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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The Enlightenment, Liberty, and Tradition

In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy Joel Mokyr has located the source of the industrial revolution in the culture of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment prioritized the idea of human progress. As a result, people began to think constantly of finding material in the world to make new technologies for human betterment.  The Enlightenment also replaced more scholastic modes of thought with scientific method.  As a result, people began intensively to test both new theories to see if they explained the world and new mechanisms to see how they would move the world. As a consequence, the Western economy began to grow at a rate never before seen in history.

A Culture for Growth is a wonderful book to which I cannot do justice in a short post. Mokyr is in equal measures a great intellectual historian and a great economist. He sees the cultural change of the Enlightenment as transforming the incentives for economic and intellectual activity. It removed taboos that impeded progress and created a market where the best new ideas rapidly gained a large market share of elite approval.  This book is welcome for many reasons, but not least because it is a blow to tedious, tendentious, and false political correctness about the roots our our prosperity. The Enlightenment was indeed key to material progress that helped the least well off, first in the West and now more broadly throughout the globe. And yes, it was the product almost entirely of dead white men, and relatively wealthy ones at that.

Although this is not his focus, I believe Mokyr’s book also establishes the crucial link between the levers of the Enlightenment and the growth of liberty.

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Tradition in a Scattering Time

Jean-François Millet - The Sower

What could be more amusing, quaint really, in the minds of many than meeting in New York City for two days to discuss tradition and law?

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Fiddler on the Roof and Same-Sex Marriage


Fiddler on the Roof not only contains wonderful lyrics and music, but brilliantly captures an essential political dynamic of the West—the conflict between claims of tradition and the Enlightenment. It is also appropriate that the conflict takes place in the Jewish community, because Judaism prefigured that conflict. Sometimes it is said that the West is forged by the tension between Jerusalem and Athens—between religious tradition and philosophical principle, but I believe the conflict is present in the Bible, particularly in books like Job where the people of God argue with God on the basis of implicit principles.   Moreover, it was Baruch Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew, who laid the groundwork of the radical enlightenment that intensified conflict with tradition and gave us modernity.

The theme of the musical is introduced in the first song, appropriately entitled “Tradition.” Tevye, the everyman protagonist, states that traditions are what keep his people in “balance.” (The song subtly implies other traditions perform the same function for other people, like  Orthodox Russians). Without tradition, he says, a person is like a Fiddler on the Roof, always in danger of falling into the abyss. The entire play can be seen as a commentary on that statement, giving it shape and nuance. It becomes clear that traditions themselves are fiddlers on the roof, always in danger of falling themselves. And what prompts discarding are claims of enlightenment principles.

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Tradition, Technology, and Change in Downton Abbey


Many critics have chalked up the craze for Downton Abbey to nostalgia for a time of simplicity and aristocratic elegance. But Downton Abbey resonates because of present dilemmas, even if they are set in the past.   It relentlessly focuses on a central, if not the central, problem of our time and of modernity in general—how to adapt social norms in ages of ever faster technological change.

Technological transformation is the major theme of Downton Abbey. The landed aristocracy is giving way to a new urban middle class whose wealth comes from industrialization. Because of downsizing, even the marriages of aristocrats must be lived at closer quarters and become more companionate, giving rise to a felt need for closer forms of courtship to assess compatibility.  Last week’s episode introduced the radio, which permits the King to speak to his subjects, but begins the process that Walter Bagehot feared would let light on the “magic of the monarchy” and so dissolve the majestic mystery that preserves the loyalty of the realm.

Major characters in the series embody very different attitudes toward tradition and change.

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Tradition and Democracy in Burke and Paine

In a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of the Right and Left, Yuval Levin shows that much of Edmund Burke’s greatest work was aimed at refuting Thomas Paine, just as much of Paine’s greatest work was designed to rebut Burke. Levin also shows persuasively how both of these men’s views find echoes in today’s ideological struggle between the right and left. Paine championed reason as an immanent force of nature that allows man to discover all social truths, including the deistic truths of religion. In Burke’s view, tradition provides ballast to man, who, far from seeing wholly through the prism of reason, is blinded by partiality, circumstance, and limited knowledge.

I strongly encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of this important and lucid work. For me, the book raises some questions about Burke’s relative enthusiasm for tradition and relative disdain for democracy. When Burke was alive, these positions were two sides of the same coin. For Burke, tradition was a way to capture what worked over a long period and the judgment of many minds through the centuries. These were indicia of tradition’s beneficence. Democracy, even representative democracy, in its turbulence and focus on the present, threatened to overturn this source of social stability and wisdom.

But Burke’s veneration of tradition over all of methods of social regulation sits less well today. Because the world now changes a lot faster than in Burke’s day, tradition is less likely to be a good guide to present policy. Democracy, like tradition, is also a method of getting the views of many minds. While still imperfect, an extended voting franchise works better in our day than it would have in his. A larger number of people are better educated and have a larger stake in society, both in protecting their property and human capital.

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Constitutional Conservatism


This Liberty Law Talk is with Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz on his new book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. The book deepens Frank Meyer's conservative fusionist project by adding an Aristotelian and Burkean challenge to both libertarians and conservatives in America. Both groups must lead with political moderation, Berkowitz counsels. One example of such moderation was Ronald Reagan, Berkowitz observes, and this explains much of his success. But this sounds odd, surely Reagan stood for something. Berkowitz's understanding of moderation, however, is not that of the mealy-mouthed variety, but is found in the application of principles to the…

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