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?

18 thoughts on “What is it to accept tradition?”

  1. What is there to accept tradition?
    I suppose the question to ask is, what mechanism invalidates tradition? To whom or what do we give the authority to change? Can we form new insights “de novo” so to speak and overturn a tradition? (By overturning tradition I don’t necessarily mean all of it, perhaps part.)

    And then again which tradition? Chinese, Indian, Christian? If Tradition then is a source of truth, how then do we discern amongst the Traditions?

    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.

    A good critic would point out that the above quote shows that tradition is a bit of a “hit or miss” type of affair. When the Greeks and Romans addopted Christianity, in many ways it was a rejection of their tradition. Even the Jews, from whom Christianity arose, did not think think the Christians particularly traditional. Christianity was quite the novelty in the ancient world.

    • Why is mechanism relevant?
      Tradition looks at things from the inside, mechanism and modernity from the outside. The latter isn’t a possible way to live life and deal with basic issues.

      Ditto for the “which tradition.” It’s not as if we have a point of view external to every possible tradition. To have a point of view is to have a coherent complex of beliefs, reactions, understandings. It’s already to accept a tradition. Apart from extreme crisis the kind of radical choice among traditions you suggest simply can’t arise.

      Moderns can’t understand tradition because they think of authority as a collection of rules radically external to the things and persons ruled. That’s not it at all. Classical tradition (as noted) ended in skepticism, superstition, and arbitrary mysticism. Jewish tradition ended in dead-end particularisms of law and ethnicity. Christianity gave those who loved both traditions—Paul, Jerome, Augustine—a way to carry on and preserve what they cared most about.

      Tradition isn’t about a self-sufficient complex of human institutions. It’s about something outside itself. To speak in its favor is not to insist on the absolute authority of exactly what’s been done but to note that we can’t stand back from our own understandings in favor of the neutral results of impersonal criteria.

      • Mechanism.
        Would not an average Roman have been rejecting his tradition by embracing Christianity. How would he have justified his move to a Traditionalist Roman?

        It’s not as if Roman traditions had in some way paved the way for Christianity. Indeed, Christianity was a whole different perspective on life, foreign to Roman tradition. The Romans thought it so vile that they persecuted the Christian practitioners.

        Christianity was not something that was compatible with the Roman vision rather it was a foreign impost, as much as modernism was on Christian society, it really was something that come from “without” not from “within”.

        It’s about something outside itself

        and therein lays the justification for change.

        • What is general rejection of tradition?
          The piece takes a broad conception of accepting tradition: “accepting tradition is simply acting as a human being … the acts of every sane human being are going to be mostly traditional.”

          The question it deals with is why it makes sense to talk about tradition if “accepting tradition” is given such a broad interpretation.

          The answer is that rejecting the demand for total rationalization involves basic acceptance of tradition. That demand is what leads people to say (for example) that the place of marriage in all human tradition is simply not a rational basis for giving special legal recognition to that kind of relationship.

          To reject that kind of total rationalization is to recognize that some things have to be learned through accumulation of social experience—that is, through tradition. So to live normally as a human being is to recognize the authority of tradition, maybe as one might recognize the authority of a noted and reliable expert. “Recognize authority” does not mean “always follow on all points.”

          Presumably the new Roman Christian would not have told his traditional Roman friend that he had freed himself from all dependence on tradition and his new faith was based on a system of thought and action based solely on formal logic, means-ends rationality, and achieving his own actual desires while respecting the equal worth of other people’s actual desires.

          He would more likely have said (if he was philosophically minded) that he was putting what he and his ancestors had learned to understand and value in their pre-Christian life on a better and more hopeful footing. That involved keeping some things, adding some things, and abandoning some things. Life within any tradition involves such adjustments at least to a degree, since acts are never repeated in exactly the same way.

          For example, the general Roman understanding was that respect for the divine and a disciplined way of life are supremely important. The Platonists and stoics had been saying that the divine is less a matter of multiple individualized divinities than a single universal principle that gives the world coherence. And all the philosophers had been saying that a disciplined way of life needed more of a definite system than in the days when Rome was a local city-state. Educated and serious-minded Romans had accepted all that for a long time. Christianity, our new convert could say, was a way to bring all that together in a better whole.

          • Mechanism.
            The answer is that rejecting the demand for total rationalization involves basic acceptance of tradition. That demand is what leads people to say (for example) that the place of marriage in all human tradition is simply not a rational basis for giving special legal recognition to that kind of relationship

            It’s actually quite a legitimate argument. (Not one I personally agree with btw).

            The way I see it, the Moderns elevate reason beyond its capabilities, the Traditionalists on the other hand seem to subordinate rationality to experience. In practice, what happens is that legitimate innovation and adaptation is stifled the by implicit epistemological precedence of “old” thought over “new”. This is what I think is the fatal flaw of traditionalism. Modernism, to me at least, appears as its mirror image: The precedence of “new” thought over “old”. Both parties seem to imbue epistemological validity to thinking simply by virtue of its chronology or its “practically”. The ontological aspect of it, whether it corresponds to reality, seems to be of be of secondary importance.

            Traditionalism is then really an epistemologic method.

            It’s a false to assume that in rejecting tradition a man will then embrace Modernism. Both concepts are warped understandings of the capacity to reason and the limits of it. The Moderns imbue rationality with a power it does not posses while the Traditionalists seem to dismiss it rather too easily.

          • What would you call the correct view?
            You seem to say

            1. Giving tradition too much weight is the error of Traditionalism.
            2. Giving reason too much weight is the error of Modernism.

            Can you give an account of the right approach to knowledge? Is there some third thing that provides an overall general standard that tells you how much to draw from each?

          • Mechanism
            No, what I’m saying is that the traditionalist doesn’t want to reason, he lets the dead men who came before him do the reasoning, whilst the modern properly elevates reason but only after making himself blind.

            The correct approach, or at least what I would say is the conservative approach to the subject of knowledge, is that a man must try to understand the nature of reality and live according to it. This presupposes that there is a reality and that we are capable of knowing it.

            The way we understand reality is really through three mechanisms.

            Sense data, reasoning and knowledge. Knowledge however is the tricky one since we can actually know about stuff which we can’t actually sense. Our minds are capable of knowing stuff that exists beyond the ‘physical sense barrier”. The fault of the moderns was both ontological and epistemological. Firstly, the “hard” moderns denied the existence of a reality “beyond the senses” and secondly, the “soft moderns” catergorised any knowledge of it as practically irrelevant since it was empirically unverifiable.

            Their problem was not the elevation of reason (which I think was a good thing) but the stripping away of one of the original senses by which man understood reality.

            Faith then is not some habit or tradition, rather it is a simultaneous assertion that reality exists beyond our senses, and the content of it, i.e An ontic statement. Faith then is an epistemological method: a way of knowledge of what is real. Another way of looking at it is that Conservatives are like the moderns except in addition to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste we include faith as a sense organ so to speak.

            Dissing reason is the wrong approach. Since the problem isn’t reason—reason operating with acknowledgment of faith-knowledge—is most likely to be good reason. The ditching of this faith-sense is akin to a man taking out his eyes and trying to understand the world with the four remaining senses.

            The traditionalists diagnosis of the modernist problem reflected their own antipathy to thought.(The English Tories a classic example of this) they blamed the moderns for thinking too much whereas the real problem was that they believed too little. The traditionalist problem is that by relying too much on habit and authority, innovation is stifled and reason is atrophied. More importantly when sense data appears to contradict the faith how to resolve the issue? On traditional authority? Or on thinking the problem through and modifying things according to new insights?

            Paradoxically, faith, the weakest of our senses is perhaps the one we should most trust and give the greatest weighting to especially as it deals with transcedntals which we cannot test. Our knowledge of that “other world” is limited and difficult to verify so we must trust it. We can’t ditch it but understanding of it can change. A classic example of this was the problem of usury. In the age of the schoolmen, usury was still taught a sin but the understanding of what was usurious changed. A greater understanding of the issue was found when men applied good reasoning to life problems and faith commands.

            Our understanding of things, event the faith is contingent upon what we know as our knowledge changes so will our understanding of the faith. But that implies a variance with the opinions of our forefathers who were limited in some ways in their knowledge of things. This of course does not imply a rejection of all their views, rather the views are give real respect since the men that lived before us weren’t idiots and their opinion does matter.

            Before a man can think, he must have some thoughts in his head. This is where tradition comes in, by passing down the accumulated wisdom. What happens then is that men have to understand this knowledge taking into account the data sensed from their surroundings and change their understanding in the presence of contradictions, passing that new knowledge onto the next generation.

            Finally, the correct approach to knowledge is through study, reason and the senses, all six of them. The aim being an understanding of reality.

          • What do you mean by faith?
            Your “faith” seems to consist of some sort of intuitive faculty that tells us things the methods of the modern natural sciences can’t. As such it sounds rather like Pascal’s “esprit de finesse,” which enables us to grasp a situation overall from a great many hints and indications that we can’t separately identify and reason about. A very simple example of the latter at least would be ordinary common sense, since ordinary common sense is a source of knowledge that’s not scientific and can’t be analyzed and debated with complete precision and it has to do with an overall grasp of a situation.

            You should consider how the things faith tells us fill out and become concrete and comprehensive enough to live by. The way that happens is through development of a tradition. The hints and indications that point to realities that can’t be altogether demonstrated and made precise have to be accumulated and mulled over, and the realities have to be symbolized and their implications settled in a usable and somewhat adequate way. With regard to basic matters that’s not a matter for a single man or lifetime. Hence the need for tradition.

          • Mechanism.
            Sorry for the late reply.

            Science, which is empirically based, cannot prove the faith, because faith is “extra-empirical”. I’ve not read Pascal, but from what I’ve quickly perused over the internet it would seem that his “esprit de finesse” is not what I mean. Our ability to grasp these truths is not intrinsic to our being, rather it’s something that is given to us, to put it coarsely, it gets tacked on. Intuition might give us an inkling that there is more that meets the eye but it cannot grasp that “something more”.

            I don’t want to get biblical, simply because people who are non religious dismiss arguments based on the bible teachings, but I feel that biblical concepts better illustrate what I’m talking about.

            When God “calls” us, the call comes as an implantation of a sense that perceives transcendental reality and allows us to accept it convincingly. Faith then, is a an extrinsic thing which is given to us. Someone/thing picks us and grants us this sense and it gives us an ability to convincingly perceive the truth. Faith is not something we innately have, it’s something we get. Faith should not been seen as the operation of reason but rather the operation of reason in conjunction with this transcendental sense.

            The problem with traditionalism, is that in the end, it’s still rationalist. After all, from a rationalist perspective, I cannot “choose” the right religion/culture from all the traditions on the earth, as they’re all making empirically non-verifiable claims with regard to reality. Why settle on one? There is no rational reason to. Sure, some of the religions may be more to my particular liking than others, but how do you determine which one is right? Medieval society had it’s problems, modern society whilst technically very proficient seems to be incapable of providing human beings with happiness, indeed may Westerners are ditching modern society and rationally embracing Eastern Mysticism( whilst keeping the material benefits of the West).With all due respect, your “Organic Truth model” is no help at all. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity have all been part and parcel of stable human societies, which therefore does prove that there’s not something anti-Human about them, but each make competing claims which falsify the other, which one is right? The “humanness” test of a religion is in this instance no guide. Pascal’s intuition is more a contingent sentiment responding to circumstances and what feels right is not necessarily so. If it feels right do it, is bad, bad philosophy.

            Traditionalism is then an argument for an rationalist understanding of life which appears to be consistent with human nature, and as human nature can “get on” in many different circumstances, the adaption of different modes of living are inevitable and hence valid from a traditionalist point of view. There are many different traditionally valid ways of living. Ultimately, Man is the measure of all things, just like with Modernism, only different.

            Christianity’s response(Western Conservatism) is that that our habits are right and theirs are wrong. Period. Your muezzins may have called the faithful for over a thousand years but you have called them to a false prophet. And though your culture may have produced glories worthy of the best of the human race it was all in vain, for the works were devoted to a false God.

            Christianity’s validity lays not in its traditional nature, but in its ontological understanding, an ontological understanding provided by the mechanism of the faith-sense. It is not one culture amongst many but the right one amongst all others that are ultimately wrong. Islam’s longevity may prove that there is something human compatible about it and acceptable to the Traditionalist, but my faith tells me that it is wrong. The veneration of tradition gives Islam the appearance of being right, just like Christianity. Which in the end simply means that tradition is another justification of moral relativism, albeit with long historical human compatibility being its only qualifier.

            Tradition can be thought of as an accumulated body of knowledge, even with regard to matters of the faith. The faith sense has problems in the perception of truth since with it we see the truth though a glass darkly. Multiple observations and collaboration may help see through the glass better, hence the value of the opinion of those before us, but if someone gets a better view of it than all the others who have gone before him, he’s not going to want to settle on the consensus view. This is how slavery was abolished. Religious men saw that slavery was wrong, their faith-vision of the human being in the grand scheme of things repudiated the previous view. It’s this mechanism which gives conservatism is innovative ability. This mechanism tends to prune the conservative tree rather than uproot it, and sometimes the pruning has to be drastic, the problem with the traditionalists is that they allow no pruning because they think the tree is fine the way it is, even though it’s not producing fruit.

          • All roads lead to Rome
            Just a couple of comments, because endless issues could be raised:

            It seems to me you’re eliminating general revelation, “The heavens declare the glory of God” and that sort of thing, because you have a strongly scientistic view of reason that leads to a fideistic view of religion.

            I’d say though that faith completes nature. It’s not just an add-on. That’s why reason points us toward it, and I think it’s why St. Pius X says in “Lamentabili sane” n. 25 that “Assensus fidei ultimo innititur in congerie probabilitatum” (The assent of faith is ultimately based on a sum of probabilities).

            There’s more discussion of the issue from a Catholic point of view in the article on fideism linked above.

            I go into some of the issues regarding comparison of religious traditions, and what sense it makes to say one is better than another in my book Tyranny of Liberalism and also here.

          • Faith
            Nope, I’m not a fideist.

            I’m not eliminating general revelation or reason, the Catholic Encyclopaedia article on faith, illustrates the relationship between reason and faith, particularly the supernatural gift aspect of it.

            Again, it is evident that this “light of faith” is a supernatural gift and is not the necessary outcome of assent to the motives of credibility. No amount of study will win it, no intellectual conviction as to the credibility of revealed religion nor even of the claims of the Church to be our infallible guide in matters of faith, will produce this light in a man’s mind. It is the free gift of God. Hence the Vatican Council (III, iii;) teaches that “faith is a supernatural virtue by which we with the inspiration and assistance of God’s grace, believe those things to be true which He has revealed”. The same decree goes on to say that “although the assent of faith is in no sense blind, yet no one can assent to the Gospel teaching in the way necessary for salvation without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Who bestows on all a sweetness in believing and consenting to the truth”. Thus, neither as regards the truth believed nor as regards the motives for believing, nor as regards the subjective principle by which we believe — viz. the infused light — can faith be considered blind.

            (My italics)

            You’ve gotta be called before you can see. The act of “calling” seems to tack something onto an individual to allow them to see/percieve.

            A good example of this lack of faith( non-pejoratively) is Steve Burton over at What’s Whats Wrong With the World. He is a good, clever, articulate, cultured and erudite man who is sympathetic to Christianity, yet doesn’t believe. Rationality, devoid of faith-perception,will only get you so far, no matter how “probable” the truths.

            Faith and reason are not opposed, when they are opposed, the understanding of one or the other is usually flawed. Truth is a seamless garment. Change occurs, within the conservative context, when what was old was found to be wrong.

          • I’m not sure what the dispute is
            The language you quote says that “intellectual conviction as to the credibility of revealed religion [and] even of the claims of the Church to be our infallible guide in matters of faith” isn’t enough. You need more than that, which is supplied by grace. I don’t see how that helps your position, which may simply show that I don’t know what your position is. I thought though that you wanted to say that reason and tradition aren’t enough for a well-founded conviction that Christianity is true.

            On your view of reason, would you agree that “one true God and Lord can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made”? The reason I ask is that you seem at least at times to identify reason with modern natural science, and that doesn’t seem to be a scientific conclusion.

            More generally, you seem to object to the view that acceptance of tradition as an authority is sufficient for knowledge of everything we need to know. I’ve never suggested such a view. I do say tradition is necessary, but the necessary and the sufficient are not the same.

          • Dispute
            I thought though that you wanted to say that reason and tradition aren’t enough for a well-founded conviction that Christianity is true.

            That is correct, though reason and tradition are enough to show that Christianity is reasonable. What is reasonable is not what is necessarily true.

            “one true God and Lord can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made”

            The existence of a Prime-mover can certainly be known by the natural light of human reason, but what can’t be known is what His nature is like.
            Is He capricious, benevolent, or a mixture? Reason would suggest that although a prime-mover does exist, He would seem to be unconcerned with our state of affairs, or at least have an indifferent nature. Proving that God exists is not proof of what God is like. Allah, Yaweh and God are all prime movers of different understood nature. Tradition here is no help.

            What I’m trying to say here is that Christianity is a special case. It’s “traditional” nature, incidental to its claims. The command “thou shall not murder” is not right, because it is rational, because St Jerome may have said so, or because the Chinese and Peruvians have a similar command, it is right because it reflects the reality of the Mind of God. Tradition is irrelevant to its ontological validity.

            Taking aside the claims of the faith for the moment, tradition’s value lays in that it represents the accumulated human experience and wisdom with regard to a thing. Being a product of human rationalisation, it is dependent on certain contingencies which may no longer apply. But also being a human wisdom it is capable of being fallible. My objection to traditionalism is that it elevates the opinions of past men above the opinions of men that live now; it is as if chronicity is the proof of rightness. The test of time is not proof that something is right or wrong, it’s simply proof that it has stood the test of time.
            Slavery has existed since time immemorial and slavery still exists in some of the more barbarous Islamic enclaves, yet that is no proof that slavery is right, no matter how “traditional” the practice is.

            Put it another way, can a tradition be erroneous?

            Or—from another perspective—can a culture or society adopt long term habits or customs which are contrary to human well being or produce a sub-optimal, but stable, human society? I think this last point needs pondering because to my mind traditional Chinese and Islamic cultures are such societies that are both .

            If tradition can be fallible, then the intellectual problems are how to identify the errors and then secondly what to do it about them.

            Identifying the error is not a problem if you don’t think traditions are fallible. There are never any problems, only people bucking against the system, the solution is always to turn back. (Common Traditionalist answer to everything)

            On the other hand, if traditions are fallible, how to justify adherence to some that have been around for a long time but are wrong? ANSWER: You can’t, because it puts you in the position of rejecting tradition, the very thing that you are supposed to be supporting. Change becomes……ahem……difficult.

            The problem with Traditionalism is that it simultaneously elevates previous human rationalisation over current human rationalisation, the opposite of modernism. The men that came before us were equipped with the same cognitive apparatus as ourselves. They tried to interpret the world within the context of their understanding of it, and sometimes they got it wrong, even on some matters of the faith. The problem with traditionalism is that is non-discriminating, it entrenches dumb ideas with the good. My dispute with traditionalism is in its non-discriminating nature.

            Conservatives aim towards the truth, and innovation is compatible with Conservatism as long as it is “truth” directed. A lot of the “overlap” between traditionalism and conservatism comes about because a lot of traditional stuff is true.

          • Comments
            Some comments:

            1. We seem to be talking about different things. Your definition of “traditionalism” seems to be something like “immovable adherence to a list of propositions people used to think were true.” Mine is more like “looking at the world and dealing with it as a member of an historical community who identifies with the outlook and habits of that community at its best, most essential, and most enduring.”
            2. For a longer but of course not complete account see the posting we’re supposedly commenting on. As I suggest in that posting, the issue as to meaning depends on what we’re contrasting it to. If “traditionalism” is opposed to the view that sometimes it makes sense to change something or other you’ll understand it one way. If you oppose it to the view that formal logic and scientific method are the sole and sufficient sources of knowledge, so that tradition is dispensable, you’ll understand it in another.
            3. I think differing views of reason and its relation to faith are actually the fundamental problem. If you have a narrow view of reason (e.g., it’s just formal logic and modern natural science) then it doesn’t seem to have much to do with tradition. If you have a broader view, so it sweeps in essences and qualities and substantive goods as well as formal logic and numerical measurements, then it seems likely it’ll require more development of tradition to become actual. Understandings have to grow up and settle into place, and that takes a lot of time and experience.
            4. The view that reason and faith are closely connected, so that reason can tell us quite a lot about God for example, is I think the predominant view in Catholicism. The Pope’s Regensburg Address is a recent expression of that view. Your statement that “the command ‘thou shall not murder’ is not right, because it is rational … it is right because it reflects the reality of the Mind of God” in particular seems downright Moslem. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “sin is an offense against reason,” and the Pope just said at Westminster Hall that “the Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.”
            5. If right and wrong are rationally knowable, and so part of the nature of things, then it would be surprising if the Prime Mover knowable through reason (which Vatican I called “God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things” and “the one true God our Creator and Lord”) didn’t much care about them. Why would he create a world that includes right and the possibility of wrong if he found the whole concept a bore?
          • More Comments.
            1)Mine is more like “looking at the world and dealing with it as a member of an historical community who identifies with the outlook and habits of that community at its best, most essential, and most enduring.”

            The questions are then, what is best and most essential? The traditionalist answer seems to be that which is most enduring. The problem is that error can endure for a long, long time. My problem with traditionalism is that tradition can be fallible, in that what has endured and been ancestrally accepted may be at odds with reality. Traditionalism does seem to imply a certain contextual contingency to “truth”. Islamic truth and Christian truth seem equally valid to the traditionalist, both being enduring “solutions” to their historical circumstances. The problem is which one is right? Traditionalism cannot provide the answer.

            What we have to do is look outside of tradition to find the answer. The answer comes from an understanding of reality.

            How do we know reality?

            Well we know it through sensory experience and our rationalisations of these experiences. The whole scientific process rests on the recognition that rationalisation is capable of conclusions which are at odds with reality, in other words, rationality on its own is fallible. The scientific method is basically a process of pruning away erroneous rationalisations by testing whether they conform to sensory reality.

            2) “the Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.”

            The important clause here being, “prescinding from the content of revelation
            It is faith which “anchors” reason and stops it drifting to other “reasonable”—and yet wrong —conclusions with regard to moral questions. Faith is to morals what empirical observation is to scientific theory, the standard by which moral reasoning is judged. The fact that the faith is reasonable hints that the faith is true.

            Without faith moral reasoning can be “reasonable” yet wrong. Not all the opponents of Christianity are of ill will or intellectually stupid, some of them have with good reasoning thought themselves into the positions they have taken. What I’m trying to say is that reasonable is not necessarily right whilst what is unreasonable is wrong. The problem is that there are many reasonable solutions to life’s problems, nearly all of them wrong.

            The proposition, “thou shall not kill” is a reasonable and self-evident proposition. But intelligent people have have drawn different reasonable interpretations of this command. The office of the Pope is proof that reason is not enough, his job being to pronounce on which are the right reasonable positions over the wrong reasonable positions.

            3)The problem why I harp on so much about this “understanding” of reality—on this day of Newman’s beatification—it is that it is the central issue of the good and intelligent man, of how to live in the “truth”. My judgment of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a thing comes from a priori understanding of reality. The problem is that my—and my ancestors—understanding of reality may be flawed. Tradition most certainly has its value, in that it is a “store of knowledge”, so to speak, of men’s deliberations on this subject, but as I’ve said before, it is a store of historically contingent knowledge. In the light of new and better reasoning, experiment and insights of faith, this understanding of reality becomes constantly developed effectively through community effort, which at times will result in the repudiation of historical understandings. The consequence being that this new knowledge will become anti-traditional.

            4)Your definition of “traditionalism” seems to be something like “immovable adherence to a list of propositions people used to think were true.”

            That’s not my definition, but that’s how it works out in practice. Traditionalists aren’t actually noted for their innovations, especially with regard to social issues which are unjust. Take, for instance, the early feminist movement. I think women did have some legitimate grievances in the late 19th and Early 20th centuries. The traditionalist response was to thwart all progress on the grounds of lack of precedent and “reason”, the champions of the cause being the modernists with their metaphysical shortcomings. The result being a modernist—and wrong— solution to a legitimate problem. It took till the 1980’s for John Paul II to put out Mulieris Dignitatum, Familiaris Consortio and his Letter to Women. By which time the modernist view had legitimised; the damage to Western Society incalculable. There are still many traditionalists who think JPII was too much a radical on this issue.

            5)I think differing views of reason and its relation to faith are actually the fundamental problem.

            I think the problem is bigger than this. I think that it’s differing views of reason and its relation to faith and tradition which are the problem. There is a fanatic for each of the disputed elements. One elevates reason above all else, one man faith and another tradition whereas in reality each element is a “tool” which enables us to know the truth. The problem with the modernist is that reason is elevated above all else till it becomes unreasonable, the fideist rejects reason and traditionalist—in practice if not in theory— doesn’t want to reason, the dead doing all the reasoning for him.

            I suppose in the end the issue that I’m disputing is what I perceive is a subtle, yet dangerous, error in your thinking. Namely, that things are right by virtue of their historicity, granting them a collective importance in our understanding which is not justified. Likewise, new truths are prejudiced by virtue of their virtue of their novelty. In my view things are right because they are right. New truths trump ancient falsehoods.

          • We’re repeating ourselves
            You continue to criticize views I don’t hold and don’t assert. Similarly, I’m confident you’d reject any account I could give of your fundamental views. With that in mind, it’s likely the discussion has reached the limits of its usefulness.

  2. Heredity
    For some time I’ve chewed on the possibility of heredity being a useful analogy for tradition—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that heredity is a fundamental example of tradition in nature.

    Considering heredity in this light might be helpful when chewing on the question of how traditions might change & adapt. While organic life is open to development & evolution, “reckless” change to the genetic code is almost always destructive and any healthy development can only take place within a context of greater order & continuity.

    • There are certainly similarities
      One is that successful change normally respects fundamental functional principles. Pigs don’t grow wings and feathers even when those developments might seem useful in the abstract.


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