The position this essay will attempt to illustrate, if not demonstrate, is that once lost or weakened the tradition of a society can be restored only by a creative and even radical reconstruction of the tradition itself. The problem to which we address ourselves is as complex as it is profound. And clear thought about it is inhibited by the corroded vocabulary and the stylized modes of conception that distort the very formulation of the problem. In a society where the substance of tradition is already thin and unpersuasive, the term tradition is taken to indicate habitual modes of behavior normally concerned with the periphery of life, reaching at most the dignity of a campus “tradition” when they rise above the level of etiquette. More obfuscating still is the conception of tradition as the element of sameness within a world of change, so that the changing and the traditional are viewed as antithetic. To be “progressive” is to be anti-traditional. The truth is that tradition itself changes in the sense of unfolds; it undergoes permutations. So that the disruption of tradition is encompassed not simply by change but by certain kinds of change. Once “bad” change eviscerates tradition, it can be brought back to life only by vigorous and even radical “good” change. To make this point we must first refurbish the idea of tradition.
First, since social change constitutes history, we must advert to the consideration that there are two kinds of history. There is the history related in books, what Eric Voegelin calls pragmatic history, or in Josef Pieper’s words (The End of Time, p. 22) “the empirically apprehensible element of historical reality.” This type is concerned with chronology. The intellectual problem it raises is that of determining the causal relations in the unfolding of events through time. This type of history is present to man in the sense that man’s current condition is always the end result of a series of prior causal acts and decisions. This type of history, it is interesting to note, is not susceptible to a “break” in its continuity or an erosion of its substance. Each age is coherently related to prior ages even though the events from age to age mark the rise and fall of civilizations.
There is, however, a second type of history, spiritual history, what Voegelin calls “paradigmatic” history. It is with this type that we are concerned, for it and tradition are identical. Tradition, or spiritual history, also has its progressive unfolding. But this occurs in a context totally different from that of pragmatic history. For the measurement of its development is not chronology and cause but the integrity of the original compact experience of truth whose differentiation constitutes the stages of the history. In this light, let us consider the nature of tradition more closely.
For any community, tradition is nothing more than the concrete experience of truth carried distributively and in common by a multitude whom the experience unites and structures for action in pragmatic history. Tradition, therefore, is the spiritual substance that completes the distinctively human in man and constitutes the distinctively human in society. It exists as the concrete completion of human nature in a particular society. When truth is experienced within this continuum of social existence and when the experience begets a sense of communion that truth is called tradition. For above all, tradition exists as the experience of truth, as that experience has been progressively developed during the past of a people and carried forward as true to the present, where it is really experienced as true in the soul of each individual member of the community.
It follows from this approach that between tradition and community there is a real relation of identity: The community is constituted by a multitude holding the same tradition. We define society abstractly as a multitude united in pursuit of a common good. Tradition is nothing more than the concrete historical specification of the common good which is the object of common effort.
It is essential to underscore the idea that the specification is not a single hie et nunc determination deriving solely from contemporary and abstract speculation. For the community, as distinct from the theorists, it is a product of the experience of the truth through time. This addendum stresses the important factor that tradition is not a static force in society; it unfolds in the course of human experience revealing ever new dimensions of the basic experience of truth on which the community rests. Newman has analyzed the general process of this development in his Development of Christian Doctrine.
Voegelin, more relevantly, has developed the concept with regard to the historical community. His theory of the “differentiation of a compact experience” admirably accounts for the phenomenon of continuity and identity within the process of social development. The problem proposed, therefore, is not one of man confronted with the tensions resulting from the contrariety between change and unvarying sameness. Such a dilemma is unreal. The real problem emerges when we regard it as the problem of the man confronted with spurious differentiations of tradition. What is a man’s relation to tradition when the contemporary developments in his society replace the real experience of truth with unreal images of it? To put it in Platonic terms: What is a man to do when he finds his community returning to the cave, finds it beginning to dream?
We are confronted, therefore, with the task of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” changes in the paradigmatic history of a community. This is no small task for social change runs a wide spectrum. It is doubtful whether any type of change is completely unrelated to the spiritual history of a people. But we can move most easily to the center of our problem by distinguishing three types. Although not mutually exclusive in themselves, they are still identifiably different in the type of response they invoke.
First there is the change characteristic of any developing society, the type of change that normally involves shifts in the area of private interests of men. In economics these are common: changes from silk to nylon, from railroads to trucks. These divide the men involved into two groups according as their interests are advanced or injured. Such changes and their response are of little theoretical interest for our problem and scarcely deserve an attempt to name the responses.
A second type of change reaches more deeply into the life of the community. It can be most easily identified in terms of the response it evokes, for with regard to the change itself, it normally follows from an accumulation of private interest changes. This is the type of change we call revolution, as in the term “industrial revolution.” The significant thing here is that unlike the private interest response evoked by the first type of change, this type evokes a direct competition for possession of political authority. A new group rooted in the emerging economic or social forces competes with the older group rooted in the prior conditions. This change, consequently, touches upon the question of the common good in circumstances where policy changes can be achieved only by changes in the ruling class.
Different conceptions of common good are involved, and so in a real sense the substance of consensus or spiritual continuity is involved. In the fortunate case, this change evokes what may be called a Whig-Tory split, the essence of which is that an adjustment of views has been reached and violent discontinuity in consensus avoided. The difference between the French and the English-American revolution is precisely that the French never achieved a Whig-Tory adjustment. Rather, it left the community permanently divided into irreconcilable factions. It was this perception of difference that motivated Burke’s efforts to distinguish the English from the French situation.
The second type of change does not necessarily involve a breach in tradition. As shown by the French experience, however, it can. And because of this, it is difficult to distinguish the French experience from the third type of change. This third type involves a change in the very structure of the community’s experience of truth in history. It involves a diminution in the intensity of communally experienced truth — in consensus — and a falling out of the area of experience large segments of previously held truth. It is only in this third type of change that the liberal-conservative response is evoked.
For this change is not a change from one positive position to another, but a change from order and truth to disorder and negation. The liberal-conservative division, we might observe in passing, is not of itself directly involved in a private interest conflict nor even in struggle between ruling groups. Rather it is rooted in a difference of response to the threat of social disintegration. The division is not between those who wish to preserve what they have and those who want change. Rather it is a division established by two absolutely different ways of thought with regard to man’s life in society. These ways are absolutely irreconcilable because they offer two different recipes for man’s redemption from chaos.
The civilizational crisis, the third type of change raises the question “what are we to do?” on the most primitive level. For the answer cannot be derived from any socially cohesive element in the disrupting community. There is no socially existential answer to the question. For the truth formerly experienced by the community no longer has existential status in the community, nor does any answer elaborated by philosophers or theoriticians. In this phase of change, no idea has social acceptance and so none has ontological status in the community. An interregnum ensues in which not men but ideas compete for existence.
If we examine the three types of change from the point of view of their internal structure we find an additional profound difference between the third and the first two, one that accounts for the notable difference between the responses they evoke. The first two types of change occur within the inward and immanent structure of the society. The first involves a simple shift of interests in the society. The second involves something deeper, but in its characteristic form focuses on a shift in policy for the community, not in the truth on which the community rests. Thus in both types attention is focused on the community itself, and its phenomenological life.
The third type, however, wrenches attention from the life of action and interests in the community and focuses it on the ground of being on which the community depends for its existence. Voegelin has analyzed this experience in the case of the stable, healthy community. There the community, faced with the need to formulate policy on the level of absolute justice, can find the answer to its problem in the absolute truth which it holds as partially experienced. This, however, cannot be done by a community whose very experience of truth is confused and incoherent: it has no absolute standard, and consequently cannot distinguish the absolute from the contingent.
It has lost its ground of being and floats in a mist of appearances. Relativism and equality are its characteristic diseases. Precisely at the moment when it has lost its vision the mind of the community turns out from itself in a search for the ontological standard whereby it can measure itself. For paradigmatic history “breaks” rather than unfolds precisely when the movement is from order to disorder, and not from one order to a new order. The liberal-conservative split, to define it further, derives from a basic difference concerning the existential status of standard sought and about the spiritual experience that leads to its identification.
When disruptive change has penetrated to the third level of social order, the process of disruption rapidly reaches a point of no return. Indeed, it is probable that this point is reached the moment the third level of change begins. At that point we reach the “closed” historical situation: The situation in which man is no longer free to return to a status quo ante. At that point men be come aware of the mystery of history called variously “fate,” or “destiny,” or “providence,” and feel themselves caught helplessly in the writhing of a disrupted society. The reasons for this experience are rooted in the metaphysical characteristics of such a change.
Of all forms of being, society, or community, has the greatest element of determinability. Its ontological status is itself most tenuous because apart from individual men, who are its “matter,” tradition, the “form” of society exists only as a shared perception of truth. The ontological status of society thus is constituted by the psychological-intellectual-volitional status of society’s members. The content of that psychological status determines, ultimately, the content of civilization. Those social, civilizational factors not rooted in the human spirit of the group, ultimately cease to exist. Civilization itself — tradition — falls out of existence when the human spirit itself be comes confused. Civilization is what man has made of himself. Its massive contours are rooted in the simple need of man, since he is always incomplete, to complete himself.
It is not enough for man to be an ontological esse. He needs existential completion, he needs, that is, to move in the direction of completion. And the direction of that movement is determined by his perception of the truth about himself. He must, consequently, exist as a self-perceived substantive, developing agent, or he does not exist as man. Thus, it is no mystical intuition, but an analyzable conception to say that man and his tradition can “fall out of existence.” This happens at the moment man loses the perception of moral substance in himself, of a nature that, in Maritain’s words, is perceived as a “locus of intelligible necessities.” An existentialist is a man who perceives himself only as “esse,” as existence without substance.
Thus human perception and human volition is the immanent cause of all social change and this most truly when the change reaches the civilizational level. Thus with regard to the loss of tradition, in the change from order to disorder the metaphysics of change works itself out as a disruption of the individual soul, a change in which man continues as an objective ontological existent, but no longer as a man.
Further, change is a form of motion, it occurs as the act of a being in potency insofar as it is in potency and has not yet reached the terminus of the change. With regard to the change we are examining, the question is, at what point does the change become irreversible? A number of considerations suggest that this occurs early in the process. Change involves the displacement of form. This means that the inception of change itself can begin only when the factors conducive to change have already become more powerful than those anchoring the existent form in being. If the existent form is to be retained new factors that reinforce it must be introduced into the situation. In the case of social decay, form is displaced simply by the process of dissolution with no form at the terminus of the process. Now in the mere fact of the beginning of such displacement we have prima facie evidence of the ontological weakness of the fading form. And when we consider the tenuous hold tradition has on existence, any weakening of that hold constitutes a crisis of existence.
The retention of a tradition confronted with such a crisis necessitates the introduction of new spiritual forces into the situation. However, the crisis occurs precisely as a weakening of spiritual forces. It would seem, there fore, that in a civilizational crisis man can not save himself. The emergence of the crisis itself would seem to constitute a warranty for the victory of disorder. And it would seem that history is a witness to this truth. As a further characterization of the liberal conservative split we may observe that it involves differences in the formula for escaping inevitabilities in history. These differences, in turn, derive from prior differences concerning the friendly or hostile character of change.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on September 5, 2016.