Thursday, 15 February 2018

Metaphysics of Tradition (2)

The reflections on traditionalist nostalgia in the previous post were partially inspired by a passage in philosopher William Desmond's work, Philosophy and Its Others, in which he describes the virtues of a healthy nostalgia for the mindfulness of festive being (an ancient religious attitude). There he did not explicitly mention tradition, but he opposed this virtuous nostalgia - the memory of a fullness of being incarnated in a past now gone - to the attitude of certain "avant-garde intellectuals," for whom the nostalgic philosopher is one not to be taken seriously. Desmond makes a metaphysical case for the seriousness of true nostalgia, from which I concluded that tradition is not merely monotony, and not merely a return to the past; rather, it is the perpetuation in time of something that in itself transcends the categories of time. 

Another author, whom I have mentioned in connection to symbolism, is the Catholic "traditionalist" Jean Borella - whom I am coming to consider the philosophical defender par excellence of the ideas of symbol and tradition (not to mention the idea of true Christian gnosis, of which I shall have something to say some day). As far as I can tell, there is much affinity between the thoughts of Borella and Desmond, though Borella is the more explicit defender of tradition. In his own book, The Sense of the Supernatural, Borella includes a chapter on "Spirit and Resistance," in which he puts forward a remarkable defense of the notion of tradition (and even, in a sense, "traditionalism"), with a properly philosophical rigor - while also maintaining a balanced and insightful criticism of the abuses of "traditionalism" that one does in fact find in the modern Catholic Church. (A version of this essay can be found here, in French - though Google Translate actually renders it quite intelligible.)

Borella argues that true tradition is rooted in the resistance of spirit in the realm of culture - in a manner analogous to, though distinct from, the resistance of form in the realm of nature. Form and spirit are the principles of nature and culture which are resistant to change - not that therefore change does not take place, but that it is limited and checked by the influence of form or spirit. In nature, form is the abiding permanence of things, whereas matter is the indeterminate and fluctuating condition in which form makes itself manifest. Form manifests itself in a variety of ways - so it allows itself to appear in change and variety; but this variety is in turn resisted enough by form to be unified by it, and thus made intelligible. Likewise, in the realm of culture, it is spirit - e.g. ideas, themes, intentions, meanings, etc. - which resists the change and fluctuation of forms which it is able to assume by the mediation of human free will. Thus, political, ritual, and artistic forms, etc., are the many determinations of the spirit, by which it expresses its unity and eternity in a variety of ways. Change in culture is unified and limited - resisted - by the original spirit of which cultural forms are the external manifestations.

Although we speak of the spirit as if it were a resisting agent, Borella is quick to clarify that, in the realm of culture, this resistance is in fact almost entirely dependent upon human free will: the maintenance of spirit throughout the successive actualization of its various possibilities is only due to a human attitude of fidelity to the spirit in the first place, a fidelity which every person - and indeed, a whole society - may either choose or reject. It is this fidelity - really nothing other than a gift of self unto the transcendent - which ensures the factual permanence of the spirit in its particular cultural instantiations. Accordingly, precisely in virtue of man's metaphysical ordination to transcendence, tradition is a moral obligation incumbent upon the human being. 

Now, resistance to change does not immediately imply that change is something undesirable per se; rather, what is undesirable, from the primordial viewpoint of the spirit, is a change or variation that departs from the scope of expressive possibilities contained within that spirit itself, as the archetype of its possible instantiations. The spirit resists change so as to protect itself from such a departure, exercising a kind of friction and restraint upon the changing forms, so that they may not be allowed to "go too far." But as long as they remain within the scope of expressive possibilities, they are not only permitted, but indeed they are good and necessary, being so many signs or symbols of the intense richness of the spirit itself.

But when there is a movement to introduce a change that does in fact depart from the boundaries set by the spirit, a certain aggression of spiritual resistance becomes manifest, insofar as the new change is indeed metaphysically opposed to the spirit as an errant novelty. There is a certain antagonism in the very nature of the relation between the abiding original spirit, and any errant novelty which sets itself up against the spirit. Tradition is a historical thing, to be sure; one observes in history that the expression of the primordial spirit gradually takes a shape much like that of a great tree, which grows from a seedling into a magnificent and harmonious unity of parts, in continuity with itself. One observes change, development, variety - but in uniformity and continuity. Throughout the succession of variations that take place in the process of growth, there is yet a single principle, a single essence, a single form, that is "handed down" from each stage of generation to the next. The tree is unity of multiplicity, a multi-faceted and multi-branched incarnation of a single principle. Borella notes that tradition is like the tree of history. There has been change, and there is great variety, a multiplicity of vines and branches, each with its own character - yet there is a continuity, a unity of principle, a commonality of the spirit in all of its individual incarnations. A change that departs from this unity is something foreign, something that does not belong, something that does not share the same principle. Or worse, a change that effectively seeks, by revolution, to fell the great tree of history, is nothing but an act of violence towards the incarnations of transcendence. As every living nature abhors its own destruction, so does tradition abhor novelty - and so should the traditionalist, ever faithful to the transcendent spirit, abhor everything that threatens its expressive unity-in-variety.

This is the basis for Borella's critique of the liturgical novelties following the Second Vatican Council (though I would extend this critique to some of the reforms before then, as well). These novelties are not condemned merely because they are changes; there are resisted because they represent a certain degree of infidelity to the original principle, the original spirit of the liturgy, which is incarnated in the great tree of history. The novelties of the 20th century involved the attempt to cut down that tree; the historical continuity and the great accumulative unity of the liturgical tradition was threatened with extinction, as the reformers quite relentlessly applied themselves to root-and-branch reform - a revolution. It was clear to everyone at the time - younger generations today have no personal memory of it - that the changes were an utter novelty; Pope Paul VI openly admitted to the world that what once seemed untouchable and settled was now being replaced with something completely new. On the grounds of simple historical evidence, there is much to be feared, suspected, and indeed resisted in such a novelty - simply by the very nature of tradition itself. These suspicions are indeed confirmed by an examination of the content of the new liturgy, in comparison to the rich and various body of symbolic and ritual content of the traditional rites. If the ordination to transcendence is directive of human action, the jettisoning of tradition is, to state it mildly, a most regrettable loss; and resistance is even, in some form, a duty. A true sense of transcendence - a sense of the sacred - rightly mourns the loss of the tradition of the spirit, and rightly seeks to recover it. "What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place." (Pope Benedict XVI.)

But there is a danger for traditionalists - a danger which one sees exemplified by many modern traditionalists. It is a danger rooted in the inherent risk bound up with the opposition of tradition and novelty. Borella calls this danger "fortress-resistance," by which the traditionalist isolates himself and locks himself away from the world, thinking that he is thereby protecting the tradition from novelty - when in fact he is engaging in "prison-resistance," locking the spirit within, preventing the tree of tradition from growing as a tree naturally does, effectively freezing the natural potential of the spirit for a rich multiplicity of expression. The temptation of "traditionalists" is to view the last incarnation of the spirit as its sole and only permissible incarnation - as if the last stage, before revolution, were itself what constituted tradition. Borella insightfully observes that this makes a corpse out of the tree of history - not a tradition, which is a dynamic, growing, and organic being. Thus, he asks rhetorically: "Is the true monarchy that of Louis XIV or St Louis; the true eucharistic liturgy that of 1962, St Ambrose or St Hippolytus?" In other words, tradition as such cannot be identified with any one of the concrete forms which it assumes at any particular point in history; thus, for example, to freeze the development of the liturgy in the books of 1962, as took place within "traditionalist" circles after the Second Vatican Council, is not tradition, but paranoia. A true traditionalism rather remains open to the ways in which the spirit may naturally continue to express itself in new ways, ever in continuity with itself. Certainly, there is sometimes necessity for a prudential pause in the motion of reform and development - one could argue that such a pause rightly took place by the directive of Pope Pius V, in his promulgation of the Tridentine missal; but certain brands of "traditionalism" have wrongly exalted this prudence to the status of a dogma or a principle. (See this post, at my former blog.)

I think it is important for modern Catholics - traditionalists and progressives alike - to recover a philosophical grounding for traditionalism. Without such a grounding, novelty and paranoia are the easiest of temptations. 

1 comment:

  1. I know of a case where antiphons were allowed during a baptism, where the priest didn't belong to a ED community, but then at a traditional liturgy community the antiphons were not allowed because the priest said it wasn't "traditional". The antiphons had been taken from the Lenten and Paschal liturgies, and had been sprinkled throughout the rite at certain moments. I think this elucidates your point.