Why the State Seeks to Abolish Both Tradition and History
In the opening monologue of the much-beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman compares life for the Jewish inhabitants of the village Anatevka to the balancing act required of a fiddler scratching out a tune on a rooftop. According to Tevya’s famous allegory, the people of Anatevka are able to keep their balance thanks to their traditions. Yet as the story progresses, we see that even with tradition in place, keeping that balance is no easy task—especially when faced with rapid and unprecedented change.
Over the past century, tradition’s imperfections have led to its fade from our collective consciousness. It’s no longer viewed as a useful tool to help keep one’s balance on the roof of life, but rather is seen as a roadblock that must be removed from the path to progress. Thanks to a highly rationalist strain of Enlightenment thought beginning with thinkers such as Hobbes and Descartes, who held that all knowledge should be discovered by conscious reasoning, and culminating with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution, the importance of tradition has been greatly undermined. Thomas Paine summed up the antitraditionalist creed quite nicely when he declared that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Guided by the power of reason, and liberated from the chains of the past, these Enlightenment rationalists promised progress and increased human happiness.
Yet, discarding tradition has not led us to the realm of happiness, as promised by the prophets of progress. Between 1999 and 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, the suicide rate in the US increased 24 percent. In 2017 the US saw the highest suicide rate in fifty years. Such tragic numbers are the exact opposite of what progressives, radical feminists, and neoconservatives, all the latter-day children of the Enlightenment rationalists, led us to believe would happen if only we cast off the binds of backwards tradition and were made free to pursue our individual self-actualization. By its very nature, tradition is extremely difficult to fully erase in practice, but there is no doubt that its decline has coincided with a decline in the conceptual understanding of tradition in favor of a belief in “progress.” It is no coincidence that the weakening of the mediating institutions of civil society, the transformation of the family, an acceptance of divorce and promiscuity, all have come about during a period in which tradition and custom have come to be viewed as useless chains from the past. Understanding the role of tradition in human life may help to explain why its decline has led to so much human alienation and suffering.
Before we truly may evaluate tradition, we must first rightly define it. To many, tradition is synonymous with backwardness or an inability to embrace change. This view is rooted in the heavy societal influence of French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who held that society and its institutions perverted man’s natural goodness. Only through liberation from these institutions could man’s innate goodness be emancipated. Yet a proper understanding of tradition is quite different.
Tradition, rightly understood, isn’t an effort to freeze the world in place. Indeed, Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British statesman and political thinker widely considered the father of Anglo conservatism, even said that “a state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” Similarly, Oxford philologist and traditionalist author J.R.R. Tolkien attacked this static view of the world in Lord of the Rings in the form of his character Denethor. When asked in the midst of a crisis what he wants, Denethor replies, “I would have things as they were in all the days of my life…as in the days of my longfathers before me….But if doom denies this to me, then I
Article from Mises Wire