Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: tradition (page 1 of 1)

absolutizing (slight return)

Jon Askonas has responded to my earlier post, and his response deserves a fuller counter-response than I can give it right now. These are matters worthy of deeper reflection! I appreciate the slight parting of the curtain Askonas gives late in his post, the peek at his positive vision, and that may provide matter for discussion later. I just want to make a few brief notes right now and then use this post as a bookmark — I’ll return when I have more bandwidth.

  1. I didn’t accuse Askonas of the “absolutizing of fright” — that was my comment on Michael Anton in his “Flight 93 Election” essay. My claim is that I’m seeing — really everywhere, but because of my own political and religious convictions I’m focusing on my confrères — the escalation of a rhetoric that absolutizes and abstracts. What Askonas absolutizes, I think, is not fright but rather defeat. For someone who holds any tradition dear, the declaration that “Tradition is over” is both absolute and defeatist — “defeatist” not in a pejorative sense but in a strictly descriptive one. 
  2. Askonas: “One of the frustrating things about the line of criticism Jacobs undertakes is that it is highly personalist and individualistic, as if it was within the power of any individual to always conserve the things that he loves.” Successful conservation is not within my power, but the practice of conserving is my responsibility. And to say that I have this responsibility is not to say that I must (or even should) pursue it alone. The question What then should I do? is not the only question to ask; but if not sufficient, it is necessary; I can’t evade it by decrying “individualism.” And if (as Askonas does) you’re asking me to join you in a brand-new endeavor, and I wonder what exactly you have in mind, and your primary response to that is Dude, you’re so individualistic! — that’s … not very reassuring. 
  3. Askonas: “Selection effects drive a local increase in virtue and faithfulness. The strength of the tradition in these unique, rare local places masks the global decline…. The question is not whether these, the best men and women, may pass on their traditions, but whether their number are increasing or decreasing in society on the aggregate.” (I think by “global” Askonas means “in the West.”) As far as I can tell, Askonas here has conceded my point and abandoned his own. For if tradition thrives anywhere, then tradition is certainly not “over”; and ”decreasing“ is not a synonym for ”over.“ And if tradition is not over, then the question becomes, not “What will we do instead of practicing our dead tradition?” but rather “How can we who are blessed by a living tradition share that blessing with others?” or “How can we who are missing a living tradition draw on resources that have been well-conserved elsewhere?” (All this applies to the Black community also, as Albert Murray well understood. He was so passionate an advocate of the best traditions of Black American life precisely because he saw them embattled and endangered. This is a constant theme in his work.) 
  4. But I don’t think Askonas believes he has abandoned his point, because he makes a strong contrast between ”organic outgrowths of tradition” and “intentional projects of retrieval or revival from the long-dead past.” (Thus on his reading the classical school movement, which he likes, does not count as an example of living tradition, or a practice of conserving, because, remember, “We can no longer conserve.”) The idea that tradition isn’t really tradition unless it is unselfconsciously inherited and inhabited is one of the classic errors of Romanticism, an error prompted by the inevitably fruitless longing to reverse what Harold Bloom, among others, called the “fall into self-consciousness.” No; Eliot, again, was right when he said that “Tradition … cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.” This may be the single most crucial point of disagreement between Askonas and me, and the one from which all the others flow. 
  5. Askonas tells me the questions I should be asking instead of the one I asked him, under the apparent assumption that I haven’t asked them. That is, as it happens, not a safe assumption, though I don’t expect Askonas to know that. But for the record, this blog — not to mention dozens of essays and a few books — is full of my attempts to answer them.  
  6. Finally, it seems to me that Askonas replies to my critique of his tendency towards vague but alarming imagery by doubling down on that tendency. Anton had his plane crashing, Kingsnorth has his ocean liner sinking, and now Askonas gives us Troy burning. (It’s disasters all the way down! There are no gradual changes in the cosmos of this mentalité, just crises requiring instant and extreme action.) Troy is burning, he says, though I don’t know what it means to say that we live in a conflagration, nor do I know what the contemporary equivalent of sailing to Italy by way of Carthage might be. He is annoyed with me for not knowing “what time it is” — but I think I do know. It’s time to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. It’s time to seek the good of the city in which we live as pilgrims. It’s time to preach the Gospel in season and out of season. All these metaphors of disaster are just distractions from our undramatic daily calling. “The rest is not our business.” 

More later; maybe quite a while later. I need to get back to the City of God — posts on that topic will resume next week. And in a way they’ll be continuations of this debate. 

UPDATE: It occurs to me, looking at this again, that I probably don’t need to say any more on this subject. By acknowledging that tradition isn’t over (only under challenge in many places) and that we can conserve (but conservation is not sufficient), Askonas has retracted the chief points that I wished to dispute. And anyway, I just realized that his is yet another version of the “negative world” position that is impervious to evidence and that I promised myself I wouldn’t respond to any more. (Why can’t I remember my self-promises?) 

Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

— Views: Sorry – Inside Higher Ed. I like much of this, but it is very, very wrong to suggest that there is a Western tradition — there is not even a Christian tradition. Western culture is largely a series of arguments conducted by proponents of different traditions that had their origin in or near the Western orbit. Christianity likewise has, intellectually speaking, been an extended debate about what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to belong to Him.