Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Whither Tradition

by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Our Constitution promises to “secure the blessings of liberty” to “ourselves and our posterity.” The emphasis on posterity often escapes our attention, but it highlights an essential function of a well-ordered polity: the ability and obligation of a generation to pass on what’s best about itself to its progeny. Our job is to take what was given to us, improve it where we can and preserve it where we must, and then pass it on to our children, helping them understand that they have been given a precious heritage that they are now obligated to maintain. Once we have lost our understanding of why our heritage matters, or lose our ability to communicate to our descendants the nature of their obligation, the fracturing of society is sure to follow.

This is what we mean by “tradition,” the etymology of which literally means a “handing over,” a passing down of what one possesses. These possessions, broadly speaking, can include cultural forms such as language, social institutions, practices, mores, and so forth. The word found its earliest usage in the legal realm, where it referred to the handing over or transfer of legal papers or property from one person to another.

The most important passing-down or handing over occurs between generations. Tradition is distinguished from history in that tradition is a particular type of act that takes place within history, and is one designed to create continuity across generations. Edmund Burke thought of tradition as an eternal contract that bound together past, present, and future, and created a system of obligations and duties that connected the generations.

This contract extended not only across time, but also encompassed the relation between God and human beings. Indeed, tradition may best be thought of as having its source in divine revelation, and its continuity in echoing or remembering the divine revelation, and making divine speech speak anew in the present. Socrates, for example, often made use of tradition when he called upon old stories to remind his interlocutors of the truth of the human place in divine order. At the end of the Gorgias he calls upon Callicles to submit himself to the truth of the Judgment of the Dead that, while largely irrelevant in its particulars, communicated the idea of the immortal soul and the divine judgment under which it stands.

Traditions, then, have the quality of a story or narrative.  They have a determinate structure but also communicate deep human meaning. Human life exists always and everywhere in such structures, and these provide intelligibility and purpose to our thoughts and actions. Without an immersion in tradition we quickly our sense of place and, hence, our possibilities for meaning.

Proceeding from the reality of our historical situatedness, the concept of tradition also provides the proper limits for thought and action. It operates like playing a game: the nature of being a player is determined by the rules and practices of the game. The game is self-contained and self-referential. Its development comes not from outside it, but from the structure and logic of the game itself. The player’s sense of purpose and excellence comes from the mastery of the rules and practices intrinsic to the game. The game loses some of its appeal when it is thought of as “only a game,” and this is because the game itself results from the free creativity of the players, even as it both channels and disciplines that creativity.

Tradition is neither history nor nature but has the character of both. As with Aristotle’s analysis of natural kinds, tradition has within it its own substance and contains the principle of its own development. Individual particularity cannot be abstracted out of its historical circumstances without profoundly unsettling that principle of development.

Aristotle’s principle of development helped explain how entities could maintain their identity in the midst of constant change. Likewise, tradition stabilizes the cultural forms that are passed on intergenerationally, so that subsequent generations can accept the accomplishments of their forebearers as gifts, or as an inheritance. At the same time, elders can work to assimilate the young into the tradition through teaching and practice.

Two of the key virtues attending the transmission of tradition, to be cultivated among the young, are gratitude and reverence. Gratitude for the accomplishments of the past that make the present possible, and reverence for both the sacredness and sacrifice inherent in human striving. Chesterton remarked that tradition was the democracy of the dead, that only a fool would not allow his actions to be guided by the wisdom of the past. “The ancient Greeks voted with stones,” he said,” and we shall vote with tombstones.”

Tradition thus points to the underlying consensus that structures all of social life, most particularly evident in the formation of a shared language. Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that life knew itself only in tradition and understood itself only language. Humans are animals that have language, which is a universal trait, but one that takes on great particularity when one considers the great variety of languages. Neither are languages static. They constantly evolve, seeking new words and new grammars to adjust to changing historical circumstances, while at the same time maintaining their intelligibility, communicability, and unity.

Thus it’s a canard to suggest that traditions are static, unchanging entities, and those who respect tradition simply want to keep things the way they are. “A state without the means of some change,” wrote Burke, often accused of resisting change, “is without the means of its own conservation.” It is in the nature of traditions to change; healthy traditions seek change that deepens and enriches its heritage.

Traditions, like any organism, can die. The story of a tradition is a composition, and their death a decomposition. Traditions are typically in trouble when one of three things happen: 1) the elders lose their ability to articulate or defend the inner meaning of the tradition; 2) the tradition becomes self-conscious in such a way that it is no longer a happening but an object; or, 3) when it comes into conflict with other traditions, the mere existence of which provides a crisis of authority.

As to point one, if traditions are resonances of an original, divine utterance, the farther generations get from the originating experience the more forgetfulness takes place. One thinks of the figures of Cephalus or Gorgias in the Platonic dialogues as examples of teachers who no longer understood the animating reality of the very ideas they defended, and thus realized to their horror that their students felt no longer bound by those ideas. Cephalus’s defense of justice in The Republic, amounts to little more than a weak appeal to social norms that can’t withstand the withering skepticism of a Thrasymachus. As we have discovered recently, when. the elders have no coherent idea of justice, the young will have a violent one.

Along the same lines, a static tradition will soon prove inadequate to young people who will demand reasons for certain habits and practices. Unless such reasons can be provided with reference back to the tradition’s animating principles, the tradition will fall rapidly, its death knell the words “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

All of which leads to the conclusion that healthy traditions operate as functioning authority in the lives of its adherents who believe, and live, accordingly. When properly renewed, traditions create the underlying consensus and sense of legitimacy that makes social comity possible. For human beings, there is no alternative. Since we don’t author our own existence, we necessarily find ourselves already embedded in sets of social practices and expectations. There is no original point of inquiry, no innocence to which we can return. We must work in and out of our historical embeddedness and inquire, for those who are so called, into our own tradition as well as attempt to understand other traditions from within. There is no macro-tradition, no extra-historical viewpoint from which traditions can be assessed, for the reality of our history means at our knowing is always partial, limited, and conditioned. But for all that, traditions still contain within themselves a kind of knowing that transcends our knowing and our own time. They resonate a kind of eternal speech.

The critics of the concept of tradition ultimately derive their criticism from skepticism concerning divine speech. Such theological categories necessarily require the formation and extension of unwarranted prejudices. Defenders of tradition also defend the concept of prejudice as an initial directedness, as the positioning and opening of oneself to the world and its beyond. Only hidden prejudices are barriers to knowledge. Tradition thus acted as a bridge and not a barrier to the world.

Some would claim that traditions are simply power structures that shape thinking to suit their own purposes. “Critical thinking,” in contrast, operates as a lever that opens up tradition’s inadequacies and frees individuals from its limiting structures.

Either under conditions of emancipation or conditions of crisis, traditions prove to be fragile entities when they enter their late stages. A static tradition soon implodes. Healthy traditions, defenders claim, provide the structures and means to be able to determine desirable from undesirable change, and provide the sort of stability and continuity societies need to prevent a violent end. As Freud remarked: the world was about to change, one tradition to be replaced by another, and whether this would be done gently or violently remained to be seen. Unless we keep watering the roots that provide the sheltering canopy of our traditions, it will soon wither and die.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do family traditions such as Christmas dinner seem so important to us? What does that tell us about who we are?
  2. What happens to us when we begin to believe that traditions don’t matter, or can be dismissed without consequence? How do they stabilize social life?
  3. What parts of the American political tradition need to be revered and which parts were rightly reformed?

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