Tradition in the Twenty-First Century

March 28, 2009

(N.B.: This post is primarily a thought experiment.  For the sake of that experiment, I occassionally take things for granted. — JLW, 4/6/09)

Scott Payne’s “Twenty-First Century Conservatism” is well worth a read, even if you wind up disagreeing with all of it. While I’m more prone to staying way up high in the ether and not really wanting to muddy my hands with how all this abstract stuff, you know, applies to politics, he goes there, or makes a start of it, which is helpful. Among his points:

Critically embrace tradition: a conservatism of the twenty-first century doesn’t need to cut is umbilical cord to tradition altogether, by my lights. In fact, conservatism’s connection to tradition is potentially one it’s strong points in a world increasingly loosened from any moorings. But conservatives need to find ways of embracing those traditions with a critical eye and be prepared to let go of traditions that no longer make any sense. This post by Will Wilson that keep going back to on engaging self-reflective traditions is the key here and I keep waiting for Will to pick that line of thought back up on move it forward a couple more yards, but it’s somewhere to start. This links in to some degree with my comments around culture and is, in many sense, a more full-bodied approach to reform in this regard, but I think there is a whole separate project and element to the ideology at work here that speaks to one of the core planks in conservative identity, so I’m loathe to mash the two together.”

There’s a danger in a self-conscious tradition, and a tradition in which it’s acceptable to toss off a limb for the sake of the whole — traditions, in addition to being billion-headed rabbis (not letting that analogy go, folks), are like starfish: limbs re-grow after time. (But a limbless tradition, like a limbless starfish, is less likely to survive: it’s probably more a danger with tradition than a starfish.)

The problem, on the other hand, with an ossified tradition is that it has ceased to live and lapsed into reflexive (more or less) dogma. An ossified tradition fails because the existence of a tradition within history inherently causes changes to the circumstances of that tradition — and that can necessitate changes to the tradition itself. To borrow (again) from Eliot’s imagery, the creation of a new work of art, by its existence, alters the relation of all previous works of art within the tradition to one another, even if imperceptibly.   Any tradition that is not dying or dead is a living tradition.

Or, to pull in Bringhurst (because I’ve been reading him):

“A myth is a theorem about the nature of reality, expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.”


“Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops. . . . Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though evidently neither ever perfectly succeeds.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “The Meaning of Mythology” in Everywhere Being is Dancing)

Though not a perfect analogy, reading “myth” as “tradition” works to an extent. In a sense, the tradition is a theorem about the nature of reality, or how we should behave within reality, expressed through and on account of the acquired wisdom of prior generations. “Acquired wisdom”: it is human, not infallible. Burke was never a Tory, and that’s not irrelevant.

The danger lies in irresponsible revision of tradition to make it what we want, rather than understanding that for the tradition to be relevant and effective — for it to survive — it must speak to the moment. “Eipe kai hêmin” says the Odyssey’s narrator, invoking the Muse: “Speak to us in our time.”

The prime issue in matters of tradition and the critical re-thinking thereof is gay marriage. Scott links to this post of Conor’s, which lays out very nicely the Sullivan-esque “Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” I want to reframe that argument in terms of what I’ve been saying — to demonstrate how that argument is not a “revision of tradition to make it what we want” but a necessary political adaptation of the tradition to allow continued relevance.

It goes into matters of truth and form. (I don’t like the use of the word “truth” there — it’s misleading, in its way. The type of distinction I want to get at is better described as that of “poetry” as the essence of a poem, and “verse” as the form of it.) Marriage, as a political/societal tradition has at its core the truth that it is essential for society that family units be officially bonded and recognized, and that children, if at all possible, be brought up in families (death can be a circumstantial complication here, however). The form that the tradition stipulates is a man and a woman. Society, however, has moved away from that form, and – if divorce rates are to be allowed to speak their meaning – away from the idea of marriage in any form as much more than a legal contract. (My opinion of divorce is hardly Catholic, but when divorce rates are at 50%, it’s hard to make the case that marriage hasn’t been devalued somehow and that the stability of the nuclear family has been jeapordized.)

The move to make, such thinking would say, would be to alter the form to better preserve the underlying truth within society. That is to say, expand marriage to include same-sex couples, but make it clear in doing so that it is not because marriage and family mean whatever we want them to mean, but because of the importance of family in stable form to society.

And this all leads up to my objection to the idea of removing government from “marriage” altogether and calling everything a civil union. It defeats the purpose of expanding marriage to defend marriage and the nuclear family: in fact, it only devalues the idea of marriage by having the government declare that, for all political and society purposes, marriage is nothing more than a contract. Understanding marriage as something divorced from family (this should not be taken as saying that a valid marriage must produce children, or somesuch thing) is far more damaging to marriage, and certainly more against the tradition than altering the traditional form of marriage.

I used marriage as an example of how the logic of this understanding might work – disagreement with its appropriateness on this issue particularly shouldn’t be taken to mean that it is, generally, inapplicable.

Another caveat: I’m talking here purely about the tradition in political/societal terms. None of this applies to religious or religious/societal understanding of tradition, but the religious tradition and the political tradition oughtn’t be allowed to merge. The Pope need not compromise because of popular sentiment – there’s a strong case that he shouldn’t (but I’m not Catholic, so I’m staying away from actual Catholic issues; he just works as a nice example). One is about the relationship among humans, and the stability of society, and, because of this, is far more mutable; the other is about the relationship between man and G-d (and only after this the relationship among men) and because of this far more immutable.


One Response to “Tradition in the Twenty-First Century”

  1. […] is to say, as has been said quite well in recent days, that a tradition, as opposed to a mere ideology, is never something that is static, that it is […]

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