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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tradition and the onslaught of abstract reasoning

Author Lee Harris presents a rather lengthy piece titled The Future of Tradition. It covers quite a lot of ground, touching on subjects like: tradition, ethos, civilization, the family, exemplars and character to name just a few. Here are some excerpts:

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

Indeed, there could be no better example of this disdainful attitude toward inherited tradition than that displayed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in discussing her court's legalization of gay marriage, clearly expressed by her summary dismissal of any opposition to the high court's decision as arising from nothing more than "residual personal prejudice." Against such opposition, it is no wonder that many conservatives--including many of those who call themselves neoconservatives--have attempted to combat the opponents of tradition with their opponents' own weapon of enlightened rationality.

But what if tradition is not reducible to a set of declarative sentences? What if all tradition took the form of "Resist not the tiger" rather than "Tigers are harmless"? The declarative-sentence paradigm suggests a tradition can be reduced to a set of formal beliefs that can be stated, catechism-like, as a proposition, such as "Tigers are not dangerous" or "Celibacy is better than procreation." But once we have freed ourselves from the declarative illusion we can see that a tradition always emerges first in the form of commands, prohibitions and instructions, and that the formalization of this tradition into a set of declarative propositions comes at a secondary stage--the stage of reflection and thought. In the beginning, as Goethe's Faust declares, was not the Word, but the Act. Or, to adopt the framework of Goethe's contemporary, Hegel, phenomenologically, tradition emerges originally as an imperative behavioral code wired into our visceral systems long before it is reflected as an idea in our minds.

The intellectualist interpretation of a tradition as a corpus of formal propositions whose truth or falsity may be argued lies at the heart of all efforts to find an objective or neutral way to judge among competing traditions. This is evident in the Enlightenment's attack on tradition as outmoded superstition--an argument Hayek brilliantly demolishes. A tradition, he realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it.

Reason, logic, the endless quest for knowledge--these are all noble things. But no sensible person will agree to have them used against him to undermine his happiness and tranquility. Imagine your response if someone forced you to consider that your spouse might be cheating on you without your knowledge, or harangued you about how much you really know about what your teenage children do when you are not looking. Yes, we are willing to admit that there is much we cannot know about the people we love, and much that we have to take on blind faith, and much indeed about which a skeptic can raise questions--but must we hear it all?

It is not merely that it is useful to produce honest men and women. In order to obtain certain collective social goods, a society must first create human actors who are capable of achieving them. You must first produce courageous men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of defending your society; you must first produce prudent men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of keeping your society on a stable course; you must first produce men who are willing to control their impulses in order to create the collective social good of an orderly society.

This, too, explains why communities have historically reacted so severely against those who challenged their habits of the heart. What was really at stake in such a challenge was not the community's ideological superstructure but the ethical foundation on which it had been socially constructed--its inherited visceral code.

Tradition, then, is the only possible mode for transmitting a community's habits of the heart, and it does this by providing the recipe for making the kind of human beings who will viscerally feel and respond to the same habits of the heart as the community to which they belong.

To see institutions and traditions as recipes is to grasp at once how pointless it is to debate their truth or falsity. Is Julia Child's recipe for Bouillabaisse true or false? The question sounds absurd because it is. Here again, we seem to be caught in the quandary of cultural relativism. The recipe for creating different habits of the heart, like the recipes for creating different authentic dishes of various cultures, would appear to be ultimately a matter of taste. Indians like plenty of fiery spices; most American Southerners do not. How is it possible to devise a neutral method by which to judge which dish or which culture is objectively better?

The theory of tradition offered here is a pragmatic one: Does it keep up the established level of civilization? But, as we shall see, it is also dialectical: A tradition will be evaluated in terms of its success not only in keeping up the civilizational standards of the past, but also in providing the foundation for future civilizational improvement, meaning not merely improvements in the making of things, but in the making of human character, both at the individual and at the collective level.

Tradition, in short, is of value in keeping us civilized and in offering us a foundation for becoming even more civilized. It is a social construction that, being embodied in the behavior of future generations, becomes the basis of ever more elaborate and, indeed, even improbable social constructions.

In the beginning was the Deed, to quote Goethe's Faust once more, and it is the mother's deeds that provide the fundamental ethical substratum on which the rest of the social construction rests. But in certain societies, it is more than just that. It is an insistence that this fundamental ethical substratum--the ethical baseline according to which praise, honor and shame shall be distributed according to how one measures up to it--is raised far above the ethical baseline that prevailed in the past and even persists in large parts of the present population.

To a mother and father, a child is a project and the child's personality a trajectory. This is not a consciously held value or principle, taught by a book: It is the natural cognitive mode of the parent who, in looking upon a child, sees its past, present and future all at once, in a vision that is genuinely sub species aeternatis and not entirely unlike God's vision of the universe, even if it is a bit more partial. Others teach us how to be; our family teaches us how to become.

When an ethical code is wired into our visceral system, it is constructing a certain character type--the human being who has been "raised according to this tradition" has been programmed to feel shame and praise in a way that allows him to be a kinder and more thoughtful person. Certain ethical routes have been closed off to him, and he now knows that it is shameful to travel back down them. But something of equal and perhaps greater importance is shown to him, and this is the path that brings praise

This connecting link is a critical one, but one that we have tended to discount in contemporary American culture. For us, it is imperative that an 8-year-old boy should have esteem for himself, for the person that he is. We do not want him thinking, "I wish I could be like John"; instead, we demand that he think, "I'm just fine the way I am. I don't need to model my behavior on anyone else." But our insistence on creating self-esteem in an 8-year-old boy comes with a high price tag--by refusing to encourage the boy's dissatisfaction with himself as he is, we are inadvertently taking from him the primary human motivation to change oneself for the better. By pumping him full of self-esteem, we rob him of the will to set himself transformative projects and goals. Totally at peace with what he is, he ceases to have any reason to become something more--and certainly no reason at all to become what he could be.

The contemporary gospel of individual self-esteem is at odds with the universal tradition of mankind--a tradition that the German poet Rilke summed up in the concluding lines of a poem addressed to the torso of Apollo, whose heroic perfection Rilke saw as a challenge to our own far from perfect status quo--Du must dein Leben andern. "You must change your life."

In the current debate on gay marriage, its advocates are cast in the role of long-oppressed suppliants demanding their just due. Indeed, the whole question is put in terms of their legal and moral rights, against which the opponents of gay marriage have nothing to offer but "residual personal prejudice," to recall again the memorable words of the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court.

But it is a mistake to conflate the automatic with the irrational, since, as we have seen, an automatic and mindless response is precisely the mechanism by which the visceral code speaks to us. It triggers a rush of emotions because it is designed to do precisely this. Like certain automatic reflexes, such as jerking your hand off a burning stovetop, the sheer immediacy of our visceral response, far from being proof of its irrationality, demonstrates the critical importance, in times of peril and crisis, of not thinking before we act. If a man had to think before jumping out of the way of an onrushing car, or to meditate on his options before removing his hand from that hot stovetop, then reason, rather than being our help, would become our enemy. Some decisions are better left to reflexes--be these of our neurological system or of our visceral system.

The high solemnity of marriage has been transgenerationally wired into our visceral system. We must take it seriously and treat it solemnly, and this "must" must appear to us at the level of second nature; it must possess the quality of being ethically obvious. Marriage must not be mocked or ridiculed. But can marriage keep its solemnity now? Who will tell the rising generation that there are standards they must not fail to meet if they wish to live in a way that their grandfathers could respect?

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.

Middle Americans have increasingly tolerated the experiments in living of people like myself not out of stupidity, but out of the trustful magnanimity that is one of the great gifts of the Protestant ethos to our country and to the world. It is time for us all to begin tolerating back. The first step would be a rapid retreat from even the slightest whisper that marriage ever was or ever could be anything other than the shining example that most Americans still hold so sacred within their hearts, as they have every right to do. They have let us imagine the world as we wish; it is time we begin to let them imagine it as they wish.

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