In the fourth chapter of his book Religion in the Modern World, Walter James, 4th Baron Northbourne, provides a wonderfully clear and succinct précis of the ideas at the basis of Traditionalist thought:
Tradition, in the rightful sense of the word, is the chain that joins civilization to Revelation. It comprises all the distinctive characteristics that make any given civilization what it is, including those that can more specifically be called religious. Every Divine Revelation has inaugurated not only a new Religion, but also a new civilization, each with its own particular advantages and limitations, its own genius, its own point of view and its own arts and sciences.
Tradition and civilization are not mere accidents of time and place, nor are they human inventions, nor yet mere mechanical responses to environment, that is to say, products of evolution in the modern scientific sense of the word. … Tradition could be said to make history rather than to be made by history. Its origin is the kind of direct divine intervention we call Revelation, and all its potentialities are present, though not manifested, at its inception.
The chain of Tradition is usually considered in its historical, temporal or ‘horizontal’ aspect, though it also has a social, spatial or ‘vertical’ aspect. In its historical aspect it is a real spiritual heredity, the continuity of which is preserved by the initiatic transmission of a function to each individual from his predecessor. We are familiar with a sacred or initiatic transmission of function in the case of priests and kings, and as a matter of history in the case of certain crafts, particularly that of building. In a fully traditional civilization a comparable kind of transmission exists, in many different outward forms, in respect of every essential function in the community. It ensures the effective integration of each function with the providential pattern of the civilization in question, so that there is nothing that is not sacred, at least in principle, and the words spiritual heredity have a real meaning.
There is indeed a close analogy with physical heredity, the continuity of which is unquestionable. Physical heredity is the basis of the unity of the family and the race, which exist only for so long as their hereditary continuity is unbroken. A break in that continuity is final: it can by no conceivable means be repaired; a family that has died out has died out forever. It is cut off from its origin. Anything that may replace it is not the same family, whatever it may be called. The rupture of a spiritual heredity can be no less final, and for a comparable reason, namely, a break in the chain of tradition.
The chain of Tradition in its social or vertical aspect appears as the hierarchy of functions which unifies the collectivity, much as the various organs of a single living creature are unified by their subordination one to another, as well as by their interdependence. A firmly established hierarchy of functions is a condition of unity and vitality in a civilization; it forms a chain that links the highest to the lowest, as well as a chain that links the past with the future. In such a society a man’s function is more important than his individual character. Without an established function man can be neither useful nor content. Where such a hierarchy exists most people will exercise their function through service to a hierarchical superior, who is regarded, not so much as an individual, but as the holder for the time being of an office necessary to the maintenance of the coherence of the civilization, and as representing a link in the chain through which the spiritual influence descends and gives life to all. The effective continuity of the chain is independent of the fact that the holder of a particular office may sometimes, as an individual, be unworthy of his position. Thus the humblest function is integrated with the whole, and every man can feel, though it be but subconsciously, that his work is justified by something greater than its tangible results.
Modern civilization is built on a very different foundation, one in which standard of living has become the only criterion that is taken seriously. Tradition, Religion and everything else are subordinated to that point of view, to which the epithet ‘profane’ is entirely appropriate, since its derivation relates to those who stand outside the sacred precinct.
The change in point of view from traditional to profane really originates in a gradual restriction of the field of vision, associated with the centrifugal tendency of all manifestation, exemplified in time by the evident fact that everything gets progressively farther from its origin. The result is a kind of myopia limited in its range to the world of sensorial perceptions. What is claimed as greatly increased knowledge of the universe is in fact confined to a relatively unimportant aspect of that universe, namely its outward appearance.
There is almost a kind of willfulness about all this, a deliberate relegation to a subsidiary position of everything that is above the plane of earthly existence. There is a calculated rejection of the celestial in favor of the terrestrial in almost all we do, if not in all we say. The fact is that, willfully or not, we no longer in general see heaven and hell as realities, nor do we sense that reality of which all visible things are but shadows. The profane point of view is therefore highly unrealistic, though it prides itself on its realism.
The two points of view situate the ultimate reality of things at two opposite poles—matter and the Spirit. Consequently in every field of thought and activity they are in conflict. For instance, from the traditional point of view, the history of the world had a divine beginning and must therefore also have a divine end, a Day of Judgment, so that history is cyclical and not continuous nor of indefinite extent. From the profane point of view history is regarded as indefinite, without beginning and without end, like a boundless matrix filled with events and things of varying but always relative importance. No place can be found for notions of creation or Revelation or Judgment.
In the first case the reality of the world is contingent on the superior reality of a Creator, Preserver, and a Judge; in the second case time and space and their contents alone are real and everything else, including the truths of Religion, is conjectural. In the first case there is an absolute Truth, reflected more directly in Religion than in anything else, so that only certain applications of it are matters of opinion; in the second case all truth is relative, and there is nothing except that which can be directly observed and measured which is not a matter of opinion. In the first case a man normally allows his Tradition to think for him to a greater or lesser extent, relying on a wisdom that is postulated to be the divinely ordained source of his Tradition. In the second every man must think for himself, at least to the extent of choosing whom of his fellow men he will allow to think for him, so that there is no guidance more reliable than that proceeding from the activity of the human brain, despite the fact that the results of that activity, in the form of the opinions of the philosophers, scientists or experts are as varied and conflicting as are the opinions of those who look to them for guidance.
Traditionally the story of mankind is the story of a descent from an Edenic state accompanied by the possibility of a renascent; modernistically it is the story of a progress from a primitive or backward to an advanced state. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the changes in contemporary thought and activity attributable to this particular inversion of outlook. Traditionally man is an instrument in the hands of God; modernistically he is an independent being in control of his own destiny. Thus he puts himself in the place of God, both as the orderer of his own life and also as one to whom all service is due.
Tradition sees the hand of God in everything; modernism sees nothing but blind forces.
Such, very briefly, is the fundamental change of outlook that has taken place. As to its effects, they are everywhere for anyone who cares to see. They are seen in the development of modern industry, with its destruction of that pride of function or craftsmanship in which the most important objective is the perfection of the work and only second the reward it may bring. They are seen in that inevitable corollary of industry, namely advertising, which keeps industry going by an artificial and antispiritual stimulation of desire for more and more possessions and distractions, besides affording a readily available channel for subtler propaganda. In art, where a desire to escape from the boredom of a purely profane reproduction of nature leads to the exaltation of infantilism and psychopathic distortion. And not least in politics, wherein the democratic idea replaces the hierarchical, and power is, at least in theory, put into the hands of those who collectively and by definition embody the average intelligence.
[T]his is not even common sense. Aristocracy is the only common sense, provided that it really is government by the best, and that the best really have the right qualifications. The power of the average is in any case always ineffectual because it is inevitably dominated by something less mediocre than itself, either, as in a traditional civilization, by intelligences hierarchically ordered in an upward direction, or, where for one reason or another the hierarchical organization has ceased to be effective, by any intelligence that has the desire and the ability to dominate, whatever may be its objectives, and whether or not it allows or persuades the collectivity to think that it wields the effective power.