, whose exit from history ended the Age of Heroes and bequeathed a dark age to the ancient Mediterranean world.
Hebrew Jews vs. Greek Jews
Another critically important clash occurred in the 2nd century B.C., when Jerusalem — the City of David — was the scene of a fierce struggle between champions of Greek culture and freedom fighters for Jewish culture. It is not by accident that I compose this essay on December 1, 2010, at the start of Hanukkah. These Jewish holy days commemorate one of the most famous civilizational clashes in our cultural DNA.
Jerusalem was not a strictly Jewish city in ancient times. The armies of Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish people and imposed Hellenistic culture on them during the Second Temple period. Indeed, one of the kings in the wake of Alexander’s conquest, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, reinvented Jerusalem as a Greek polis and renamed the city Antiochia. More, this Seleucid king issued a decree that forbade the Jews from observing the rites and laws of their religion. Instead, Jews had to follow Greek customs. Failure to do so warranted the death penalty. So utterly totalitarian was Antiochus IV that he rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the Greek god Zeus. Sacred prostitution was practiced within its precincts.
This is the background to the heroic struggle that the Maccabees waged against those trying to impose a Greek cultural agenda. They sought to reestablish Mosaic law. But the Maccabees did not speak for all Jews, a significant number of whom were eager to embrace Hellenism. The Hellenized Jews were attempting a cultural synthesis that more conservative Jews found threatening. Thus the civil war got nasty — as civil wars inevitably do — with the Maccabees seeking out and destroying any fellow Jew who abandoned the law of Moses.
After three years, Antiochus’ edict was rescinded, and Jews were once again free to observe Mosaic law. They rededicated the Temple to YHWH in 164 B.C., which is what the modern Jewish holy days of Hanukkah commemorate.*
And yet — and yet — what did descendents of the conservative Jewish Maccabees eventually do with their new-found freedom? They accepted Greek names. They adopted Greek customs. They produced Greek literature. They read Old Testament books that had been translated into the Greek left behind by Alexander the Great. Two centuries later, Jewish-raised authors of the New Testament would write in Greek. The apostle Paul would vigorously argue for the inclusion of Hellenized Jews in the Church. And a Hellenized Gentile named Luke would write more of the New Testament than any other individual.* The irony is rich.
Moral of the Story
The point of retelling this story is to remind ourselves that the roots of American order did not grow harmoniously one from another. The past is a cacophony of voices arising from the democracy of the dead. The story of the Maccabees shows how a civil war could arise when Jewish and Greek values clashed within the same culture. In America today, we are faced with some of the same kinds of tensions that erupted in civil war in the 2nd-century B.C.
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 4th ed. (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003).
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody, 2009).
For a discussion of monolatry, consult Gary Rendsberg, The Book of Genesis (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2006), lecture 8; and Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 6.
For more on Sephorris, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 22.
For Herod the Great’s reign, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lectures 18-21.
For David and Goliath, consult Robert L. Dise Jr, Ancient Empires before Alexander (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2009), lectures 16-18.
For the Maccabees, consult Jodi Magness, The Holy Land Revealed (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2010), lecture 11 .
For the observation about St. Luke writing more of the New Testament than any other author, consult http://www.biblestudymanuals.net/luke.htm
To learn more, visit www.allpresidents.org