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Tradition and History in the Thinking of Josef Pieper

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Fall, 2009 - Vol. 38, No. 1

Tradition by Josef Pieper, trans. E. Christian Kopff (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008) (T)


Heavy is the burden of he who believes, in these modern times, that man cannot live, or at least cannot live well, without the authority and guidance of tradition. But heavier still must be the burden of he who believes, additionally, that all genuine tradition must be received unaltered and unalloyed from those who were the first to receive its truth as the revealed Word of God. For Josef Pieper, tradition must meet the latter standard, thus raising the immediate question as to whether, according to this criterion, tradition can be said to exist anywhere in the modern world. Perhaps not, if Pieper's most strict and formal definition is to be taken at its literal word.

However, in Tradition: Concept and Claim (recently re-released in ISI Books' Crosscurrents series), Pieper also acknowledges the variation and complexity inherent in what he calls the "process" of history, indicating that we may yet find the gems of "tradita"—those sacred truths, originating in the divine Word, that were handed down to us from previous generations—mixed up and entangled in the "countless different strands" of human history (T, 1). The strand of sacred tradition within this web, Pieper admits, at times becomes fragmented and scattered, thus joining tradition together with the myths, folk wisdom, and philosophy of different historical cultures (T, 52–4). When this occurs, according to Pieper, the great need is for "purification" and "refinement" of the particular traditum (T, 54). But, if possible, it is better that we resist changes to the sacred tradition altogether—a difficult task, indeed, when one considers "the power of the divine word to germinate and spread" (T, 54). Regardless, this preservation and, when necessary, extraction of sacred tradition from amidst the "bewilderingly diverse web" (T, 1) of human history is for Pieper our greatest challenge. And thus, the great question that runs through his brief, though rich and provocative, book is how it may be possible to maintain and preserve sacred truth—that which is said to contain some "vital necessity and . . . basic mission" (T, 3)—in the face of such threats from the flux of history. In short, Pieper's thoughtful and remarkably learned tract is an exploration of the fundamental danger that our historicity poses for what is permanent and abiding in human life.

Is Tradition Anti-Historical?

The title of Pieper's opening chapter asks a question that goes to the heart of the matter: "Is Tradition Anti-Historical?" Properly conceived, Pieper believes that tradition is the act, across generations, of preserving the divine truth of revelation over and against the foreign incursions and forgetting to which tradition is inevitably susceptible over time. In other words, Pieper answers the chapter's central question affirmatively (though he later appears to qualify, if not equivocate, on this point), accepting the fundamental premise that there is something anti-historical about the act or process of tradition: "it is a question of preserving through all change the identity of something presupposed and preexisting, against the passage of time and in spite of it" (T, 2; emphasis added). For Pieper, the distinguishing mark of tradition is precisely this quality of resisting the change that is endemic to history, and this is possible only when nothing is added or taken away, when what is handed down to the next generation is identical to what was handed down from the previous generation (T, 20–1). In this vein, Pieper remarks somewhat poetically, what is consigned to each generation is not so much a possession or even a gift, but a kind of loan that must be passed on yet again in identical form (T, 22). Thus, contrary to more romantically inclined thinkers, who tend to conceive of tradition as an intergenerational community that continually and organically grows, adding to its practices and redefining itself across time, Pieper insists that any change or progress in a tradition—even that which is slow and prudent—must be out of the question. For tradition grounded in divine revelation, what is key is maintaining the purity of the divine logos and resisting all those attempts at originality or creativity which in reality produce mere distortions of the true Word of God (T, 20–1).

Yet there is a somewhat tenuous, if not awkward, quality in Pieper's concept of tradition, which at once demands imperviousness to historical change while at the same time relying on the idea of tradition as an action or process—events that take place across time—to demonstrate this very immunity. This becomes apparent at various points throughout the book, where Pieper aims to differentiate the act of tradition from that of teaching. The distinction appears merely analytic and for purposes of exposition and elucidation at first. However, when viewed in the context of Pieper's approach to historical change, the intent becomes clear. What distinguishes teaching, according to Pieper, is the transmission of human knowledge that need not come from a previous generation. The teacher, in contrast to the person who hands down a tradition, may pass on knowledge that is derived from human experience (individual or collective) or the intellect, which, at some point in the past, was not available. Consequently, the content of what is taught may be knowledge gained through the use of reason—whether deductively from first principles or inductively from experience. New knowledge is passed on and, if maintained, cultural progress is achieved. However, appearing to follow St. Augustine, Pieper argues that the claim of tradition, its inner form or structure, is ultimately based not on the rational powers of the intellect but on belief—both in the divine authority that stands behind such knowledge and those who hand down this sacred tradition (T, 18). Thus, in the act of tradition, Pieper argues, "What is handed down is what has been received, and nothing else. This means that the last one in line receives from his 'father' exactly the same thing as the first in line handed over to his 'son' . . . [and] no accumulation, enrichment, progress takes place . . . [thus] adding nothing to what has been received at the very beginning" (T, 20–1).1 By relying exclusively on belief instead of the powers of the intellect for the sanction of tradition, Pieper aims to avoid the possibility that the content of tradition could be subject to addition or subtraction. He is clear on this point: "It is an essential part of the concept of tradition that no experience and no deductive reasoning can assimilate and surpass what is handed down" (T, 19). As such, Pieper believes that the divine message within genuine tradition is essentially protected from whatever attempts might be made to alter it by the ambitions of the rational mind.

However, in restricting tradition to belief and reliance on what is handed down in a traditum, as against the potential transmission of new knowledge in teaching, Pieper inadvertently highlights tradition's temporal dimension and accentuates tensions latent in his own concept. Attempting to illustrate this contrast with teaching, Pieper undertakes an etymological analysis of "tradition," tracing it back to its Latin origins (T, 13). What is concealed by the noun "tradition," Pieper explains, is the Latin root "trans," which, if one looks at the French verb, "transmettre," can be seen as expressing the act of tradition (T, 13). What comes to light, according to Pieper, in examining this verb form containing both the Latin "trans" and the concept of "movement to a goal" is an implicit reference to three physical locations (T, 13). Pieper explains, "'Transporting,' for example, means not only that something has been conveyed to somewhere or other, but also that something has been moved from a place where the transporter himself is not now located, to another, therefore to a third place. This means that we can talk about an act of tradition, in the strict sense, only when the person who is doing the handing on takes what he is sharing not from himself, but from 'some other place'" (T, 13). Even in the English, Pieper adds, which lacks such roots expressing motion or movement, the same basic concept is communicated when one looks at the closest equivalent to the verb form of tradition: "to hand down" (T, 13). For, Pieper argues, the concept of handing down does not simply express a delivery or sharing of something (as might be the case with a teacher who imparts new insights or discoveries), but also implies three distinct, physical locations: that of the person who does the handing down, that of someone from whom something is received, and that of the ultimate recipient of that which is handed down (T, 14). The key point in the differentiation from mere delivery, presentation, or sharing of knowledge that Pieper aims to establish is the tripartite transmission, "to deliver something that has previously arrived in your hands, which was consigned to you . . . so that it can be received and handed on yet again" (T, 14; emphasis added).

As is indicated above, Pieper's strategy of emphasizing our essential passivity as mere recipients and conduits of tradition who contribute nothing of our own has an unintended consequence. While this strategy is successful in separating sacred tradition from the kind of innovative knowledge associated with teaching, it nonetheless calls attention to the passage of time, often emphasized by those romantically and historically inclined thinkers from whom Pieper seemingly wants to distance his theory. Indeed, the effect of Pieper's tripartite division in his etymological analysis may be further elucidated by reassigning to these segments labels that reflect their moment in the passage of time. Employing Pieper's formulation, we might observe that in the act of transporting, something is moved from a place (before), by a transporter not in that place (during), and conveyed to yet another place (after). This chronological ordering is in fact what is implied in Pieper's ambiguous reference to transporting something from one "place" to another, as opposed to the more literal, but less logical, spatial connotation of the term. Additionally, to the extent that the English "to hand down" indicates this same tripartite transmission, it similarly connotes a sequence that marks the passage of time. Both illustrations, in fact, implicitly point to the multiple persons and circumstances involved in this dynamic "process" of tradition, which never takes place at a single moment in time but is protracted and repetitive, and thus susceptible to all the variation entailed in any multitude of human events.

To be sure, in his more historically sensitive moments, Pieper does display an awareness of the importance of this repetition, noting that "the vital necessity for tradition consists in the fact, as the old aphorism goes, that mankind has a greater need of being reminded than instructed" (T, 22). Such allusions to the threat that forgetting poses for the task of preserving a traditum indicates that Pieper is indeed cognizant of the problematic nature of memory in time. Yet, there is still an odd coincidence here of an emphasis on the multigenerational character of tradition, which exists across history with each handing down as a repeated act and practice, with "the idea of preservation and maintaining purity, which implies that an initial stock . . . is supposed to have been preserved and kept present and so to speak available without subtraction or addition, unadulterated and unmixed with anything foreign or inappropriate through the passage of time from the beginning" (T, 21; emphasis added).2 In highlighting the temporality of tradition, Pieper's tripartite formulation, it appears, only exacerbates the tensions implicit in the concept of an anti-historical tradition.

Despite such tensions, it ought to be acknowledged that Pieper's characterization is nonetheless helpful in understanding tradition he emphasizes the sharing over time that takes place in the act of tradition and the interconnectedness this creates across generations. Where this emerges most clearly is in his reliance on the family structure in his effort to illustrate the concept of "handing down." Citing St. Augustine's formulation, Pieper says that the inner form of tradition may also be expressed, "Quod a patribus acceperunt, hoc filiis tradiderunt," which means, "What they received from their fathers, this they handed down to their sons" (T, 14). This articulation, together with Pieper's emphasis on tradition as an act or a process, as opposed to a noun or a thing, more appropriately stresses the living nature of tradition across time. Moreover, it stands in sharp contrast to the more analytic, atomistic separation of this transmission into discrete moments that can be observed in the tripartite division discussed above. In the more dynamic and organic constitution of the family, one sees the rigid partitioning of Pieper's notion of "handing down" collapse into a more fluid and protracted process that is less pristine and, thus, more accurately mirrors human life.

Historical Consciousness

Perhaps the most insightful discussion in this book is that concerning what it means to participate in a tradition. There is in this section the strong sense that someone who truly "accepts and receives" a tradition is not, in a manner comparable to the most physical or literal receipt of an object or a thing, simply acquiring a piece of information or knowledge from someone (T, 16). Thus, Pieper explains, "the attitude of the person who receives the tradendum is not that of someone who receives information. The practice of tradition does not at all have the form of 'informing' " (T, 16). Rather, what Pieper aims to articulate is the idea of participating in a tradition, which excludes the possibility that one might resemble someone who gains knowledge of a traditum, as if learning about an artifact, but which instead must involve one's adopting a tradition as one's own, or in some way accepting its content as truth for one's life. Pieper contrasts this perspective of the participant in a tradition with that of the historian, who comes into contact with the tradita, indeed with "very exact and extensive knowledge" of them, but without accepting the tradita as his own (T, 16). Consequently, the participant in a tradition differs most fundamentally from the historian in his perspective, in that he does not stand "outside the tradition" (T, 16) as such an observer, but, in his acceptance of its truth, occupies a place within the tradition.

What is interesting and unique about Pieper's thinking here is his conclusion that historical knowledge of a tradition is something that has the potential both to facilitate and to impede genuine acceptance of and participation in a tradition. Historical knowledge cuts both ways, as it were. On the one hand, Pieper argues, "[a]ccepting tradita presupposes knowing them" (T, 16). He goes even further when he approvingly quotes Joachim Ritter on the matter: "It is absolutely correct 'that thanks to the historical and philological work of a century we stand in a more immediate and perhaps even richer participation in the teaching of the 'Ancients' (not only of the European world) than any earlier generation of recorded history" (T, 16; emphasis added). Clearly, Pieper believes that participation in a tradition is in some way enriched or intensified by the kind of historical knowledge that comes through reading and scholarly understanding of one's tradition. More fundamentally, one must "know" or be sufficiently familiar with a tradition in order to accept it truly as one's own. Yet, on the other hand, Pieper warns in this same passage that "the act of accepting the tradita is not only fundamentally different from historical knowledge, it is actually threatened by historical knowledge" (T, 16).3 The problem with developing such historical awareness is that it contributes to a certain distancing or outsider's perspective—similar to that of the historian—vis-a-vis one's own tradition. Pieper makes clearer the danger he attributes to such knowledge when he remarks subsequently that "accepting a traditum," or "reception in the strictest meaning of the term," means "hearing something and really taking it seriously" (T, 17). Thus, when he says that "the modern 'loss of tradition' and 'traditionless thinking' should be entered into the debit column of 'historical consciousness'" (T, 16), we may interpret Pieper as saying that it is this distancing of the historical perspective, or refusal to take seriously the tradita, that contributes to this loss. One apparently comes to resemble the historian who is cognitively aware of the tradita, but who nonetheless refuses to accept them as his own. Consequently, it would appear that for Pieper, historical knowledge or "historical consciousness" has a dual valence—it makes possible the kind of intimate knowledge and familiarity that is essential for genuine acceptance and participation in a tradition, while at the same time it exposes one to the risk of standing at a distance from, or relativizing, the truth-value of the tradita.

While this section on the significance of historical awareness is certainly rich and provocative, Pieper's apparent ambivalence on the matter leaves the reader wanting more. In light of Pieper's observations above, what are we to conclude is the most appropriate disposition toward historical knowledge? Indeed, one is left somewhat puzzled and disturbed by the fact that with respect to the major crisis of our time—the "tradition-less" individual and his nomadic, impressionistic existence—we find in the pursuit of historical knowledge both the potential to remedy and to exacerbate this existential angst. Would Pieper say, then, that there is a certain futility and counterproductive aspect to any attempt to revive our own tradition, and that we may, in fact, make matters worse if that effort should imply a greater degree of historical consciousness? Is Pieper simply recognizing this as the tragic tradeoff associated with living in modernity, with which we must simply come to terms?

To the extent that he provides an answer to such questions, Pieper is only suggestive, rather than explicit. He follows this remark on the paradoxical nature of historical knowledge with an example, lodged within our own tradition, going back to Antiquity. Here Pieper recounts Socrates' telling of the ancient myth of the Judgment after Death, as it is articulated in the Gorgias and the Phaedo. Historical examination of the details around which this myth is constructed, Pieper tells us, will reveal a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies within it. Consequently, "anyone who reflects on all these individual facts may have some understandable difficulty in accepting simply as truth the 'message' that is formulated in the myth of a Judgment after Death. He may be inclined rather to treat the whole thing as 'just a story,' like Callicles in the platonic dialogue Gorgias" (T, 17). In other words, Pieper appears to be saying, were we to adopt a historical perspective toward this traditum of ours, it may indeed have the effect of relativizing the ancient myth that has been handed down. One stands at a critical distance, predisposed not to accept the content of the myth, but to test and scrutinize it in the manner of the historian or sociologist, holding the myth up to the light like an artifact to be inspected. But Pieper appears to see another alternative. In contrast to the historian, he holds up Socrates as the model interpreter of this myth and as having adopted the most appropriate approach to it in light of his own historical knowledge. Socrates, says Pieper, "accepts [the myth's] truth, he takes it seriously, although he knows and even says that no one could rationally prove that every detail is exactly the way the story tells it" (T, 17; emphasis in original). What Pieper appears to be suggesting here is that although historical knowledge does carry this danger of relativizing for us the truths expressed in our tradition, it is more the perspective of the interpreter than the extent of historical knowledge one is exposed to that affects the truth value of a traditum and our willingness to accept it. Pieper concludes, somewhat obliquely:

The crucial point is the message itself, which says in this case that there will be, on the other side of death, an event which will bring together the divine and human spheres, where the true results of our earthly existence will become manifest once and for all. In symbolic language this is called 'the Judgment of the Dead.' This message is the only thing that matters to Socrates. He considers it so valid that he orders his entire life in accordance with it. (T, 17)

But what does it mean to read a myth or story only, or specifically, for its "message"? Is Pieper not, essentially, telling us to accept such known inaccuracies as truth, if he holds up Socrates as the model interpreter, who accepts these stories as true in spite of their inaccuracies? Is Pieper not, then, vulnerable to the charge of promoting his own form of relativism in encouraging us to accept as true stories we know to be historically false?

I think the answer that Pieper would give—going back to an earlier point (and one that shall be returned to again shortly)—is that acceptance of the truth and validity of a tradition is to be based not in the verifying research of the interpreter, but in his belief, which must ultimately be grounded in divine authority. Were verification of a traditum to be based on the experience or rational argument of the listener, its truth value would look more like that of the natural or social scientist—here, in particular, the historian. But, Pieper argues, "accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief. It is belief, since belief means accepting something as true and valid not on the basis of my own insight, but by relying on someone else" (T, 18; emphasis in original). Thus, we might say, Socrates needed no proof or verification of the myth to establish its validity, since he already believed it to be true in light of its being handed down to him from the gods.

However, there is an alternative way of understanding the truth claim of an ancient myth that is worth mentioning here. According to this approach, Pieper is correct in stating that "the crucial point [for the truth-value of a myth] is the message itself," and in saying this he is also implying that there is a criterion for judging such stories that is separate and distinct from the historical facts that the historian would use to scrutinize them. But, it is possible to take Pieper's account of the truth status of myths in a somewhat different direction from his exclusive grounding in belief. Such myths and stories may also be deemed "true" or "valid" insofar as they use symbols to represent to us some deep and abiding reality about our lives. As Irving Babbitt would contend, drawing on Edmund Burke, such images and symbols ought to be seen as "all the decent drapery of life,"4 which provides human beings, analogically, with an intuitive grasp of the meaningful experiences it is possible to have in a human life. These images and symbols not only show life at its most ethical and unethical, but they convey all of the tragedy, the frustration, the fulfillment, and the hopeful possibilities that life has to offer. In this way, the aesthetic or artistic mode of expression engages the imagination as a means of communicating some of the deepest truths that human beings have discovered about themselves. Indeed, it is with an incipient awareness of this potential of the imagination that Aristotle characterizes poetry as more philosophical than history.5

Thus, there may indeed be a profound truth to the myth of the Judgment of the Dead, but in order to see it, we must engage the imagination, instead of attempting to examine such a story through the narrow, empirical reason of the modern historian. As a result, it may be perfectly acceptable for such a story to contain the kinds of trivial inaccuracies and inconsistencies that Pieper alludes to, provided it conveys to its recipients a deeper understanding of themselves, thus satisfying a quite different standard of "truth." So, for example, when the myth of the Judgment of the Dead refers to three (or four) judges passing judgment over our actions and to a place such as Hades, we may conceive of this story as true insofar as it expresses the sense most of us have had at one point or another that all of our actions are ultimately "judged" by a universal standard that is immanent in all human conduct and that this judgment will be laid bare for future generations to see long after we are gone.

As such, the abiding reality to which such myths may or may not correspond is not, as the historian would have it, the trivia (in the most literal sense) of history, but the broad experience of generations prior—the experience, as Burke would say, through which the hand of Providence has made its indelible mark on history. These myths, fables, and stories are important precisely because they communicate across generations certain realities about what it means to live a truly human life. But such stories, because they engage the imagination and are expressed through the use of images and symbols, do not come in the form in which the historian is used to thinking. It is thus unsurprising that if such stories are approached with the unimaginative mindset of the positive historian, they might be judged by an empirical standard of truth, looked at as artifacts of a primitive culture, and ultimately dismissed as "just stories." In light of this, we might consider it emblematic of our modern mindset that we ourselves have come to resemble the positive historian. And it is indicative of our lack of imagination that, as a result, any increase in historical knowledge by itself will risk relativizing our tradition for us. However, this also tells us what is most needed to remedy this problem—it is, as Pieper indicates, the perspective possessed by Socrates in the Gorgias. However, what has been added to Pieper's analysis here is the claim that this perspective is an imaginative perspective, one that is able to grasp the "message" of such ancient stories and take them really seriously. Consequently, the kind of "historical consciousness" of which we are in need is not just any exposure to historical knowledge but, more specifically, an exposure to the broad body of literature in which these myths, fables, and stories have been accumulating for over two millennia.


For most political theorists and philosophers interested in tradition, the concept of authority plays a prominent role in their thinking and, at least in this respect, Pieper is no different. As has already been noted, Pieper grounds the binding claim that tradition makes on its members in the divine revelation that is the source of the sacred truth handed down through previous generations. The only foundation for accepting the validity of a traditum is, ultimately, the individual's belief in its divine authority. To repeat a previously cited formulation, "It is an essential part of the concept of tradition that no experience and no deductive reasoning can assimilate and surpass what is handed down" (T, 19). As St. Augustine was similarly aware, such an acknowledgment would necessarily attenuate the status of this divine authority. Understanding the acceptance of tradition as grounded in belief means that tradition is fundamentally based on the idea of "relying on someone else," and this, Pieper says, is what ties tradition to the concept of authority, such that "we cannot think of tradition without authority" (T, 23). Indeed, he argues that this has long been the case, and he notes that during the Middle Ages, authority or "auctoritas" was in fact the name for tradition and represented, together with "ratio" or reason, the two possible sources of justification for an argument in a scholastic discussion (T, 23). Pieper claims that what distinguishes authority from other sources of knowledge, such as reason, is that one who relies on it "does not himself possess direct access to what he is hearing from someone else" (T, 24).

There is clearly something foreign to the modern ear about the epistemological humility inherent in such a position. For it implies that the individual on his own may not always be in the best position to make moral judgments and, thus, might need to rely on others who know better than he. However, theorists who are unsympathetic to the claims of tradition are often disturbed by what is seen as a blind trust of the past over the critical reasoning of the present.6 For such thinkers, often of an Enlightenment cast of mind, it appears that to embrace uncritically what is inherited from the past is to endorse the arbitrariness of the status quo, i.e., whatever it is that history happens to throw up. Such criticisms implicitly (or explicitly) give added importance to the need to justify the basis for such authority. Consequently, anyone who acknowledges the authority of tradition is called upon to say why this someone else upon whom he or she relies may be said to possess superior knowledge about what is right or good, knowledge of which the individual in the present is said to be deprived. For Pieper, who advances a theory of sacred tradition, there is no ecclesiastical or theological basis for the authority of those who hand down a traditum. Rather, he tells us that the basis for their authority is simply their nearer proximity to the origin of the traditum, i.e., to the divine revelation that gave this sacred truth to man. Thus, he argues, "it seems to belong to the nature of the process of tradition that not only the one who is at the moment the last in line, but all the links are supported by and rely on someone of whom it is supposed that he is directly closer to the origin of the traditum and can testify to and vouch for its validity" (T, 24).

Alasdair MacIntyre's concept of authority and its role in his broader theory of tradition stands in interesting contrast to Pieper's.7 What is interesting is that while Pieper may be said to base all authority in his theory on knowledge of a "what," MacIntyre, by contrast, bases his notion of authority on knowledge of a "how." To explain this distinction, it is first necessary to establish that Pieper and MacIntyre have contradictory conceptions of the relationship between history and truth. We have said that Pieper believes that the preservation of a sacred tradition requires resistance to historical change as the tradita are handed down from one generation to the next. The sacred truths within a tradition may come to light for human beings only insofar as they successfully withstand the change that is endemic to history and, as such, Pieper says, there is something anti-historical about genuine tradition. However, for MacIntyre, tradition is by its very nature historical, and yet this does not jeopardize human contact with the truth. Thus, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre defends the idea of tradition-informed inquiry as a method of philosophical inquiry that occupies a middle ground between the overly historical genealogical method exemplified by Nietzsche and the thoroughly anti-historical method represented by Descartes.8 MacIntyre's basic argument is that certain historically contingent practices are in fact preconditions for the pursuit of the truth, practices of which the ancients, in particular, were well aware. Claiming to echo Plato in the Republic and the Gorgias, MacIntyre asserts that "it is a precondition of engaging in rational enquiry through the method of dialectic that one should already possess and recognize certain moral virtues without which the cooperative progress of the dialectic will be impossible."9 Since acquiring such virtues will require habituation to them, it is only by living within a certain type of community, or tradition, in which they are taught that one can be properly prepared for the pursuit of the truth. Thus, for MacIntyre, one's historical tradition (provided that it teaches such habits) is not an impediment to, but actually a precondition for, contact with the truth.

More specifically, MacIntyre argues that such an inquirer into the truth "has to learn how to make him or herself into a particular kind of person if he or she is to move towards a knowledge of the truth."10 But to learn what "particular kind of person" one must become, or the character and corresponding virtues one must possess in order to pursue the truth, it is necessary to "[make] oneself into an apprentice to a craft, the craft in this case of philosophical enquiry."11 Like any other craft (techne), the learning of such a craft is said to center around the relationship between master and apprentice, and the apprentice's learning of the practice of the craft will consist in the master's and eventually his own identification of character flaws.12 The latter will consist in "defects and limitations in habits of judgment and habits of evaluation, rooted in corruptions and inadequacies of desire, taste, habit, and judgment."13 What is essential is that the standards of achievement for the virtues to be acquired are present in the craft itself,14 and, more broadly, that they find their justification in the larger tradition from which the craft emerges.15

MacIntyre's concept of authority stands as a nice point of reference or basis for comparison with Pieper's concept. For Pieper, there is in fact a relationship between teacher and student similar to the one described by MacIntyre. However, Pieper is adamant that this relationship falls within the realm of teaching and learning, as opposed to tradition. Appearing to echo MacIntyre, Pieper says that the student must initially accept trustingly and uncritically what the teacher tells him (T, 18). Further, Pieper similarly describes a maturation process in the student, whereby a point of "critical independence of judgment" can be reached, "which over time transforms what has been simply accepted into something that we know of ourselves" (T, 18). Thus far, Pieper's description of the learning process bears a strong resemblance to the master-apprentice relationship in MacIntyre's ideal mode of moral inquiry—that is, until Pieper makes a crucial distinction. Because of the reliance on uncritical belief at the earliest stage of the learning process, Pieper says, "in this earliest phase the activity of learning is really similar to the activity of tradition—similar, but not the same" (T, 18). The crucial difference between the two activities, which is present even at this early phase of learning, is that "the teacher from the beginning already knows and recognizes of himself what he is teaching, whereas the person who hands down tradition can see through the tradita just as little as the recipient of tradition. No 'older generation' knows any more about the Judgment After Death than the last in line, to whom this traditum is handed down" (T, 18).

What Pieper appears to be saying here is that the validity of tradition is based on belief, all the way down, whereas teaching and learning typically have a critical basis—the teacher (and ultimately, if all goes well, the student) can "see through" what is taught on their own, using their critical reasoning. However, there is a certain uncritical acceptance, or blindness, that comes with unconditioned belief, especially belief that is ultimately grounded in the divine. It will never find its basis in the kind of critical attitude of which the student and the teacher are engaged. It is thus not accidental that at the beginning of the next section, in the very next sentence, in fact, Pieper makes his remark that no experience or deductive reasoning can surpass the content of sacred tradition (T, 19). For Pieper, the acquisition of critical judgment and the teacher-student relationship that brings it about must be properly relegated to the sphere of education and learning. But, when an older generation passes down a traditum or sacred truth to a younger generation, no such capacity is involved—the transmission is restricted to a body of knowledge.

What this means for a comparison of these thinkers is that what we have here are two concepts of authority based on very different types of knowledge. In Pieper, all authority is based on knowledge of sacred truths that have been handed down from previous generations, each basing the authority of the generation immediately prior on nearer proximity to the origin of the truths—one might think of such knowledge of the original tradita as knowledge of a "what." In MacIntyre, however, authority is grounded in the critical judgment16 of the master, i.e., those "habits of judgment and habits of evaluation"17 that the apprentice must learn and imitate—one might think of such knowledge of the techne of philosophy as knowledge of a "how." For MacIntyre, the master not only possesses these virtues himself but must also know how to bring them about in the apprentice.18 The master, like Pieper's teacher, but unlike his conveyor of tradition, does appear to know and recognize of himself what he is teaching.

One suspects that for a thinker so steeped in the Thomistic philosophical tradition as Pieper, known in particular for his contributions to thinking about the virtues, this is not exhaustive of what he has to say about the development of good character.19 However, nowhere in Pieper's discussion of authority does he recognize the importance of superior character or the capacity for sound moral judgment, instead choosing to focus exclusively on proximity to the origin of sacred truth. Indeed, there are, unfortunately, few points of contact here between his understanding of character development and his theory of tradition. It is unfortunate because it is precisely this type of knowledge, which one finds within MacIntyre's conception of authority—knowledge of a "how" as opposed to that of a "what"—that could help Pieper explain how what is permanent in human existence truly does transcend historical change. For only human beings of good character, who emerge from a particular type of historical tradition, are capable of responding in a morally right way to the unexpected and unpredictable circumstances associated with such change. In this manner, human beings may not always know "what" is to be done in advance of historical circumstances, but—provided they have developed and refined this capacity for moral judgment—they will have a sense of "how" to partake in right conduct.20 Moreover, although this kind of learning of virtuous conduct and good character stands in contrast to learning a fixed set of prescriptions for moral conduct, it can nonetheless be shown to be consistent—indeed, it is more consistent—with the tradita of Christianity discussed in Pieper's theory.

The One and the Many21

The theme that has repeatedly emerged throughout this essay is that Pieper's theory of tradition, though insightful at times, inadequately attends to the nature of historical change, and this appears to be related to his attempt to explain how what is truly permanent and abiding in human existence is able to endure within the flux of human history. In short, Pieper is wrestling with the question of how it is possible for the transcendent to persist amidst the immanence of human life. If this is an accurate portrayal of what is being deliberated in Pieper's short tract on tradition, then it ought to be fully acknowledged that his theory is not susceptible to the charge of being ahistorical, or at least, it is not ahistorical tout court. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that Pieper displays a discernible awareness of the duality of human existence—originally identified by Plato as the problem of the One and the Many—in which life's diversity, particularity, and immanence can be observed alongside its singularity, universality, and transcendence. But, what may be more accurate to say—and this is precisely the point that Pieper misses—is that the latter, life's universality, in fact becomes realized, not in spite of, but through or by virtue of life's particularity. For it is only by virtue of immanent, historical manifestations of good or right conduct among humans that what is truly transcendent becomes realized. Pieper's understanding of history is thus flawed insofar as he assumes, to the contrary, that the historicity of human life—its ineluctable change over time—must impede, rather than facilitate, that which endures. Because of this faulty premise, Pieper arrives at the mistaken conclusion that the act or process of tradition "is a question of preserving through all change the identity of something presupposed and preexisting, against the passage of time and in spite of it" (T, 2; emphasis added). However, it is also possible to conceive of tradition as existing, not in spite of historical change, but because of or by virtue of such change. Moreover, in what follows, it will be argued that there is in Pieper's thinking an incipient awareness of the possibility that immanence and transcendence might coexist interdependently and, therefore, that the continuity that marks tradition is made possible, not by virtue of a successful resistance to historical change, but precisely because the right sort of historical change has occurred.

Earlier it was mentioned that Pieper emphasizes the need to maintain and preserve the tradita of sacred tradition in all its purity against historical change, so that "no accumulation, enrichment, progress takes place" (T, 15). So emphatic is Pieper on this point that he explicitly remarks that "tradition precisely does not grow" and that in the process of handing down a tradition, "even the slightest deviation will be avoided, [and] nothing will be left out and nothing added" (T, 21; emphasis in original). However, such remarks, to say the least, appear to be in tension with his identification earlier in the text of a main obstacle to the genuine acceptance and receipt of a tradition, that "the older generation no longer possesses a living image of what is handed down, and we are already dealing with what is called 'bad preservation'" (T, 15). For in order to ensure that a tradition is "living" for new generations, Pieper argues, one cannot simply hand down the "old truths" of a traditum in the same form (T, 15). Instead, he says that these truths "[must] be kept really alive and present—for example and before anything else, by means of a living language; through creative rejuvenation and sloughing off the old skin like a snake, so to speak; through a continual confrontation with the immediate present and above all with the future, which in the human realm is the truly real" (T, 15).22 Thus, for all his talk of preservation, purity, and handing down something identical to what one receives, Pieper here has a strong sense that the continuity or permanence of a genuine tradition actually requires change. On this view, maintaining the spirit of a tradition actually demands creative engagement of the present with the past, and it is only through such continual encounters that the past can truly be said to be "alive" or "rejuvenated" in the present. Pieper continues (almost seeming to warn against the type of thinking to which he later succumbs), "It is especially clear . . . how little real tradition is something purely static, and how false it is to confuse the concept of tradition with inertia, never mind with stagnation. In truth, the activity of the living transmission of a traditum is a highly dynamic business" (T, 15). With reference to these remarks, it is important to note that such change does not simply appear incidental to or capable of being endured by a genuine tradition, but actually appears necessary for the perpetuation of that tradition.23 If Pieper has not contradicted himself, at a minimum these remarks significantly modify his claims that the transmission of a tradition must involve no alterations whatsoever.

Pieper comes perhaps even closer to recognizing the interdependence of permanence and change in a genuine tradition when he returns later to the problem of "bad preservation," which for him refers to a static or stagnant tradition no longer meaningful for those living in the present (T, 45–6). Pieper tells us, a sacred tradition must be continually reinterpreted in order to confront changing circumstances, so that it may continue to have meaning and be understood in the present moment (T, 45). Once again, he implies the possibility of a tradition's remaining "alive" through change:

We can see here . . . how exciting and dynamic the act of tradition is. People simply miss the true situation when they oppose "tradition," as what stays the same, to "history," as the essence of change. For one thing, the preservation of the tradita, even "bad" preservation, is one process within the total process "history," just as much as the rise and fall of empires or the increasing exploitation of the forces of nature. In addition, the effective presence of the tradita can only be achieved as the result of an eminently historical effect—"historical" now understood in the stricter sense of immediate relevance. (T, 45–6)

Not only does Pieper reiterate his insistence that tradition must be "dynamic," but he rejects the opposition between tradition as that which does not change and history as that which changes. Moreover, by stating that all preservation is "one process within" the larger process of history, Pieper would appear, promisingly, to subsume continuity within change. Yet, in the final sentence of this passage, Pieper hesitates, claiming that while it is an "historical effect" that allows for the "effective presence" of the tradita, he wishes to avoid certain implications of "historical" and thus qualifies this term to mean "historical . . . in the stricter sense of immediate relevance." Thus, Pieper appears to vacillate here—clearly he is not comfortable with the idea that preservation would require the type of stultifying repetition involved in "bad preservation," yet he also hesitates to say that it is historical change that facilitates preservation. What enables old truths to become relevant to contemporary circumstances, Pieper argues, is the "historical effect" of reinterpretation and their acquiring "immediate relevance" to the present. For Pieper, the interpretive process by which a tradition confronts new circumstances is at once historical, dynamic, and creative of new understanding, but it does not involve change.

There is one final point worth noting with respect to Pieper's apparent reluctance to embrace the concept of continuity through historical change. As was previously remarked, Pieper believes that the only genuine tradition is sacred tradition, and he appears to recognize little more than a pragmatic or utilitarian value to secular customs insofar as there is "less friction" in our communal life because of them (T, 37–8). While it is true that movements to rid our lives of every convention or prejudice are ill-conceived, Pieper says, in an apparent tip of the hat to Burke, there is nothing truly binding in the claims that such conventions make on us (T, 39).24 What Pieper aims to establish here is the distinction between sacred tradition and secular tradition, and he argues that it is only in a sacred tradition that finds its origins in a divine speech that we can identify the true and most genuine form of tradition (T, 40–2). But what is striking about the way Pieper defines these two categories is not so much his dismissal of secular tradition, as the way he narrowly conceives sacred tradition itself. For, if all sacred tradition is limited to that which originates in a divine speech, this would obviate all of the ways in which the divine, or the transcendent, in fact becomes immanent within history and part of our sacred tradition as well. Pieper's narrow conception of sacred tradition would thus appear to exclude from sacred tradition any providential presence in human history. For, whenever the actions of man conform with and model themselves after the Original Divine presence of the Incarnation, there is a sense in which those actions share in that divinity and become concretized as part of the sacred truth of our tradition as well. It is, therefore, by virtue of this providential presence—the divine manifested within history—that, pace Pieper, our sacred tradition does indeed change, become enriched, and progress slowly over time. And it is by virtue of such novel instantiations of the good over time that transcendence is realized immanently within history and adds to a sacred tradition which extends beyond the written Word.


Pieper writes a provocative and learned reflection on the concept of tradition and the claim that it makes on us. In so doing, he appears to be wrestling with the fundamental duality of our existence, that human life can be characterized as simultaneously One and Many, universal and particular. Pieper assumes that in order to establish permanence in human history, it is essential to preserve the purity of our sacred tradition against historical change and in spite of it. However, what this fails to grasp is that continuity in history is only made possible by virtue of such change, i.e., novel and diverse human action that is in accordance with the concretizations of what is right in the past. Thus, human beings continually add to their sacred tradition insofar as they use the instantiations of the good in the past as a model for right conduct. As such, there will never be a fixed and rigid set of prescriptions for future action, but the well-attuned imaginations and good character of individuals will prepare them for needed action, allowing them to respond to unanticipated circumstances in a way that realizes the transcendent within the flux of history.

Ryan R. Holston
Virginia Military Institute

  1. This does not address the issue of subsequent revelation, which appears to be the only legitimate way to add to sacred tradition (though Pieper does not see this as an addition, per se). Indeed, Pieper later argues that the revelation associated with Christ's death and resurrection is part of the same sacred tradition found in the myths of the Ancients and, ultimately, the earliest human history (T, 34). Pieper does not see such subsequent revelation as an addition to or "accumulation" of the sacred tradition, presumably because he believes, with Augustine (among others), it is of the same "divine logos" (T, 30). Still, it would appear problematic not to recognize any alteration or addition to the sacred tradition in light of them.
  2. Note the contradiction into which Pieper's time-sensitive language falls in attempting to avoid the change associated with the passage of time. Preservation through history thus appears to imply the continuation of the present on into the future.
  3. In this context, Pieper notes Karl Jaspers' sense of the "extremely complicated problem of 'historical research and tradition'" (Ibid.). I take Pieper (and Jaspers) to be referring to the perspective of the historical researcher as it evolves from participant in a tradition to historian. When this occurs, Jaspers says, "tradition vanishes, while perhaps all the documents are still there" (cited in ibid.).
  4. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979), 128.
  5. This famous remark of Aristotle's seems particularly pertinent here, where the intent is to contrast the empirically historical and imaginative perspectives and their rival standards of truth. However, it is unfortunate that Pieper explicitly questions the opinion of some scholars, who say that Aristotle believed the "ancients," i.e., those who hand down the truth, to be the poets: "I am not convinced that Aristotle really held the 'poetical' to be the decisive element," (T, 26). The status of the ancients, Pieper says, is not based on any insight they have to offer, but the fact that "they are the recipients of a completely unusual gift [i.e. the traditum]" (T, 27).
  6. One prominent example of this can be found in the well-known exchange or "debate" that took place between Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer over the normative status of an inherited tradition. In short, Habermas, writing from within the framework of a revised Kantianism, charges Gadamer with advocating an excessively conservative predisposition toward one's inherited tradition, and believes that one's historical practices must always be submitted to the scrutiny of critical reason before they may enjoy any claim to legitimacy. For an informative overview of this exchange, see Ingrid Scheibler, Gadamer: Between Heidegger and Habermas (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), esp. chapters 1 & 2, and also Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985), esp. pp. 162–93.
  7. In what follows, I focus on MacIntyre's discussion of authority found in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). While this work does not exhaust what MacIntyre has written about authority, it is nonetheless among his most important and extensive treatments of the concept.
  8. See MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry.
  9. Ibid., 60.
  10. Ibid., 61.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 62.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 63.
  15. Ibid., 64.
  16. In addition to this authority based on the capacity of the master for good judgment, Jean Porter has insightfully pointed to two other types of authority in MacIntyre's work: the provisional authority in oral and written texts and an authority that oversees the direction of a tradition's overall development. See Porter, "Tradition in the Recent Work of Alasdair MacIntyre," in Alasdair MacIntyre, ed. Mark C. Murphy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 62–3.
  17. MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 62.
  18. Ibid., 66.
  19. See Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), Guide to Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), et al.
  20. Of course, the moral virtues that serve as preconditions for the pursuit of the truth are not necessarily the same as the moral virtues that prepare us for, and predispose us to, moral conduct, though one would expect there to be some overlap between them. This is an important distinction, insofar as sound moral judgment is not the same thing as sound philosophical judgment—just as doing what is right is not the same as, and does not follow from, knowing what is right—and MacIntyre's focus on the latter may be seen as a function of an intellectualist proclivity in his thinking.
  21. What follows is an appropriation of Claes Ryn's theory of value-centered historicism. A useful introduction to this theory may be found in Ryn, "Universality and History," Humanitas 6, no. 1 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993). A fuller statement can be found in Ryn, A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003) and its most complete articulation is in Ryn, Will, Imagination, and Reason: Babbitt, Croce, and the Problem of Reality (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997).
  22. The precise meaning of a tradition's "confrontation" with the present is somewhat ambiguous here.  Pieper appears to be referring to the need for an adjustment or attunement of the past to present circumstances, such that the original spirit of a tradition may be kept alive in the sense of staying relevant or meaningful for those living in the present by virtue of certain changes to the tradition. But, it is also possible to read Pieper as referring to a hermeneutic encounter between past and present, in the sense that the past must be understood and interpreted through the lens of the present. Regardless of Pieper's precise meaning in using this phrase, it would appear that the alterations in the first instance above would require the reinterpretation involved in the second instance. Conversely, once one recognizes the historicity of the interpreter himself standing within the tradition, it becomes apparent that any reinterpretation of a tradition would have to require some alteration to the content of the tradition. The original theory of such interpretive encounters between past and present is found in Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 2004).
  23. Pieper's brief acknowledgement here that the continuity of tradition actually depends upon change may be said to echo Edmund Burke's often-cited remark that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation" (Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987]), 19.
  24. Pieper cites Aquinas on this point, in particular, his discussion in the Summa Theologiae I-II.97.2 pertaining to positive law and the question of when justice requires changes to the law. Pieper acknowledges Thomas' point that sometimes worse laws should be allowed to continue in force to prevent injurious disruption to the common good, but concludes that there is clearly a distinction here between mere human convention that is allowed to continue and a genuine traditum, (T, 38–9). However, Pieper does not mention Thomas' remark in close proximity to this that there is also reason to believe in the justice of those customs that have been in place for some time, simply by virtue of their repetition and continued existence. Cf. Summa Theologiae I-II.97.3.