Tradition is No Dead Thing

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Aeneas, in exile from Troy, that queen of Asia which the Greeks have burnt to the ground, has come to Italy to settle his refugee people. But meeting with hostility from an alliance of the natives there, he seeks and finds his own allies, the Arcadians, who dwell on the site that will become Rome. Their king, Evander—the name means good man—has promised to assist him. Not the least of his motives is that a chieftain of cruel impiety, Mezentius, is among Aeneas’ opponents. Here Evander describes the most remarkably inhuman thing that Mezentius does:

How shall I relate the carnage beyond telling,
Beastly crimes this tyrant carried out?
Requite them, gods, on his own head and on
His children. He would even couple carcasses
With living bodies as a form of torture.
Hand to hand and face to face, he made them
Suffer corruption, oozing gore and slime
In that wretched embrace, and a slow death.
                                          (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)

It appears to me that in the present conflicts within the Church, which have their analogues elsewhere—in schools and colleges, in the arts, in many a people’s understanding of their own history, and especially in secular politics—we are fighting, without perhaps being aware of it, over a question of fact. Let us all agree that it is evil to bind a living person to a dead thing, to be infected by the corpse, and to die. The question is, what is that dead thing?

The modernist response is that the dead thing is the past. Literary critics have a term for people who love traditional forms of art and the worlds they recall to mind: necrophiliacs. The presumption is always against tradition, as if that noun came with inevitable adjectives: hide-bound, closed-minded, antiquated, musty, anachronistic, stolid, blind

Marx saw the entire history of man as a struggle between the classes, as if the medieval guild was no other or no better than the sweatshops of industrial England. Feminism sees the entire history of man (with exceptions for sentimental views of favored aboriginal tribes) as the suppression of Woman by her irredeemable enemy, Man. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford. From sea to shining sea, schools instill disdain in their students, waving away the great artists and poets of the past as “dead white males,” and thus sparing them the considerable trouble of learning how to read Chaucer and Milton.

But what if modernism itself is the dead thing? Again, we are arguing a question of fact. The most remarkable thing about modernism as an ideology or even an emotional attitude is its destructive hatred, envy, and violence. Chairman Mao and his Red Guard battled to obliterate the “four olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. They steeped China in blood.  

American proponents of a “living Constitution” do not really believe that that written law says what they wish it would say. It simply does not matter what it says; and, by the abortion license, it has steeped America in blood. The old Soviet Union, reeling inconsistently between veneration of and hatred for ancient Russian culture, sent authors and artists to the gulags for being “reactionary,” for committing the dreadful crime of dragging their feet as the nation was marching forth into the glorious future.

Of course, people devoted to tradition can be bloody and warlike too. Think of the ancient Romans. Think of the Sioux and the Apaches. Think of the Zulus. But modernism is hostile at its heart. It is defined by opposition, and what it opposes is a deeply human thing, a natural good. Man does not live merely in time, like a tree or a dog. By his imagination and his memory, he seeks to grasp time at both ends, to transcend it. 

The dreadful curse of the Old Testament is that a people’s place will know them no more. That curse is modernism’s demand. If I say, “You are graduating people with degrees in English who do not recognize the name of George Herbert,” the modernist response is to shrug and say, “So what?” or to cock the head and say, “Exactly.”

But there is a terrible self-contradiction here, one that many people have noted. You cannot consign your forefathers to irrelevance without instructing your son to do the same to you. The blade turns against the hand. See what that implies. We have set aside polyester bell-bottom trousers in their loud colors. They are an embarrassment now. So is Jesus Christ, Superstar. Who sings that pleasantly trivial song by Soeur Sourire, beginning Dominique-nique-nique s’en allait tout simplement? Let it go. But then, let go also of all the would-be revolutionary social understandings that come from that time. Liberation theology? Mold is growing on it. Nothing can lay claim to permanence.

Obviously, modernists themselves do not want that. The tenacity with which elderly Roman Catholics cling to the dreams of their youth, when the Second Vatican Council tried to usher the Church into what the fathers thought was the modern world, shows that they are more human than their philosophy warrants.  They, too, want tradition. They, too, want culture. But modernism cannot provide it.

Again, I am arguing more from fact than from the inner contradictions of the modernist attitude. We might consider any one of the arts. Before we get to the quality of production, we must note the disappearance of entire genres of art, with nothing recognizable to take their place. In poetry, the epic, the romance, the narrative, the dramatic monologue, the ode, the epistle, and the hymn are all pretty much gone; and the difficult lessons of meter and rhyme and formal construction have not been handed down. 

What I say of poetry, those who are learned in the craft can say about architecture. We must almost be archaeologists to recover what the masons, carpenters, plasterers, metalworkers, and glaziers did a mere hundred years ago, let alone a thousand years ago. We no longer ask why we do not now build Grand Central Station. We ask why we cannot do it. 

Similarly, we do not ask why the neighborhood boys do not get together with guitar, banjo, clarinet, trumpet, and drums to play music out of their heads. We hardly remember that such things ever happened. Scott Joplin was far closer to Mozart, George Gershwin was far closer to Richard Strauss, than any of them are to us now and to our largely mass-produced music with its severely limited range in genre.

Move away from the arts to the natural human things that all cultures must accomplish. Here our colossal failure is like a dead beast in the yard, stinking under the sun. We have not one wholesome custom to get the boys and girls together. Our marriage rate has sunk into the cellar, even as nearly half of marriages end in divorce. People who do not venerate their fathers bring fatherless children into the world; and the boys and girls, each sex in its own way, go bad.  Our children will see a hundred pornographic videos for every innocent kiss they take. That may be an underestimate.

Our churches, like our children, are few, and not innocent. The secular hope that people would be united once they gave up belief in God has been shown as the anthropological absurdity that human culture and history could have demonstrated. Man is united from above, not below.  Appetites are boundless—for sex, vengeance, wealth, rank, fame, and power; but self-denial, humility, forgiveness, and divine worship allay the rage of the appetite and its frustrations, and they raise the mind to higher things, where the old saying really is true, the more the merrier.

To say that the Church should be “acculturated” is to assume that there is a culture to begin with. There is not. There are mass habits, developed by the mass phenomena—mass schooling, mass entertainment, and mass politics, perhaps three forms of the same thing. The Church must then do the hard, patient work of building up a culture where there is none. It is what I think Pope John Paul II was getting at when he called ours a “culture of death.” To say that we should bind ourselves to this time, or rather to attitudes freeze-dried from sixty years ago, is to thwart that culture-building work. It is to bind us to a corpse.

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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