The new old ways are the best
I was struck by this line in E.D.’s fine recent post on centralization:
I think there is profound tragedy in the loss of tradition, of folkways and local practices.
I suppose I do too. However, knowing a good number of traditionalists, anachronizers, retro-enthusiasts, and romantics (the category I put E.D. in), I hear this sort of comment often and, as someone who thinks of myself as, well, a creative anachronizer, if not entirely a traditionalist, I’ve never understood how it is that I can entirely agree with the words, while not fully hearing the music.
I think it’s because the traditionalists tend to speak of this loss of traditions as something like the extinctions of species, while I find myself more often agreeing with Jung’s frankly amazing observation that nothing is ever lost in the psyche- note: he meant the collective psyche, which is what I find amazing. Instead of thinking of traditions going extinct, imagine that “lost” traditions are simply latent sources of power, waiting to be revived.
Because it is intriguing how often culture revives dormant traditions and reestablishes them as new. The Renaissance is the classic, and obvious, example. But I’ve observed that many of my friends in the “digital generation” are turning back to traditions, practices, and folkways. My wife just returned from a quilting bee. It was with the women she had a canning party with last fall. Our neighbours, the ones who just started farming, provided the tomatoes. She’s a Wiccan; he’s investigating Catholicism. Other friends are recent converts to Islam, Judaism and evangelical Chrstianity, an apprentice stone mason, a burlesque revivalist, a studying shaman, innumerable knitters and homebrewers, a studying carpenter and a surprising number of people who make their own soap. Do we call these practices “new”, “retro”, “traditional”, or “pseudo-traditional”? Again, I prefer the old standby ‘creative anachronism’. And I think all of this creative anachronizing, if anything, supports the conviction of romantics and traditionalists that sustained traditions and folkways provide something very much needed in human life. Their loss is tragic, if they really are lost.
Of course, many traditionalists, and some romantics, talk mostly about religious traditions, and bemoan the progressive ‘secularisation’ of the modern world. Even there, however, I have a hard time seeing what they’re seeing. James Poulos in an interesting essay on marriage and traditionalism suggests we need an alternative to the ‘secularisation thesis’…
—and a different conceptual point of departure than “modernity.” Perhaps strangely, we can find that alternative in the thought of not only Nietzsche but Alexis de Tocqueville. Both understood that the current time is defined much less by secularization than by the spread of equality—democratization. Each recognized that, in a democratic age, Biblical morality would be opposed only insofar as it retained its noble aspect—its commanding system of yeses and nos that authoritatively establish a moral hierarchy. But both thinkers also knew that Biblical morality contained the most profoundly equalizing moral code that had ever been seen on earth—inspiration for a humanistic democratic ethic that sees all persons as equally unique, autonomous, and valuable.
Circumscribing and defining this tremendous equalization, of course, was the authority of the ultimate inequality—that between a creator God and his human creatures. Tocqueville worried and Nietzsche declared that the creator God was “dead” to the democratic world.
Writers like Durkheim and Freud took secularization as a given in modern, industrial societies. Certainly a problem with both the secularisation and vanishing traditions theories is that, if we define ‘modernity’ in terms of the last few centuries, or even in terms of industrial society, what we see, instead of a dying out of traditions, is a bewildering proliferation of new traditions- national, political, cultural, and even intellectual, sure, but also a staggering amount of religious traditions. I’d be reluctant to set a number of generations a tradition must be handed down in order to consider it venerable or authoritative- certainly, the Mormons would consider themselves ‘traditionalists’ and they’d definitely balk at being called ‘secular’. And they’re not alone. Just in the last two centuries there have been countless new religions established in the west, several old religions revived, revived traditions within established faiths (the practice of Catholic pilgrimage, for example, explodes in the late 1800s- especially in secular Europe), and more secular traditions than one could count. And yet, many people feel that the commanding traditional authority that was once found in the Church is dying out. Why is that?
I have two answers, neither of which is very satisfying. The first is that, for many decades, historiography was mostly centered on social history- in which economic forces shape history and religion is largely insignificant epiphenomena. Thus, much of this might just have been left out of the historical discussion until very recently when cultural history has started bringing it back in, albeit clumsily. The second possibility is that older religious traditions have lost the commanding authority they once had when they were the “only game in town”, where I see Poulos going with the democratization argument. You can follow the traditions of Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Judaism, if you’d like; if not, I’ve got 400 other spritual options and who can say which is better than the rest? I’d imagine that, for religious traditionalists, this open market in traditions might seem close to anarchy.
As you can tell, these are very scattered thoughts. So, what y’all think? Are traditions dying out in the modern world? Being diluted or losing their authority? Or are a thousand traditions in bloom?