Tradition: Its Necessity and Its Discontents

noted last month that living well is difficult apart from a definite and well-developed tradition of life. Otherwise we simply won’t know what we’re doing, and we’ll have to make up everything as we go along without any idea of ultimate results or significance, or of what we might be missing.

Such claims for the necessity of tradition make no sense to many people today.

One objection is that they are meaningless, since everything people do is part of a tradition. There is Catholic tradition, Mafia tradition, Buddhist tradition, Bolshevik tradition, anarchist tradition, and so on. So praising tradition tells us nothing about what anyone should do.

Another is that it’s the genius of tradition to develop, so a break in tradition can better be seen as a variation or new development. If people are starting to do something, it’s part of their tradition as it now exists. And besides, traditions are complex, as complex as the situations they deal with. In a Catholic society there are likely to be traditions of devotion, orthodoxy, and rigor, but also of laxness, skepticism, heresy, atheism, and criminality. Much the same applies to other communities, so why pick out some tendencies within a community’s overall tradition of life and call them the tradition of the community to the exclusion of all others? Don’t all the parts come together to make up the whole?

A different sort of objection is based on liberal individualism. I have my life, and I’m responsible for it, so why should I give special preference to what some restricted group of people did in the past? Why wouldn’t it be better to choose freely from all the possibilities offered by human thought and experience, or decide on some new departure if that seems better? That’s what founders of traditions do, and traditionalists don’t complain about them, so why shouldn’t I have the same privilege?

A related objection has to do with pluralism. In modern society there are a variety of traditions present, and it would be unfair, discriminatory, and divisive to deny any of them equal status. That’s why we’re told we need to celebrate diversity and be careful to include equally those who are different. But if we do that each tradition will be deprived of authority, even informal authority, in anything that matters to other people. Otherwise, some people will be marginalized. So traditions can’t have authority that matters socially, which means they can’t exist as traditions but only as collections of optional private opinions and practices.

And then there’s the practical problem of how people live today. Life has changed, so why should old habits and attitudes still make sense? And besides, tradition exists within networks of specific enduring human relations: the life of a village, or of a particular religion, region, nation, or social class. Today though communication and travel make such things much less relevant. We deal with most of life through impersonal commercial and bureaucratic structures, and through electronic networks that connect us immediately to everyone in the world and bathe us in commercial pop culture. So tradition, as a way of understanding the world and establishing patterns for living, falls into disuse, and gives way to image, impulse, what’s happening now, and highly organized arts of persuasion.

The objections seem more impressive than they really are. Some of them simply note that tradition is subject to disruption. That may be true, especially today, but it says nothing about its human necessity.

Others deny human nature, in line with the modern ideal of man-his-own-maker. But man doesn’t make himself. Complex functional systems like human life work in their own way, and it’s not possible simply to make them do what we want. Also, man is a social animal whose words and deeds begin with suppositions and commitments that precede them and must mostly be picked up from the world around us. So we can only make sense of ourselves and our lives as participants in a community and its traditions. Even a rebel needs an authority to rebel against, and a tradition and community of dissent to define the nature and point of his rebellion. And in any case it’s impossible simply to invent arrangements that deal minimally well with something as complex, subtle, and fundamental as (for example) the relation between the sexes. For that the experience of generations as to what works, what people ultimately find satisfying, and what comes into focus when you live with a situation for a lifetime is indispensable.

The objections also take an overly external and literal-minded view of what tradition is. It’s not simply a list of dos and don’ts or a register of what particular groups of people have done. It expresses a patterned vision of human goods, and ultimately the good life, that can’t be adequately known or realized without its aid. To pick a small example: it’s hard to become a good musician, and it’s evidently impossible to do so in general, without regard to any particular style or tradition of music. But if you have the talent you can do it by finding someone who knows a particular style and learning from him how it’s done—which he in turn will have learned from his predecessors.

Since man is social and cultural, he’s traditional by nature. He’s also rational, and acts in accordance with (mostly implicit) principles and ideals. For that reason tradition is directed toward something higher than itself. The point of musical tradition is beauty and joy, the point of religious tradition is coming closer to God, and the point of an overall tradition of life is the good life in general. It’s therefore natural for tradition to admit change when it better realizes or brings into focus its goods. Such changes most often escape notice, since they usually result from a gradual change of emphasis as some aspects of the tradition get called on more and others less, and from formulations or practices that originally looked like minor variations but accumulate and establish themselves as more than that. Examples within Catholic tradition include the development of various rituals and devotions, and the development of doctrine as understood by John Henry Newman.

Since tradition has a basis and function in human life there can be traditions that don’t make sense as such. A tradition of radical choice, change, and self-sufficiency makes no sense because it denies the aspects of human life—the need for continuity and the slow accumulation of experience, insight, practical wisdom, and organizing symbols and practices through the events of many lives—that give tradition its authority in the first place.

What’s needed is tradition that is intelligent and self-consistent enough to understand and accept its own limits and necessity. Such tradition includes at least implicitly a principle of self-criticism, since it knows it can be better or worse depending on how good its purpose is and how well it achieves it. Today, for example, there is a tradition of elevator music within the larger tradition of Western music. Those who carry on the former most often recognize what they are doing as a decline from the latter, and would rather pursue better things.

Something similar applies to more general traditions of living. If you look at recent accounts like those by Charles Murray and Theodore Dalrymple of what’s been happening to old-line non-elite Americans and Englishmen over the past five or six decades, and more anecdotally if you look at changes in popular culture, it’s hard to avoid thinking that recent cultural changes represent a deterioration of cultural tradition. That judgment is not a matter of taste: even something as brutally objective as death rates show that something has gone wrong in how people live. Those living within the tradition generally agree. While Western elites believe the world is getting better and better under their management and tutelage, their people have noticed that it’s getting worse.

So praising tradition isn’t arbitrary and it doesn’t mean praising every possible tradition. It’s pointing out that tradition must have authority because it’s necessary for understanding and realizing almost any basic human good. Dealing with tradition of course brings in all the difficulties that arise in dealing with authority generally: it might be wrong, it has sometimes been destructive, different authorities tell us different things, and so on. Authority has its deficiencies, like all human things, and must ultimately be completed by other authorities and by grace. Nonetheless, we normally accept it, because we are social and social life requires it. It’s true we sometimes need to reject it when something goes wrong and it starts destroying the goods for which it was established, but that is a very serious matter—one that marks the boundaries of social order—that applies equally to every possible human authority and for which few general rules can be given.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 2, 2016 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “La Barre et Autre Musiciens” was painted by Andre Bouys, c. 1710.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).