Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Society and Tradition, Form and Content

What are we to do with our traditions when the world has rejected the underlying reasons for them? How long can and should these traditions linger on? How long can and should the form of a tradition survive when it has been emptied of its content and deprived of its function?

These questions came to mind recently when I read Aaron’s post on tradition and society, as well as a short piece in “First Things” decrying the modernist dogma in architecture, “Form follows function.” What I want to do now is try to understand how this dichotomy between form and function (or content) might influence the way we think about tradition and society.

That modernist dogma is obviously not completely historically true, but it’s also not completely wrong. One way to illustrate this is to analyze one important tradition--monarchy--in terms of form and function.

Most traditions, I would guess, arise because they accomplish two important aims. First, traditions arise because they fulfill a practical function. Second, traditions arise (and endure) because they embody what that particular society views as the right order of society and the cosmos. The tradition of kingship historically accomplished both aims. On the practical level, it made sense to have a strong, respected man in authority over an entire people. The alternative was chaos, needless bloodshed, etc. On the more contemplative level, though, many peoples have viewed their monarchs as God’s representative on earth. The Byzantines have had their difficulties with Caesaropapism, but many cultures have not hesitated to reverence their rulers as gods. Furthermore, in many cultures, as anthropologists can attest, the union of king and queen was somehow reflective of nature’s fertility, as well as somehow vital to the people’s own fertility. For instance, the King and Queen of Hawaii used to ritually go out to the fields in early spring in order to lie with each other. I could list more examples, but you get the idea. These traditions were preserved because they had practical reasons, but also because they in some way represented the order of the cosmos.

I must also note one more point. The tradition, however, is not just shaped by certain social views, but in turn helps to shape and reinforce those views. So, in one sense form does follow function, but in another sense form defines function. For example, just as a particular society’s view of the order of cosmos determined the form of kingship, so conversely that society’s view of kingship can influence its religion. In the Middle Ages, many images have come down from the Middle Ages of Heaven as a type of divine court, where God takes the place of the king, Mary that of queen, and the saints as noblemen and courtiers. The very form of monarchy reinforced the idea of its function, viz. to reflect God’s order in the world.

However, in Europe, such conceptions of kingship (for whatever reasons) were outdated by the time of the French Revolution and the various revolutions of the 19th century, especially among the more “enlightened” classes of society. These conceptions lingered on among the peasants of the Vendee, or the followers of Andreas Hofer in Austria, and even perhaps among a few aristocratic reactionaries. By now, though, these ancient conceptions are dead, or persist in only the most inchoate form.

So, here was the question for a 19th-century reactionary, as Aaron recognized: What are we to do with this form, with monarchy? Should we keep it? Or, should we scrap it and start over from scratch?

History seems to have opted for the latter option by abolishing Europe’s monarchies or by so reducing them in significance that they are hardly anything more than expensive pageants and soap operas.

But, was this the right answer?
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