An untraditional defense of tradition

The Vindication of Tradition, by Jaroslav Pelikan. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 93 pp. $10.95. Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, is right ynough for me

Chaucer's Wife of Bath expresses, in no uncertain terms, the conviction that individual experience may teach us lessons very different from those of authority and traditon.

The Wife, who may strike some modern readers as a kind of medieval Betty Friedan, is understandably dissatisfied with a male-dominated tradition which has portrayed her sex as the source of much, if not quite all, evil. And so, like her feminist descendants, she proceeds first to set the record straight by recounting her own experiences, then to establish new goals by telling a fairy tale in which the woman, instead of being subjugated to the man, manages to attain both his love and her own ``sovereyntee.''

For all her dislike of authority, the Wife fills her stories with endless references to various authorities, and the conclusion which she reaches is arguably no more than an inversion of the tradition she disdains.

Dissatisfaction with tradition is itself traditional. Rebellion against tradition and affirmation of tradition are often found in the same person. One thinks of Coleridge and Southey, youthful radicals who dreamed of starting a Utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna in far-off America, aging into champions of tradition: Southey, a resolute defender of the established order; Coleridge, a more thoughtful spokesman for what he had come to perceive as the accumulated wisdom of generations of experience. For, far from being opposed to experience, as the Wife claims, tradition is the product of experience. The question, perhaps, is whose experience and which aspects of experience? The tradition of the conqueror is different from that of the conquered. To be totally conquered is to lose one's tradition entirely.

Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling professor of history at Yale University and author of a multivolume study, ``The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,'' examines the nature of tradition in his admirably concise and penetrating book, ``The Vindication of Tradition.'' ``Tradition,'' he writes, ``is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living . . . it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.'' Pelikan is out to restore tradition's good name, first by defending it against blind anti-traditionalism and a still more devastating foe, ignorance of the past; second by defending it from some of its defenders, inflexible adherents of ``traditionalism,'' who cleave to the letter but ignore the spirit.

Pelikan's distinction between tradition and traditionalism is implicit in this question, expressed with the blend of power and simplicity that distinguishes truly sophisticated thinking:

``Why, for example, did so much . . . of medieval Aristotelianism in science adopt the conclusions of the master's scientific investigations, rather than his methods, by which those conclusions could have been corrected, and eventually were? By constructing his telescope and using it to observe empirically, Galileo was a more faithful Aristotelian than were those who quoted Aristotle's `Physics' against his observations.''

Sometimes, Pelikan reminds us, those who appear to be heterodox -- even heretical -- are in fact the true heirs of a tradition in whose name they are condemned. Tradition, he believes, is -- or should be -- a living entity with a ``capacity to develop while still maintaining its identity and continuity.'' Pelikan points to the similarity of the American constitutional tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition in sharing this capacity for preservation and self-modification. And, though knowledge of tradition may not be sufficient preparation for facing the future, Pelikan rightly insists that it is ``necessary preparation.'' Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

It seems possible to extract from this thought-provoking book a kind of scale for evaluating responses to tradition:

(-) To rush to discard tradition is foolish, even dangerous.

(+) To examine tradition, even critically, even to deviate from it knowingly and knowledgeably, can be a good thing, and may one day be absorbed into tradition.

(+) To attempt to preserve, follow, and develop the spirit of tradition is wise.

(-) To follow tradition blindly, without examining it, can have negative consequences and, indeed, may be false to the spirit of tradition.

This leads, however, to the trickier question: By what methods and by which criteria is a tradition to be criticized and preserved? Reformers throughout history have repeatedly appealed to ``self-evident'' universal standards and ideals which supposedly stand outside and above tradition. Pelikan, who delivered much of this book as the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Jefferson Lecture, gamely places Jefferson in this category. But contra Jefferson, he points out that ``self-evident'' ideals must come, however indirectly, from somewhere, that is to say, from some aspect of some tradition.

A better example of anti-traditionalism, perhaps, is Rousseau -- or at least the popular image of Rousseau as the spokesman for trusting one's feelings and impulses instead of looking to tradition and custom. The idea that man is good at heart, corrupted only by society and its institutions, had already gained currency in the 18th century. Learning to trust ``human nature,'' learning to achieve the self-reliance Emerson advocated in the 19th century, to ``get in touch with our feelings,'' as we have been urged in the 20th, has been linked to the decline of respect for tradition.

But is there really a simple opposition between tradition (out there, mediating our experience) and our feelings (inside us, trapped by forms and customs)? Obviously not. Our feelings are to a considerable extent conditioned by our culture, while our culture, shaped by generations of experience, is the product of emotions and impulses as well as ideas and doctrines. Traditions can be as benign -- or as dangerous -- as impulses. Tolerance is an American tradition, but so was slavery.

Some of the fiercest conflicts in history have occurred not between traditionalists and anti-traditionalists, but between rival factions of the same tradition: Stalinists vs. Trotskyites, Protestants vs. Catholics, Alexander Haig vs. Jeane Kirkpatrick. If only people understood their traditions deeply enough, Pelikan urges, they would discover that tradition is inclusive rather than exclusive, with room for many views under its umbrella. If only!

But establishing a relationship with tradition is no simple matter. Much depends on circumstances. Emerson, laboring in the shadow of European tradition, challenged by the prospect of virgin territory, called for a new American beginning. T. S. Eliot,finding himself and the world around him in ruins, saw tradition, however, as often factional and exclusive. Journeying backward through literary history, he separated metaphysical sheep from Miltonic goats, searching for a tradition within Tradition to call his own -- or rather, which might call him its own.

In literary, social and religious history, reformers who urge a sharp break with the past often turn out, on closer examination, to be urging a break with the immediate past in favor of a return to a more distant past: perhaps a golden age of civilization (the Renaissance's dream of the ancient classical past), perhaps an Eden unspoiled by the corruptions of civilization (the recurrent dream of a ``return to Nature''). It could, indeed, be argued that all new movements which eventually become part of tradition are to some extent rebirths and returns as well as innovations.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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