The Internationale contains a line "No more tradition's chains shall bind us." This is one of the fundamental ideas of socialist/progressivist thinking. Man must be freed from tradition. Reason is to be the guiding light. The devil can cite scripture for his purposes. Reason can often be used to support any position. If men and women are freed from tradition, the experiences of history and the family environment, they can be manipulated and used by ideological and religious leaders, eccentrics and maniacs. If tradition declines, ideologues can mould and influence individuals.
Edward Shils has produced a monumental book entitled Tradition, The University of Chicago Press, 1981. David Armstrong, writing in Quadrant, October (1982) p 71, summarises his argument thus:
Shils takes a wide view of what tradition is. For him it is anything transmitted or handed down from the past to the present. Material objects (the Iliad, the Parthenon), beliefs, images, practices, institutions, can all be tradita, that is, things handed down. The handing down of them constitutes a tradition. He does demand a certain persistence or recurrence through transmission, because tradition has to be distinguished from mere fashion. (Is it the case that a society where traditions are weakened becomes a prey to fashion?) Shils says that there must be three generations to yield a tradition, although the generations might be no more than the 'generations' of school children at a school.
This wide definition, of course, makes it easier to defend the view that human society cannot function in the absence of traditions. But is there a coherent narrower definition to be found? In any case, the handing on of particular beliefs, practices etc., or constellations of such beliefs and practices, in a recurrent pattern, is something that occurs. What Shils may ask, are such patterns of handing on to be called if not traditions?
Shils distinguishes between substantive traditions and second-order traditions.
One of the important features of the western democratic order is that while it has recognised the importance of tradition, it has also made possible change and modification of tradition. Primitive and earlier societies were often held back by a single body of tradition which tended to be rigid and unbending. In modern states, individuals live in a multi-traditional society. Diverse or even incompatible beliefs and practices exist. Different models for belief and conduct are available. An individual can make a choice between them. This is the product of freedom-related ideas.
The question then arises whether an individual who makes a choice between traditions is free of tradition? The answer is that he will not make such choices unless society has developed a certain tradition: the liberal tradition of making a free choice between traditions. This is what Shils means by a second-order tradition, which is a tradition concerning traditions.
The basis of tradition is reason and experience. Experience is perhaps as important or more important than reason. Experience extends beyond reason and mental horizons and embodies factors which people only dimly perceive and cannot rationally explain but which contain elements of truth and understanding, based on accumulated experience.
What is the relationship between liberalism and traditionalism? Liberalism is vitally connected to tradition to the extent that tradition represents those rules of conduct which grow in a spontaneously ordered society. Classical liberalism promotes these traditions in opposition to rules which are dictated by authority. There are, however, other so called "traditions" which are inimical to freedom and which in fact have been destroyed by liberalism. These "traditions" usually concern special privileges for particular persons and classes (such as the nobility). These are traditions only in the sense of long observance or, more accurately, long enforcement. They are not traditions in the philosophical sense. What is happening today is that the latter type of false tradition is re-emerging in the form of the cliches supporting authority. If tradition is to play its part in human progress, its development must be unimpeded by dictate. Neither "we" nor "they" should dictate tradition.
As a young person in an eastern environment influenced by western learning, I often decried tradition. I asked for rational explanations, which those who upheld the tradition could not provide. I then ignored and ridiculed the tradition. But years later I came across some explanations which rationalised the tradition. The problem with traditions is that since they have been handed down over a long period of time, the rational bases are either not known by those who uphold them or cannot be lucidly explained. There are often reasons to support traditions but, to the extent that tradition is based on experience and observation, it cannot always be effectively rationalised.
This is true of the values and institutions of western civilisation. There is a rational basis for the traditions. However, they are embodied in evolved institutions based on experience. The rationalisation is often not provided. In this context, it has been easy for the socialists/progressivists to attack many of the values and institutions of the system. Reason and the intellectual approach have formed the basis of the attack on tradition. The socialist/progressivist attack emanating from academia (and influencing the wider social and political culture) has operated by focusing on the counter-productive aspects of traditional values. These are exaggerated and distorted. The defects are not balanced against the benefits.
The intellectual sets up his own view, which he then parades as objective fact or theory. His analysis often proceeds in violation of the basic dynamics of human nature and human interaction. Such analyses do not take account of the existence of other possible viewpoints. The accumulated experience of the ages is discounted.
Tradition is important in any culture or civilisation. A wedding in, or a tour by, the British Royal family illustrates this factor. The outpouring of adulation and affection which the British Royal family enjoyed until recently, not only in Britain, but in parts of the Commonwealth and even in the United States, emphasises the yearning of people for traditional values. Continuity in an era of change is something which people need and desire. Part of the fall in the popularity and the standing of the monarchy is due to the abandonment of traditional standards of morality in the younger generation of royals.
There are more worthwhile traditional values and institutions than the monarchy. The unfortunate aspect is that these have been subjected to unceasing attack and destabilisation by progressivists (so-called). The valuable traditional values and institutions which have been undermined did not have the pomp and pageantry of royalty to sustain them. Incidentally, this example demonstrates the importance of ritual, mystique and pomp to sustain institutions. The courts of law would not be the same without the accompanying traditions which the progressivists want to remove. They successfully did this in the case of the Family Law Court — and this no doubt contributed to (without being solely responsible for) the problems in the family law area.
Traditions develop gradually over centuries and keep on developing — a spiritual and cultural dynamic growing out of the endeavours, sacrifices, experiences and trials (when the cross is rejected) of a people who possess an inborn sense of their ancestry, religion, social customs, language, literature, music, games etc. This way "core values" are established and passed on from father to son/mother to daughter, like name or property, and become a way of life that is both virtuous and enduring. The essentially British traditions of family pride and integrity, dignity of the individual, law and order, "stiff upper lip" self discipline, tolerance of and respect for others goodwill (including eccentrics), tenderness towards the lowly and less fortunate, "playing the game" etc. These are spiritual, moral and cultural values deposited firmly in the minds of a people, real but indefinable, which can only be lived and experienced. However, they can be symbolised, the symbol becoming integral to the tradition itself, and the supreme symbol is the Queen, in whose office and person is gathered together all that is best in the nation. She is the embodiment of the nation's spirit and traditions, and what it stands for. The national flag (when it has a real meaning, as Australia's has) is a symbol too, albeit a lesser but still very important one.
With respect to traditional institutions, it is not the institution itself that is the tradition, but the way the institution conducts itself that is the tradition. This applies to the monarchy, family, parliament, and the law. The courts are not the tradition, but the legal processes and standards are. The parents in each generation build the nation's traditions into their children's consciousness, and mental and moral attitudes and actions. Traditions give assurance of continuity and permanence to freedom. If a people neglects or despises traditions, or allows them to be undermined, they will lose their freedom very quickly and easily. Australians have never had to fight and bleed and die for freedom or its retention on their own soil. They need to hold their traditions (Anzac) in the very highest esteem — and their symbols (flag) if they are to have the will to keep their freedom and repulse the attacks being mounted against freedom.
The western democratic order, as worked out in practical action, has involved the balance of competing factors. TS Elliot focused on the problem of change and continuity when he wrote of knowledge and action without purpose and meaning:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word.
Ardis Whitman encapsulates the creative aspect of tradition which is responsive to change:
"We must cherish our yesterdays, but never carry them as a burden into the future. Each generation must take nourishment from the other and give knowledge to the one that comes after."