Based on the recommendation of a friend, over the weekend I read the 1983 Jefferson Lecture by Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading scholar on the history of Christianity. In it, Pelikan said this:

I am not altogether certain that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of a series of lectures in his honor that bore the title, “The Vindication of Tradition” — which is a nice way of saying that I am altogether certain that Mr. Jefferson would have disapproved. He thought that tradition was a hindrance, not a help, in the advancement of life, the protection of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Martin Luther had similar reservations, fearing the effects of “human traditions” on the uncontaminated, original word of God.

According to Pelikan (whose book The Vindication of Tradition was based on his Jefferson Lecture), both Jefferson and Luther wanted to move beyond tradition to authentic Truth, which was uncorrupted by history. Professor Pelikan held a very different view. He believed tradition could help us better understand both truth and contemporary life.

Professor Pelikan didn’t believe tradition was coextensive with truth, but he did insist that it “does present itself as the way that we who are its heirs must follow if we are to go beyond it – through it, but beyond it – to a universal truth that is available only in a particular embodiment.” It is to the tradition of Athens and Jerusalem that their spiritual descendants must return to, Pelikan writes–“not to linger there permanently, but to find there, for each generation of descendants, what we for our part shall not recognize elsewhere … unless we have first seen it here.” A living tradition must find itself connected to both the universal and the particular, and it must have the capacity to develop while also maintaining its identity and continuity.

I raise all this because it’s my impression that today conservatives appeal far more to abstract principles than to tradition, a word and concept that is rarely invoked. That wasn’t always the case, and it’s a problem for reasons my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin beautifully articulates in this brief interview. There’s a tension between tradition and progress, but tradition is necessary for progress, which builds on what we have. “We need to understand what we’re building on,” Levin says, “what’s best about it and what’s worst about it.”

Today the idea of progress doesn’t have much room for tradition. But to detach ourselves from tradition is to detach ourselves from the human story, from trials and errors, and so from a source of wisdom. “Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road,” G.K. Chesterton said, “but drawing life from them, as from a root.”

There’s something more to add on this matter, though: Our need for greater humility. By that I mean most of us are certain that our view of things is inherently superior to how people in the past viewed them. We see ourselves as the most enlightened age of all. C.S. Lewis referred to this as “chronological snobbery”:

the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

That is something rather off-putting about our self-congratulatory attitude, the belief that we are so much wiser than those who came before us. On some matters we surely are, but on some matters we surely are not. And ask yourself this: In matters of philosophy, theology, science, statecraft, literature, and music, who today is the equal of Aristotle, Augustine, Newton, Lincoln, Tolstoy, and Mozart? Then ask yourself whether you think they have anything to teach us.

In The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan uses the example of children and parents. He points out how, when we’re young, we often believe our parents are all-wise, blind to their foibles. But it is no less childish, once we discover their foibles, to deny them the respect and honor that is due them for having given us life and having sacrificed for us.

Maturity in our relation to our parents consists in going beyond both a belief in their omniscience and a disdain for their weakness, Pelikan wrote,

to an understanding and a gratitude for their decisive part in that ongoing process in which now we, too, must take our place, as heirs and yet free. So it must be in our relation to our spiritual and intellectual parentage, our tradition. An abstract concept of parenthood is no substitute for our real parents, an abstract cosmopolitanism no substitute for our real traditions.

That is an insight–a philosophical tradition, if you will–that conservatives above all should embrace.

commentary magazine logo
+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link