Best of 2023: The Paradox of Western Traditionalism
This week, I’m posting a few highlights from 2023.
Below is an article from June 13 on the basic contradiction of conservative traditionalism—similar to the paradox I observed in a “closed” view of Objectivist philosophy.
Pair this with the biggest piece I wrote outside of this newsletter, my long exploration of Moms for Liberty for The UnPopulist. That organization has since been somewhat discredited by a salacious sex scandal, but there are deeper lessons to be learned about the dangers of a culture war based on negation rather than creation.
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The Paradox of Western Traditionalism
The case often made for the nationalist conservatives—by themselves, of course, but also by some who are sympathetic to them or who are at least attempting to explain their appeal—is that someone has to defend Western traditions.
It is true, of course, that someone has to defend them, though I don’t think that’s what the natcons are actually doing.
The paradox of American conservatism is that if you set out to conserve our traditional way of life and system of government, what you are conserving is actually liberalism (in the proper sense of the word). You are defending a tradition that was, in its day, a radical new idea.
This is just a special case of the wider paradox of Western traditionalism. To defend the “Western” tradition—the unique culture of Western Civilization—is to defend a tradition that consists of constantly questioning tradition.
A Tradition of Anti-Traditionalism
Part of the answer to this paradox is the difference between tradition and traditionalism. A tradition, used in the broadest sense, is a set of practices or ideas that have been transmitted across generations. Traditionalism is the idea that this tradition is valuable because it is a tradition, that the simple fact of its being transmitted is the source of its value.
This is a crucial distinction. There definitely is a distinctive Western intellectual and cultural tradition (though I have argued elsewhere that it has now spread across enough of the world to no longer be strictly “Western”). But that tradition is not itself justified on the basis of traditionalism.
Quite the opposite. The Western tradition is a tradition of anti-traditionalism.
Western thinking and the Western way of life began in Ancient Greece, and how did it begin? It did not begin with creation myths and legends of gods and heroes, because every culture has these things. It began with the development of non-traditional explanations for the world.
The very beginning, with early Greek scientist/philosophers like Thales and Anaximander, was the development of natural explanations for the origin and nature of the world—that is, the replacement of creation myths with explanations such as the idea that everything is made of water, or of air, or of atoms, or of some other natural building blocks.
I’ve been reading an interesting book on Anaximander, a leading thinker of the 6th Century BC, and it starts by pointing out that every other ancient culture had some version of the idea that the heavens are above us and the earth below, and the earth is resting on top of—well, on top of more earth, though there were variations in terms of what that additional earth consisted of. Only the Greeks had the unique view that the earth is a giant mass of stone hanging in space, surrounded by the heavens on all sides—and this is an innovation they owed to Anaximander.
Another milestone in the foundation of the Western tradition is On the Sacred Disease, a work of medicine from the Hippocratic school, circa 400 BC. It examines a disease—probably epilepsy—that was traditionally attributed to possession by a god and argues instead that it has a natural cause. Here is one translation:
I do not believe that the “Sacred Disease” is any more divine or sacred than any other disease but, on the contrary, it has specific characteristics and a definite cause. Nevertheless, because it is completely different from other diseases, it has been regarded as a divine visitation by those who, being only human, view it with ignorance and astonishment.
At about the same time, the Greek historian Thucydides was revamping the methods of history. His predecessor, Herodotus, was still conducting history in a more traditional way: somewhat uncritically passing on stories and legends. Thucydides conducted history scientifically, comparing eyewitness testimony and checking it against physical evidence in order to subject the traditional stories and legends to critical examination.
In short, the tradition that started in Ancient Greece was founded on observation, innovation, and the rejection of traditional explanations in favor of scientific argument.
We can see this most clearly in the pivotal figure of the Greek tradition, Socrates, who took the new method pioneered in the sciences and applied it to questions of religion, morality, and politics. Socrates is best known for wandering around Athens, mixing among the young, the learned, and the powerful, and asking uncomfortable questions like, “What is truth?” or “What is justice?” What made these questions uncomfortable is that Socrates did not simply accept the traditional answers but subjected them to rigorous examination. When someone whips out a quotation from some authority—in The Republic, for example, Polemarchus attempts to define “justice” by quoting the revered lyric poet Simonides—Socrates goes to work finding all the complications and counterexamples.
The paradox of Western traditionalism can be captured in the fact that its roots go back to a figure who was considered so threatening to traditional beliefs that the Athenians put him on trial and executed him. It is a tradition founded on rebellion.
A Thousand Years of Experimental Art
It continued to be characterized by rebellion, and we could multiply these examples endlessly. Galileo famously rebelled against the academic consensus of his time and the authority of the Church in order to champion the truth of the sun-centered theory of the solar system. The United States was founded on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers who projected a past state in which humans lived in a “state of nature,” a deliberate attempt to strip away what is merely conventional or traditional and discover what is actually real and necessary in a political system.
This goes beyond science, philosophy, and politics and extends to art. There is perhaps no more traditionally American type than the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Nathaniel. (If you are not so literarily inclined, you should at least be familiar with the Daniel Day-Lewis version.) In an introduction to this series of books, Cooper explained that his inspiration was “delineating a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles,” but “removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life.” America’s literary self-image was a projection in fiction of the Lockean man “in the state of nature” that formed the basis of our politics.
In the superficial understanding of the nationalists, any art or music or architecture that is old is therefore “traditional”—even if the people who created it did not see it that way at all. I have recently been making a deeper study of classical music, and the more I learn, the more I realize that this music is “traditional” only when viewed from our perspective. But if our forebears had been following tradition, we would all still be cramming ourselves into the cathedral on Sunday to listen to plainsong chant. In reality, the history of Western music is a thousand years of relentless experimentation and innovation, from the development of musical notation, to the tonal system of musical “keys,” to polyphony and counterpoint, modulation, and on and on.
I was most struck by this when studying the history of the fugue. A fugue is a musical form that takes a melodic theme, which is usually called the “subject,” and then breaks it apart, varies it, and transforms it, then brings it back together—in effect, after everything that is possible to be learned about the theme has been learned. The fugue developed out of an earlier form called a “ricercar,” which in Italian has a meaning similar to “research.”
The music of the 18th Century was as much an exercise in analysis and experimentation as anything done by the leading scientists of the era.
What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens?
Much of this experimental music was created for religious purposes, and that leads us to the fact that even Western religion—which the traditionalists are hoping to save by invoking the power of tradition—is itself not so strictly traditional.
The religious traditionalists like to refer to Western Civilization as “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” as if the Greco-Roman tradition were irrelevant and Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. But that is not even true of Christianity, which despite its best efforts was deeply shaped by its encounter with Classical pagan ideas. As Benedict XVI acknowledged in a famous speech a few decades ago, Christianity became “Hellenized” and theology was expressed in terms borrowed from Greek philosophy.
This became even more true as Classical knowledge was unearthed in the late Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and as the Protestant rebellion broke open Christianity for intellectual competition among rival interpretations. By the 18th Century, as I have discussed once or twice before, one of the most common versions of Christianity—particularly in America—held that reason was “a standing oracle” implanted in our minds by God, so that every question of religion and morality was open to questioning and debate and to “the right and duty of private judgment,” as opposed to centralized religious authority. When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that God, “if there be one, …must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear,” this wasn’t the idiosyncrasy of one guy who spent too much time in Paris hanging out with the philosophes. It was a widely accepted view of religion in America and elsewhere in the Western world.
This was not, of course, the only view of religion. But it’s worth noting that in religion and in every other field, the advocates of traditionalism want to ignore and abandon a great deal of the actual Western tradition. Their “traditional” version of the West is one that is narrowed and shrunken and cleansed of most of what actually made the West distinctive.
Failure Is Always an Option
In describing the “Western tradition” as one founded on relentless questioning of tradition, I do not mean to imply that this tradition contains no bedrock of firm truth. But the great truths, in order to be accepted as such, are not merely taken on faith or by social convention. They survive by being constantly tested and examined.
Nor is the innovative and experimental spirit of the West necessarily an argument in favor of anything that dresses itself up as innovative and experimental. Inherent in the idea of an experiment is the fact that it can end up either way. Failure, as they say, is always an option. Sometimes the bold new art is a worthy follow-up to Michelangelo and Beethoven, and sometimes it ain’t—as much of 20th Century Modernism has proven. The standard for judging whether something is valuable is not merely whether it is traditional or whether it is new, but to subject it to the test of rigorous examination.
The failures of Modern art, or the other intellectual misadventures attempted over the years, form the core of the argument used by the conservatives. They use these failed experiments to make the case against experimentation as such, arguing for a return to tradition and to traditionalism as the answer.
This wouldn’t make sense in science or engineering, and it makes even less sense in culture or philosophy, because every aspect of the Western tradition was itself the product of a previous round of questioning, experiment, and innovation.
The traditionalists want to destroy this Western tradition in order to save it—and that is the paradox on which Western traditionalism founders.