The Future of Tradition


I was just reading Lee Harris’s essay The Future of Tradition for the umpteenth time to see if I could finally divine whether he is saying anything more than ‘Some things just feel right while some things just feel wrong. Base your morality on what feels right’.

While reading I came across this paragraph:

If someone tells a child to show respect to other people, the child may sincerely wish to do so, but he may not have a clue how to go about it. His plight, moreover, is precisely analogous to the plight of any modern adult who found himself suddenly whisked away to a radically different epoch and cultural milieu — say, ancient Babylon. Naturally, our time-traveler would want to show respect to the people around him…

The word ‘naturally’ in the last sentence brought to mind one of my colleagues, who I like, though she is a little too enamoured of the mannerisms of rappers for my taste. I imagined her as a time-traveller arriving in Babylon. I would bet my last silver Babylonian coin that she would emerge from her time machine doing that lazy limp and roll that rappers do. She would lollop around her new environment from the get-go, keen to show that she is cool and nobody’s fool.

I on the other hand would peep furtively out of my time machine, observing first how everyone else was behaving. I would then slip out of my machine and try to unobtrusively fall in with the natives’ way of doing things. If they strode, I would stride. If they minced, I would mince. It wouldn’t enter my head that ‘to just be myself’ was enough, especially if being myself meant swaggering around like a baboon on steroids.

While these thoughts were going through my head it occurred to me that this issue of showing respect was really the same problem in miniature that Lee Harris was grappling with in the article I was reading. He is trying to answer the question of whether having a gut feeling, what he calls the visceral code, that something is wrong is a valid alternative to being able to prove rationally that it is wrong. Can we have an intuition of what constitutes good and bad behaviour without backing it up with reasons or are all such intuitions nothing more than personal prejudice?

I’m sure that my colleague would argue that how she walks harms no one and there is therefore nothing to object to. But my visceral code tells me that there is something disrespectful in her ghetto swagger. I certainly can’t argue from first principles why a normal step is respectful whereas a lazy lumber isn’t. All I can do is state that I don’t like her manner of locomotion, yet I can well understand why the personal dislikes of a middle-aged man might not impress her that much.

Maybe my visceral intuitions are nothing more than personal prejudices but that’s not how they feel to me (of course). I certainly think that Lee Harris might be onto something when he says that relying on rationality alone to structure a society might leave you with a society that looks a lot like the centrally planned Soviet Union or the world of 1984.

In short, I feel more at home in a society that has the weight of tradition behind it. I am quite happy to allow things to drift on as they have done, changing only when internal contradictions have become so great that they can’t be ignored, as with the slave trade in 19th century America. The alternative is to allow a council of people with currently trendy ideas  to radically reshape society according to what they regard as rational ideas, and in the process ditching all traditions that can’t be justified rationally. These sweeping changes might look great on paper, just like the French and Russian Revolutions did, though neither turned out well in practice.

I think societies are like languages. English is probably not the most logical language in the world but it is mine. Esperanto can perhaps claim to be the most logical language in the world yet it has no tradition and no organic connection to other languages spoken by anyone today. Adopting it would thus represent a rupture with the past, though its adoption could perhaps be defended on rational grounds.

To some people such ruptures are good things. These people can often be heard moaning about how awful society is. They hold political demonstrations at the drop of a hat and bang on endlessly about equality. They assume that any change made will be change for the good. They often have no idea what a genuinely bad and unfair society looks like because they haven’t read any history or really looked closely at other societies. I on the other hand feel that if something isn’t broken then don’t fix it.

The analogy that Lee Harris uses for societies is a recipe. The recipe for Shepherd’s Pie is neither true nor false, it can only be good or bad. People who insist on adding and taking things away from the traditional recipe not only run the risk of spoiling what people have liked until now but are often trying to turn it into a completely different dish. They think that because some reactionaries want to stick to the traditional recipe for Shepherd’s Pie this represents an insult to Spaghetti Bolognese.


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