“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”Gustav Mahler
What is traditionalism? Traditionalism proposes that there is a transcendental moral truth that should be acknowledged and used to inform the structure, values and customs of society. It should be noted here that the structure, values and customs themselves are not sacred, but the transcendental truth that informs them is. Every culture has its own ways of teaching and expressing these truths but the truths themselves remain the same, there is a higher power than ourselves that we are answerable to. One that can be known, understood and used to guide the right ordering of society so those truths can be collected and passed down to future generations for their benefit.
In Catholicism we have termed these truths “natural law”, simple facts about human existence that can be known through reason with no need for any divine revelation, which explains why so many societies have ordered themselves around these ideas.
Traditionalism has a bad name these days because it is associated with clinging to the past, wanting to go back to an idealized age where things were better than they are now. While the resurgence of traditionalism is indeed a reaction to modernity (and rightly so) it is not characterized by a desire to go back to the past and create 1950s America, or whatever time period it is imagined the traditionalist is idealizing. Traditionalism is the recognition of our past and accepting the great cultural inheritance bequeathed to us by our forebears and carrying that forward so that future generations can benefit from it. It’s a recognition that novelty is not inherently good, especially if it conflicts with the universally acknowledged transcendental truths which informed prior cultural practices.
Traditionalism is not against change. It’s very much for change as long as that change matches the right ordering of society as dictated by the higher truths of God. Nobody wants to go back to the time before antibiotics where only one in five children would ever reach adulthood. We have made great leaps in technology that have unarguably made our lives better. Yet as technology has increased our wisdom and ability to utilize that technology to it’s proper ends has diminished. Rather than using technology to further enrich and facilitate life in our local communities we’ve instead used it to distance ourselves from each other. No longer is it necessary to listen and engage with the people who you live among, instead find a community online who is aligned perfectly with you ideologically and you’ll never have to bear the indignity of discussing issues with a “bigot” again.
You cannot set a course for the future unless you know where you have come from. Who are we? What values do we hold? What do we want to achieve? In the past this would have been a simple exercise. We’re Americans. We hold Christian values because we’re Christian. We want to achieve a society that gives the freedom to every individual to achieve what they can within the bounds of the law according to the measure of their personal skill, courage and ambition. Now? Not so much. Lack of identity is one of the core pathologies of the modern west.
Utopian thinking has overcome the desire to maintain traditions that have held communities together. The past was bad, characterized by wars, injustice, oppression, genocides and evil of all kinds. We’re told that we can only move beyond that by rejecting our past, condemning it and moving forward by completely demolishing and restructuring society according to whatever the sociologists claim is best. Rather than a bottom up approach of society being structured according to groups of communities who all acknowledge a higher truth the new order will be a state whose structure is dictated top down from the modern academics. Traditionalism stands in direct opposition to “critical theory”, the predominant lens through which modern sociologists view our culture. Critical theory proposes that we completely deconstruct and question every social norm and build things back up according to abstract academic ideals of egalitarianism, “fairness” and justice. Traditionalism instead encourages us to stand fast to what we were given, appreciate our place in the process of history and preserve and conserve the cultural inheritance we were the beneficiaries of so that it might be given to future generations. Society isn’t just a plaything to be molded according to our whims, it’s something that was shaped into a particular image after generations of individuals acknowledging God and the moral truths that come from God and doing their part to try and shape society to those truths.
We can think about the principles of traditionalism in terms of the most basic unit of society. The family. A child is born into a family, they are raised and inculcated with their parents values and grow and mature. Their family circumstances gives them context to understand the world, the knowledge of their heritage guides them towards choosing what they do with their future. Perhaps a bakers son decides to take up the family business and become a baker himself. We make do with the circumstances we are given and create our own place in the world by taking those circumstances and forming our identity around them. You’re not just an individual, you’re part of something greater, a family that has a long history and you use that history to inform your decisions about what you do in the future knowing that your decisions will influence your children’s choices and their children’s. On the other hand the modern world that encourages people to think of themselves as individuals only strips people of that context and forces them to make those choices their entire personal identity. Your job, what consumer products you use, what shows you watch, what games you play, those become your defining traits and you’re encouraged to make decisions only for yourself with little regard to your history or what your choices might mean to your descendants (if you choose to have any, having children is increasingly being seen an an intolerable burden on someones individual autonomy).
This is why it’s so important to re-evangelize the west and bring God back to a people who have become largely indifferent or even hostile to the idea that there is any real purpose or meaning to existence than just satiating our current desires to live a long materialistic life of consumerism. God reminds us that the transcendental ideals of goodness, truth and beauty are not just sentiments but very real things that we can strive towards. By acknowledging God and that God is the highest authority we find our guiding star, the principle that allows us to move forward knowing who we are, where we came from and most importantly, where we are going.