On Tradition

From shannon_F

I have absolutely no patience with people who believe that an object or idea possesses intrinsic merit because it is old.

It is equally foolish to reject an idea merely because it is old.

We treasure old objects because they are rare. We treasure old ideas because they have survived the Darwinian struggle against other ideas for a long time. Every idea has a finite life and its time comes eventually, but it is brutally hard to distinguish between ideas that no longer function and those whose function we simply do not understand.

In our studies of history, we often see what appears to be an unbroken string of the triumphs of new ideas over old ideas. Yet such a view is an artifact of how we study history. We remember only the successful new ideas but we forget that in every era a vast multitude of new ideas come into existence but only a tiny handful survive into the next generation. The old and boring defeats the new and interesting the vast majority of the time.

Traditionalists may frustrate the innovators of each era but they also protect us all against actively destructive new ideas. Communism was once the bright, shiny and for a time apparently wildly successful new idea. Many traditionalists opposed communism on the sole ground that it was an atheistic doctrine, even if they agreed in part with its collectivist and redistributionist ideas. Those traditionalists blunted the spread of communism in the industrial world even as intellectuals fell for it by the truck load.

It is a dangerous hubris to believe you understand all of the ideas that comprise a culture and that you can adroitly pick and choose which ideas still work and which do not. Though it may bruise our egos, the truth is that all of us will spend our lives following rules and ideas, created by previous generations, which we will neither understand nor perhaps even notice. Only through experimentation can we truly know what does and does not work in any particular set of conditions.

And we should always remember that most experiments fail.

[Note:This is another post that I originally posted at another site and thought I would post here.]

8 thoughts on “On Tradition”

  1. New ideas are less likely to be useful than old ideas that have proven to be useful. It reminds me of mutations in the physical world which are rarely an improvement in the species involved. (The analogy does break down only in degree since the average new idea is more likely to be useful than the average physical mutation will be in nature.)

    It’s essentially the reason for being a conservative isn’t it? The big idea, it seems to me, is that one only moves from one’s well-known, safe position only when it has been overwhelmingly made clear that the move is beneficial and superior to the old position.

  2. We like old things because every generation creates some nice things. The crappy things don’t last, but the nice things, real quality, are much more likely to be preserved. So old becomes a measure of quality.

    Crappy ideas can hang around a long time. Maybe some of them were OK at the time, but became bad. Case in point, slavery. Slavery was once an act of mercy. After a war you had to do something with all the captured men. You could kill them, or you could let them go and hope you didn’t have to fight them again. Or, you could keep them under watch, get some work out of them. Give them some hope that maybe circumstances would turn for the better. So losing troops might opt to surrender rather than fight to the death. The Romans in particular were known for freeing their slaves, so surrendering to a Roman force wasn’t the terrible thing it would be surrendering to a people who didn’t keep slaves.

    Now of course slavery is anathema to civilised peoples. I just read about a case in Detroit where a young woman was kept in slavery for four years by a Saudi couple. No mercy in this case, simply evil people taking advantage of a young woman.

  3. BTW, one should, I believe, thank Allahu (above) for keeping his nasty barbarity short and to the point.

    I’m not sure if it was off-topic or a cultural example stemming from the topic.

  4. I think there are certain default settings in people that resonate in the human psyche with vibrations that reach back into pre-history.

    Clan and family loyalties, group dynamics, interlocking feudal social structures, a belief that some outside source of evil causes problems, the fear of the other, the attraction to strength, envy of wealth, and so on.

    The mention of slavery by a commenter above is an example. Slavery was ubiquitous in cultures around the world for millenia uncounted. Why? Because, up to the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of “horsepower” used for human undertakings was human muscle power.

    Once a viable alternative was found, i.e., steam power, along with several other inventions, slavery was rejected as an evil practice. The beliefs were genuine, but they could only exist in certain contexts.

    Having said that, it is also necessary to remark on a very new and revolutionary idea which arose at about the same time—the idea that all individuals have intrinsic rights. It is not accidental that the British of Magna Carta and other ideas of the rights of Englishmen, including those described and appealed to so eloguently in the “Declaration od Independence”, were the first to abolish slavery.

    Conservatives, of which I am not a member, are often described as traditionalists”. In some social matters, that may be so. But the classical liberalism upon which the US is founded, and its attribution of inherent rights to individuals, with no other group or repository having an ascendency over the people, is not in any way conservative.

    It is, in the very deepest and truest sense, the most fundamentally revolutionary and disruptive set of social theories in history.

    And, of course, this is the very reason that the concept of individual rights is so ferociously and relentlessly attacked by the true conservatives—those who wish to find the font of all social and political powers somewhere other than the independent choices of the individual.

    Collectivists know a threat when they see one.

  5. BTW, one should, I believe, thank Allahu (above) for keeping his nasty barbarity short and to the point.

    I’m not sure if it was off-topic or a cultural example stemming from the topic.

    I’d be willing to bet it was just a case of some joker who thought this thread would be an opportune time and place for him to get in a cheap non sequitur flame. In fact I’d also be willing to bet he’s not even really a Muslim.

  6. Allow me to offer a twist:

    The knee-jerk rejection of The Old without a rationally excogitated justification is also a tradition of long standing. Does it not also have a function? One that we do not entirely understand, perhaps?

Comments are closed.