Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Traditionalism, the Past, and Permanent Things

The affirmation of tradition against modernity cannot be simply a matter of wishing to turn back the clock to a former period of history. Perhaps many traditionalists or conservatives give this impression, but traditionalism as such does not simply entail the desire to turn back the clock. I say it does not entail this simply. It certainly does often entail the recovery of things from a past age, now lost in the rubble of modernity; but it is not merely because they are past that traditionalism seeks their recovery, but because they signify something timeless, something inherently permanent and trans-historical, and thus something that continues to be relevant and applicable in the present. And it may be that a past era upheld such permanent values with more rigor and reverence than does our modern age.

In Catholic traditionalism, the high Middle Ages are often taken to be the pinnacle of Catholic history. Even if there is any truth to this claim, such a claim must be tempered by the recognition that, in a sense, all times are bad times. Paradoxically, the errors of modernity are not, in the last analysis, modern errors; they are perennial deviations from perennial truths. There have always been modernists, just as there have always been sinners and heretics. There has always been struggle and conflict within the Church and the whole civilized world; there has never been a utopia. The nostalgia of the true traditionalist is directed at particular ages of the past only in subordination to the age of eternity, of which each historical era is but an imperfect instantiation. True nostalgia is for this eternal age, which is symbolized in different ways by past, present, and future. Historical beings and situations are, in a Platonic sense, mere participations; the nostalgic yearning for a past age must consequently be tempered by a sense of the merely partial goodness of any age.

Yet that goodness is a real goodness; and insofar as it is good, it really does bear in it something that pertains to all times. Every instantiation of the good is also, to that extent, a model of goodness. Thus, the past is always, in some sense, a model for the present. In a certain sense, indeed, of the three elements of time, the past is the most privileged model for the present. Memory is our storehouse, our reservoir of inspiration; the past holds the potency for the continual actualization of good things in the present, and into the future. We can only act now, in the present, on the basis of what we have already received; and we receive from eternity not only in the present, but also through the past. We are receivers before we are doers; what we receive is the model of our doing. The passio essendi is the ground of our conatus essendi. 

One might say that, in moral terms, the virtue of the present is the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the facility to judge concerning the present moment, in which it is imperative to act. Prudence determines right action insofar as the rightness of action is conditioned by the present as such, i.e. the circumstances and situation of the actor. Prudential judgments are made on a case-by-case basis. However, there is a tendency in modern approaches to ethics to reduce morality to prudence - that is, to make circumstantial judgment the sole factor of moral deliberation. According to such an ethics, the only principles of action in the circumstances of the present are...the circumstances of the present. From this attitude, there arises a destructive disdain for history as the reservoir of moral example: one cannot learn anything morally substantive from the past, after all, if the only principle of action in the present is itself the present. If prudence were the only virtue, there could be no virtue in looking to the past for wisdom or guidance, nor in looking to the example and advice of one's elders, nor those more experienced than oneself - nor in unchanging moral principles. History is reduced to curiosity; tradition is rendered meaningless; and there are no eternal principles, but only "prudence."

This is a catastrophically destructive moral reductionism. It is necessary to affirm, against such a reductionism, the abiding relevance and repeatability of permanent principles. Traditionalism is this affirmation, with a stress on the historicity of such principles in their instantiation. In this sense, traditionalism is simply a companion of realism. In ethics, traditionalism claims that moral principles do not change with the fluctuation of human and cultural situations, even as prudence must be exercised in accordance with such situations. Prudence is not, for the traditionalist, merely an account of circumstances, but an evaluation of them against eternal principles of action. But such an evaluation does not take place totally apart from any consideration of prior instances of the principles; principle are only known, after all, through such instances - universals through particulars.

A sense of history and tradition is thus fundamentally necessary for a sense of permanence. A sense of the past is necessary for tradition. This sense must, of course, be properly informed by reliable insight into the lessons of history, and the relationship of historical circumstances to the eternal principles which are their measure. Such insight may indeed reveal some historical eras to display a sense of reverence for permanent things more perfectly than other eras. A true sense of history should be open to the discovery of this inequality of historical eras: some times truly are better than others. A true sense of the givenness of history resigns to, even embraces this fact as something contingent but providential. This is not merely to yearn for a different era; such a longing is ultimately something naive, from a pragmatic and prudential point of view. Nonetheless, the differences of historical circumstances is no excuse to neglect earlier periods as somehow paradigmatic or exemplary for the present age. On the other hand, it is also true that a sense of the givenness of history must also resign to the fact that both past and present ages come with many imperfections - for indeed, every age does. But this resignation is not complacency: one does not, in resigning to imperfection, give up the struggle to act now for the better. These are consequently two sides of the same coin of a balanced traditionalism, properly informed by the contingency of history against the background of permanent principles.

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