The Myth of Tradition 7

The Myth of Tradition 7

On Friday, we saw how much truth is actually in Tradition, and to what extent we should allow Tradition to influence our lives.

Today, we will discuss the often-heard claim of traditionalists that “Tradition works.”


The notion that “Tradition works”

Tradition, according to its advocates, is supposed to “work.” This means, I suppose, that if you follow the principles advocated by Tradition, life will go better for you than if you don’t. Or maybe it means that Tradition lays down wise ground-rules for living life, which you depart from at your peril.

This opinion converges with that of the people who believe that Religion delivers absolute morality. Indeed, some believers in the Myth of Tradition believe that Tradition derives whatever force it has from Religion. For them, it is difficult to unravel the religious from the traditional. They tend to see it all as one piece, and for that reason, they become upset when people try to separate traditional practices from religious injunctions.

But a less religious group of Mythers insists that Tradition’s wisdom need not have come from religious sources. They think that trial and error was enough to put the wisest advice into the stores of Tradition. Not having a religious power to justify Tradition’s pronouncements, they tend to point to historical instances of traditional practices turning out well. Tradition, they say, “works,” whether or not it has a religious basis. Such people can be called secular traditionalists.

Does Tradition really “work”?

But the argument that “Tradition works” is an argument from utility. And claims of utility cannot possibly support the nearly absolute devotion that traditionalists give to Tradition. The argument from utility proves nothing absolute about any principle. It only shows that in the instances examined, the principle seems to have produced some desirable results. And even this conclusion needs to be tempered. If different aspects of the case were emphasized, or the attitude of the examiner were different, the conclusion might well not be the same.

For instance, an analysis that praised traditional laissez-faire corporatism for the useful products and profits achieved by cutting down an entire old-growth redwood forest would seem sound to traditional laissez-faire corporatists. But environmentalists would have serious misgivings about the utility of that action.

Whether or not any particular tradition “works” is very much dependent on the circumstances and the people making the judgment about its utility. Nothing like that deserves the sort of devotion that traditionalists seem to want to give to Tradition.


Tomorrow we will conclude our treatment of Tradition with a summary of all the difficulties involved in regarding Tradition too highly, and with a warning that no one should trust Tradition implicitly.

Until tomorrow, then.

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