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Tradition and Social Change

Thomas Molnar, the esteemed political philosopher and historian, passed away on July 20 at the age of eighty-nine. This week First Principles remembers Dr. Molnar by publishing some of the many fine essays that he wrote for the Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age.

The following piece originally appeared in the Spring 1971 issue of the Intercollegiate Review.

Tradition is one of those fundamental concepts which today is overused, with the result that its futurist opponents ignorantly despise it, while its faithful defenders often do not really understand it. The first believe that tradition is the opposite of change, the latter are unsure about the manner of distinguishing between tradition and the merely old; both tend to think of tradition as the bottom of the time-ocean, covered by layers upon heavy layers of time, hardly lit by anything but arbitrarily focusing memory.

In a recent series of lectures on Tradition and Social Change, I attempted to describe tradition asa more dynamic concept than what is today consecrated as a cliché. I spoke of the “sacred model” in archaic societies, serving as an archetype in foundation myths, to which the community periodically returned for self-renewal. From this regular “immersion in the origins” (in illo tempore, as Mircea Eliade calls it), archaic man derived the energy to continue societal existence; without the sacred model, the community was incapable of “repairing” (reforming) itself; with its help, natural degeneracy was arrested, or rather abolished, so that life might begin again.

This static concept of tradition, hostile to innovation and change (which was considered decay, as a falling-away from the original model), was challenged by the Greek philosophers. Plato, for one, was also preoccupied with the concept of society’s degeneracy, but no longer saw it as a mechanical necessity; he saw it as the soul’s disorder spreading from the older to the younger generation, from the few to the many, but still within the soul’s capacity to resist and cure. Greek philosophy and political history prove for the first time that continuity and change are compatible.

With Judaism, and particularly with Christianity, the norm is no longer the past, and it is no longer situated in the cosmic order either (as interpreted through the cosmogonic myth—the myth of creation). The norm is in the eternal order which, however, unfolds in time and includes the future. Thus God himself participates in history, pulling man and nations toward His design. The God of Christians and Jews is neither immobile as are the archaic deities, nor entirely mobile as taught by the existentialist theologians (Bultmann, Gogarten, K. Rahner) in whose view history begins anew at every moment and with every individual decision, (Every moment is eschatological—writes Rudolf Bultmann.)

What then is a good formulation of “tradition and change?” Perhaps John Henry Newman provided it: “A true development,” he wrote in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, “may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments, being really those antecedents and something besides them; it is an addition which illustrates, riot obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.”

If we reflect on this rich formulation (we must substitute, of course, “community” for “body of thought”), we find that tradition is not the past (the bottom of the ocean), but the lived past, inseparable from the present and the future. For the individual (let us take the optimum case, the educated individual) myriad instances represent this coexistence, the substratum of which is the shared experience and the common vision of reality expressed through historical events, political decisions, and the guideposts they left, the literary works, or simply the traces of other individuals with which he now converses. The conversation is two-sided, the answer reaches us as regularly as we care to ask the question. In the past the very same human being lived, suffered, hoped and died, so that our present is inseparable from its echoes, our quest meets intelligible answers. In fact, there is a permanent interchange between past and present, the latter consults the former while reshaping itself in the light of new experience. Otherwise how could we read the works of the past? If, as we are now told, there are unbridgeable gaps between generations, and bio-psychological mutations between epochs, how could I, child of the twentieth century, reflect not just on Plato or Pascal but reflect with them on identical subjects, on the ills of our different yet same societies, on the existential anguish caused by silent spaces and mute objects? At a certain level of penetration even the diversity of circumstances is of little import, so shared are the experiences and the wounded reflection on them: could wetell, even after a second glance, whether Plato or Voegelin wrote this, facing their respective societies: “All of a sudden it appears that the older generation has neglected to build the substance of order in the younger men, and an amiable lukewarmness and confusion shifts within a fewyears into the horrors of social catastrophe.” (In Eric Voegelin’s Plato.)

This much for the (educated) individual; for a community, a nation, the reality and the presentness of tradition finds adequate expression in the symbols of order which survive the ages. By “order” I do not mean that which is secured by law, namely orderly procedures. Rather, order as the given community has interpreted its own passage from chaos to cosmos, from non-existence to intelligible existence, from dispersion to unity. This sentence is not as abstract as it seems: we may concretely understand it when facing those for whom historical-social existence is literally meaningless, who see in communal experience a mystification perpetrated by the power elite, or the resultant exclusively of socio-economic components. One does not have to be an anarchist or a cynic to hold that society is meaningless; no less a personage than a U. S. ambassador to a South American country—Mr. John Cabot Lodge—said in a recent ceremonial public speech that “society is an abstraction, only individuals are real.” This latter-day nominalism is destructive and silly: society is “man writ large,” and the proof is that no two communities are interchangeable—precisely because they embody experiences which make increasing sense within a given framework, which translates the reality of the world into the language of specific shared relationships.

The “real individualists” of whom the ambassador spoke, like Rousseau’s “natural man”—do not exist. It is no adherence to collectivist ideology which prompts me to say that every man—with the possible exception of Tarzan—is born surrounded with the community’s signs, symbols and guideposts, so that by the time he begins to feel, act, and reason, he has been shaped by them. Even his sense of freedom is shaped by the communal experiences of freedom and its absence.

* * * * *

All this by no means denies innovation and change. In the spirit of Newman’s definition of “development,” it even suggests them since well-understood tradition invites the addition which illustrates the conserved order while bringing to it a kind of plus sign. The difficulty is, of course, to judge the magnitude and the direction of this plus sign: usually, this too can only be negatively experienced: we seem to know what is not in our tradition, in our interpretation of the structure of reality. Americans know, for example, that monarchy is not only unsuitable for the United States, it is also unimaginable, although a few miles away, in Canada, this was the regime until recently. Time and collective experience do give directives as to what can be passed on, what discarded or adopted, but they must also be protected against attempts at compression (radical impatience) and the arbitrariness of interpretation.

Yet, this statement needs to be at once qualified. Many of history’s great decision-makers chose to act against tradition, only to end up creating new situations which, in retrospect, proved to be shapers of that tradition. Alexander the Great, King of Macedon and leader of the Greeks, broke in ten brief years Hellas’ traditional repugnance for the Asian barbarians, arranged the marriage of ten thousand of his soldiers with Persian girls, and adopted the oriental-imperial ceremonies (for example, prostration before the King’s person ) at his court. The Macedonians and Greeks grumbled—yet Alexander had enlarged hellenic vision and given depth to the Mediterranean world.

Another illustration is the Apostle Paul who broke with the tradition of the Law and turned the face of the new religion towards the Gentiles. Or take Emperor Constantine who abolished almost at one stroke the immemorial pagan state, adopted Christianity, then proceeded to pass on to the latter the former’s sacred objects and ceremonies: incense, candles, votive offerings, holy water, processions, tonsure, the marriage ring. Nearer to us we may reflect upon the break between the Founding Fathers and the English throne, yet a break leaving so much of tradition and so many institutions intact.

In each of these instances the decisive acts were clearly outside the sphere of tradition, they were even in opposition to it. Yet, we are aware that something positive, and positively good, passed from the old onto the new, in Newman’s words, a corroboration of the tradition, not a corruption of it. And on a larger canvas, the same thing happened when the cosmogonic myths, as intelligible renderings of the structure of reality, yielded to Philosophy and Revelation.

The reader has noticed the apparent contradiction: I argued earlier that, as members of a community, we know when a decision, an act, a choice goes against the grain of the tradition. Yet, I just now suggested that this knowledge may at times be superseded by great and compact moves like Alexander’s, St. Paul’s, or the founders’ of this country. The contradiction is solved when we admit—with due modesty—that we have short lives and shorter perspectives; it follows that we may hardly know which decisions will remain part of the tradition; nor do we possess sufficient genius to become aware—otherwise than in retrospect, that is through history—of the points when tradition becomes enlarged.

It is by no means suggested that therefore we are condemned to move blindly and with extreme caution within our tradition. As we shall see in a moment, the “profile” of a tradition can he clearly identified, so that it is no exaggeration to say that people move almost inerrably within their tradition. The “plusses” they add to the past are, inthe immense majority of cases, not individual idiosyncrasies but approaches engendered by observing the tradition in new circumstances. The “great moves” are weighty but rare.

Yet, there is no such thing as automatic tradition-building. Archaic man made the wise observation that societies are bound to decay in time; modern man, who refuses to recognize a regenerating “sacred model,” bears a heavy burden: he carries the model with him, so to speak, and reasserts its sacredness by studying and assimilating the tradition. Time corrodes his society too unless he repairs and reforms it with wisdom and care. With wisdom and care because, as Voegelin writes (in a letter), “truth in history reveals itself not on a single line, but in complicated patterns, parallels, convergences, and fusions.”

All this may create the impression that tradition is something rather vague; particularly the term “Western tradition” tends to fade today in the penumbra of ideological battles. Against this view we might find that, as so often, “otherness” is the mediator of self-knowledge: a juxtaposition with other traditions will clarify the nature of our own.

Islam, G.Von Grunebaum writes, “is eminently human in that it takes man for what he is, but it is not humanist in that it is not interested in the richest possible unfolding and evolving of man’s potentialities, in that it never conceived of the forming of man as civilization’s principal and most noble task.” The Moslem’s quality of repose, he adds, could develop only as the result of a static conception of the ideal world and the ideal society (Medieval Islam). All this is inscribed in Islamic history which knew no such thing as the doctrine of the two swords; which, although it was repeatedly the scene of power struggle between ecclesiastic and military leaders, nonetheless did not interpret it as the articulation of the soul itself. The result is (was until recently, until Western penetration) submission to the inevitably secular, since the Messenger of God had nothing more to say to the faithful than what the Koran contained from the beginning. “You shall find no change in God’s way,” taught Hayy b. Yaqzan, “of dealing with those which were gone before” and those living now.

Moslem authorities, secular and ecclesiastic, preserved the tradition, and did little else. Religion and education were endless repetitions of sacred texts and rites; social institutions were practically stagnant, social change shunned, relationships among social classes static. The great Arab philosophers’ ideas never influenced Islam’s statecraft—although they revolutionized the medieval West. Only Christian missionaries brought to the Arabic world opportunities for mobility and charitable institutions, vocational schools, homes for the aged, for orphans, for unwed mothers.

* * * * *

Turning to African tribal society, we find it selfless. This is the price the individual pays for the cradle-to-grave security. Improvement of his crop invites the tribe’s suspicion that he has commerce with evil spirits; persona] ambition is thwarted by obligations to the whole of the extended family; outstanding qualities call forth the Chief’s jealousy. Even today, in decolonized Africa, the individual as official of the Government prefers foreign posts to domestic ones because at home the family lays claim on all his possessions, on his person.

In the Orient, with the clear exception of the Chinese and Japanese, the basic attitudes are not very different: the collective prevails by far over the self. “Harmony with tribal life and with the surrounding natural order was viewed as coinciding with the harmony of the holy cosmic order. Life was static and conservative, since the decisive moment lay in the past, when the holy cosmic order had made itself manifest at a holy moment and at a holy place through holy persons.” So writes the Indonesian writer-philosopher, S. Takdir Alisjabana. No wonder then that in semi-modern Indonesia “authority depends on charisma, on an irrational image based on emotional response; criticism in general appears as a manifestation of basic hostility, a threat to collective life itself. To criticize any facet of a leader’s program or attitude is to weaken his charisma. This is why administrators in Indonesia generally react negatively to criticism” (Arief Budiman).

These are only a few,but the dominant character traits of some other traditions. In one way or another they are archaic societies so attached to their model in the past that eventual removal causes deep and perhaps irreparable crises. In one sentence we may say that they are unable (or are able only with enormous difficulty) to integrate change with their historical continuity. In spite of this—or because of it—Western man may find them esthetically or ethically appealing, but only because visiting them or even living in their midst, he lives in them, not of them. In conclusion, therefore, let us briefly examine the character traits of Western tradition.

They may begin with the recognition of the person as bearer of a conscience. But note that in the West conscience historically articulated itself as a divided entity, held together in tension: divided between tribal law and moral law, the Jewish king and the Jewish prophet, “Antigone” and “Kreon,” State and Church. Out of this tension was then born the supreme recognition that man is able to “turn around” (periagoge—as in Plato’s cave), to become converted to another vision through a movement of his soul and intellect, True, the Gnostics, this alien yet brotherly body in Western tradition, also teach that the spirit turns around and rejoins the One; but from the start this spirit was an exile down here, “alienated” in this world because made of a different substance than the rest of mankind; he merely returns to the One out of which he had been torn. The world of men, men made of matter (hyle) and soul (psyche), does not concern him since he is pure spirit (pneuma).

Periagoge, on the other hand, translates the movement of conversion which does not presuppose the soul’s change of essence, only a new understanding. It does not have to be a mystic experience, only a philosophical one; but even when it is a mystic experience, the mystic (the Western mystic, in opposition to the Buddhist) is eager to “turn around” again towards other men in order to share with them the overflow of his vision, of his spiritual wealth. And this is, of course, love, expressed in the Western tradition as the recognition also of our right, indeed our duty to exert influence, to teach, to build channels, for example, institutional channels, with a view toward “converting,” influencing, changing. In imperial China, the public official—mandarin—memorized the Confucian texts; in Islam, as we saw, the Koran was the source of authority and of teaching authority as well. Of conversion (teaching) and of institutions for conveying influence other than the consecrated governmental, there was very little in either tradition.

These Western philosophical underpinnings are, in turn, the source of personal right, rights to initiate, rights to public action, rights to property. Conscience is not locked up in meditation; on the contrary, it is extended toward the sphere of objects (science), toward the past (heritage), toward the future (initiative)—things unknown in most other traditions, or known, as it were, through a veil. If they are known to us, so must be their roots, their presuppositions, their unfolding, their history. And the reasons for defending them.


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