This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Tradition and convention

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

–G.K. Chesterton

“I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

–Thomas Jefferson

I have described elsewhere the modern confusion surrounding the term ‘tradition,’ but here I want to draw attention to it again from the point of view of lived experience.

What makes America unique is that it is almost wholly the product of revolution. Many other nations have revolted here and there, to be sure, such as Scotland against England in the legendary days of William Wallace, but they were not fighting so that they could be born—they were fighting to return to a life they had had previously. They were revolting that they may return to their tradition and live it without interference.

For America this is not the case, since it was fighting not for a return but for a beginning. After the dust settled, the only tradition in the land was that of the native peoples, and this the revolutionaries had no intention of preserving. They had their own ideas, which they implemented, and which were of an entirely experimental character. They were not new ideas, to be sure, but they were novel in the sense that, while previous civilizations were aware of the ideas, they did not find them worthy of application.

I will try not to condemn any particular principles here, since we have done that at length elsewhere. Here our only purpose is to remind the reader that America is fundamentally anti-traditional, and therefore cannot be said to have any “traditions” of its own in any real sense. This is important to our subject because tradition, regardless of what you think of its merits, is a stabilizing force. It grounds people and gives them direction and identity.

However, we must also deal with a great irony here, because we’ve had a lot of ideas, words, and practices waved in front of us all our lives, and these things, we have been told, are the “American Tradition.”  Is that not the most profound hypocrisy? Have we already forgotten that the founding principles of our nation amounted to the rejection of all political tradition, and that much of the early progress of our American civilization amounted to the obliteration of the ancient traditions of a native people? How can we then wield the term “tradition” as if it were something which demanded respect and adherence? How can we speak of “tradition” as if it were inviolable and divine, when our civilization was born through its violation?

Our nation was born by rejecting the traditions of Europe while at the same time trampling over the traditions of a native civilization, and so America was born a traditional void and has quite possibly doomed itself to remain as such. America, we might say, is anti-traditional.

So, then, what about these ideas that were taught to us as our “tradition?” How are we to deal with them? What are they?

They were conventions which are entirely different. They are temporary, mediocre, subjective, shallow. They were political preferences, party allegiances, hollow economic ideologies, vague moral sentiments, disgraceful material aspirations. Nothing we can sink our teeth into, nothing worth fighting or dying for. They were already stale by the time they were told to us. No one really wants to die for the New Deal or for Reaganomics, although they do.

Tradition isn’t something that old people hold in front of young people to show them how wrong they are. Well, it can be that, but that is not all that it is, and if that is the only way it survives then it isn’t worthy of survival. A tradition is a gift, a truth, a light, and a support, and when it is real it can be seen by everyone in the community as such. That’s how it becomes tradition: because it is nothing more than wisdom in its simplest expression.

But we don’t have any of those things, those ancient and proven expressions of wisdom. Our predecessors wiped tradition off the map centuries ago and have been reeling ever since.

Of course, they couldn’t reel for long. They couldn’t live without traditions even though they rejected every last one. And so they are constantly trying to construct a new framework from the rubble of their dynamite job. That was the technique of the Founders, after all. They took a sermon here, a platitude there, some Aristotle, some Cicero, far too much of Descartes, and even some St. Paul. With these they built the haphazard and wobbly thing we now see before us, which they now call the “American Tradition.”

It is a grotesque piece of infrastructure, and the worst is that it keeps changing because its foundations will always lie in revolution. Always revolution, and so the structure quakes, ready to collapse at any moment and kill anyone who is standing inside.

Men are able to believe in this structure, this great counterfeit-tradition, for a very simple, psychological reason: because it is theirs. Its existence flatters, and its success affirms, and so their self-worth rests in its continued existence and its success. That is the most lethal and deceiving aspect of our traditions. They are changeable and so they change with each generation, sometimes becoming entirely reborn, sometimes becoming entirely perverted. Each builds its own revision of the tradition, which is always in its own image. It is a reflection of the deepest hopes and desires of whoever created it, and in that it is extremely dangerous.

That is why we must see them as conventions, and as something to always question and be wary of, and decidedly not as tradition, which is something so time-proven as to seem “pre-historic,” in the precise sense of the term. Traditions aren’t made—they just are, and you either take them or you don’t, and you suffer or benefit accordingly. You either keep them or lose them, in which case you have to return to them in order to regain them. But you never build them.

Tradition is the result of men attempting to live to their highest through ages, building bridges of beauty, wisdom, and soul, which then serve as paths to safely guide their young across the abyss. Conventions are blind inroads out over the precipice—like those old cartoon characters who would walk off a cliff and not fall until they looked down and realized where they were standing. You might get lucky with a convention, but it is always an experiment.

That is why it is a great deceit to sell conventions as traditions. It isn’t the same product. One is proven, the other is just a first prototype that might explode in your face. This is how you must come to understand American “tradition.” It is not a bridge because it was made by burning bridges. Because of this you should not accept them without question as if they were immortal principles. You can take them or leave them.

Yes, you may take them if you want, these conventions. My purpose here is not to dissuade you from using them if you find them helpful, noble, or true. My purpose is not to disparage your whole American heritage. My purpose is only to call things what they are and stop the exaggerations and the deifications. Feel free to hold to the philosophy of the Founders, but you must stop holding it as a dogma. Do you like the Constitution? Then defend it, even in the name of God, if you wish, but don’t let anyone tell you that God wrote it with his own hand.

That’s where the dangers and the perversions come in. Once you make these frail things into something divine, then you give them power over your soul and your conscience. And since our “traditions” are often just the preferences of those immediately before us, then you’ve given your soul over to a collection of petty aspirations, secular mythologies, and prejudices of a single generation. That’s a dangerous game, to say the least. You allow politics and methodology to play at divinity, and you give them access to an area of yourself in which they have no business meddling. You give them the keys to your own soul and your own conscience.

Then one day you’ll find yourself listening to your party leader as if he were Moses, and you’ll be hating the other guy as if he were the anti-Christ. You’ll be doing this because “the tradition” is under attack. All the while you’ll live in agony and shame, because you sold your soul to convention.

This is the second layer of shame I want to peel off of your conscience. This is the second layer gone hard, dry, and calloused. When you are accused of despising convention, of having “no respect for tradition,” you can save your guilt. You have not committed this crime. You aren’t rejecting tradition; you are just rejecting the opinions of the person standing in front of you. That’s what American tradition is: it is novelty and opinion, which is to say, it is anti-tradition.

Learn to see these counterfeit traditions for what they are, and discard this layer of your shame for good.

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