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.
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.
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.