Rethinking Tradition

The term ‘Tradition’ is almost always used pejoratively in modern western political discourse. Tradition is seen as a weight in the pursuit of a freer world, as opposed to rational individual thought, or even as an obstacle of progress. The defence of tradition’s futility – to put it mildly - is nowadays certainly an easier task than an appraisal of its utility. However, that is only the case before one has tackled the ‘traditional’ misconceptions of the term and discovered its profound necessity for a nation.

Traditions should be viewed as a form of deep knowledge, not an obstacle to the latter’s attainment. When considering tradition, one should not ask oneself the question ‘what immediate benefit do I gain from practicing such a tradition’, but rather ‘what were my ancestors trying to tell me and why?’ Indeed, traditions are (attempts at) strong, often complex answers to eternal, difficult questions.

All cultures face, have faced, and will face these life-defining existential questions. What happens after we die? What does truth, beauty or justice look like? What is good and evil? What is love and how should we celebrate or not this union? Are we special, and how? These questions are universal.

Their answers however are not. Each culture and civilization differ greatly (although with some notable, striking similarities) in their response to these menacing interrogations. The weight of these questions is too much for the modern man to bear alone, naked, in a frightening and dangerous world. Man is not born free, but rather dependent on his society and culture with its traditions in finding attempts at a response to these questions.

Let us develop an example to see what is meant by tradition as a form of deep knowledge passed down: In the Ancient Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, before intervening at the last minute to save him and demand the sacrifice of a lamb in his place. A literal, rationalist, individualist interpretation of this traditional text may judge its author harshly. However, the text subtly instils a notion of sacrifice for a greater good. As Dr. Jordan Peterson points out, this is the symbolism behind Jewish circumcision, where the sacrifice of the part is meant to redeem the whole.

This notion is then pursued in the New Testament with the figure of Jesus, who voluntarily performs the ultimate sacrifice (torture, crucifixion and death) for the ultimate good (the redemption of mankind). This message helped to forge a civilization, the Roman/Christian civilization, on the grounds of a tradition of self-sacrifice for both the future (work now and enjoy benefits later) and others (if I sacrifice something of mine for others, they might end up doing the same back). Therefore, what can be perceived initially by the modern individual as out of date, anecdotal ramblings, often carries deep, often hidden, wisdom. In this sense traditions are neither entirely rational nor entirely irrational.

A legitimate worry then starts to surface on the question of tradition. If each culture has its own legitimate answers to these problems and its own traditions, can we ever judge any act to be universally, absolutely, wrong? In other words, does the mere fact that an act is deemed as participating in a tradition render it justifiable? Indeed, the Incas traditionally sacrificed human beings in order to please the Sun and convince him to rise again the next day, an act all readers of this article would describe as profoundly wrong.

The answer lies in how traditions are formed. They are not merely an aggregate of individual arbitrariness. A tradition which we still pursue today is one we can trust because it has survived the incredibly harsh test of time. A community who has survived over time has traditions worth studying. Traditions which do not help their respective community thrive die. If not, and if too many poor ideas are perpetuated (and good ones ignored) that community will perish, and thus its culture with it. The Incas were demolished, rotten from within. Rome was not killed by the barbarous hordes massed at its gates, but by its inner decadence which long preceded its fall. There is a form of Darwinism at work on the cultural level.

It is no surprise that the modern man, whose faith lies in no higher ideal than himself, and with his conviction that he is living the most enlightened era in history, has so straightforwardly rejected tradition. Indeed, tradition tells him two things which he does not want to hear:

- That his individual rationality is deeply insufficient in understanding the complex fabric of society and culture, and that the help of others is needed.

- That meaning originates not just from him, and not just from today, but largely from time and history.

In this sense, tradition is humbling in that it attenuates the individual hubris present as a dangerous potential within all of us, by reminding us of the intelligence of our forefathers and of how much we owe them.

Fittingly, the modern man has lost meaning as he has lost tradition. As individuals have ceased to view themselves as heirs of a tradition and members of a historical collective, and instead as autonomous individuals, the crushing weight of the eternal questions has returned. It is important to note the unsurprising appearance of philosophies attempting to soothe the malaise of individuals, such as existentialism, only recently in the history of Western thought along with the loss of roots such as tradition. As Christopher Lasch so aptly put it, ‘uprootedness uproots everything, except the need for roots’.

Tradition is the only possession of the poor, to paraphrase Jean Jaurès. In this sense, traditional behaviours and customs are far more commonly observable amongst the lower classes of society. Wealthier individuals can choose to leave a community if they feel as if it will collapse, and thus do not necessarily need to root themselves in their community, whereas the poorest members of that community are bound, body and soul, to where they live. Therefore, there is sometimes an undercurrent of class disdain in the criticism of tradition, often contrasted to the enlightened, educated bourgeoisie.

Laws are not what bind together a society. Customs, traditions and culture are. In fact, the former is often the result of the latter, rather than the other way around. In this light, we can better understand the recent inflation in new laws and rights. Indeed, as the destruction of tradition and any form of ‘social glue’ continues, governments have little choice to avoid anarchy but to use laws and the menace of force. No one imagines a small village in rural England with traditions dating back centuries requiring menace to ensure a harmonious existence.

As Edmund Burke puts it ‘the individual is daft, but the species is wise.’

This article was written by Pierre Valentin


Pierre Valentin