What Is Tradition ?



Into my heart an air that kills

    From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

    What spires, what farms are those?


That is the land of lost content,

    I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

   And cannot come again.


 from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Houseman, 1895.


Today, the march of globalisation and progress act as forces of entropy to homogenise culture and identity. This is the “air that kills” that is blowing incessantly in the modern world. These forces cannot be indefinitely resisted, which is why conservativism is an inherently pessimistic ideology. As Lord Salisbury said: “Politics is delay”. Tradition is the tool we use to inject social capital on the local level to delay cultural entropy, in the doomed hope of resisting it on a global level. I take traditions to be activities that are performed collectively by civil society or (occasionally) the state that are repeated over time, treated reverently, reinforce a sense of place and have no immediate useful purpose. They might be the State Opening of Parliament, country shows, church services, marriage, curious uniforms and manners and etiquette, to name some randomly.  They are a secular communion that reaffirm the values and social connections within a country, community and family. Tradition is a therefore a conservative state of mind and evokes the same ideas of habit, settlement, inheritance and membership that we can also see in Houseman’s poetry.

Thermodynamics tells us that the universe is destined to gradually expand, fade and cool to the point that absolute zero is reached and time stops. So it is with society. This is inevitable, just like the fact that water runs downhill. We cannot stop the slow atrophy of the universe any more easily than we can make water flow uphill. But water descending can be held temporarily in lakes, where it supports life more abundantly than in flowing water. Vibrant, healthy communities emerge where populations are still, settled, trusting, have the rule of law and mutual interdependence. Tradition is a dam in the torrent of life, making our existence in a wild, raw, bewildering stream slower, gentler and more bearable.

Eroding and denigrating our traditions allow entropy to continue unchecked. The delicate homeostasis of an organic society is easily disturbed, and the harsh wind of economic and political globalisation will quickly erode our identity and sense of place if we do not soothe our souls with tradition. We live in a time where it is easier than ever to talk to someone on the other side of the world, yet people rarely know their neighbours. We are outraged by the every move of democratically-politicians in other countries but know nothing of our own political system and democratic inheritance. Society shuns our own domestic food culture in favour of overseas goods that are produced in incredibly damaging and unethical ways. Meanwhile, people campaign for the protection of rare animals in foreign places as our own countryside suffers. People no longer eat, instead, they seem to consume as if their nutrition could be provided by a single pill. Modern architecture looks the same whether it be in London or Paris, Moscow or New York – all of it spiritually barren and depressive in equal measure. In this country, people have been made to live in appalling high-rise buildings which oppress the soul and are downright dangerous. All of this is desperately sad and has arisen because society’s natural homeostasis has been interrupted by the perverse incentives of the state and consumerism. Traditions and custom have been eroded, breaking delicate cycles of self-regulation within society and allowing further social norms to be destroyed.

We thus live in an age where we need tradition more than ever – to heal the wounds left by a global economy and a changing society and to help integrate and welcome the greater numbers of those who come from there to here, who we hope will settle with us, rather than live alongside. It is tradition that creates the social communication and group identity that allow the positive feedback mechanisms to function within democracy, the market and society which will avert future disaster, as well as foster feelings of community and belonging that are so lacking in today’s world.

Tradition’s check on damaging progress is accidental, and this fact is not surprising, as traditions are the activities we do outside of the state and the market and which have spontaneous origins. They are passed down generations, are organic, flexible and dependable. They celebrate identity, glorify God, give meaning to our existence. Yet as a result, they create reassuring norms and boundaries that enable us to trust each other, knowing as we do that fallen man is capable of wicked things. England as an idea has not be created through statecraft or trade, but by accident; the accident of ancient ceremony, eccentric sports (rugby’s genesis comes to mind), an established church, a mellow landscape and things done for fun rather than profit. The accident of birth in a locality and the spontaneity of dancing, singing, falling in love, starting a family and continuing the tradition.

Tradition brings us all back to a state of innocence that we experience in families and engenders a feeling of the familiar - that is why it is hated by the vested interest who want to make us dissatisfied with whatever of society is left around us so that they can either sell us things or make us to sell ourselves. To those who are rich enough to insulate themselves from the vagaries of the global economy and claim to be a “citizen of the world”, it is very easy to scorn the deep, primeval yearnings we have for security and belonging. In an age of premature cynicism, we can be quick to criticise eccentricity and pride in locality.

Tradition is like carrying a rock up a hill, while mindless progress is throwing it back down. It is much easier to destroy social capital than it is to build it. Tradition is the cloak we wrap around our shoulders to keep out the chill of the “air that kills”, to protect our social capital. It is the dash of colour which gives somewhere its sense of place, turns anywhere to somewhere, and house to home. It is the name for all the things that are done not out of self-interest but out of love. Love for our families, our culture, our locality. Tradition is pointless, but it is precisely because it is pointless that it is essential. The customs we have allow us to re-affirm bonds of friendship, commitment, understanding. They do not help us to survive. They help us to live.

This article was submitted anonymously by a member of The Rethinking Society.