Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tradition in Society


As a conservative, I like tradition. It is, after all, what we are conserving. I freely admit that part of this is simply my love of old-fashioned and aristocratic things. However, there is also a bundle of intellectual arguments, many of them originating with Edmund Burke and repackaged in the 20th century by Russell Kirk, which point out that changes have unintended consequences, that well enough ought to be left alone, that society needs continuity across the generations, etc.

However, this post is not an intellectual defense of conservativism in any of its many permutations. No, this post is about tradition and its place in society. Specifically, how it is transmitted and maintained.

In the Western Civilization course for which I am a teaching assistant, we have been talking recently about the revolutions of 1848, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose arms are pictured above and ethnic regions below) and the reactionaries of the 19th century. It is an interesting period, set in motion when the armies of Revolutionary France rampage all over the Continent, are defeated in Egypt, Spain and Russia and are eventually rolled back to a final defeat at Waterloo. Nevertheless, the revolutionary spirit remains and various revolts and reform movements, many of them liberal or nationalist (or both), crop up throughout the rest of the century.

Conservatives were deeply skeptical of this revolutionary spirit. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church was denied and many of her clergy killed. Some of these men had been involved in various abuses, but by no means all of them. Like the Reformation before it, the French Revolution was not simply about abuses, but was an ideological confrontation with the Church. Likewise, kings were pulled down from their thrones and aristocratic privileges abolished. Again, this was partly a response to abuses, but many representatives of the Old Order were subjected to cruelties entirely at odds with the humanistic ideals espoused by their persecutors.

Be all that as it may, the extent to which revolutions were a response to failures of the Old Order is not what interests me here. Rather, I am interested in the responses of the conservatives in their attempt to retain the hallowed traditions of their respective societies. There were two basic approaches in the 19th century, as there were in the 20th and are today as well. In the first camp you have those who argue that the powers of the state should be used to prop up tradition against revolutionary onslaughts. In the 19th century this meant establishing and subsidizing religion, censoring the press and defending traditional customs by secret police and force of arms. In the second camp, however, we find those who are no less devoted to tradition, but who contend that it must be protected by other means: fostering fervent religion in the home and in the church, promoting traditional values and practices in the cultural sphere, and defending tradition at the ballot box and in the marketplace. There were, of course, many conservatives who fell somewhere in between these two positions, but the basic distinction existed in the 19th century and - in slightly modified form - exists today.

I, for my part, am a proponent of the second camp. It seems to me that when society, as a whole, has abandoned august and valuable customs, the powers of the state - assuming they can be marshaled - can do rather little to enforce the observance of such customs. Those who called for the use of arms to defeat revolutionary agitation were too often guilty of the title given them by their enemies: reactionaries. They had stood idly by while large segments of society forgot the value of tradition and did nothing about it until it was too late. For those interested in conserving the Permanent Things, it must be done each day, and in the bowels of society, not simply in the halls of kings or Congress.
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