A Comprehensive Critique of Tradition

Tradition appears to be a familiar, yet quite obscure notion in our present times. It is often overlooked and certainly never given a full critical apprehension. Our current era bears the stamp of a profound disdain for a real appreciation of its value. It is partly due to the fact that we live in a society reluctant to recognise anything that is independent from the will of the individual, anything that transcends it throughout the ages. Tradition has evolved from a very concrete meaning (in the Roman world, tradere meant to hand over for safekeeping) to the more abstract understanding we have of it today, and this subtle evolution should not deter us from asserting that the societal force behind both conceptions is a vital constant for all human societies. Tradition is the carrying over of laws, customs and habits, from a generation to the next on a given land. This article will explore some political, cultural and literary trends that have claimed to uphold tradition ever since the Enlightenment philosophy made its way through the decisional structures of Europe. It will assess their pertinence and the kind of legacy we can extract from their experience.

The counterrevolutionary school is the first one to draw our attention. Not least because of its posterity (its major member, Edmund Burke, is still widely revered and quoted in the conservative sphere), but rather owing to its vision of society and the consequences of the Enlightenment ideas upon it. To Burke, society is traditional; the modern ideal is nothing more than a dangerous chimera preying upon it and menacing its cohesiveness by its questioning of “superstition”. Joseph de Maistre, nourished by Christian and freemason esotericism, developed this confrontation in his Considérations sur la France. By adding moral and ethical judgements to Burke’s mostly political observations, he postulated that tradition is the perennial prerequisite for any stable society, in opposition to chaotic modernity. This is particularly interesting, as it allows us in turns to get a better grasp of what modernity actually is. It takes us back to Ancient Greece and more specifically to the famous dialogue between Socrates and Protagoras. “Ἄνθρωπὸς ἐστὶ πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον” [Man is the measure of all things], asserted the latter, effectively laying out the bases of non-religious and purely anthropocentric thought. This vision is inherently modern in terms of philosophy, albeit not chronologically modern. It reveals that modernity is not circumscribed to a particular era, culture or level of technology: it is, just like tradition, a very ancient force shaping the relation between man and his environment.

Building upon those solid counterrevolutionary bases, a strong conservative contraflow challenged the nascent liberal order. It culminated in appropriating nationalism (originally a modern concept) at the turn of the 20th century. In France, major thinkers were to redefine the relation between man and tradition, and go on to exert a dominant influence on the literary and cultural scene. Maurice Barrès, with Les Déracinés [The Uprooted], concluded his intellectual voyage from individualistic symbolism to the culte de la terre et des morts [cult of earth and the dead]. An entirely different path and development had earlier on convinced Auguste Comte of the necessity of tradition: “Les vivants sont toujours, et de plus en plus, gouvernés nécessairement par les morts.” [Living beings are always, and increasingly, necessarily governed by the dead]. The peculiarity of Comte’s positivism is that, seeking to remedy the malaise provoked by the Revolution and, working with modern tools of analysis (he invented sociology), he ended up suggesting tradition as the antidote. Synthesising counterrevolution, nationalism and positivism, Charles Maurras expressed in political and literary terms the need for roots of the French youth. “La vraie tradition est critique.” [Real tradition is critique]: echoing the words of ancient religious wisdom (Job, XXXIV, 1-4), the doctrine of Nationalisme Intégral has never ceased to reassert that tradition is the only condition for social order and individual liberties to work together. Catholic and Maurrassian philosopher Gustave Thibon would later compare tradition to the Pole Star: it doesn’t obstruct the way as much as it effortlessly indicates the easiest and brightest direction towards progress, via an honest appraisal of the past.

Counterrevolutionary and nationalist ideas are usually displayed on the right end of the political spectrum (albeit classifying positivism as right-winged is already a lot more debatable). But even though tradition constitutes a central component of their respective doctrine, they are quite far from possessing a monopoly on its defence and praise. Proudhon is the first one of a long list of left-wing thinkers that ended up concurring with their conservative counterparts upon the necessity of tradition for social cohesion. Being of working-class extraction, he coined the concept of anarchism (“Property is theft!”) before evolving towards federalism. His work is riddled with sudden ideological changes and even contradictions, which explains why he was to be influential in some way over both Karl Marx and Maurras, as was Comte. However, all along his life, there was one preoccupation that never quite left him: the material but also moral well-being of the people, inseparable according to him from local autonomy and decentralisation. Inspired by both Proudhonian and Marxist conclusions regarding liberal democracy, a new socialist current appeared: revolutionary syndicalism. Led by Georges Sorel and Edouard Berth, they likewise despised “bourgeois” values but, just like Proudhon before them, rejected the modern conception of the state and its social hierarchy. This resulted in a sort of moral socialism, rooted in both modern philosophy (Marxism) and in a passionate admiration for the traditional working-class and peasant organisation of life, its customs, its natural yet irrational wisdom.

This moral and traditional socialism had direct and indirect repercussions on the intellectual evolution of some of the most brilliant minds of the early 20th century. Charles Péguy and Simone Weil illustrate this tendency very well. In both cases, the rediscovery of the spiritual dimension of the world (Roman Catholicism for Péguy, diverse religious mysticism for Weil) played some part in their reconsideration of tradition. Their socialist and altruistic convictions blended particularly well with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth; their distrust for parliamentary politics (expressed by Péguy in L’Argent and by Weil in On the Abolition of all Political Parties) with the traditional scepticism towards modernity. The need for roots, for continuity and decency is what ended up appealing them most, as the means to quench their thirst for social justice. Even more influential was Eric Arthur Blair, better known to us as George Orwell. A staunch supporter of socialism during the entirety of his life, his profound disgust for the totalitarian state machine, reinforced by his personal experience of the Spanish civil war, led him to uphold unorthodox opinions for a prominent left-wing intellectual. In particular, his defence of traditionalism and common decency (a term he coined and gave meaning to). Interestingly enough, Christopher Lasch and Jean-Claude Michéa, both under Orwellian and Marxist influence, later on extended their critique of liberalism to a questioning of the legacy of the Enlightenment philosophy. Their embrace of tradition as the sole means of soothing the most harmful effects of modernity is again characteristic. Another telling example: due to its scant reverence for capitalism and consumerism, the French communist party took a very traditionalist turn in the 1960s and 1970s, right before its utter collapse, as exposed by the rhetoric of its leader Georges Marchais and the songs of Souchon, Brasssens or Ferrat.

As mentioned earlier, an appreciation or a rediscovery of religion can be a way to shed a new light on tradition. This is especially true in the case of England and Russia, as the following authors will illustrate. In Britain, Hilaire Belloc and the Chesterton brothers were strongly influenced by the social doctrine of the Catholic church (despite not having been practicing Catholics during their youth), a new belief which they combined to their own appreciation of the middle-ages and traditional English peasantry to yield the concept of distributism. It was an attempt to remedy the inherent weaknesses of both socialism and capitalism (cf. The Servile State), by adding a spiritual and traditional dimension to crude economism. Linked to this Catholic literary revival are the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings saga. Through a fantastic universe, Tolkien epitomised in a particularly brilliant way the struggle at the core of the modern world. The simplicity and calm of the prosperous and landed Shire is opposed to the fast-growing, threatening and quasi-industrial Mordor. The One Ring symbolises the invasion of the Machine (and the consenting masses it fabricates: the Orcs) onto the realm of agriculture (and its traditional communities: the Hobbits, Elves and Men), the forced transformation of a traditional economy into a serial-producing force. The huge problems created by the Industrial Revolution and the irruption of modernity as the main ideological driving force in England are dealt with in quite a radical way (the destruction of the One Ring) if we stick to this interpretation. Tradition is seen as a drastic counterweight to a standardising and rapid-evolving modern world. Former Catholic priest Ivan Illich dramatically furthered this thesis with his theory of counter-productivity, arguing that an institution invariably damaged a function whenever it attempted to rationalise the social fabric that would have been in charge of it beforehand.

A comparable vision of tradition resurfaced in Russian literature of the second half of the 20th century. Its main figure, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, played a crucial role in the demise of European communism and in the fall of the USSR. Educated in the Marxist-Leninist fashion, his real eye-opener was his experience in the Gulag, where his encounter with such a multitude of innocent people from an astonishing variety of backgrounds forced him to reconsider dramatically his own ideological bias. As a result, he converted back to the faith of his ancestors, Orthodox Christianity. An outspoken critic of communism ever since, he nevertheless did not bow down to the opposite stance either. At Harvard, in 1978, he excoriated the emptiness and vacuity of modern civilisation, under both its eastern Marxist and its western liberal forms, claiming instead that the modern crisis stems from a decline in courage and a lack of belief in the transcendental; a crisis that started with the emancipation from tradition. Far from praising the West for keeping up the fight with Communism, he laid bare the shallowness of his century: “People also have the right not to know and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.” Together with Igor Shafarevich, another major Russian dissident, they tirelessly begged their fellow human brothers to heed the universal wisdom contained in the prophetic words of one of the greatest novelists of all time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in The Diaries of a Writer:

When Catholic humanity turned away from the monstrous image in which Christ was presented to them, then after many centuries of protests [...] there finally appeared, at the beginning of this century, attempts to arrange things outside God and outside Christ. Without the instincts of bees or ants that create their beehives and ant hills faultlessly and precisely, people undertook to create something like a faultless human ant hill. They rejected the formula for salvation which proceeds from God and was revealed as 'Love thy neighbour as thyself' and replaced it by practical conclusions such as ‘chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous’ [everyone for himself and God for us all] or by scientific axioms such as ‘the struggle for existence’. Lacking the instincts of animals [...] people placed great confidence in science, forgetting that for a task like the creation of society, science was still in its infancy. Dreams appeared. The future tower of Babel became the ideal and, on the other hand, the fear of all mankind. But the visionaries were soon followed by other doctrines, simple and to the point, such as ‘rob the rich, drown the world in blood and then everything will somehow arrange itself.'

This extensive survey of those various schools of thought points towards three differing but converging opinions on the value of tradition. The western conservatives held that tradition is the necessary condition for social order. The socialist and anarchist currents we have briefly reviewed considered tradition as a form of opposing the progress of liberalism. And at last, Christian and especially orthodox and catholic thought valued tradition because it constitutes a defence against the base aggressions on our sacred spiritual life. At the light of these visions, we can thus infer tradition to be the irrational yet necessary force that can bring a much-needed stabilisation to modernity, in all its representations (individualistic, collectivistic, relativistic). We can also assert that Enlightenment philosophy takes responsibility for first breaking the vital balance between modernity and tradition, from which tradition has never recovered. A critical (i.e. traditional) revaluation of its legacy is the only way we can face the challenges of the 21st century without committing again the errors of the 20th. Modernity can only exist and make society progress precisely because it can experiment its rationalist ideas and impose its abstractions to the detriment of tradition, without ever suffering from the consequences. It absolutely depends on tradition. However, without tradition to bear the grudge of the assaults of modernity, it is paradoxically a post-modern leap of faith into the unknown that awaits us, from which we might not return entirely human, insofar as human societies have never rested on exclusively rational grounds.

This article was written by Pierre Eckert.

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Pierre Eckert