The Meaningful Value of Tradition | Stevan Balac
It’s a cliché of the human experience that you never really appreciate the value in something until it’s gone.
In the heated stasis of Britain’s ‘culture wars’, debates about history and tradition can easily be caricatured – often into an unfair dichotomy between prudish Conservatives and wild green-haired student hordes. However, discarding the products of bias, demagoguery, and political partisanship shows that these debates ultimately boil down to a fundamental question: is tradition for tradition’s sake justifiable?
In other words, whilst we broadly accept traditions with a clear positive societal impact and oppose ones with a negative impact, the real battle is waged on ‘neutral’ traditions which have no obvious effect on people. For example, there is little controversy regarding harmless cultural traditions such as charity donations made during Armistice Day services, and likewise near universal opposition to what are seen as harmful traditions such as the historically sexist power dynamics within marriage. However, what should our position be towards traditions of pure symbolism and ceremony, which, at least on the surface, have no significant meaning?
On a political level, it seems that traditions of unity and collective identity have regressed, largely as a result of the vast increases in economic, material, and technological wealth in the 20th century. Generations that formerly relied existentially upon institutions such as the Church and the nuclear family for spiritual and economic security have found no real need to collectivise and share resources. This reduction in the importance of community was precipitated, for instance, by a decrease in armed conflict from the early 20th century: no longer having to face the daily possibility of death meant religion’s importance declined for many individuals.
It would, of course, be lunacy to regret these processes of modernisation, which have brought relative comfort, peace, and safety to millions of people in the UK. The point I make, however, is similar to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous observation that our technological and material abilities have exponentially superseded our spiritual and social ones. So successful was the process of modernisation that we have forgotten the centuries-old truths of communal tradition, such as the institutional importance of the Church. It is for this reason that I would defend institutional tradition in a way I hope rises above political debate, focusing instead on a spiritual or philosophical value inherent in us all. Tradition is not simply a political issue, nor the preference of one culture over another – it is valuable in a very human sense as a universality of our psychology.
I remember vividly spending endless hours waiting, as a Year 7 student, amongst the cold stone pillars of the cathedral closest to my school before our annual carol service. These visits may have seemed unnecessary – if not bizarre – at the time, but it was only upon leaving the comfortable social nest of school and its corresponding traditions that I truly began to appreciate their inherent value. In this case, what seemed an antiquated tradition to a child became a fond memory to a young adult. Seven hundred snotty-nosed children in a 14th century cathedral now seems an experience of the sublime. I feel traditions such as these which connect us to our history in a visceral way give us a sense of the interconnectedness of humankind. The inherent value of tradition, then, is that it fundamentally makes us aware of something greater than ourselves, thus justifying its necessity.
In this personal example, those cold stone pillars signify generations of children and worshippers in that local community. It is this reciprocity of experience, the mutuality of partaking in idiosyncratic traditions, which on a social level connects us all. Think, for example, about friends made at LSE: it’s rare to form relationships with people who we have no shared experiences with. In our case, this often takes the form of sharing courses, hobbies, and, of course, the coincidental lottery of student accommodation flats. I mention this not because it is a particularly intuitive or perceptive discovery, but because this aspect of our collective relationships is the same as the one that gives an inherent value to tradition.
In John Stuart Mill’s famous essay ‘Utilitarianism’, he memorably declares that “it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” posing the existential question: why aren’t we, and why shouldn’t we be, blissfully ignorant? If a pig, for example, can be made completely happy with enough food and shelter to express its natural instincts, should we not wish to be a pig? Mill, of course, concludes that we should not – there is a seemingly unexplainable facet of human nature which can have every material and physical comfort yet desire much more; we are at our highest form being Socrates dissatisfied. Hence, humans are unique in the animal kingdom for having a longing awareness of something greater than themselves, and this understanding of otherness is so valuable and intrinsic to our being so as to actually warrant immediate unhappiness, or ‘dissatisfaction’. This fundamental spiritual truth also reveals our inherent desire to connect and express, thus supporting the upholding of tradition.
One could think about it like meditating – and this observes Mill’s suggestion by allowing us to connect with the atmosphere around us, making us believe we are part of a larger plane of existence. In the same way that an artist wishes to express themselves by showing how their world collides with others, the practice and appreciation of the Armistice service, for example, connects our drastically different world with those who fought in the black mud of the Somme or Passchendaele. One of the obvious ironies to this is that those who champion communal or socially inclusive forms of politics often shun such national traditions for being overly exclusive.
To refer back to the original ‘cliché of human experience’, I suggest that clichés, much like traditions themselves, often become ignored because they contain so much inherent truth. Tradition is not only justifiable, but is a necessary aspect of the human experience; it is one that we all unwittingly observe anyway on some level. In other words, tradition ‘for tradition’s sake’ can be intrinsically valuable to everyone because it is an acknowledgement of our shared experience, an admission of both our abilities and our vulnerabilities, and a celebration of the uniformity, yet simultaneous diversity, of people.