The human race, we are told, is around 200,000 years old. During 160,000 years of that span, nothing happened. People lived as their parents and grandparents had always lived. More: so far as we can tell from the tools they made and the mess they left behind, people lived much like their hominid ancestors had done, bound to customs and techniques that preceded our species.
Then, some 40,000 years ago, an immense and inexplicable increase in human capacity took place. Change was everywhere: across generations and geographical boundaries, groups evolved different toolkits, different art, different ways of life. It was the birth of culture, and since we are most acculturated of animals, the moment we became truly human.
To be human is to belong to a community and follow a tradition of living in the world. For most of the last 40,000 years, people believed that their traditions were part of the natural order, like the seasons or the stars. To disregard a tradition was to offend against nature itself, to destroy its balance, with a terrible price to pay: this, rather than any ethical shortcoming, is the origin of evil, as the story of Oedipus illustrates. Then the ancient Greeks, a restless, seafaring people, made a fateful observation: unlike nature, which is immutable, the traditions of different nations appeared to vary widely. An Egyptian Pharaoh may wish to marry his sister; a Phoenician may wish to slaughter his children on the altar of Moloch.
It follows that moral traditions rest on convention – that is, on nothing more substantial than public opinion. The Greeks, never shy about logical implications, came to the obvious one: “Man is the measure of all things,” observed the sophist Protagoras. Although he sounded like a postmodernist, Protagoras believed in tradition – precisely because they lacked divine or natural protection, the customs of the city, he thought, must not be trifled with. For a traditionalist, a true believer, that defense no doubt tasted like thin gruel.
For Socrates, it was a dangerous error. Socrates, who taught the cream of Athenian aristocracy, rejected both tradition and convention as the superstitions of lesser minds. He believed instead that life should follow “the good,” and that the good existed objectively, in the world; crucially, he believed that the good could be discovered and achieved only by the application of reason. The good life, therefore, was the life of reason.
No more influential opinion has been voiced in the history of human thought. It was the ruling idea of classical moral philosophy from Plato until the end of the ancient world, and it has ruled Western secular thinking from Machiavelli to John Rawls’ rationalist “theory” of justice. Today, we consider it a truism that morality must flow either from religion or from reason. Tradition we scorn as an obstacle to progress.
It’s a false truism, and a false choice. Reason can’t engender a way of life. That’s far beyond the reach of its capabilities. Morality is about behaviors, not abstractions. Tradition, furthermore, whether based on religion or convention – and often it’s the same thing – plays overwhelmingly the most important part in the life choices every individual must make within his community. Here is an astonishing proposition. From Socrates onward, for 2,500 years, the many great minds of the rationalist tradition have led moral thought into a place where nothing happens: a dead-end alley.
This is by way of introduction to a long but terrific piece in Policy Review, “The Future of Tradition,” by Lee Harris – an author I don’t know but wish to learn more about. Harris begins with a dissection of cultural relativism, which he rightly observes leads logically to moral chaos.
Too often, cultural relativists cannot get beyond drawing this one conclusion, which they use as ammunition against traditionalists: “The traditions you think of as having an absolute claim on the human race are merely those that happened to have come down to us, and which we have blindly accepted.” While this objection does follow logically from the cultural relativists’ premise, so too – and just as logically – does this conclusion: If we cannot use our traditional ethos to attack another’s, it is equally illegitimate for him to use his to attack ours. If our cultural relativists must forgive those who sacrifice their infants to Moloch, they must also forgive members of their own society who wish to abide by their own traditions. The cultural relativist’s position, practiced consistently, collapses into reactionary obscurantism: All cultures, including his own, are incommensurable, so it is impossible to judge any of them by higher standards than those offered by the cultures themselves.
He then turns to a defense of tradition, “the only possible mode for transmitting a community’s habits of the heart.”
Tradition, he observes, isn’t a question of right principles, but of right actions. The actions are “right” because we literally internalize them: they become part of our “visceral code.” (Harris omits the strong supporting evidence for this proposition, which can be found in Damasio and Haidt.) The relationship between principles and actions is ever uncertain: often, moral principles are mere guesses, attempts to justify an eminently adaptive – morally right – behavior. Rationalists can easily criticize and refute the principle, and end by devaluing the behavior.
Since morality focuses on action, tradition teaches by illustration: it holds up the “shining example” for the student to emulate. “To follow in the footsteps of a living person,” Harris writes, “is a radically different process from attempting to conform one’s day-to-day life according to an abstract principle or maxim.”
If someone tells a child to show respect to other people, the child may sincerely wish to do so, but he may not have a clue how to go about it. … He must be shown, in concrete situation after concrete situation, what kind of conduct counts – for a child of his age and, depending on the culture, his gender, race, caste, ethnicity, religion, and so forth – as “showing respect.” For all such purposes, the shining example is indispensable. In classrooms of a not so distant past, the teacher would often actually point to the model pupil and say to the other children, “You should learn to act like Bobby does. Watch how he handles himself, and try to model yourself on his conduct.” […]
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.
This represents a view of tradition that is radically at odds with the view that sees tradition only as a useful esoteric fiction. The shining examples of our community are not there merely for the stooges and the proles; they are there for all of us. The ambition to be a good father is not the preserve of the fools and unwashed of the world, but of college professors and billionaires as well. The ideological superstructure that justifies the visceral code may be pulp for the masses, but the code itself is mandatory for all of us without exception.
Harris isn’t optimistic about the future, in America, of this kind of exemplary education. The self-esteem movement, the principled belief that any call to transcendence is an insult to “who I am,” have placed it in peril. The ideals the shining examples illustrate are meanwhile mocked and scorned by purveyors of “fashionable intellectual chatter.”
Maybe so. I’m less worried on this score, just because intellectual chatter rarely touches the deep roots, the “visceral code,” of human behavior. But this piece is worth reading start to finish, more than once, and I won’t interpose myself between its author and his warning to the rest of us:
If the reflective class, represented by intellectuals in the media and the academic world, continues to undermine the ideological superstructure of the visceral code operative among the “culturally backward,” it may eventually succeed in subverting and even destroying the visceral code that has established the common high ethical baseline of the average American – and it will have done all of this out of the insane belief that abstract maxims concerning justice and tolerance can take the place of a visceral code that is the outcome of the accumulated cultural revolution of our long human past.
The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?