The Myth of Tradition 6

The Myth of Tradition 6

Yesterday we discussed what happens when we rely on Tradition too much, and we saw that it is a bad idea to do so, because change is more prevalent than stasis.

Today, we will see how much truth there really is in Tradition, and how much we should allow it influence our lives.

How much truth there is in Tradition

Many people stand by Tradition because it is supposed to contain the wisdom of the ages. Indeed, the proportion of truth in tradition is perhaps a bit greater than in everyday life, since many bad traditions have passed out of being, while some good ones remain. But we should never forget that many traditions are not good. We should always mine Tradition for whatever good it contains, but we should also always be trying to reinterpret the truths of Tradition for application to our own lives in the here and now.

Another fact that is lost sight of by those who overvalue Tradition is that much of the truth in Tradition got there by trial and error. Now there can’t be “trial” where tradition rules absolutely, because in Tradition-run behavior one only repeats the same actions over and over. In order for a tradition to have become part of Tradition, it must at some time not have been tradition. This means that strictly adhering to Tradition cuts us off from the sort of experimentation from which something new arises.

The strident adherents of Tradition, then, are acting against their own self-interest. One looks to them in vain for new solutions to new problems, because all they can do is repeat old solutions—whether they worked or not!

And speaking of “not working”: it should be clear that not all traditions exist because they actually solved problems. Some are there just because some power structure once existed that made them locally useful. But utility is not the standard either for truth or for justice.

How much we should allow Tradition to influence us

The conclusion from these reflections is that we should not allow Tradition to rule our lives. We should respect it for the truth it contains, and we should mine that truth for inspiration in responding creatively to the challenges that confront us in daily life. But we should not repeat the dictates of Tradition mindlessly, or believe that we can get through life by just re-enacting the traditional behaviors of our ancestors. We may survive that way, but it will be at the cost of finding creative solutions to new problems. And that means it will also be at the cost of great suffering.

Rather than simply accepting Tradition, we should use it the way an artist uses anything in life—as material from which to create new things, new artworks that bring new experiences into the world. To use Tradition as a goldmine for creativity is the right way to allow Tradition to influence us. Thoughtless recreation of the past is a kind of influence that we really must learn to do without.

After the weekend, we will examine a defense of Tradition that is often made by strict traditionalists: “Tradition is what works.”

Until Monday, then.

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