Tradition or Meaninglessness?

One of the main functions of tradition is to pass down to successive generations a comprehension of the meanings of the customary and traditional praxes and language. If the Tradition fails at that, then the praxes become meaningless and stupid, and are soon discarded as extraneities worthily subject to Ockham’s Razor: to the first principle of order, which is deletion. That’s when you get iconoclasm, whether intentional or not.

Intentional iconoclasm knows the meanings of the icons it destroys. Unintentional iconoclasm does not. The former is effected by destruction; the latter by desuetude.

Once the meanings of the cultural praxes are gone, the praxes themselves soon follow; for, there is then no longer any reason for them, that anyone knows or remembers. And that’s when the culture decoheres.

14 thoughts on “Tradition or Meaninglessness?

  1. Polanyi, in Personal Knowledge, gets the following tidbit from the mathematician Van der Waerden.

    “Mathematics has once already fallen into oblivion by becoming incomprehensible. After the death of Apollonius in 205 B.C. there occurred a break in the oral tradition which alone made the mathematical texts of the Greeks intelligible to students. This was probably due in part to a growing distrust of mathematics, owing to its conflict with the conception of number at the point where it led to magnitudes like √2 which could not be expressed in terms of integers.”

    • Exactly the same thing happened at the Enlightenment: the meanings of the terms deployed by the Scholastics were lost, so that today we use those same terms quite differently, and cannot understand what they were talking about until we work our way through a rigorous, radical and rather painful reconstruction of their ideas in their own terms. Most of the modern “demolitions” of the Scholastic arguments, then, are about notions that the Scholastics themselves would have found risible.

      Scholasticism has not been refuted. It has been forgotten, misunderstood, caricatured.

      This would all be merely amusing were it not for the fact that the loss of the Scholastic terminology means that we lose with it all the work they did. We grope about in the shadows lunging vainly at problems – viz., the mind/body problem – that they solved, or that did not even arise within their more adequate and comprehensive categoreal purview.

      What else have we lost – what other solutions to crucial and endemic human problems – because we have lost the thread of Tradition?

      Here’s the really scary thing: we have no way of knowing. We have lost that way. We are lost.

      • Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was.

        -Donald Kingsbury, “Courtship Rite”

        A friend of mine recently discovered Catholic mysticism and has been diving deeply into that, and a book called “The Cloud of Unknowing” by an anonymous monk in the 1400’s. He’s been diving into Platonic metaphysics, and since I’ve been drinking deeply of Thomism and Aristotleanism, I’ve not tried to follow him so that our ideas might play off each other when we talk. The two threads, Cloud of Unknowing and Platonic metaphysics, converged on this point:

        Apparently Platonic philosophers (neoplatonic maybe?) were able to reason their way just short of a Triune God via spiritual reasoning. The absolute pinnacle of human thought, the greatest minds that perhaps have ever lived, were able through rigorous logical reasoning, to arrive at the doorstep of God. They have remained unchallenged at the top for 2500 years almost, and we have only gotten farther and farther from those heights. It can be depressing to think that we’ve had these pearls for so long, yet still we’ve managed to turn ourselves into swine.

        Nothing worth knowing is truly forgotten though. It’s to the credit of the small few who learn, know, and remember, that the key civilizational knowledge from the past gets carried into the future. I think we’ve forgotten far less than we realize, but fewer people know it. Our duty is to ensure that this civilizational knowledge gets passed on again, so that one day it can bloom anew in the desert.

      • There are always a few who remember. I grew up as a church chorister, singing the Anglican hymnal. When in my fifties I began to study the religion of the First Temple, I was astonished to find all its ancient lore of angelology and typology still present in hymns written by middle class British church ladies – utterly brilliant church ladies – in the 19th century. It became clear that those women mystics (no one writes a poem to or about God who is not somehow a mystic) knew all about an ancient tradition that had been lost to the theologians I had been reading. The theologians were tying themselves in knots trying to make philosophical sense of Christian doctrine, because they had forgotten the language of the First Temple in which that doctrine was set forth. But the hymnodists – and, as I then discovered, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the great saints and liturgists – had not.

  2. Pingback: Tradition or Meaninglessness? | Reaction Times

  3. Good, order by deletion, I like that.

    The thing is, who gives meaning to trad. praxes; it’s the clerical class. I’d say it used to be the monk-philosopher-king.

    The new clerical class, lawyers, judges, academics and journalists, give new meanings to old praxes then destroy them or put them in a museum.
    The new meaning to everything is money and consumption.

    • That’s due in part to the fact that the tradition of economics in the universities and business schools has been maintained pretty well, and if anything is vigorously alive both within the academy and without (being a participant, I happen to know that there is a great deal of discourse between the theoreticians of the academy and the practitioners in finance and management). Other than the hard sciences, it’s one of the only traditional disciplines that is still taught. So economics is one of the only ways that moderately educated people can succeed at understanding their experience. They think in terms of money because the tools of such thought are the only tools at their disposal.

      I would say also that on this score lawyers and judges are somewhat unfairly maligned. The rites of the Common Law tradition are aimed precisely and well at evolving the law in such a way as not to upset apple carts and destroy gates. Stare decisis is observed, not as a clear and unbending rule – for it can be bent, when necessary – but as a matter of piety for our ancestors. The courts are forced by circumstances to grapple with the cases that the public brings before them. Blame the public.

      I suggest rather that the task of handing down traditional cultural meanings, that found and give life and guidance to various subcultures – as the law, the sciences, business, etc. – by informing the people about what matters, and why, falls ultimately upon the bards and the priests. When these two sorts are as one culturally, and agree with each other, then basic cultural meanings are likely to be handed down with integrity. When they are at odds, there’s hell to pay and no pitch hot.

      • Bards &Priests interesting.

        The jab at judges and lawyers was because: they lool like neo-clerics,
        they scramble the entrails of constitutions to divine to the public what HumanRightsDemocracyTM really is,
        they prop up corporate structures.

      • Yes, they do. Like the scribes in ancient Israel. The ruling synagogue in any society has always its troupe of scribes scrivening away on its behalf. That’s just the way of things. Nothing wrong with being an honest scribe, just trying to earn a living, any more than there is anything wrong with being an honest tax farmer. Or warlord.

        It’s the bards and the priests who influence the opinions of hoi polloi, which then shape what sorts of enterprises they shall allow to control the commanding heights of society, and thus the scribes and lawyers who labor in service of those heights.

        Right now the bards and priests are enamored of Democracy. But, less and less. Both on the Left and the Right, patience with it is wearing thin.

  4. It may be necessary to preserve meaning in an intellectual tradition such as Scholasticism, since one cannot use symbols without knowing their meaning. In the case of social tradition, however, the whole point would seem to be preservation of praxis after the loss of theory. Chesterton’s gate is held in place by reverence for what is give, and thus continues to perform its function even if no one remembers what the gate “means” (i.e. is for)

    The difference between an intellectual and social tradition is clear if we compare an old book and Chesterton’s gate. The book cannot perform a function (other than gathering dust) if no one can read it.

    • An excellent distinction. Piety alone can indeed keep a practical tradition staggering along for quite a while, even when everyone has forgotten how to understand it. So piety is important. But it cannot suffice, alone. To work over the long run, it must motivate research and catechesis, so that traditional meanings are handed down along with the praxes that they inform.

      Yankee magazine used to have a regular feature consisting in every issue of a photograph of some old implement discovered in a New England barn. Readers were invited to suggest its function. The meanings of those tools had been lost to the general public; or never known in the first place, other than to specialists.

      There are of course thousands of such tools in use every day at this moment. How many people could understand at first glance the function or use of a computer object – whether of software or hardware – set before them without further explanation?

      When the meanings of such implements – such organic, vernacular solutions to problems – become lost, the implements lose their use. People simply cannot use them anymore. So they become garbage. This is precisely what happened with Chesterton’s gate in his little fable. The reformers who removed it understood perfectly well what gates were for, of course, and how they worked. But they had forgotten what that *particular* gate was for. The gate made no sense to them. It was to them nothing more than an inconvenience. So they destroyed it.

      The same thing happened with the Tridentine Mass. People no longer understood the meanings of it. So it made no sense to them. So they got rid of it.

      The 39 Articles insist, rightly, that the rites of the Church ought to be conducted in a language “understanded of the people.” There are two ways to achieve that end. One is to dumb down the language to the sort that they already understand. The other is to teach them how to understand what they need to understand. The latter is the more difficult, and so it has not been taken. But narrow is the gate, and steep the way.

  5. One mode of intentional iconoclasm is to fail to pass on the meaning and signification of tradition. The surest way to undermine a tradition is to ensure the next generation sees it as meaningless instantiating an ongoing unintentional iconoclasm.

    • Now that is a great point. Our cultural adversaries have almost completely succeeded in establishing a cultural tradition of ever renewed transgression and revolution.


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