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The Idea of a Traditionalist Society

Conservatives complain very forcefully, but aren’t as good at saying what they want. Unless we can say what we want, however, it will be hard to make clear to others or even ourselves what we’re doing or why anyone should go along with it. So here, for comment, is an initial sketch of an answer to the question, what does a traditionalist want?

In brief, traditionalists want a society in which the attitudes, habits and relationships that join men together and order their lives reflect the needs of human nature and so permit a fully human life. Man is a social and rational animal. He therefore needs society, and he also needs authoritative principles that establish an order of things by reference to which he can make sense of his situation and actions. He needs relations to specific individuals, to larger social groups and their culture, and to the transcendent (that is, he needs relations to family, people and God). Those relations must be reliable, substantive and comprehensive enough to live by.

Traditionalists therefore believe that a tolerable society requires:

  1. An effectively established religion. Free and fruitful cooperation that goes beyond commercial relations and repression of crude physical threats requires common orientation toward goals that transcend choice. To be enduringly effective, that orientation must be authoritatively defined and articulated. An authoritatively defined and articulated transcendental orientation is in effect an established religion.
  2. A principle of genuine, but limited and devolved, authority. “Genuine” means that it is not based on consent, except perhaps willingness to remain within the society. If authority is not genuine, if social rules are simply a matter of what people want, the transcendent has no social existence but remains a matter of personal preference. Unless authority is limited, however, it stops being transcendent—beyond the grasp of any of us—and becomes instead a this-worldly totalitarianism. And to limit authority is, among other things, to devolve it.
  3. Sufficient local coherence and stability to foster enduring loyalties and permit tradition (which includes the habits, attitudes and presumptions that make life less crude and more social and rewarding) to develop, maintain and propagate itself in its distinctiveness.

The alternative, traditionalists believe, isn’t creative individualism, limitless growth and freedom, or universal solidarity. Instead, it is a mixture of anarchy, tyranny, stupidity, brutality and manipulation resulting from the effective absence of authoritative principle and lack of continuing human connections.

So how do we get there from here? First, it should be noted that societies that exemplify all three principles can exist within a larger society that rejects them and can, in a sense, be self-constructed. Historical examples include the Church before Constantine and during the Dark Ages. Current examples include such self-contained religious groups as the Amish, the Mormons and strictly orthodox Jews. So if traditionalists are right about what’s needed for a tolerable—in the long run, a self-sustaining—society, then arguments that their demands are impossible, out-of-date, nostalgic or whatnot are really arguments that they should change focus from public life to building up the defenses and inner life of particular communities.

And that kind of building up has to be done in any event. As consideration of the three points reveals, life in accordance with tradition is not a matter of administration or mass political movements but a form of life with ramifications from the most personal and domestic matters to grand public institutions. Each level depends on all the others, but the personal and local are most important of all. If tradition is dead within, among and around us we will never be able to retrieve it through politics. For now, it seems that the main public tasks for traditionalists are to articulate and present their concerns so they can be understood and seen as serious, and to fight to change those aspects of public policy that attack traditional ways and the settings in which they exist. The main constructive activity, however, must be closer to home.