Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of Tradition

"Apology" was originally derived from the Greek ἀπολογία, transliterated as the Latin apologia. The word is translated "speaking in defense," and it is from this root that we speak of "apologetics" as a discipline of argumentation and rhetoric. Nowadays, "apology" is much more often used as an expression of regret or remorse, an acknowledgement of shortcomings.

In this case, I feel both meanings are particularly apt. On the one hand, especially in a modernist society that attaches great value to individuality and originality, it sometimes seems necessary to apologize for advocating the ideas and institutions of the past. On the other hand, especially in a modernist society that has little respect for the wisdom and experiences of its predecessors, it must always be necessary to defend the ideas and institutions of the past.

A few days ago I posted G.K. Chesterton's famous defense of tradition as "the extension of the franchise" and as "the democracy of the dead." I think this approach is both necessary and effective. But the case for tradition extends far beyond mere egalitarian sentiment.

Tradition is not just democratic; it is essentially rational.

It should be obvious that every person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be equally obvious that this applies to both the whole as well as the part. Every society and culture carries certain advantages and disadvantages. This is not to say that all cultures are created equal -- I doubt anyone would volunteer to live among the Aztecs or Spartans -- but it is to say that no culture is perfectly utopian nor totally dystopian.

It also follows that every culture has its own peculiar blind spots. Certainly there is true of the early American republic, which preached freedom for all while enslaving the few. I think this principle can be safely applied for all people and for all times.

The only way to see past a blind spot is to change perspective. In order to be rational we must distrust our own reasons, and seek to view ourselves through the lens of other cultures, whether distinguished by time or by distance.. We who belong to the West ought to moderate our sometimes extreme individualism with the communal orientation of the East. Likewise, we who belong to the modern age out to recall the mores and traditions we inherit from the medieval ages.

It is wise to view our own culture through the lens of another, and that is the essence of tradition.

It often strikes us that many conventions and customs we inherit from the past seem to be quite non-rational. In the Whit Stillman film Metropolitan, the characters play a game where the loser must answer any question put to them, even if it betrays a secret. When one character, Audrey, objects, the others tease her and say they can't think of why they shouldn't place such a game. Audrey responds: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention."

It is wise to abide by social customs, even when (and especially when) you cannot think of the reasons for it, and that is the essence of tradition.

On the other hand, it must be conceded that many of the ideas and institutions of the past are positively irrational, with something approaching contempt for reason. Yet this is not in itself an argument for their abolition. As a matter of history, almost all governments arose by an arbitrary concentration of power and prestige. Recorded instances of a "social contract" are vanishingly rare. Yet anarchists are few and far between. Despite the modern appetite for chaos in our art and originality in our ideas, stability is an essential good. In economic terms, it enables technological progress and capital accumulation; in personal terms, it allows us to plan for and anticipate the future.

It is wise to organize a society around the principle of stability, and that is the essence of tradition.

Finally, traditions are not limited to merely the realm of social convention. Traditions exist within intellectual disciplines and fields as well. The same principles above apply here as well, with still further benefits.

On the whole, intellectual traditions do not arise out of the input of common minds. Indeed, they do not even grow out of above-average minds. The paradigms of thought and the defining insights are almost always the product of geniuses.

We receive philosophy from the minds of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, among many many others. It is for this reason that my professional interest in economics began in the history of economic thought: by following the intellectual innovations through history, I trained myself to identify with and think like the great economists of history. I learned from the Greeks, from the Schoolman, from the Physiocrats, from the classical economists of Scotland and France, and from the modern economists of Chicago, Oxford, and Vienna.

In social circles, anyone and everyone contributes to tradition: that is its great democratic virtue. But in intellectual circles, only the brightest luminaries contribute to Reason's vast estate: that is its great aristocratic virtue. In such matters we follow tradition as the students of the medieval University would follow a teacher, eagerly seeking to learn from it, avidly scrounging for every scrap of wisdom it might dispense.

Tradition is not the sole good in the world. But I cannot deny that it is a very great good, and one that has been tragically underrated for far too long. This is my apology; here rests my defense.

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