If you were asked: “What was the best thing about the last century?”, how would you respond? It’s a difficult question as there are several possible answers.
Certain innovations in technology, dentistry, communication systems, lower infant mortality, and a higher surface-level standard of living are welcome contributions. At the same time, none of this is incompatible with the traditionalism of our ancestors.
The word ‘traditionalism’ has unjustifiably negative connotations. It reminds you of ‘old habits’ and ‘unquestioned systems of thinking and doing’. The reality of traditionalism, or respect for tradition, is very different. Tradition has emerged precisely through encountering radical change, and rejecting it.
England’s jury system, for instance, developed precisely because it was deemed the most reliable way of regulating crimes in the community and delivering justice for those involved. Elsewhere, despite their cultural leniency towards homosexuality, the ancient Greeks never recognised ‘same-sex marriage’, because in an unstable world, they understood that children needed a father and a mother who were committed to each other in both good and bad times.
Even in the most morally liberal societies in history, the respect given to monogamous and lifelong marriage was only possible because other unions, notably the non-complementary and fleeting liaisons of homosexual senators, were seen to be impossible and unreliable for the procreation and raising of children. What is now a tradition was, and still is, an active decision formed over decades and sometimes centuries. Traditions are cultural defences against ways of thinking and doing that previously failed.
Traditions are not ‘unchallenged’ and ‘outdated’ concepts. Instead, they are ideas, attitudes and ways of living that were challenged and prevailed. They point to a way of living that makes the members of a community happier, giving their lives a clear purpose as part of a greater cause they are willing to sacrifice themselves for.
It is said that for new parents, raising the first child is always the hardest task, precisely because they are learning and developing an attitude, a system for living successfully: in other words, traditions. By the second child their experience of the world has tested these traditions and made them worthy of repeating.
Nowhere is regard for tradition seen more clearly than in the blood and sweat of battle as men laid down their lives, so that their children might prosper by the traditions they themselves received. It is a testament to the strength and moral quality of these traditions that they were worth dying for freely. Traditionalism cannot be thought of as the preserve of intellectuals confined to archaic libraries. More profoundly, it is realised in the care and attention with which a mother looks after her baby, in the way the farmer tills the soil, and in doctors prescribing tested remedies.
Modernity and traditionalism are therefore not in opposition. Modernity only refers to the chronological era in which we find ourselves, and is distinct from modernism, or the broadly anti-religious, pro-industrial, pro-urban philosophical movement born in the nineteenth century.
There is no reason why time-tested traditions cannot work in our time as they did in others. Current widespread – and markedly elite – resistance to tradition and an almost superstitious devotion to ‘newness’ does not refute this point but rather supports it. For amid the chaos of a generation plugged into their smartphones, incapable of thinking about tomorrow or the needs of others, a society that consumes rather than produces, and an increasingly anonymous population crammed into increasingly smaller spaces, traditions that work have never been more needed.
The coronavirus crisis we are living through has brought home the importance of family at a time of heightened loneliness, country at a time of quarantine, and buying only what one can afford at a time of unemployment. These traditions, frequently scoffed at by metropolitans for being ‘out of touch’, ‘oppressive’ and ‘embarrassing’ are precisely the foundations which have given rise to a society that, far removed from the concerns of hunting and growing food, can sit around an iced cappuccino and discuss the latest infringements on animal rights.
Traditions are not always easy to sustain and defend, for the best things in life never come easy. Chesterton once said that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting. Rather, it had been tried, was found difficult and so was left untried. It’s a useful thought for those looking to rebuild society based on what works, and always has.