Sunday, 15 October 2017

Tradition and Reverence for Form

Today's thought pertains quite closely to that of the previous post, on the subject of form and the attitude of reverence. This is a topic with widespread consequences in discussions of politics and culture. The following excerpt is taken from Richard Weaver's classic piece of conservative literature, Ideas Have Consequences (my emphasis):
"Ideas have consequences."
-- Richard Weaver
The man of self-control is he who can consistently perform the feat of abstraction. He is therefore trained to see things under the aspect of eternity, because form is the enduring part. Thus we invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension. (23)
I think this excerpt contains a remarkable insight - which desperately needs to be developed - concerning the profound connection between traditional culture and form as something worthy of respect or reverence. A truly cultured man has reverence for tradition, because he has reverence for form - the aspect of things that is most divine and enduring, that most transcends space and time. As such, form is what constitutes the sacredness of things: the immanent presence in a contingent, transient world, of something which is itself transcendent and eternal. Such a thing is not to be approached lightly or with an attitude of easy dismissal; rather it is to be approached for the deep enlightenment which it may have to offer. Tradition is essentially an issue of forms. Forms that are, perhaps, apparently conventional and artificial - or artistic, a word which, I think, better conveys a sense of non-arbitrariness - but they are forms nonetheless. 

Perhaps, however, the objection which the liberal minded modernist might bring against this claim, that the respect for tradition is founded upon the respect for form, is precisely that traditional forms are merely artificial, or merely conventional - that is to say, that they are precisely arbitrary. Reverence for arbitrary forms would indeed seem to be quite unfounded. This is, I think, exactly where Weaver's thought is in need of further development: the traditionalist must establish either: 1) that even the arbitrary forms of human tradition are deserving of respect, and hence that tradition is deserving of respect; or 2) that such forms are, in fact, not arbitrary after all, but profoundly rooted in a nature that is beyond the arbitrary construction of human whims and fancies. I think Weaver, Platonist that he famously is, would subscribe unhesitatingly to the latter view, probably with the Aristotelian defense that art imitates nature; and it is only to the degree that man seeks, by his artistic faculties, to depart from the model of nature that the "forms" which he creates become truly arbitrary. Accordingly, it is the modern liberal mindset, which glorifies individual autonomy over any pre-individualistic standard or archetype, such as might be received in a pre-existing tradition, that is truly arbitrary and unworthy of our reverence or respect. 


  1. Can you say more about what you mean when you say that "Tradition is essentially an issue of forms"? What kinds of forms and what kind of tradition? Or if it's just simply true I'm not sure I understand the connection yet.

    1. Yes, I suppose that needs clarification... I am thinking rather broadly and imprecisely still - the thought is only in the process of developing. But tradition as a principle of culture seems to be a principle of artificial forms: forms constructed by man, applied to some pre-existing matter, or domain of human life. E.g. forms of behavior, of social interaction, of academia, technology (maybe?), political governments and organizations, economic arrangements, religious institutions and activities - not to mention, of course, the fine arts themselves. I am thinking very much in terms of Aristotle's conception of the Political art, which he says is architectonic in the sphere of all practical activity: all the human arts - servile, fine, even liberal - are somehow ordered to and directed by the art of politics. Politics is wisdom in the practical sphere. Wisdom orders things among each other - and order is already a kind of form; and the final cause of which politics is the science determines the kind of form which things have, which are directed toward the final cause. So the question of tradition is about, perhaps, the sources and transmission of that wisdom which orders all the human arts and disposes them according to some form, determined by the end.

      That's at least to say that tradition is about forms... at least in some respect.

  2. I've enjoyed reading some of your blogs, I'd be lying if I said I understood all of it though. I'm not a student of philosophy so some of the discourse you use I'm not familiar with.

    What's the difference between Form, Matter and Substance? Also, regarding Traditionalism and symbols etc, do you recommend any books for a lay person.