The Argument for Tradition

Ask anyone to give an intellectual defence of many of the daily habits, practices, customs and norms that they engage in, and you will be hard pressed to find a good, theoretical answer. This is something that many seize on at every chance they get in order to bash traditions.

Here are some of the most frequent charges levelled against traditions of all kinds.

This first charge serves as the starting point for the other criticisms – it is the claim that traditions are fundamentally arbitrary, and irrational. When you examine the makeup of any tradition, norm, or custom, you find that it has a long history of development, that its origins were perhaps ignoble, that some features of it appear to have been ad hoc importations from unrelated cultural practices or persons, and that its significance today is not what it was originally. Furthermore, in many cases it is clear that it was never formed by some explicit, deliberate act with a clear significance, isolated from the passions and dramas of the characters involved in its creation, the politics, and culture of the time.

This point is bolstered by the fact that, from a certain perspective, traditions have many substitutes. If a tradition can be reduced to the meaning, significance, or function that it has in the context of any person’s or culture’s life, then it can easily be substituted for some better one. You will often hear this of religious practices, like prayer, holidays, social norms like greetings, and especially forms of speech. The argument goes that prayer is basically a form of quiet, peaceful contemplation, so the practice could be easily substituted for ‘mindfulness’. Holidays with religious connotations are really just about getting together with family, and that the practice of eating whatever currently unfashionable food item can be substituted for something else.

The assumptions behind this attitude to tradition is a kind of ‘presentism’ that is materialist to its core. For a practice to be reducible to its function, one must subscribe to evaluative criteria in order to describe ‘functionality’ that are either subjective, or behaviourist, and that require no context other than the present for their ‘measurement’. For example, mindfulness brings its practitioners a sense of inner peace and comfort, or it is worthwhile and analogous to prayer because it produces a similar pattern of brain activity characterized by calmness and focus. These standards for describing the substitutable functionality assume the most common contemporary moral framework, which finds its grounding ultimately in either: the subjective feelings of an individual, or in ‘quantifiable’ measures that are related to ‘happiness’.

In sophisticated form, the existentialist philosophy based on authenticity was an early precursor to this. In its unsophisticated form, it is an individualism that has become detached from the cultural traditions that have sustained it – the ‘me’ mantra, which, is grounded in the reduction of all judgments to a criterion of subjectivity – what does this do for me? does this make me happy?

There is a great deal to be said about the fact that people have the ability and leisure to engage in such pursuits, for it was impossible for the vast majority of people throughout history. It is not individualism, or the pursuit of happiness per se, that is the issue. It is that these values are lacking in logical and in practical coherence because – when they are reified, and made the ultimate criterion to which all other concerns are reduced, then they make little sense.

The well-known problem of relativism confronts such perspectives. Inner states – such as the feeling of contentment, or the firm belief in some issue – are not in themselves ‘valid’ just because of the feelings they produce, or the sincerity with which they are held. This can be seen most clearly when we merely ask a few more questions to someone who frames an issue in this way. Why is it good for you to achieve happiness for yourself in this way rather than that? Why is ‘contentment’ or ‘pleasure’ a desirable thing for you to pursue? You quickly come to realize that you value such things because they have some kind of goodness independent of their ability to bring you merely momentary or prolonged psychological contentment. That is only part of the story.

To truly believe in the value of the particularities of certain practices, over those of others – which, most people implicitly accept as they act this out – one must have a clearly metaphysical view of the world. This is something that is very clear in traditional societies, or among people who practice traditions without cynicism or detachment.

Traditions derive their sense of importance from a belief that one finds oneself in the midst of a narrative, not wholly of one’s choosing, and in which one plays a part. In order to believe that the past has value, you must have some sort of metaphysical inclination, explicit or not, for a narrative is precisely metaphysical in its essence.

Even if one can accept this intellectually, the substitutability claim comes in to criticize practices that are considered dated. Why can’t people just give up their silly traditions for something new, and shiny, and better? There are two things to be said about this. First, there is a very real sense in which certain people are fond of the familiar, and others of the new. This is a well known personality trait – openness/closedness to new experience. We should be understanding of the proclivity to have gut reactions that positively or negatively appraise traditions. Secondly, however, all creatures are creatures of habit. Many of the practices that you engage in are habitual, and passed onto you by your culture through ‘irrational’ forms of socialization, institutions, beliefs, ideas, etc. Coupled with this is the fact that many traditions have value because they work and have proved to have done so for a long time, as they have continued to exist, and be reproduced generation after generation. A wholesale rejection of the many tried and true norms, and institutions is in favour of the new borders on the hypocritical because you rely upon many of them yourself, and is in fact dangerous when tried as a political strategy – the revolution.

There are two blueprints for revolution – the French and the American. The French revolution tried to remake everything anew according to ideally conceived, purely rational principles that would be imposed by an intellectual elite for benevolent purposes. To do so, they would have to smash traditions, and they most certainly did. Leaving aside the fact that the French triad of liberté, égalité, fraternité contains a clear contradiction in terms between equality and liberty, the rejection of tradition that accompanied the pursuit of these ideals led to considerable bloodshed.

The American revolution, on the other hand, was a conscious rejection of the tyranny of control. To be put in its place was the very best of generations of thought, rooted in the Greek natural philosophy of Aristotle, the Bible, and the tradition of Common law – all of which had a long time to emerge and develop in concert with one another over time.

Traditions are also charged with being the repository of all things bad about the past that our enlightened modern culture has overcome. In short, traditions have a very bad rap in the eyes of many. Ask any feminist to rhyme off the number of oppressive practices that characterized all of human history, and this will become clear.

What is important to note about this particular point – though it is common to many others – is that many of the norms that have been rightly replaced today, had a much different significance at their time, and for this we need not view them with such hostility, shock, and repulsion. We can simultaneously recognize that contemporary circumstances are much better, in an objective moral sense. Why? The fact that women were ‘confined’ to childrearing and homemaking makes perfect sense in light of a few basic observations about life in the past. Life spans were much shorter, child mortality rates were high, and it was dangerous for women to give birth. Most people were poor, in the material sense of having to ‘subsist’. Technology was not advanced enough to guarantee abundance, so many children were required to work the land, and care for family. There were no complicated financial instruments to guarantee well-being into retirement! Children were needed for that. This list is only the beginning of a long one of factors that indicate that social arrangements emerge out of the many necessities of the environment in which a society finds itself.

People also love their traditions passionately, and do not want to give them up. This leads to close-mindedness and exclusivity at times. Coupled with the irrationality charge, traditions seem doubly suspect to intellectuals and progressives, who want an answer for everything, and see in every absence of a justification, something lacking.

There is truth to every one of these arguments against tradition in general and traditions in particular, but we must separate the wheat from the chaff, and the essence of what makes a good tradition from what makes a bad one.

Here, Josef Pieper is an excellent guide. A philosopher and theologian who, after imbibing the German and French currents in continental philosophy of the past two centuries (Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard), and rubbing shoulders with his contemporaries who were leading figures in the existentialist movement (Heidegger and Jaspers), Pieper found his home in the works of Aristotle, and especially, Thomas Aquinas. His most famous work is Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which he defends the role of leisure in the development of moral and cultural practices that enrich and sustain a civilization.

Writing about Blaise Pascal, and his reaction to the Scientific Revolution and proto-Cartesian philosophy of his time, he begins a reflection on tradition and its place in our understanding of knowledge. It would seem that tradition must be justified in the modern era, where knowledge is sought to be the domain of rationality, and the empirical testing of ideas.

He finds that Pascal took the very opposite approach to tradition than does the Cartesian tradition: “Descartes surely appears to say: Reject everything that is not completely certain; while Pascal says in effect: Hold on to everything till you have certain proof that it is false.” (The Concept of Tradition, 466).

Pascal’s own answer to the question of the appropriate approach to tradition was defined by the extreme approaches taken by his contemporaries on the issue. He found, on the one hand, the Scholastics firmly and dogmatically defending all traditions because of their status, and on the other hand, Cartesians willing to reject all traditions because of their status! He thought that “truth always has a prior claim, no matter how new its discovery. For truth is always older than all the ideas men have had of it” (The Concept of Tradition, 469).

Pieper conceives of the fundamental question pertaining to tradition is that of its justification. “What can be said of the binding force of tradition in relation to the total world of human existence”? (The Concept of Tradition, 469). In order to give an adequate response, he lays out the components of tradition, attempts to define it, and reflects upon what it is significant about it, at its core.

We find that in tradition, there is something that is transmitted, and someone who transmits. That which is transmitted is supposed to be received, with humility, honour and respect, and without seeking to change it in any substantial way. The transmitter is one who has authority by virtue of their having lived the tradition, knowing it, and being able to pass it on to others. In this, it is different than learning, which involves much more creativity, and autonomy on behalf of the learner, and rightly so.

Though Pieper does not mention this, it is clear to me that the passing on of tradition, when done right, instils in the most perfect way the values of humility, acceptance, honour, and respect because it involves submission to something outside of oneself. These values cannot be truly instilled insofar as one maintains the barrier of autonomy and conditional acceptance. Of course, such an openness and submission puts oneself at great risk, and thus requires high levels of trust.

Traditions in themselves are not rationally defendable. There can be no justification for the specific contents of any given practice that comprises a tradition. When one naturally inquires into the validity of the contents of a tradition, and the reliability and worthiness of the transmitter, one can therefore easily reason oneself out of acceptance.

This is why, according to Pieper, the belief in the importance and validity of tradition writ large, and specific traditions in particular requires a belief in their divine origins. Reasons can always be concocted to reject tradition, if there is not a common core of divinity, or sacredness in them to transmit.

Of course, there is much in specific traditions that require changing. This is why Pieper points to a common core of tradition that is that which should be passed on.

There is no formula to apply here. When seeking to pass on traditions, one must be sure to conserve the components of it that are most essential – that is, its message. This is different from ‘functionality’, because it includes those things that are associated with traditions in general – respect for the past, honour, humility and acceptance, and the values that they represent. All of these things, as you’ll recall, are not part of the contemporary understanding of functionality – which can only truly accept things that can be substituted. Older virtues such as respect for the past, honour, humility and acceptance, and especially loyalty all require attachment to particular things, ways of life, and people.

Placing the emphasis on such values preclude severe changes that sever major parts of any transmission of tradition, and conserve a common core. It ensures that the practice of transmission remains essentially the same as well – humble acceptance of a practice imbued with authority, and the relationship of deference and respect to one’s elders.

It was always thought that one should immerse oneself in a tradition prior to rejecting it. This teaches you discipline, humility, and builds wisdom. It allows you to master and wrestle with all of the beliefs and logic of a way of thought and life. Only then, can you go out on your own and seek to change traditions for the better. Words to live by.


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