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Tradition and truth

A blogger who combines the practice of medicine with Catholicism and Austrian economics comments on my views and repeats some of the mistakes people make when they think about tradition. They’re common mistakes, so a response seems in order even though no doubt it’s all been said before.

He seems to think that saying “tradition has authority” is the same as saying “existing practice should never be changed.” That’s obviously not what’s meant. What’s the point of talking about authority if whatever people actually do is always presumed correct?

Maybe a more basic problem is that he thinks of tradition as blind and self-contained—repetition for the sake of repetition of what’s done simply because it’s done. That’s a misconception. Tradition is not about itself, it’s about something else. Religious tradition is about ultimate reality, political tradition is about protecting or facilitating the human good, and so on. The issue isn’t tradition as opposed to truth and justice, it’s how we know what’s true and just and what it makes sense to do about it. We look back so we can go forward—it’s how we understand where we are, what our surroundings are like, and how things work.

The writers I’ve found most helpful on how we know what’s true when we’re dealing with basic things that are hard to formulate (God, the Good, the nature of man, whatever) are Pascal, especially his (brief) discussion in the Pensees on the esprit de géométrie and the esprit de finesse, and Newman on the illative sense in the Grammar of Assent. They help us understand how confusing situations become clearer because things come into focus as we become more competent in dealing with them in various settings. From a social standpoint, that process is the development of tradition.

I’m not sure what other way we have of building up a system of reliable understandings on the most basic issues. The point of talking about tradition is not that every possible tradition should be treated as compulsory. It’s to counter the current view that only modern natural science and scientistic reasoning are authoritative, so if those things don’t support something then there’s no support for it and the principles of freedom and equality have to take over and tell us what to do. Traditionalists say that’s wrong and point out how systems of conduct and understanding actually arise and become reliable.

The blogger compares my views to those of Oakeshott and Burke. I have issues with Oakeshott because he seems to want to do without the idea of truth and we can’t live that way. That’s Pascal’s point in the Pensees, or at least one of his points. And Burke’s got a problem because the Anglican tradition doesn’t recognize an authority that can resolve disputes that don’t go away. That’s why it’s fallen apart. No tradition can be purely traditional, some traditions work better than others, if you maim your tradition like the English did you’re going to have problems, and as a Catholic it seems clear to me that all roads lead to Rome.

On some of the miscellaneous points he raises, in case anyone’s interested:

  • Socialism didn’t arise out of traditional society because it was hidebound, it arose out of capitalism and the modern state (which had overturned traditional society).
  • I don’t see the North Korean tradition as a problem because I don’t think Juche deals that well with the various issues people run into. Crazed totalitarian regimes usually don’t last that long. My book basically says liberalism has the same problem but it’s a slower process.
  • Islam is a more interesting example since it’s lasted a long time and Muslims don’t seem to convert much. That would be an interesting discussion for another occasion.