Sunday, June 05, 2005

Tradition and Reason

Shake and Bake At Policy Review, Lee Harris writes about how to deal with Tradition in an age of Reason. It's a fascinating read, strongly recommended. He even manages, at the end, to bring his hypothesis around to the subject of marriage, and he defends it pretty well. Even more so when you consider that's he's gay. Is Tradition 1), a useful fiction?
The idea of tradition as a “useful fiction” [that] has returned to the modern world in the thinking of Leo Strauss and his followers. Tradition is an essential prop for the masses — they cannot dispense with it without chaos and havoc ensuing. The common people need their myths and their illusions; but the elite can dispense with them, provided they scrupulously avoid saying or doing anything that would disturb the cognitive complacency of the masses.
Is Tradition 2), the home of the radical skeptic?
This defense of tradition goes to the other extreme. It argues that even the most intelligent among us cannot be trusted to comprehend all that is involved in a tradition, because there is always something in a tradition that even the most advanced scientific thinking of the time cannot fathom, and because there is a danger in attempting to replace an inherited tradition with what is regarded as up-to-date scientific knowledge. Moreover, no intellectual elite can be trusted to decide what should be rejected and what retained from a certain tradition, as the tradition may embody a transgenerational fund of wisdom greatly exceeding the wisdom of any one generation, however wise or enlightened it believes itself to be...
The last example of defense of Tradition is taken from 3), Friedrich Hayek:
A tradition’s very oldness — its survival through the vicissitudes of centuries and adaptability to so many social and historical “environments” — was for him prima facie evidence that it was “fit” to survive, just as a species that has survived a variety of environmental challenges may be said to be “fit” in terms of the evolutionary struggle.
Harris' own solution is that tradition is like a recipe for making a desired good; in this case, a flesh and blood shining example.
A shining example is the flesh-and-blood embodiment of an ideal value that we only later come to appreciate by recognizing it in the person who first incarnates that virtue for us. We admire him or her first, and only by a delayed process of reflection do we come to discern the abstract virtue embedded in his day-to-day existence. Love and admiration precedes reflection and abstraction... And for good reason. In a world where shining examples are no longer pointed out, what is there to aspire to? You must change yourself, as Rilke’s poem tells us, but into what? A tolerant person? A wise person? These are abstractions. They permit us to declare ourselves “tolerant” without further ado, just as we can equally well declare ourselves “caring” or “loving” or “open-minded.” We can make a resolution to become more sensitive to others or more appreciative of their feelings. Indeed, we can even display bumper stickers that assure both us and the world of our deep devotion to world peace and the brotherhood of man... The moment we leave it to ourselves to measure our own progress, we have lost the most powerful motive for making progress, and that is to make ourselves as close to our shining example as we possibly can. Only a shining example has the power to transform us from our present state to a higher one — abstract principles alone can never do this. Indeed, their very abstractness serves to camouflage all sorts of disreputable self-deceptions, as no abstract term can ever protest against even its most wanton misuse.
His conclusion is admirable:
Middle Americans have increasingly tolerated the experiments in living of people like myself not out of stupidity, but out of the trustful magnanimity that is one of the great gifts of the Protestant ethos to our country and to the world. It is time for us all to begin tolerating back. The first step would be a rapid retreat from even the slightest whisper that marriage ever was or ever could be anything other than the shining example that most Americans still hold so sacred within their hearts, as they have every right to do. They have let us imagine the world as we wish; it is time we begin to let them imagine it as they wish. If gay men and women want to create their own shining examples, they must do this themselves, by their own actions and by their own imagination. They must construct for themselves, out of their own unique perspective on the world, an ethos that can be admired both by future gay men and women and perhaps, eventually, by the rest of society.
This would not be quick or easy, but there is little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.

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