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What is it to accept tradition?

In an age of checklists, decision trees, and zero tolerance, it’s a puzzling notion.

People think it means giving up on reason. Or doing what’s been done no matter what. Or accepting an external authority that has nothing to do with the situation we’re actually dealing with.

What else could it mean, when each of us has his own thoughts and goals, reason is a matter of studies and statistics, and social authority is either following rules we’ve agreed to for our own purposes, or getting someone else’s demands shoved down our throat?

That’s the liberal concept of man as autonomous, knowledge as neutral and expert, and society as contract. Judge Walker (of Proposition 8 fame) evidently had something of the sort in mind when he said that “tradition alone … cannot form a rational basis for a law.”

In fact, accepting tradition is simply acting as a human being. Our actions aren’t isolated events. They reflect a system of habits and understandings. To the extent the system is helpful and coherent—and we won’t stick by it if it isn’t—it’s because a lot of people have lived by it for a long time, found it satisfactory, and worked the bugs out. In other words, it’s because it’s the tradition of some community. Our habits and understandings are our own, but they are not simply our own. We pick them up from other people.

We follow the tradition of our community because tradition and community are basic to being human. They help make us what we are, and we can’t function without them. Man is social, and to belong to a community is to understand the world as the community understands it and act in a way that makes sense on that understanding.

All of which sounds OK, but it raises some questions. For starters, why talk about accepting tradition if the acts of every sane human being are going to be mostly traditional anyway? After all, we all have some idea of what things are, what they amount to, and how to deal with them, and it’s not as if we just make those ideas up ourselves. On the whole, we have them because that’s the way people like us look at things, and because the whole system of understandings we’ve picked up works and we’re attached to it.

The answer, of course, is that anything can become problematic. It’s natural for people to eat, but eating can be an issue at times. The problems can be minor, like cutting down on sweets, or major, like anorexia nervosa.

The same applies to tradition. Problems arise because circumstances change and old habits and understandings lose their function. Or they can arise simply because tradition is imperfect. Like individual character, it includes some habits and understandings that are good and some that are not so good. The former are more important, since we couldn’t live a human life unless we stood in some sort of social tradition, but the latter usually attract more attention because they cause more problems.

People who live by a tradition normally respond to imperfections and changes that become troublesome by trying to maintain the tradition’s substance. They focus on the understandings and practices that seem most important, and change less important ones that seem at odds with the basic goods the tradition points toward. A tradition is not at bottom a collection of rules, all equal to each other, but an understanding of the world and how to live in it. Some parts are more important than others, the tradition is always directed to goods that trump particular practices, and there’s always some flexibility in how to reconcile practice and goal.

Religious reformers provide an example. They may complain about popular traditions but do so in the name of older and more authoritative traditions. They appeal from the practices of the Pharisees to the law of Moses and the prophets. Even evangelists appeal to the traditions of those they are addressing. Justin Martyr saw the seeds of the Logos in Greek tradition. Paul didn’t tell the Athenians to give up Athenian culture, he quoted their poets and said he was there to tell them about the God their altars pointed toward. And in our own time Benedict annoyed some people by saying that “Christ was the savior for whom [the American Indians] were silently longing.”

Such attitudes are justified. People attach themselves to the traditions they like, but in the long run the good is what they find most worthy of devotion. If there really is an objective good that’s accessible to us then that’s what all tradition points toward. To choose tradition is not to choose habit simply as such but to choose the way we actually arrive at the good, beautiful, and true. We don’t know those things by doing a survey or putting something through a spectroscope. We know them when they emerge from the confusion of life in the experience of many people as worthy of enduring attachment.

Sometimes adjustments that work are hard to find. The development of a tradition may bring out basic flaws that eventually become crippling. The thought of classical antiquity had no way to resolve the questions it raised, so it ended in superstition, skepticism, and arbitrary mysticism. Or circumstances may change so radically that a tradition sees no good way to deal with the new realities—you’re a Chinese mandarin and you discover that traditional China can’t compete with the industrialized world and its gunboats.

If the problems get big enough, the tradition breaks down and things go haywire for a while. Eventually tradition and equilibrium re-establish themselves, but there’s no telling how long that will take or how good the results will be. The Greeks and Romans eventually adopted a new system—Christianity—that overcame the problems of classical thought and led to another great civilization. On the other hand, the Chinese went berserk for a while, and may or may not have found their footing again.

The problems among us today are unusually radical. People aren’t dissatisfied with this tradition or that, or at a loss how to achieve old goals in new settings. Instead, they want to reject the authority of tradition as such, along with the goods it proposes. They adopt views like liberalism that claim to possess a universal rationality that trumps all tradition, and insist that the only acceptable standard for social life is giving people what they want, as much and as equally as possible. Hence the California Proposition 8 decision that declared legal recognition of marriage unconstitutional.

The current situation results from an ever-greater insistence on a clear but extremely limited understanding of rationality that tells us that knowledge and conduct must be modeled on modern natural science and technology. That understanding works well if you’re putting a man on the moon, not so well if you’re figuring out how to live and relate to other people. It can’t deal with identities, essences, or ultimate ends, so it has no way to make sense of our lives or those of others. The result is that belief and conduct lose their ability to order human life in a satisfying and non-arbitrary way.

That means the current state of affairs isn’t going to last, and we’ll have to go on to something else. Some would describe the current situation as the collapse of the Western tradition. I think it’s better to describe it as the distortion and suppression of that tradition as a whole by part of it that has become too dominant. The scientistic outlook has to be ditched in any event, since it’s at odds with the needs of human life. Once that’s done the obvious way to proceed is to stick with the remainder—by far the greater part—of the tradition of the West, and try to bring it into a workable form. We can’t get by without a tradition, the tradition of the West is the one we have, and there’s no superior one to adhere to. So isn’t the way forward obvious?