In Defense of Tradition


A second class of traditions involves rituals—funerals and weddings being common examples.  It is becoming more and more common for a person to modify the traditional forms in order to express the idiosyncrasies of his personality, such as when couples write their own wedding vows.  The conservative can only lament this trend of “personalizing” ceremonies, because the significance of ritual formulae comes not only from the words themselves, but also from the very fact that they are the words used by our ancestors and descendents across time and by our contemporaries across space.  To step into a ritual role is indeed to step outside of one’s personality, but this de-personalization makes possible a truly authentic response to the event being commemorated.

How can this be?  A man tends to form an idea of his personality which resembles a fictional character defined by a few traits: “I’m too shy to do that.”  “I wouldn’t say something so solemn.  I’m just a regular chap.”  “I’m the sort of person who always does this.”  This self-image hides a man’s full freedom from himself, and the call to “be yourself” often encourages a person to go more deeply into this inauthentic state which Sartre called “bad faith.”  When I participate in a ritual, I step out of the illusion of personality and become everyman.  The words I say are not conditioned by “the sort of thing I would say” but come solely from the thing being confronted:  the reality of marriage, the reality of death.  I realize that what I am experiencing is not just an event in my own life, but that I am participating in something universal.  As, let us imagine, I speak the sacred words and offers sacrifice at my father’s grave, I remember how he once did the same for his father, and I think of how someday my son will do the same for me.  Time collapses; all ages and all generations which performed the ritual seem present to me.  Rituals take place in what Mircea Eliade called “sacred time”—by re-enacting the archetypical action of the gods (e.g. the marriage of the first god and goddess) the gods’ original action in the mythical beginning is made present again, and its divine power is shared with the participants.  Thus, by ritually stepping outside myself, I can better see both its aspect as a permanent feature of the human condition and the link it gives me with past and future generations.  Again, these insights should not be considered illusory just because they rely on tradition.  There is no hidden function which is the “real” reason for the ritual.  Nor is it problematic that different cultures have different ways of establishing marriages or honoring the dead.


I conclude that the objections against tradition fail.  A tradition proper is a particularized embodiment of the natural law, and cannot contradict this law without negating its own nature as a tradition.  Historical examples of bad “traditions” usually refer to bad customs which were not understood to be morally obligatory the way a tradition is.  For example, it was never considered morally obligatory to keep slaves or be a slave or to have more than one wife.   Note that moral progress has always involved a tightening of moral strictures, never a loosening.  Current liberal efforts to loosen traditional morality are thus not analogous to past instances of moral progress.  A tradition may indeed be corrupted if people lose sight of the good it serves to reveal; then reform and renewal are called for.  However, we must not abandon tradition itself, lest we lose access to the goods which can be apprehended in no other way.

11 Responses

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