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What is traditionalism?

A traditionalist is someone who accepts tradition as authoritative.

That’s not someone who believes that tradition is a good source of suggestions or an acceptable guide when no better can be had. Nor is it someone who thinks that all traditions must always be followed. It’s someone who recognizes that tradition knows more than any of us, and should be followed unless there are very good reasons to the contrary. Rejecting tradition is like a novice rejecting the advice of a master. It might be a good idea, and on occasion it might even be necessary, but it’s not something to be done lightly, especially in important matters. When you do it you’re usually wrong.

Traditionalism is rational when we are dealing with things that cannot be demonstrated and reduced to clear rules. Those include basic things like the attitudes, practices and ideals that define our way of life. A way of life is too close to us and too comprehensive to be reduced to rule or judged wholly by external standards. You have to live it to understand it. As a result, every way of life is traditional.

We live not only by stated purposes but by unstated understandings and by symbols—things done not because they are practical but because they make intangibles concrete and so part of the daily pattern of life. For that reason tradition is especially concerned with things that to antitraditionalists seem irrational or at least non-rational, and therefore perhaps dispensible—manners, social forms, festivals, heroes, sacred symbols and institutions, principles and practices that are accepted on faith.

Such things are not in fact dispensible. We need them because they embody the intangible realities that we need and make them a present reality to us. We rightly prefer the tradition that embodies those realities to our own reason and purposes because those realities are basic to the world of habits and understandings within which our reason and purposes can operate.

There are two challenges to traditionalism. One is that particular traditions are bad and should be abandoned. Another is that the authority of tradition is unnecessary, that it should be replaced by the authority of reason and of the experiences that formerly gave rise to tradition. Traditional morality is to be replaced by some combination of philosophy and the social sciences, traditional symbols by the artistic creations of the day, traditional religion by free thought or charismatic inspiration.

The alternate authorities that have been proposed—science, reason, perception, passion, will, inspiration, artistic creativity—may have their claims, but they contradict themselves and each other, and none covers enough ground to support a way of life on its own. Only tradition can weigh the opposing claims and give each a setting in which it can make its contribution. Traditionalism is thus necessary for rationality and even sanity.