I Hear Cloud-Cuckoo Land Is Nice This Time Of Year

October 17, 2008

All right.  Sticking my toe into the PoMoCo fray, pretty much for the hell of it.

First, I want to remove God from the discussion—or at least from my discussion.

Strauss wrote: “We are compelled to distinguish political philosophy from political theology. By political theology we understand political teachings which are based on divine revelation. Political philosophy is limited to what is accessible to the unassisted human mind.” (“What Is Political Philosophy?”) This distinction is why I am sympathetic to Nicola’s reluctance to place him in her Weltanschauung.

Further, granting for this argument the truth of God, I cannot perfectly comprehend what that truth means because, if we are granting the existence of God, we are granting a perfect being to our (therefore inherently) imperfection. So, while I can say I have some certainty of the connection between, say, God and love, or God and virtue, I cannot tell you with certainty whether the truth of God requires that I wear a yarmulke or keep kosher. But the former examples are religion-as-faith, while the latter are religion-as-practice. This is a distinction I think we need to acknowledge and keep in mind. Further, religion-as-practice is, essentially, the religious tradition.

So I should clarify. I’m not removing religion per se from this, but religion-as-faith. The religious tradition is just that—a tradition, and since I’m going where Nicola says is complicated and arguing for tradition as an alternative standard, I’ll let it remain. It has to.

Several days ago in class, between my notes on the tyranny of Pheidon and that of Kypselis, I made the following (unrelated) observation to myself: “Of course our traditions are constructed, as all things are insofar as we construct them/it by living (in them/it). It is constructed by us in the same sense that the literary tradition is constructed by a new work of art readjusting it.”

What I mean by this is that the cultural tradition behaves much as Eliot said the poetic tradition does (and this would make sense, as the poetic tradition is a component of the cultural tradition): both the “perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” and his visualization of the ever-changing, ever-stable tradition: “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”)

The concept to take from this is the idea of an organic tradition: it changes, ever so slightly, not just because it must do so to survive, but because the tradition is, by nature, still developing and will, by nature, always be developing. (A locked tradition, we might say, is a dead tradition.)

So by the mere act of living, we all work, consciously or not, to construct the tradition. There is no choice as to whether we will live inside of tradition; there is merely the choice to acknowledge the limits of what we can do to be outside of it—and ultimately, we cannot because (and here I’m walking on thin ice) you cannot escape any tradition which has helped to shape you. You can repudiate it, you can stand in opposition to it, but because of the organic nature of tradition, you cannot stand outside of it.

Now, Freddie brings up a very important pre-emptive critique of what may be implied to follow:

‘If you are aware that you’ve made a choice to embrace the traditional, you can’t possibly accept the traditional in the same way that those heady champions of “the ’50s” simulacra did. For them there were not choices of identity, there was the way the world was. A person in those days would be baffled at the notion of “exploring the traditional.” Explore what? There’s no need for exploration if what you’ve lived is really what is.’

And I’m partial to Eve Tushnet’s rebuttal:

‘To deny the ability of tradition to understand itself as a choice (“I set before you life and death; choose life therefore, that you and your descendants might live”–and life is the covenant) is to assume what must be proven, that all choices are assertions of self rather than submission to the beloved. Moreover, it’s to assume another thing that must be proven, that reflection is corrosive.’

But I think the question of choosing to embrace the tradition or choosing to repudiate/stand in opposition to the tradition is looking at the situation incorrectly. The choice is not whether we want to live in strict accordance with tradition, but whether we want to live in conversation with tradition. This distinction, I believe, is essential to keeping the tradition unlocked and relevant to the present and future, which—and I don’t feel like this is too obvious to be worth pointing out—are not that which has come before; are not that with which tradition has directly interacted. The individual in the present moment must be in conversation with the tradition for the tradition to be relevant to the present moment.

Now. Back to putting tradition at the center of the Weltanschauung. The choice to place oneself in conversation with the tradition in which one exists involves the acknowledgement that those who (and that which) came before have accumulated knowledge over the courses of many lifetimes—which is, they speak with the authority and experience of more than a single human being, or more than the knowledge of a single human being. This goes back, I suppose, to the idea that the individual is fallible, but the species wise. Or maybe because the tradition has millennia of experience with Rod’s standard compared to our several decades:

“But when the time of testing comes, nobody sticks by a certain philosophy because it’s useful; they stick by it because they believe it’s true.”

We trust tradition, in other words, because, while we may seem to know more than those who came before us, “they are that which we know” (Eliot again). When we use the tradition to aid us in confronting the present, we use the collective experiences of those who formed that tradition.

But we “use the tradition” by conversing with it, not by reflexively reverting to it. The tradition is a rabbi, not an oracle. Anyone who wishes to converse with tradition—to let tradition affect their life in a meaningful way—must have a reflective relationship with the tradition; the only unreflective relationship with the tradition is the act of living within it without knowing one lives within it—but we’ve crossed the Rubicon already, so like an unwilling centurion who accidentally slept through that moment, there’s just honestly not much we can do to uncross it.

This does nothing to answer which (sub-)tradition(s) to follow, I know. Bringing that beyond “I’m a student of the Classics, so dammit, you’re going to like the Greeks and Romans too, even if it kills you!” is going to require a little bit more thinking on my part. (Actually, hey, wait—Y’all guys who’re more well-read and smarter than I am! Go figure this one out before my mid-terms get here!) Though I am tempted (by my notes) to work in the direction of: With tradition acting like a billion-headed rabbi (I like this image, so I’m running with it), it would be best to rely most heavily on those heads with the most experience with your situation. That is, the Western tradition is good for the West while the Eastern is for the East because those respective traditions have experience their respective histories, and therefore better understand their respective situations; within the Western tradition, the American tradition best fits America for the same reason; or the Southern within the American; and so on and suchlike. (Consider that the dessert for thought.) But I wouldn’t stake too much on that just now.

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One Response to “I Hear Cloud-Cuckoo Land Is Nice This Time Of Year”


  1. […] like this metaphor I came up with earlier, so I’m stealing it for this subject as well: Conservatism does not have the character of an […]


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