Civilization from One Generation to Another

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I have been working my way through one of Ray’s favorite books, Democracy in America, written by French aristocrat and lawyer, Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville came to America with fellow lawyer Gustave de Beaumont in 1831 to study our prison system. De Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled extensively in the United States, visiting prisons—from Boston to Green Bay, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and from Mobile to Washington, D.C. and back to Boston—and the places they passed through in between. A year later, they published a book about American prisons.

In 1835 de Tocqueville published Democracy in America about those places in between. The book paints a detailed picture of American social and political life in that era. The book contains many insights that are remarkable, especially for a man who was only 26 years old when he sailed from France.

The following statement is one of those insights: 

Civilization is a social process that takes place in the same spot
and is handed down from one generation to another,
each one profiting from the experience of the last.

A few years back, we took this photo of four generations: my mother, me, our son John, and his boys.

I especially appreciate the last phrase in de Tocqueville’s insight: “each one profiting from the experience of the last.” It is foolish for a younger generation not to listen to, respect, internalize—and therefore profit from—the wisdom handed down to it from older generations.

As the apologist C. S. Lewis warned, problems come when people “isolate the mind in its own age.”

A danger in our culture is the tendency for younger generations to listen exclusively to others of their own generations—particularly on podcasts and social media—to the exclusion of the wisdom handed down from older generations. Not only did those older generations gain wisdom through years of learning and experience, they also have the wisdom their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers passed on to them. This wisdom is too valuable to be thrown aside.

Imagine the foolishness of throwing out all knowledge that people have learned before and starting from scratch with every subject.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
And his tongue speaks justice.
Psalm 37:30

How foolish we would be not to listen.

Proverbs teaches us to listen attentively.

My son, if you will receive my words
And treasure my commandments within you,
Make your ear attentive to wisdom,
Incline your heart to understanding . . .
Proverbs 2:1-2

Proverbs teaches us the profit of learning:

Listen to counsel and accept discipline,
That you may be wise the rest of your days.
Proverbs 19:20

Proverbs reminds us to listen to our parents, those who want us to profit from their wisdom most of all.

Listen to your father who begot you,
And do not despise your mother when she is old.
Proverbs 23:22





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