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Tradition and Progress

"The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see."
-- Winston Churchill

It has always been intuitively obvious to me that the past and the future cannot be severed from each other. Back when I was a young, naive liberal, it never occurred to me that I should despise the old simply because it is old; when I grew older, wiser, and more "conservative," I never felt that the new is bad, simply because it is new. The only problem, for me, has been to understand how "tradition" and "progress" came to be considered contrasting rather than complementary opposites, and to articulate the reasons why this contrast is unnecessary, and even dangerous.

At first glance, it seems that "conservatism" and "progressivism" are equally self-evident, yet equally vacuous. Who will deny that good things ought to be preserved, and that evils ought to be abolished? It makes no sense to distinguish between "progressives" and "conservatives" without indicating what kind of progress, or conservation of what. It makes no sense to want to change everything all at once, or to preserve everything forever.

Although conservatives rarely if ever want "to preserve everything forever," conservatism emerged historically as a defensive reaction against people who did want "to change everything all at once." The political Left is defined, first and foremost, by its desire to tear down the existing society and build some preconceived utopia on the ruins. No wonder the Right has habitually regarded the future as a menace.

The irony is that it's the utopians, from Plato on down to the feminists and environmentalists, who believe that society is, or can be, eternally fixed and inalterable. The utopian, exactly like the caricatured conservative, intends to "stand athwart history yelling Stop!" -- once he has recast society on his own design. Utopians underestimate the complexity and dynamism of the world, and overestimate the power of a simple and static order. Society is too complex, unpredictable, and deeply rooted to be designed or recreated by anyone.

Every plan for the complete reconstruction of society must be rejected outright, no matter what goals it aims at. The attempt to level society and rebuild it from the ground up will only lead to death and destruction; society will be damaged, but no utopia will replace it. Nor can the evolution of society be predicted or planned: there are too many variables. The world has a certain resistence to the force of human intentions, a certain inertia, even a certain perversity.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that man is not omniscient, and therefore all our actions have unforeseeable consequences. The second is that man, by nature, is free; that is to say, he has free will.

The intentions of social planners will always run up against the wills of the rest of us -- us, the planned. Whenever a self-selected few set themselves up to plan the destiny of all mankind, as the Communists did and as the liberals still do, they set themselves against every other human being; every one of us, to some extent, is going to resist being treated like inanimate matter to be shaped according to some planners' notion of how the world should be.

Now, "progress" must have a particular direction, which is itself a matter of debate. There are different kinds of "progressives": nowadays, there are liberals and libertarians. Liberals want to "progress" towards an all-powerful government; libertarians want to "progress" towards anarchy. The good news is that "progress" is indeterminate: we are free to decide for ourselves what it means -- what we want to progress towards. We can re-examine the idea of "progress" and redefine it as the continuation and enlargement of our inherited culture, rather than its contradiction and destruction.

Progressivism and conservatism, as such, do not contradict each other: in fact, each is necessary for the other. Tradition, Chesterton said, is democracy for the dead; progress, then, is democracy for the unborn. We owe a kind of filial piety to the past -- to the ancestors who slowly built up our civilization over the generations; and surely the best homage we can pay them is to continue to increase the civilization we have inherited, which we in turn will hand down to our descendants.

Conservatism is pointless with nothing to conserve; it is dependent on prior discovery and creation. Tradition, the inherited wisdom of the race, is simply the accumulation of the wisdom of individuals. A hallowed past is not a dead past -- it is the foundation for the works of the present and future. The past dies when its heirs fail to increase it.

It is futile and pointless simply to try to preserve the status quo, which is always doomed, sooner or later, to go the way of all mortal things. Progress is necessary for our very survival: history shows that a relatively static society is doomed to be overrun by more innovative competitors. Innovations strengthen the established order by adapting it to changing circumstances.

On the other hand, tradition and order are needed to consolidate and preserve past accomplishments. Innovations are only enduring when integrated into an established order. No matter how desirable any reform may be, the preservation of social order and the rule of law must always have greater priority. Given this basic stability and continuity, one may effect gradual and prudent reforms, as necessary.

It is a basic requirement of human action to have stable and predictable social conditions. Any rapid change or violent disturbances, even in the name of "progress," can only threaten the security that individuals and societies require to survive and flourish. The complexity of civil society is such that any attempt to impose sudden, drastic changes will only lead to chaos. Stability and law are inherently necessary and good, even if a stable order is less than perfect, and even if there are some bad laws.

Society is natural; types of society are conventional. Given the existence of society and human nature, and their requirements, it is possible to evaluate the many possible forms of society. The problem is to discover how to make convention conform to the standard set by nature, without disrupting the social order as a whole.

Some things are bad and wrong, everywhere and always, and one should try to eliminate them when they exist, and prevent them when they do not. But in the gray areas, which are most areas, we should accept that which is, simply because it is. "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."

The habit of questioning traditions is a dangerous one. The very fact that a particular institution or custom has existed for a long time, creates a very strong presumption in favor of continuing it. This is true for two reasons.

First, human beings are imperfectly and unequally rational. Therefore, most human behavior is determined by the forces of imitation and habit: in a word, tradition. Reason is embodied in history by means of tradition, and tradition must in turn be guided by reason. Reason discovers new facts, ideas and techniques; this knowledge gradually becomes taken for granted, habitual, quasi-automatic, freeing the mind to discover new things. Very few people discover or invent anything; they learn from those who do, by imitation. Nor could even the creative minority recreate the whole body of knowledge they have inherited; they have to take it for granted just as much as the inert majority.

No one person, no one generation, can independently discover all truth. No one can even guide his own individual life solely on the basis of reason, without the support of tradition. Reason alone, then, is even more inadequate to create a whole social system. Reason must operate on the substance of a given situation: an individual life, or a common culture. Individuals and societies must take their inherited beliefs and customs for granted, and only examine and change them in exceptional circumstances.

Ordinarily a tradition is not recognized as such: it is simply "the way things are done." When a tradition is recognized, it can be either rejected, modified, or affirmed. The last course is the safest, because there may well be reasons for a tradition that we have forgotten, and relearning those reasons the hard way would be unnecessary, and probably painful.

Thus, rationalism is not necessarily opposed to tradition. It is precisely reason that reveals the importance of tradition, a fact of human nature that must be reckoned with.

Second, traditions have value in and of themselves, regardless of their content: they are social landmarks that give us our bearings in the world. Inherited patterns of behavior connect us spiritually to the past from which we inherited them, to those around us who share the same ways of doing things, and to those in the future to whom we shall pass our inheritance on.

It has often been said that rapid technological change requires us to change our morals, customs, and institutions. This is plausible only if we assume that man was made for the machine, not the machine for man. Technology only gives us new means to pursue ends: it is up to us to decide what we will do with it. If anything, technological progress makes cultural conservatism more necessary than ever. We need to hold on to our old standards and purposes, lest we be lured (as so many have been) into making idols of our machines.

Conservatism is not (or need not be) merely a resistance to change in general, but a positive attachment to some particular way of life and the community that embodies it. Because communities, traditions, and nations do exist and are important, conservatism is not merely temperamental and insubstantial. Shared traditions are essential for social cohesion, and therefore a primary and permanent good. Any conception of "progress" that undermines social cohesion is flawed -- it is not progressive at all, but destructive.

It is this attachment to particular traditions that allows us to maintain the thread of continuity through the changefulness of the world. The most politically relevant attachment is patriotism, loyalty to one's country: in the modern Western context, this means loyalty to one's nation-state. America has changed amazingly (not always for the better) since we became an independent nation, but we are still the same country we were in 1776, and if we are willing, we shall still be the same country in 2776.

1999 by Karl Jahn