Saturday, June 13, 2015

Why I Am a Traditionalist (I)

How is it that I have never written directly on the subject of tradition, in four years of having this blog? I have touched on it in other posts, but never written about it directly. Few things are more important to me than the idea of tradition.

I think tradition is a positive good, in itself. Anyone can rattle off any amount of traditions that were (and are) obviously bad. Slavery and human sacrifice spring to mind. But this is a rather silly argument. It could apply to anything. 'Abuse does not disprove use' as the saying goes.

But as for the usefulness or desirability of tradition, I'm not so sure I know how to argue in favour of that. It's not really something you can prove, or demonstrate. 

It's often assumed that public debate, or public discourse in general, should be a matter of argument. If you have a particular position, you should be able to make a case for that in rational terms, to counter objections, and to eventually (if you are right) coerce the intellect of your opponent into agreeing with you.

I feel like this about so few of the positions I espouse. It's true that I believe that the existence of God and the truth of Catholicism are objectively true, and that solid arguments can be made for both. Indeed, I believe that the existence of God can be known with certainty by the rational mind-- for that, indeed, is the Catholic doctrine. I also believe that the truth of the Catholic faith is something we not only can argue for, but must argue for. 

But even then...I do believe that God works in mysterious ways, and that faith is rarely something that you can argue somebody into. The arguments need to be there, and need to be made, but they are rarely the main factor in propelling somebody towards religious faith.

Anyway, it isn't religion I'm thinking about, when it comes to beliefs that are hard to argue for in narrowly rational terms. It's all the many non-religious opinions I hold, such as the desirability of tradition. There is an argument to be made for this in rational terms-- for instance, Edmund Burke's argument: "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence."

This may be true; it certainly seems plausible to me; but, even if it is not true, I love tradition for its own sake. I don't value tradition for utilitarian reasons, so how can I argue for it on utilitarian
grounds? It woud seem dishonest. It woud be missing the entire point. The importance of tradition is not only not utilitarian, I might even call it anti-utlitarian. Upholding tradition on utilitarian grounds would be like marrying a woman because she is a good cook. (Not the worst reason, granted, but one would hope that there would be more to it than that.)

So how can I argue for tradition, then, if I don't have any rational, utilitarian arguments? I can only try to inspire others with a similar love of tradition, or to bring out their latent regard for it. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I took to writing fiction some years ago. Anyone who read the Bard's Apprentice novel that I serialised here will remember that the importance of tradition was a central theme.

(Indeed, the thing has been done before. Apparently, Sir Walter Scott helped to awaken the entire British people to a greater respect for their own national traditions and national past, with the Waverley novels. I can't claim to be a great admirer of Scott, though-- I read Heart of Midlothian and it bored me.)

I think fiction, poetry and art can be used to argue for something intangible like tradition. Perhaps it is more an appeal than an argument. It seems to me a great impoverishment of public discourse that arguments have to be framed in terms of costs and benefits, both construed in very material terms. 

C.S. Lewis put this point very well, in relation to the particular tradition of monarchy: ""It would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how if, by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the Monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship – loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principal, splendour, ceremony, continuity – still trickle down to irrigate the dustbowl of modern economic Statecraft?”

But what do I mean by tradition? I mean it in a broad sense; but in a narrow sense, too. I mean it especially in the most vulgar and obvious sense, the sense that makes many people roll their eyes. I mean it in the "Ye Olde Shoppe" sense. I mean it in the 'warm fuzzies' sense.

I mean Halloween, confetti at weddings, the Angelus bells being broadcast on RTE in Ireland, blowing out birthday candles, the FA Cup final, the Budweiser Clydesdales, white smoke at Papal elections (a relatively recent innovation, by the way), using the feminine pronoun for ships, bishops in the House of Lords, Corpus Christi processions, Valentine's Day cards, men proposing to women, poetry that rhymes, terrace chants, James Bond, cloth caps, the Two Ronnies Christmas special, the Oberammergau passion play, singing on the last night of the Proms, Guy Fawkes night, popcorn at the cinema, Toby jugs, the Late Late Toy Show, and so on.

In other words; traditions new and old, national and regional, secular and sacred, dignified and corny, commercialised and not commercialised, particular and general, obscure and popular-- I love them all and hold them all as precious, though (obviously) to different extents.

It's the very self-consciousness of tradition that appeals to me. It could be argued that tradition is something unconscious and all-pervading. I once read a book on Folklore (Folklore and Folklife: an Introduction, edited by Richard Dorson) in which it was argued that modern skyscrapers and office blocks are a form of 'folk' architecture in that they preserve the same simple approach as the houses ordinary people built through the centuries. I'm sure it's a valid point, but that's not the sense in which I understand tradition. It's close to being the opposite.

Many earnest and clever people expend a lot of effort on explaining on how this or that 'tradition' is invented or inauthentic, as though this undermines all traditionalism. Examples often given are Scottish tartans belonging to particular clans, the 'Dickensian' Christmas, and the English sandwich called 'the Ploughman's Lunch'.

This is just another example of one of our era's favourite sports, that of debunking. I see nothing clever about debunking; if pursued indefinitely, it surely leads to nihilism. 

I am not tremendously exercised about whether a particular tradition is as old as it claims to be, or whether it is even a tradition at all. As far as I'm concerned, it becomes a tradition as soon as it is accepted as a tradition. In any case, there are certainly a great number of bona fide venerable traditions, so I am not going to fret about whether any given tradition is 'authentic' or not. Tradition is as much something subjective as it is something objective.

I have a great deal more to say about tradition. Readers who want to leave the hall should do so now. This could go on for some time.

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