Tradition: Its Necessity and Its Discontents | James Kalb | CWR
Man is social, cultural, and rational, and acts in accordance with (mostly implicit) principles and ideals. For that reason tradition is directed toward something higher than itself.
I noted last month that living well is difficult apart from a definite and well-developed tradition of life. Otherwise we simply won't know what we're doing, and we'll have to make up everything as we go along without any idea of ultimate results or significance, or of what we might be missing.
Such claims for the necessity of tradition make no sense to many people today.
One objection is that they are meaningless, since everything people do is part of a tradition. There is Catholic tradition, Mafia tradition, Buddhist tradition, Bolshevik tradition, anarchist tradition, and so on. So praising tradition tells us nothing about what anyone should do.
Another is that it's the genius of tradition to develop, so a break in tradition can better be seen as a variation or new development. If people are starting to do something, it's part of their tradition as it now exists. And besides, traditions are complex, as complex as the situations they deal with. In a Catholic society there are likely to be traditions of devotion, orthodoxy, and rigor, but also of laxness, skepticism, heresy, atheism, and criminality. Much the same applies to other communities, so why pick out some tendencies within a community's overall tradition of life and call them the tradition of the community to the exclusion of all others? Don't all the parts come together to make up the whole?
A different sort of objection is based on liberal individualism. I have my life, and I'm responsible for it, so why should I give special preference to what some restricted group of people did in the past? Why wouldn't it be better to choose freely from all the possibilities offered by human thought and experience, or decide on some new departure if that seems better? That's what founders of traditions do, and traditionalists don't complain about them, so why shouldn't I have the same privilege?
A related objection has to do with pluralism. In modern society there are a variety of traditions present, and it would be unfair, discriminatory, and divisive to deny any of them equal status. That's why we're told we need to celebrate diversity and be careful to include equally those who are different. But if we do that each tradition will be deprived of authority, even informal authority, in anything that matters to other people. Otherwise, some people will be marginalized. So traditions can't have authority that matters socially, which means they can't exist as traditions but only as collections of optional private opinions and practices.
And then there's the practical problem of how people live today. Life has changed, so why should old habits and attitudes still make sense?