Freedom and tradition

Freedom injects meaning into human life, by stirring up uncertainty and, hence, drama.  My life is interesting only because I have the power to change myself and my environment.  An unchanging life trajectory, frozen by oppression or some other circumstance, would lack importance not only to an observer but to the person living it.  Such a life would have no more meaning than that of a rock hurling through space.

But actions can have meaning only within a constraining context.  Absolute freedom would mean random, spasmodic action — a pathological condition.  Context provides the rules that makes even change intelligible and meaningful.

In an earlier post, I used baseball as an example:  the batter can lean in or back from the plate, bunt or swing, hit to the opposite field or aim for the fences.  In the context of baseball, these are intelligible applications of human freedom.  If the batter were to start dancing a jig, however, his action would lack any meaning or significance for baseball.  It would be an interruption, a bizarre violation of the rules.

So we have an apparent contradiction:  a meaningful life requires freedom but also constraints.  This contradiction has served as stage furniture for the heroic posturing of many intellectuals and artists, who exalt freedom of any sort, even the murderer’s to kill innocents, while attacking all constraints because they justify power.  If one were to take these posturers at their word, they too would be considered pathological cases.  But most intellectual posturers in our day and generation are only just that.

A meaningful life requires freedom but also constraints.  Morals and manners provide the latter:  like the rules of baseball on a cosmic scale, they allow each individual to keep score, to learn whether he is advancing toward the light or backsliding into darkness.  Unlike baseball, however, morality can’t be derived from a manual.  Succesful behaviors are evolved and codified over the history of a community, and taught one situation at a time.  In a word, they are traditions.  Hence the scorn of the intellectuals, who imagine themselves makers and liberators of the future.

Analogies come easily between traditional behaviors and traditional ideas about the world — that the sun revolves around the earth, for example.  By the analogy, something akin to science must overthrow traditional morality.  Such a moral revolution has been tried many times, in theory and in fact, since the Enlightenment first conceived the possibility of a science of man.  Each has failed abysmally.  The analogy — which still grips the mind of unscientific intellectuals — is false.  The types of problems solved by modern science are qualitatively different from the types of problems posed by human interactions.

At the core of morality is the need for large numbers of people, strangers to one another and disinterested in each other’s fate, to build enough trust to get along.  Each individual craves as much freedom as possible, yet must somehow deal with the freedom of everyone else.

An obvious solution is violence — more about that later.  Because communities detest violence, all have evolved shared ideals of behavior which embodied the concepts of justice and of good and evil.  The ideals were taught parent to child, for generations.  They represented the dignity and rights of the individual, but also the transcending of the individual in the face of duty.

The moral behaviors we are taught from childhood become habitual and reflexive, and sink deep roots into our emotional life.  We don’t consider them propositions that are either true or false, but ideals that must be approximated, with failure a source of intense shame and anguish.

Stated differently:  morality offers our freedom a direction towards which it should aim our actions, when we come in contact with others.  None of us will attain perfection.  But if we sense forward progress, if we measure our place in the race by the light cast by heroes and saints, we may approach the good life, and attain satisfaction.  That is the emotional content of a meaningful life.

A community of moral individuals is more likely to be peaceful, thus more open to the exercise of freedom.  Conversely, a demoralized community must break apart in mutual suspicion and, ultimately, violence.  The overthrow of morality advocated by intellectuals has led the most consistent among them to glorify criminality and violence.  They see romance in brutalization, and intellectualize about a state of affairs which would anihilate intellectuals.  The logic of this position may not be transparent, but it’s there.  Loathing one’s traditions is really a form of self-loathing, and advocating destruction for one’s kind is the logical goal of the self-loather.

In this country at least, the culture war has been largely a battle of words.  The real threat to our moral traditions comes less from posturing intellectuals than from the pace of social and technological change.  A tradition assumes a certain stability in relations — between men and women, for example, or between rulers and ruled.  The great disruption that began with the industrial revolution, accelerating ever since, has bestowed abundant wealth, health, knowledge, mobility, and freedom on much of the human race.  At the same time, it has torn up the roots of tradition everywhere.

Just a generation ago, men were expected to behave chivalrously toward women — a tradition harking back to the medieval troubadours.  Today, many women would consider such an attitude insufferably condescending.  Yet chivalry, as an ideal, sought to convert the greater physical strength of men into a source of protection for women.  Given that women remain weaker than men, situations will arise in which a dose of chivalrous behavior might be necessary.  What, in this shifting context, is right action for a man?  Or, for that matter, for a woman?

The ever-faster retreat of tradition before what we inadequately call the modern world has stimulated the same confusion and anguish, the same despair and loss of meaning, that is usually associated with the commission of evil.  Hence all the defectors from modernity.  When philosophers demand simplicity or authenticity, they are crying for a return to the world of their fathers.  When Marx idealized communism and Hitler the tribal Volk, they were dreaming the same dream.

Yet it is impossible to regain innocence, impossible to return to a condition based on ignorance of what is now known.  Those who used political power to make the attempt were responsible for a far greater horror than modernity — any survivor of Buchenwald or the killing fields can attest to that.

Some traditions will endure.  Even the least fashionable, one suspects, may survive underground, away from the sneers of the elites.  Who is to say but that women really do prefer a touch of the knight errant in their mates?

In any case, human interactions can’t be made up on the spot.  We require channeling, direction, habits, traditions, to navigate community life.  The collision between the constraints of tradition and the freedom of modernity will not end with a world without rules.

A more likely result will be the crystallization of a morality of freedom:  traditions capacious enough and flexible enough to tolerate great change, yet constraining enough to deliver the possibility of meaning.  If one looks beyond the intellectuals at the America of everyday life, many pieces of the morality of freedom will be found already in place.


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