The Problem of Tradition
by Russell Kirk*
Editors Note: Russell Kirk is the modern philosopher of the conservative tradition. Indeed, he may be said to have revived the whole idea of tradition as a necessary attribute of a people, including of a modern nation like the United States. His book The Conservative Mind was the first in recent times to give legitimacy to the idea of a conservative tradition in Western civilization. He is sometimes seen to represent tradition in opposition to freedom and individuality. As readers of the following article will see, he in fact balances tradition against individual curiosity and dissent and rejects formal indoctrination by authorities, leaving inculcation of tradition to families and voluntary religion.
Why, when all is said, do any of us look to the interest of the rising generation, and to the interest of the generations which shall exist in the remote future? Why do we not exhaust the heritage of the ages, spiritual and material for our immediate pleasure, and let posterity go hang? So far as simple rationality is concerned, self-interest can advance no argument against the appetite of present possessors. Yet within some of us, a voice that is not the demand of self-interest or pure rationality says that we have no right to give ourselves enjoyment at the expense of our ancestors’ memory and our descendants’ prospects. We hold our present advantages only in trust.
A profound sentiment informs us of this; yet this sentiment, however strong, is not ineradicable. In some ages and in some nations, the consciousness of a sacred continuity has been effaced almost totally. One may trace in the history of the Roman empire the decay of belief in the contract of eternal society, so that fewer and fewer men came to sustain greater and greater burdens; the unbought grace of life shrank until only scattered individuals partook of it-Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, here and there a governor or a scholar to knit together, by straining his every nerve, the torn fabric of community and spiritual continuity; until, at length, those men were too few, and the fresh dedication of Christian faith triumphed too late to redeem the structure of society and the larger part of culture from the ruin that accompanies the indulgence of present appetites in contempt of tradition and futurity.
Respect for the eternal contract is not a mere matter of instinct, then; it is implanted in our consciousness by the experience of the race and by a complex process of education. When the disciplines which impart this respect are imperiled by violence or by a passion for novelty, the spiritual bond which joins the generations and links our nature with the divine nature is correspondingly threatened. Mr. Christopher Dawson, in his little book Understanding Europe, expresses this better than I can:
Indeed the catastrophes of the last thirty years are not only a sign of the bankruptcy of secular humanism, they also go to show that a completely secularized civilization is inhuman in the absolute sense-hostile to human life and irreconcilable with human nature itself. For … the forces of violence and aggressiveness that threaten to destroy our world are the direct result of the starvation and frustration of man’s spiritual nature. For a time Western civilization managed to live on the normal tradition of the past, maintained by a kind of sublimated humanitarian idealism. But this was essentially a transitional phenomenon, and as humanism and humanitarianism fade away, we see societies more and more animated by the blind will to power which drives them on to destroy one another and ultimately themselves. Civilization can only be creative and life-giving in the proportion that it is spiritualized. Otherwise the increase of power inevitably increases its power for evil and its destructiveness.
For the breaking of the contract of eternal society does not simply obliterate the wisdom of our ancestors: it commonly converts the future into a living death, also; since progress, beneficent change, is the work of men with a sense of continuity, who look forward to posterity out of love for the legacy of their ancestors and the dictates of an authority more than human. The man who truly understands the past does not detest all change; on the contrary, he welcomes change, as the means of renewing society; but he knows how to keep change in a continuous train, so that we will not lose that sense of gratitude which Marcel describes. As Burke puts it, “We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees. This has all the benefits which may be in change, without any of the inconveniences of mutation.”
The outward fabric of our world must alter, as do our forms of society; but to demolish all that is old, out of a mere contempt for the past, is to impoverish that human faculty which yearns after continuity and things venerable. By such means of measurement as we possess-by such indices as suicide-rate, the incidence of madness and neurosis, the appetites and tastes of the masses, the obliteration of beauty, the increase of crime, the triumph of force over the law of nations-by these signs, it seems clear, all that complex of high aspiration and imaginative attainment which makes us civilized men is shrinking to a mere shadow of a shadow. If indeed society is governed by an eternal contract, then we may appeal to the Author of that covenant; but words without thoughts to Heaven never go, and the continuity which pertains directly to society must be repaired by those means which still are within the grasp of man.
This brings us back to my hill above the mill-pond. The eternal contract, the sense of continuity among men, has been made known to succeeding generations, from the dawn of civilization, by the agency of tradition. Tradition is the process of handing on beliefs, not so much through formal schooling or through books, as through the life of the family and the observances of the church. Until the end of the eighteenth century, no one thought it conceivable that most men could obtain most of their knowledge in any other way than this; and though cheap books and eleemosynary schooling have supplanted to some extent the old functions of traditionary instruction, still tradition remains the principal source of our moral beliefs and our worldly wisdom. Young persons do not acquire in school to any considerable extent, the sense of continuity and the veneration for the eternal contract which makes possible willing obedience to social order; children acquire this sense from their parents and other elders, and from their gradual introduction to religion, if they obtain any; the process is illative, rather than deliberate. Now let us suppose that parents cease to impart such instruction, or come to regard tradition as superstition; suppose that young people never become acquainted with the church-what happens to tradition? Why, its empire is destroyed, and the young join the crowd of the other-directed whom Mr. David Riesman describes.
In a looser sense, by “tradition” we mean all that body of knowledge which is bound up with prescription and prejudice and authority, the accepted beliefs of a people, as distinguished from “scientific” knowledge; and this, too, is greatly weakened in its influence among the rising generation by a growing contempt for any belief that is not founded upon demonstrable “fact.” Almost nothing of importance really can be irrefutably demonstrated by finally ascertained “facts”; but the limitations of science are not apprehended by the throng of the quarter-educated who think themselves emancipated from their spiritual heritage. When we confront these people, we are dealing not merely with persons ignorant of tradition, but actively hostile toward it.
Now cheap books and free schooling are not the principal reasons for this decay of the influence of tradition. The really decisive factors are the industrialization and urbanization of modern life. Tradition thrives where men follow naturally in the ways of their fathers, and live in the same houses, and experience in their own lives that continuity of existence which assures them that the great things in human nature do not much alter from one generation to another. This is the mood of Ecclesiastes. But the tremendous physical and social changes that have come with the later stages of our industrial growth, and the concentration of population in raw new cities, shake men’s confidence that things will be with them as they were with their fathers. The sanction of permanence seems to have been dissolved. Men doubt the validity of their own opinions, founded upon tradition, and hesitate to impart them to their children-indeed, they may thrust all this vast obligation upon the unfortunate school-teacher, and then grow annoyed when the teacher turns out to be incapable of bestowing moral certitude, scientific knowledge, and decent manners upon a class of fifty or sixty bewildered and distracted children. Most natural keepers of tradition, in short, abdicate their function when modern life makes them doubt their own virtue.
Though of course I did not understand all this at the time, it was this decay of the force of tradition which was sweeping away the old mill-pond almost before my eyes, as I lay on the hill under my oak. For my part, I still was a tradition-guided boy; but the planners who altered the landscape, presently, were Benthamites confident in the sufficiency of pure rationality, and the man who demolished the octagon-house was an other-directed individual who positively dreaded identification with anything dead and gone, and longed to be associated, however vaguely, with the milieu of Beverly Hills. The Utilitarians and the other-directed people were using up the moral and intellectual capital which had been accumulated by a traditionary society, I came to realize much later; and that process has been in the ascendant, with an increasing velocity, throughout the United States, for more than a generation now.
It cannot continue forever. Our guardians of tradition have been recruited principally, although not wholly, from our farms and small towns; the incertitude of the cities disturbs the equanimity of the tradition-guided man. And our great cities have been swelling at the expense of our country and village population, so that the immense majority of young people today have no direct acquaintance with the old rural verities. Our reservoir of tradition will be drained dry within a very few decades, if we do not deliberately open up once more the springs of tradition. The size of the United States, and the comparative gradualness of industrial development in many regions, until now saved us from a complete exhaustion of tradition, such as Sweden seems to have experienced. At the beginning of this century, Sweden had seven people in the country for one in the city; now that ratio is precisely inverted; and one may obtain some hint of what the death of tradition means to a people from the fact that the Swedes, previously celebrated for their placidity and old-fashioned heartiness, now have the highest rates of abortion and suicide in the world, dismayed at the thought of bringing life into this world or even of enduring one’s own life.
I do not want our traditions to run out, because I do not believe that formal indoctrination, or pure rationality, or simple mutation of our contemporaries, can replace traditions. Traditions are the wisdom of the race; they are the only sure instruments of moral instruction; they have about them a solemnity and a mystery that Dr. Dryasdust the cultural anthropologist never can compensate for; and they teach us the solemn veneration of the eternal contract which cannot be imparted by pure reason. Even our political institutions are sustained principally by tradition, rather than by utilitarian expediency. A people who have exhausted their traditions are starved for imagination and devoid of any general assumptions to give coherence to their life.
Yet I do not say that tradition ought to be our only guide, nor that tradition is always beneficent. There have been ages and societies in which tradition, stifling the creative faculty among men, put an end to variety and change, and so oppressed mankind with the boredom of everlasting worship of the past. In a healthy nation, tradition must be balanced by some strong element of curiosity and individual dissent. Some people who today are conservatives because they protest against the tyranny of neoterism, in another age or nation would be radicals, because they could not endure the tyranny of tradition. It is a question of degree and balance. But I am writing of modern society, especially in the United States; and among us there is not the slightest danger that we shall be crushed beneath the dead weight of tradition; the danger is altogether on the other side. Our modern affliction is the flux of ceaseless change, the repudiation of all enduring values, the agonies of indecision and the social neuroses that come with a questioning of everything in heaven and earth. We are not in the plight of the old Egyptians or Peruvians; it is not prescription which enslaves us, but the lust for innovation. A young novelist, visiting George Santayana in his Roman convent in the last year of the philosopher’s life, remarked that he could not endure to live in America, where everything was forever changing and shifting. Santayana replied, with urbane irony, that he supposed if it were not for kaleidoscopic change in America, life there would be unbearable. A people infatuated with novelty presently cannot bear to amble along; but the trouble with this is that the pace becomes vertiginous, and the laws of centifugal force begin to operate.
I know that there are people who maintain that nothing is seriously wrong with life in the United States, and that we need not fret about tradition one way or the other; but I confess, at the risk of being accused of arrogance, that I take these people for fools, whether they call themselves liberals or conservatives. They have a fondness for pointing to the comfortable routine of our suburbs as a demonstration of our mastery over the ancient tragedy of life. Now I am not one of those critics of society who look upon residence in suburbia a stain worse than the mark of the beast; but neither am I disposed to think that a commuter’s ticket and a lawn-sprinkler are the proofs of national greatness and personal exaltation. And I am convinced that, if the reservoir of our traditions is drained dry, there will not be ten thousand tidy little suburbs in America, very long thereafter; for the suburbs are dependent upon an older order of social organization, as well as upon an intricate modern apparatus of industrial technology, for their being.
When tradition is dissipated, men do not respond to the old moral injunctions satisfactorily; and our circumstances and national character differing from Sweden’s, I do not think we would experience the comparative good fortune to slip into an equalitarian boredom. The contract of eternal society forgotten, soon every lesser form of contract would lose its sanction. I say, then, that we need to shake out of their complacency the liberals who are smug in their conviction of the immortality of Liberal Democratic Folkways in the United States, and the conservatives who are smug in their conviction of the abiding superiority of the American Standard of Living. Political arrangements, and economic systems, rest upon the foundation of moral prejudices which find their expression in tradition.
Men who assail smugness cannot hope to be popular, in any climate of opinion; so the conservative ought not to expect to be thanked for reminding his age of the contract of eternal society. When he protests against the reduction of the mass of men to a condition below the dignity of true humanity, he will be attacked as an enemy of democracy, and ridiculed as a snob-when, in truth, he is endeavoring to save a democracy of elevation, and to put down the snobbery of a rootless new managerial elite. Mr. Wyndham Lewis, in Rude Assignment, refers to the abuse which many professors and publicists heap upon anyone who presumes to suggest that there is something wrong with modern minds and hearts: “To keep other people in mental leading-strings, to have beneath you a broad mass of humanity to which you (although no intellectual giant) can feel agreeably superior: this petty and disagreeable form of the will-to-power of the average ‘smart’ man counts for much in the degradation of the Many. And there is no action of this same ‘smart’ man that is more aggravating than the way in which he will turn upon the critic of the social scene (who has pointed out the degradation of the Many) and accuse him of ‘despising the people.”‘ Nothing is more resented than the truth, and, as Mr. Lewis says, “people have deteriorated. They have neither the will nor common sense of the peasant or guildsman, and are more easily fooled. This can only be a source of concern and regret, to all except ‘the leader of men.”‘
Wherever human dignity is found, it is the product of a conviction that we are part of some great continuity and essence, which elevates us above the brutes; and wherever popular government is just and free, it is in consequence of a belief that there are standards superior to the interest of the hour and the will of a temporary majority. If these things are forgotten, then indeed the people will become despicable. The conservative, in endeavoring to restore a consciousness among men of the worth of tradition, is not acting in contempt of the masses; he is acting, instead, out of love for them, as human persons, and he is trying to preserve for them such a life as men should lead.
*As appeared in A Program for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1956).