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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.


Obviously lurking in the background of conservatism is the idea that there is an objective reality out there. I think the main problem that conservatism responds to is how to act when you have limited access to knowledge. I guess my main problem with saying that conservatism is about truth is that it seems to imply that we have direct access to a lot of it.

If someone were to make the more limited point that because of the rapid rate of social and technological change, tradition is a somewhat less reliable guide to the good and the useful than it used to be, I don’t think that would be all that controversial. In a sense, we are all rationalists, or policy wonks, now, forced to use our feeble reasoning powers as best we can to apply the insights of tradition to a rapidly changing world.

It seems to me that when we’re dealing with a situation we’re asking ourselves what’s going on and what to do about it. So we’re looking for truth and justice. To say tradition is basic to the art of dealing with the world is to say that it’s basic to answering those question as best we can.

I think it’s important to rebut the view that tradition is opposed to truth, reason, justice, etc. It’s how we realize those things to the extent they are available to us. The “direct access” implication comes from a modern understanding of what those things are and how we arrive at them. They’re somehow supposed to be available to us in pure form untouched by human hands. That understanding is something else that has to be rebutted.

The “policy wonk” and “insights of tradition” formulation bothers me. It makes it sound like social engineering is really possible but it has to take more data into account and look in odd places for suggestive hypotheses. The point of tradition though is that we mostly learn how to live by living, by picking things up from those who have lived before us, and by attaching ourselves to what emerges as worthy of attachment.

Maybe “traditional marriage” (a.k.a. marriage) is a useful example here. The question isn’t rapidly changing this or that. It’s whether to go with a pattern (man, woman, child, home, marriage) that people attach themselves to because it seems satisfying and right or a policy wonk approach that says that we look at what people want and use insights from all sorts of sources to try to come up with a general scheme that gives as many people as much of what they want as possible.

A basic problem with the latter approach is that it’s basically manipulative so it has no good-faith way to make sense of loyalty and devotion or issues like identity (What is it to be a man or a woman? What is it to be married?). But that means it leaves out essential features of the situation and so falls short of truth and justice.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Well, I was thinking in particular of Ross Douthat’s comments on how the traditional family oriented cultures of Italy and Spain combined with radical social and technological change has created a sort of worst of both worlds situation where hardly anybody reproduces.

Another more general example is birth control. It’s obviously a radical technological change with widespread social implications. But what to do about it? Do you just keep your hands off and let people deal with it as they can? That seems to lead to all sorts of undesirable things. Reproduction and sex become radically separated. The smart people who mostly keep society up and running don’t much reproduce themselves. So, do you ban it? But then you have to radically increase the power and intrusiveness of the state. That has lots of unintended consequences too. Or do you just try to persuade people not to use it? Well, that would seem not to be very effective. So, what should the conservative response be? In essence you have to become a bit of a wonk to decide what the best course would be.

I suppose I’m distinguishing wonkery from prudence. Thomas Aquinas thought prostitution should be legal because it would be worse if it weren’t. Men who would otherwise go to brothels would read Roissy and devote themselves to Game. There would be sexual war of all against all. Does that make Saint Thomas a wonk?

Sex and reproduction is a good example of a situation in which policy wonkery is out of place. They touch on the most basic human motivations and identities. How helpful are statistics, marginal incentives, and pilot projects going to be when the issue is what people are and what life is all about? Policy wonkery assumes we’re all in the custody of policymakers, who constitute the “you” that decides what “you” are going to do. How people understand themselves and their lives drops out of the picture.

As to contraception, presumably the Church can say “don’t do it,” various other authorities can say “acceptance creates lots of problems,” and the government and various other people can be less enthusiastic about promoting it. Then whatever groups use a lot of it will tend to disappear and those who don’t will tend to predominate. Orthodox Jews, trad Catholics and the Amish will inherit the earth.

The “Italy vs. Sweden vs. the U.S.” argument sounds like people spinning current trends in support of policies they favor for other reasons. I don’t see any evidence in the article that bears out Shorto’s connection between stay-at-home moms and low birthrate.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I guess I would call St. Thomas a wonk.

Orthodox Jews, trad Catholics and the Amish will inherit the earth.

Along with the lower class thugs and the trashy women who love them. There are a lot more of the stupid and impulsive than there are trad Catholics and the Amish. Much as I enjoy watching secular liberals breeding themselves out of existence, a demographic cage match between lower class thugs and the religious doesn’t strike me as something to particularly look forward to. I’m also rather surprised at how nonchalantly you seem to view a precipitous drop in population. Not to mention the excuse it seems to provide to bring in large numbers of foreigners.

If St. Thomas was a wonk then all legislative prudence is wonkery. I’d limit the expression to modern departures that involve more comprehensive social management.

The comments on “looking forward” and “nonchalant” don’t make a lot of sense to me. You talk as if those in authority can force things to turn out however they want. For the most part things go their own way though, and each of us has to work with what they tend to do. If there’s a fundamental problem like widespread hedonistic individualism then there’s a limit to what can be done.

Still, I’m not as pessimistic as you suggest. If smart people notice their way of living isn’t working they’re likely to want something else and look around at what’s on offer. The yuppy/hipster lifestyle has problems beyond infertility. And even stupid people respond to circumstances, like shredding of social safety nets. There have been unintelligent moral puritans in the past and there will no doubt be such in the future.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

It’s not that tradition is opposed to truth, its just that tradition may contain error and veneration of tradition may result in the practical inability to change the errors. It’s an intellectual error to conflate the statement that tradition contains truths with tradition=truth.

I agree with Jim, but Thursday touches an important question.

Tradition on it’s own is too weak to survive in hypermanipulative (largely not noticed or understood by people) modern environment, whether it is marketing psychology, political psychology, arrangements of living, consuming and working environments, TV programs and movies, what is taught in schools, what is considered as knowledge, social engineering, etc.

Here it is explained how a little bit of marketing psychology changed long standing marriage traditions all over the world. These kinds of changes are easy to find:…

Tradition can only survive in communities. They can be anything from traditional American small town communities to Hutterite type communities. The first task of any real community is to limit the choices of it’s members and punish transgressors with a gamut of penalties, the heaviest of them being the expelling of a member from the community. The limiting should start from what many people really like and which have negative consequences, like alcohol, tobacco, TV and other entertainment of the lowest common denominators, status competition consumption to Veblen goods, etc.

There must also be religious and community requirements to do certain things.

These limits and requirements repel half hearted, less committed, psychologically weak and free riding people.

These increase trust, cooperation, efforts, loyalty and satisfaction of the members.

Traditional communities, if they are designed to communicate with the out-groups, stabilize tradition, radiate change to the environment, serve as lighthouse examples, etc. The message becomes attenuated in the environment, but it still is effective.

In Finland we have Lestadiolaiset, a Christian community, which has perhaps 200 000 members, conservative Lestadiolaiset have about 100 000 members. There haven’t been any genetic selection which would separate them from other Finns, but on average they are better educated and richer than other Finns. Conservative Lestadiolaiset forbid all contraceptives, and 14-15 children is quite usual among them. They don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t watch TV, use internet mainly to work, listen classical music and perhaps news from radio, they don’t consume ostentatiously, they appreciate education and entrepreneurships, they are family and community oriented and spend most of their free time among family and community, they sing religious songs everyday at home, etc.

They seem to be ethnically oriented. An acquintance participated in a summer gathering of Lestadiolaiset of about 100 000 people, lasting several days and he failed to see any non-Finns. They are thus the most Finnish community in Finland.

P.s., dear reader, if what I wrote disturbs and horrifies you, it has already served it’s purpose of repelling you. I am poison to you. Don’t even look at my direction.

I agree with the “lighthouse example” comment. If the way people are living doesn’t work then if someone else has a system that does that’s going to have a bigger and bigger effect.

On your general point: tradition and community define each other. Also, every tradition has taboos and boundaries to maintain its identity so it can function. That’s a basic problem with liberalism: it defines itself as freedom and openness but has to deny freedom and openness so it can define itself.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.