Venerable Traditions and Radical Ideologies
By Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, civilized society gave special consideration to the young and to the elderly and showed special concern for widows and orphans. Under the topic “Duties to Children and Posterity,” C. S. Lewis includes at the end of The Abolition of Man the precepts of the natural law found in all cultures throughout the world and in all ages that honor children and the aged. He quotes the Roman Juvenal: “Great reverence is owed to a child,” and he cites a line from the Chinese Analects: “The master said respect the young.” Another passage from Hindu spirituality reads, “Children, the old, the poor . . . should be considered the lords of the universe.” A universal consensus in the world’s ancient religions gives priority of place to the most weak and the vulnerable groups in a society.
Under the subject of “Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors,” Lewis refers to Leviticus: “Rise up before the hoary head and honour the old man.” He cites an ancient Babylonian list of sins: “Has he despised Father and Mother?” He alludes to the Greek Epictetus who includes under a list of duties “To care for parents.” Again Lewis impresses upon the mind a Perennial Philosophy shared by all civilizations that acknowledge the self-evident truths of good and evil known to natural reason. Life in all its stages from birth to death deserves compassion and protection.
These precepts of the natural law transcend the pluralism of cultures and customs to identify the first principles of morality that all rational persons recognize as the basis for a human life. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke refers to a similar venerable tradition–“the collected reason of ages” and “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages”–as a higher source of wisdom than any one person’s or society’s “private stock of reason” limited to a particular time in history. Burke declares that the revered traditions of humanity do not boast of new theories or inventions of morality: “we know that we have made no discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made in morality.” He laments the tragedy of the French Revolution because it attacked all the norms of civilization accumulated in the course of thousands of years, “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” that brings irreparable damage: “When antient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated.” Like the carnage of French Revolution symbolized by the guillotine and brought about in the name of the Enlightenment goddess of Reason (atheism), the moral and sexual revolution of modernity follows a similar course.
Just as kings, queens, nobles, priests, and nuns suffered a loss of respect, dignity, and honor in the French Revolution, the elderly and the young suffer a similar fate in the culture of death. They are robbed of their sacredness, reverence, and status—what Lewis quotes from the ancient sources as piety, “natural affection,” and “proper respect.” Burke observes that in the eyes of the revolutionaries “a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal.” All the titles, symbols, and clothes that invest them amount to nothing. They deserve no special honor or privileges. Nothing is inviolable. In Burke’s words, “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.” No trace of beauty remains as the ugliness of evil destroys every vestige of the wonder and splendor of goodness.
The elderly and the young also suffer this same reducing, leveling, and eliminating of natural distinctions as revolutionaries flatten reality to stark nakedness, divesting it of every trace of beauty or refinement. Everything that raises man from animal to human being and adorns his “naked shivering nature” with moral sentiments, human feelings, and civilized customs suffers attack. The elderly are not fathers or mothers, patriarchs or matriarchs, images of God or persons of dignity but terminally ill cases, expensive health care costs, grave burdens.
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