The Future of Tradition
[font=Garamond, Times]Can it withstand the onslaught of abstract reasoning?
BY LEE HARRIS
Friday, July 22, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT
America has been in the midst of a culture war for some time and will probably remain so for some time longer. But culture war is not peculiar to this country. Indeed, there have been at least three great culture wars fought in the course of Western history, including one contemporaneous with the rise of the Sophists in ancient Greece, the epoch identified with the French Enlightenment and the German Aufklärung, and our own current battle. The first two ended in disaster for the societies in which they occurred–and the outcome of the third is still pending.
Each of these wars has its own particular antagonists, each its own weapons of combat, each its own battlefield. But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.
In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.
Indeed, there could be no better example of this disdainful attitude toward inherited tradition than that displayed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in discussing her court’s legalization of gay marriage, clearly expressed by her summary dismissal of any opposition to the high court’s decision as arising from nothing more than “residual personal prejudice.” Against such opposition, it is no wonder that many conservatives–including many of those who call themselves neoconservatives–have attempted to combat the opponents of tradition with their opponents’ own weapon of enlightened rationality.
But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason–can we rationally justify keeping it? Suppose we have been raised in the belief that we must wash our hands before every meal in order to appease a local deity in our pantheon, say, the god of the harvest; and suppose again that we have come to learn of the hygienic benefits of washing our hands before every meal. Must we keep the absurd tradition once we have grasped its scientific rationale? In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses. Where reason shines forth, then, tradition is no longer necessary. Hence the question before us: In a world that is being more and more rationalized, does tradition have a future? Or will we one day look upon it as we now look upon the myths of the ancient world–quaint and amusing, but of no real relevance to our lives?