The Value of Tradition in a Post-Enlightenment Age

In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition.  If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued.  Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.

Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.

Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created.  Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition.

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George Will, Burkean

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The forgotten etymology of “conservatism” lies in its hardly hidden first two syllables—to “conserve”—so when the Republican Party underwent its lurching metamorphosis from its commitments to constitutionalism, free trade, and chivalry to royalism, protectionism, and vulgarity, the news was not that George F. Will, conservative, stood still. It was that, in the terms of conservatism’s father Edmund Burke, the Republican Party may no longer constitute, properly speaking, a party at all. It is at risk of reverting to the primordial state of “faction” from which Burke rescued what he called the practice of political “connection.”

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The Spunk of Albion

Blake's image of Albion from his A Large Book of Designs

You may have noticed that not much is said in this space about what goes on in other countries. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; it’s just I don’t imagine mine are worth much. I conspicuously didn’t take a stand on Brexit. It seemed to me there was a good case to be made for Britain’s leaving the European Union and a good case to be made for its staying in. I thought I’d leave it up to them. If I were British, I would have been more psyched up about the whole thing.

The outcome surprised me, because the past history of secessionist movements—such as Quebec and Scotland—has been of a petering out at the end. Just enough people get all prudent and make a safe choice. Not only that, all the factions of the respectably British cognitive elite—top politicians, public intellectuals, the business leaders, celebrities, the unions, and so forth—advocated making the Progressive choice. “Progressive” here means stay the course when it comes to evolving beyond the nation-state in the direction of larger and more cosmopolitan unions. We aspire to be citizens of the world, politics being that pathology that we shed as we move, as Tyler Cowen puts it, from being brutish to being nice.

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A Kirkian Renaissance

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No other major figure in 20th century American social and political life has deserved study more than Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994). The existing studies of Kirk are excellent, but the latest effort, by Professor Brad Birzer, surpasses all previous attempts to appreciate the magnitude of Kirk’s personal mission and scholarly opus. Birzer has a command of the primary sources that is truly amazing, and his archival labors evince the work of a superior scholar and world-class historian. In other words, a significant advance in scholarly knowledge is upon us, as well as an advance in evaluating Kirk as a political thinker.[1]

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The Prudence, Principles, and Passion of Edmund Burke: A Conversation with Richard Bourke

burke.bookRichard Bourke's new book, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke  is the subject of this new conversation at Liberty Law Talk.

Downton Abbey, a Drama Burke Would Love

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It is hardly a secret that the political philosophy implicit in most television dramas that touch on politics or society is Progressive. Hollywood is dominated by the Left to a perhaps even greater extent than academia. That is why it is a welcome change of pace that one of the most popular programs of the decade celebrates a distinctive brand of conservatism—that of Edmund Burke.

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The Madisonian Mean

Protest. Public demonstration.

Donald Trump does not say things that are unpopular. Every time we see him speaking in front of an audience, that audience is clapping. He says things that anger elites and about which, often, events seem to confirm the seeds of his base’s opinions. It should therefore be unsurprising that the elite’s rejection and disdain inflame rather than calm the Trump phenomenon. The contemptuous response is not useful. The Madisonian one is.

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The Conservative Imagination of Russell Kirk: A Conversation with Brad Birzer

rkirk3Brad Birzer comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his upcoming biography of Russell Kirk entitled Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Our discussion focuses on the nature of Kirk’s conservatism and his place on the American Right. For example, many have prominently argued that Kirk’s conservatism is only strangely American. Birzer’s answer to this question will give these critics much to think about. We also discuss the influence of Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot on Kirk, and we consider just what he meant by his invocation of the terms Moral Imagination and the Permanent Things.

The American Revolution and the Pamphlet Debate: A Conversation with Gordon Wood

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.This next edition of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with the great American Founding historian Gordon Wood on a new two volume collection entitled the American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate that he has edited for Library of America. We discuss these foundational debates between British and colonial statesmen that contested the nature of law, sovereignty, rights, and constitutionalism and would serve as the basis of the revolution and lead to the creation of America.

The First Progressive?

The first canon of Progressivism is faith in human reason. Politics for the Progressive is a science not in the Aristotelian but in the Baconian sense. Political questions are not prudential complexities to which human judgment approaches better or worse answers but rather moral rigidities with right or wrong solutions wholly within the ambit of the all-powerful human mind. The distance from that schematic to administration by experts is brief. In fairness, that portrayal substantially attenuates the chain. But a recent family visit to Monticello served as a reminder that, however ironically, Thomas Jefferson is one of the chain's first American links.…

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