Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What or whose tradition?

This post at Patriactionary caused me to reconsider to whom I am referring with the label "traditional conservative": An Ethos or a Script?  Novaseeker was criticizing people I would call social or religious conservatives, who are not necessarily traditional and usually supporters of the Republican Party, and defenders of "free market capitalism" as it exists in the United States.

"Traditional conservative" could refer to Southern agrarians and Southern conservatives. Or to Russell Kirk and those who have been influenced by him (and Burke), including various people affiliated with ISI (though some of them are also "capitalists"). Rarely do I use it in such a way as to include traditionalist Catholics. Paleos are usually reckoned traditional conservatives too; I can't think of any exceptions at the moment. Here are explanations of traditional conservatism by Harry Beadle, James Kalb, James Matthew Wilson.

It is reasonable for those who look to tradition to look to the pedigree of the tenets or to the number of adherents, pointing to something that stretches into the past. Tradition (or true opinion) may be sufficient for the many, but to defend the tradition and render it more intelligible one must be able to articulate the reasons supporting its content. As an Aristotelian, I believe this is accomplished through the appropriate scientiae, especially ethics and politics. A tradition will contain precepts of the natural law, but some (most?) of these will be transmitted through custom or positive law. The use of ethics and politics can explain those precepts. (I'm ignoring at this time those precepts related to God.) Catholics will also make use of the Church's teachings on the natural law.

So is there one tradition that unifies American traditional conservatives? This is a question I have been pondering. It would seem that there may be a split between nationalists (or unitarians) and federalists, and the second group might be divided by the question of the Constitution into Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Southern conservatives are more Anti-Federalist than Federalist, harboring some suspicion of the letter of the Constitution being sufficient to constrain the "Federal" Government

Do we "pick and choose" our tradition? Or do we have to adopt what is lived by a community, with ties to the past, some history, and kept alive by the succession of generations? Or do we just have to accept what we have received from our family and from others? It would seem that tradition only exists where it is shared and lived and passed on to one's children.

However, how strict should we be in our use of the name tradition? We are primarily concerned with the tradition that guides and shapes community life, and not just anything that is handed down from one's predecessors. This tradition is not a substantial unity, and is composed of many parts, the beliefs, customs and laws, language, material culture, and so on. Certain communities may share the same language and revered texts while differing in their music and so on. (I was thinking about songs and how they are kept alive in a community during the April Verch concert last weekend. I think the "professionalization" of music has distorted our understanding of music as an important component of communal life, and professional musicians are not the same as wandering minstrels.) But the high arts of a community will still embody the values of their community, for example the lyrics of the songs or the aesthetic judgment of the community regarding older forms of visual art. Still, the arts are the products of a people, but the beliefs and customs are the more integral part of their identity. (The work of an artist or artisan may be integral to his identity as an artist or artisan, but not as a member of that people or community?)

Tradition can be acquired through the reading of texts. (Dr. Fleming, for instance, recommends that we read Aristotle and Cicero.) It is not the case that tradition must always be passed on orally. But how much can the study of texts be separated from life within a concrete community? Many Americans conservatives have an appreciation of the classics and yet I would hesitate to group them together as one people.

What can be done about the "ugly duckling syndrome"? What if one is born into one community but is converted to the values and ideals of another? The obvious example is of a religious conversion, but there are "secular" analogues. The Chinese atheist who wants to become more "Western" in his consumption habits and familiarity with technology and mass culture is not the same as the Latin-rite Catholic who wants to learn more about his religious patrimony.  Or how about Californians who reject the life of the Uhmerican megapolis and yearn for something more agrarian? The Latin-rite Chinese Catholic at least has his local parish which is also a part of the Latin rite. Is the Californian who is doing his own thing apart from others really living a tradition, even if he is doing it with his family? Invariably the ugly duckling will want to be with his own kind. Learning a tradition is not the same as following or sharing it, and I don't think families can function as islands of civilization in the long run--the psychological cost is too high for that sort of social isolation. For Catholics, some Ghettoization (or some form of "tribalism") will have to occur to some degree, because the laity are not called to evangelize to non-believers all of the time.

Jim Kalb, Understanding Conservatism and Tradition
wiki: traditionalist conservatism

The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right
Joseph A. Scotchie, Editor

Revolt from the Heartland: The Struggle for an Authentic Conservatism
Joseph A. Scotchie

1 comment:

GW said...

It was quite a surprise to "see" T.S Elliot as a prophet for the modern conversative.