Friday, 9 February 2018

A Metaphysics of Tradition

The Elevation of the Host, by Jean Béraud

Change would mean chaos and unintelligibility if there were no unity and sameness underlying it all - or transcending it all. In the cosmic hierarchy, creatures are more or less spiritual, and thus more or less do they desire and need the stability and changelessness that is beyond mere matter and contingency. The more enmeshed in matter things are, the more, likewise, they are enmeshed in change; but they participate in sameness to the degree that spirit holds its influence over them. The more spiritual things are, and the more do they approach the angelic, the more are they able to escape from change - or rather, the more they are able to bestow a character of sameness and the unchanging upon change itself. Creatures desire eternity; and all the more do creatures of intellect desire eternity. They tend towards a mode of activity that is one, simple - not merely static and inert, but dynamic in a way that is infinitely concentrated in a single unending moment. Divine activity is motionless in a sense - but also the archetype of motion inasmuch as it not merely a lack, but the fullness of everything that motion is, present all at once without succession, as if infinite space were to be contained in a single partless point. 

Creatures cannot, of course, reach the point; they merely tend towards it. Tending towards the changelessness of eternity, and in that measure tending to escape from change, they nonetheless cannot escape change and contingency in any absolute sense. Their lot is participation; it is given them, therefore, to participate as secondary causes in the eternal causality of perfect, changeless activity, in bestowing determination upon the indeterminate, unity upon the various, even sameness upon that which moves and changes. The temporal is elevated by such activity to a greater participation by likeness to eternity itself.

Ascending the scale of beings, creatures are more and more creatures of habit. At the bottom of the scale, there is no habit: there is either inertia or a motion that is induced by purely exterior causes, and thus the possibility of chance. Creatures are more and more capable of self-motion - always capable of motion, but this motion is more and more from within, as one ascends the ladder of beings. The more interior is the source of motion, the more does the motion itself tend away from mere chance, and more towards the determination of meaning and intellect. Only in man, in whom intellect is finally reached, does this tendency towards habit actually terminate in what is proper habitual, and thus either virtuous or vicious. In man, there is a proper participation in intelligibility; human activity - change or self-motion - is naturally and properly capable of a spiritual unity. This is not inborn in man, necessarily, though spirit is itself inborn in man; there is unitive potential from the beginning. But there must necessarily be progress in virtue, growth, training, which takes time. Man begins dispersed and easily induced to motion by external stimulants; the spiritual life is a process of gathering himself together into a unity, bringing all his variations under one ratio, so to speak - inducing an order amidst all his activities to his final end. The end itself is always best reflected by a unity of life-activity.

The modern exaltation of progress overlooks the tendency to sameness or unity. Modernistic progress is merely a cult of novelty: we progress only because what is old belongs to yesterday, and it has no bearing whatsoever on today, except for the merely curious or the merely nostalgic. One thing is necessary: revolution always, changing the world. On the individual level, this takes the form of disdain for virtue: the monotony of a life lived with a single, unified, and determinate purpose besides oneself. Hedonism produces a constant thirst for the novelty of bizarre experiences. Of course, this only results in making the hedonist into a lesser kind of being, static and inert like a stone, utterly passive and induced to motion only by things outside himself. He is in this way far from free - a slave. On the cultural level, it takes the form of disdain for tradition, which is likewise considered monotonous and also primitive. The traditional man has condemned himself, says the modernist, to an age that could belong only to men who had not evolved. Evolution produces ever new desires and needs for each era of history; we must be progressive, and seek no more than to meet these new desires and needs as they appear. There is no sameness even of human desire; there are no timeless values. 

Traditionalism, on the contrary, is precisely the affirmation of timeless values, which transcend historical evolution, but also transform it. True traditionalism does not neglect the motion of history - as might a blind and indiscriminate conservatism, which desires no more than a return to the past. Traditionalism upholds the changeless unity of meaning which is incarnated in changing, moving things, such that the latter begin to move according to an order, a rule, indeed a form, for the sake of an end. Traditionalism affirms the inexhaustible applicability of timeless values, of the rich intelligible meanings which are directly accessible only to the spirit, and indirectly to those things governed by the spirit. The apprehension of the value of such timeless and spiritual things is what induces in the traditionalist a desire for constancy of activity. Tradition is the only way to secure true fidelity in time to what is in itself timeless, a reflection of eternity. It is no wonder that it is also the traditionalists who, in opposition to progressive hedonism, affirm the value of human virtue, the constancy of individual human behavior ordered to a final good. Tradition is to the human race as virtue is to the human individual. 

The nostalgia of the traditionalist differs, accordingly, from that of the mere sentimentalist. There are times when the present moment fails to offer a view of timeless things, because whatever circumstances one might find oneself in might not adequately appear as incarnations of meaning. Moments of chaos are moments of meaninglessness; there is a hollow emptiness induced by a human failure to actualize the intelligible, the universal, the timeless, within the particular. Indeed, oftentimes one finds oneself face to face, not merely with a failure of meaning, but a straightforward rejection of meaning - a rejection of truth. In such moments, a fuller encounter with timeless truth cannot be simply conjured up from within; it is perhaps remembered, from a time past when things were different. But the encounter is not relived unless there is a renewal of things lost - which does, perhaps, have the appearance of a return to the past; but to see only this is to be superficial. Traditionalism does not blindly return to the past; it merely affirms that certain things - and not all things -  once held meaningful and, indeed, sacred, retain their relevance even in the present. Things of meaning - symbolism, ritual, art, music, ideas, etc. - do not lose their meaning with every new era. Such things are the instantiations, incarnations, of truth; not mere conventions. Even this latter category becomes difficult to define; not all conventions are merely that. If there is an element of humanity in convention, there may also be an element of spirituality, and thus of timelessness. Traditionalism essentially looks for this quality; it does not look merely for the past. The traditional mind recognizes that, lacking a fulfillment of truth in the present moment, it is not at home; it can only be at home with truth. Hence, the nostalgia of the traditionalist.

True traditionalism, understood in this way, is a certain metaphysical attunement of the soul to reality, a sense of reverence for permanent things. To the traditionalist, changing and contingent things are capable of a unity and order, even a sameness and determinacy, which is bestowed upon them by intellect - by human intellect, yes, but especially by an intellect that is receptive to the promptings of divine illumination. Everything is participation; and human activity, at its best, is a more perfect participation of God - and thus it is even capable, as an instrument of God, of bestowing a more perfect participation of God upon things beneath it - or after it. Tradition itself is fundamentally the reception and bestowal of the Divine. This is the vertical tradition that is necessary in order to uphold the horizontal march of human time, in continuity with itself. One generation receives something of value from a previous generation, and in turn passes it on to subsequent generations, because all recognize the value itself as having been received from a source which transcends time itself. This fidelity to the concretion of value in time is the sign and effect of fidelity to the universal value that is timeless.

1 comment:

  1. This was a helpful essay on a challenging topic. The Platonic categories illuminate some things for me.