Tradition and the transcendent

What would be necessary for the rebirth of traditional society?

Traditional society is society oriented toward transcendent good. The two are inseparable. To say a good—the good life, say—has a transcendent element is to say we can’t make what it is altogether explicit or know it sufficiently on our own. If that is so, however, we are forced to rely on something beyond ourselves when we pursue it. Unless we have some special inspiration, which is unlikely, the best we can do is rely on understandings that have grown out of accumulation of the inspiration, experience and reflection of many times and places. And since the knowledge we need cannot be rationalized or even fully stated, it must take the form of attitudes, practices, formulae and symbols passed on by those who themselves received them—in other words, of tradition.

To accept the transcendent is therefore to be a traditionalist. Conversely, acceptance of the authority of tradition is irrational unless tradition tells us some truth that goes beyond our own knowledge and desire—something transcendent. Otherwise it becomes either a matter of taste, which we can take or leave as we choose, or a source of suggestions to be evaluated by standards external to tradition.

Modern society is anti-traditional and anti-transcendent. It tries to define and control everything. Part of the cause is how it is organized. Tradition involves habit, loyalty, attitude and sensibility, so that it cannot be stated and formalized completely but has an irreducibly personal element. Impersonal rational organization, which tries to formalize everything, is therefore intrinsically anti-traditional. In the form of markets and bureaucracy, such organization pervades all aspects of modern society. Unless it can be cut back in favor of other forms of organization, for example family life and non-rationalized ethnic and religious community, there is no hope for a restoration of tradition and the transcendent.

How that can be done is the key practical issue for any serious conservatism, the issue by reference to which all others must be judged. Big government, education, welfare, foreign trade, immigration, “diversity” and the “culture war” all fall into place when considered from this perspective. In all cases the liberal view favors enforcing and extending rationalized formal organization, the conservative or traditionalist view opposes it and attempts to give the informal, local and non-rationalized institutions that are necessary for human well-being space to revive. The more clearly conservatives understand those basic principles the better they will understand the struggle they are in and the more effectively they will carry it on.

6 thoughts on “Tradition and the transcendent”

  1. You cannot make dead
    You cannot make dead traditions (Gods, Absolutes, etc.) live again. Better get used to (what you call) liberalism.

  2. Liberalism is dead
    Liberalism is dead intrinsically though.

    The question is where we end up if we drop pretense. I think Pascal’s a better guide on that than Nietzsche. We can’t help but think that the world is meaningful, so the sane thing is to go ahead and think it and accept whatever that implies.

  3. “The world is meaningful.”
    “The world is meaningful.” Maybe. But what does it mean? (I mean: what does The-world-is-meaningful Thesis actually mean? ;o)

  4. It means for example that
    It means for example that some things are better than other things and their superiority is not our doing. We recognize it and do not create it. It’s a feature of the world and not our subjective dispositions.

  5. Well, I’m not sure. It’s
    Well, I’m not sure. It’s better for a human being to have two legs than only one. This is “objective” statement, it is not “our doing”. But do we really need The-world-is-meaningful Thesis to defend this opinion (about superiority of having two legs or of having friends, etc.)? Maybe we should rather “drop pretense” – I mean, all this talk about meaningfulness, absolutes and transcendence? Refined Aristotelian naturalism may be better than whatever Pascal & co. has to tell us. [Forgive my English; this is not my mother tongue.]

  6. What aids the functioning of
    What aids the functioning of biological and other systems can no doubt account for part of ethics, but not all of it. We can’t be rational without a commitment to understanding the whole of which the systems are part. Rationality must therefore transcend functional explanations of the given. Aristotle himself thought happiness involved contemplative activity that is more divine than human. His analysis shows that the systems that compose human life point beyond themselves. Why think that can be refined away?


Leave a Comment