Acton Institute Powerblog

What is the role of tradition in renewing Western civilization?

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Does tradition harm progress? Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, in a recent article for Library of Law and Liberty, describes “tradition” as the handing down of beliefs, cultural molds, and historical ways of thinking and living, but also as a means to promoting human flourishing in renewing civilization. He affirms that valuable wisdom that can be found in looking to past traditions, including traditions on either end of the political spectrum. In his search to define tradition and answer these questions, Gregg looks to the prolific writer and great German philosopher Josef Pieper. From the article:

A rather different and more creative understanding of tradition is found in the writings of the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997). Perhaps most famous for his book Leisure as the Basis of Culture (1948), Pieper spent his life engaged not only in lecturing at the University of Münster, but also educating teachers in teacher-training colleges. This was not—and is not—common in German academic culture.
…Pieper’s conception of tradition is the focus of 25 essays and speeches published in 2015 under the title, Tradition as Challenge. From the first page, it is clear that he did not see tradition as an alternative political agenda to, say, liberalism or modern socialism. For him tradition did not entail rejecting technological development, or even promoting particular programs such as distributist economics. Indeed, Pieper avoided sponsoring anything resembling policies let alone political manifestos. His interest was in correctly understanding the tradition that underlies what he conceived of as Western civilization, and understanding how we restate particular moral and philosophical commitments embodied in this tradition amidst changing conditions.

Gregg and Pieper share a unique perspective on what makes tradition valuable. Gregg argues that a true respect for tradition has little to do with the accidental qualities of particular cultural practices or the promotion of a specific political ideology, but rather a “particular moral and philosophical commitment” to upholding the values that comprise what we commonly call Western civilization. In-turn, he shares a common conception of Western civilization with Pieper:

What must be resisted are efforts to obliterate or relativize the kernel, which for Pieper is more or less the Christian West. The words “Christian” and “West” mean much more for him than the geographical space of Western Europe. For one thing, “West” is that which is distinct from the dominant cultures of the Middle East. But above all, Pieper regards the “Christian West” as a distinct set of philosophical and religious commitments. Core to this tradition, he argues, is that which is sacred because it takes “its origins from a ‘Divine’ utterance.” Thus the “Christian West” concerns Revelation, of which, he specifies, the Hebrew Scriptures are a central part. There is no Christian West, Pieper emphasizes, without the Jewish canon.

At the same time, the kernel also contains what is frequently described as “the wisdom of the ancients.” On one level, this wisdom, found in the Platonic dialogues, for example, consists in the Greek emphasis on rationality. But, Pieper observes, the very same wisdom was understood by Plato as “knowledge which has come down from a supra-human source, a theios logos, a divine saying.”

…Acknowledging the compatibility of reason and revelation is not “conservative”; nor is it, for that matter, “liberal” or “Progressive.” Pieper’s point is that splitting reason from revelation (or vice versa) is the antithesis of what it means to be Western. This is why, to Pieper’s mind, Islam can only be foreign to the West’s unique synthesis of faith and reason. The politically incorrect character of this argument does not detract from its saliency. In a 1957 article, Pieper even said that modern Turkey’s secularization was essentially “artificial” precisely because that country’s religious-philosophical design could never really accommodate such a development in a manner similar to that of the Christian West. At a distance of 60 years, that argument seems even more on point than ever.

As Gregg notes, the roots of Western civilization are found in Jewish revelation and Greek wisdom. Gregg goes on to examine Pieper’s Tradition as Challenge; he concludes:

In this sense, Pieper’s reflections continue to be an important resource for those who regard tradition as that which, over time, holds together different insights into the truth of things. Tradition, in Pieper’s understanding, provides us with a powerful light that can expose  those ideas that, in the name of progress, actually facilitate profound regression.

This, I’d suggest, reminds us of how much we rely on tradition to ensure that civilization endures.

To read the full article from Library of Law and Liberty, click here.

Image: Public domain

Devin Ryan