By Edward Shils, 1981

Max Weber famously divided all organization into the categories of traditional, charismatic, and bureaucratic/rational.  For him, modern history is the story of rationalization:  the replacement of tradition by bureaucracy.  Sociologist Edward Shils is a disciple of Weber, but he thinks that Weber underestimated the ability of traditions to resist the pressures to rationalize.  He doesn’t deny that anti-traditional forces have made tremendous advances in the past centuries, but he doubts that their victory can ever be complete.  Men will always want a connection to their past, a collective memory which extends before the lifetime of the individual.  Shils differs from many sociologists in that he regards this desire for connection with the past as basically legitimate and good, although he doesn’t regard all traditions as worth preserving.

Shils defines a tradition as anything that’s been passed down for at least three generations.  This leads him to identify some unexpected things as traditions, including the anti-traditional traditions of rationalization and emancipation, because the proponents of these things generally didn’t come up with them themselves, but inherited their ideals from a previous generation of liberals.  There is even a tradition of technological invention, because the idea of trying to preserve techniques is given to us rather than continually re-discovered, a necessary factor since most cultures in most times have not had this idea.  Shils therefore distinguishes substantive traditions from other traditions.  Substantive traditions are conscious of themselves as traditions and explicitly value their connection with the past.  Thus, the struggle in modern times is between substantive traditions and anti-traditional (rationalizing or emancipating) traditions, and it’s a struggle that can never end in a final victory by any side.

This book is very hard to summarize.  It’s not clear what the point of it is.  It seems that a general sociological analysis of tradition is less interesting than an analysis of a single tradition.  The latter is what most books about traditions really are.  They are generally written by Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists who investigate whether their Church is in some sense carrying forward the same tradition as the Apostles, always of course reaching the answer “yes”.  Shils isn’t committed to any such proposition, so his discussion of the maintenance of identity of a tradition in spite of changes is rather bland.  He discusses the ways that traditions maintain themselves and the things that can push a tradition to change in various ways.  Some of it is obvious, and some is insightful.  Traditionalists should not regard this book as necessary reading.

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