Claiming that tradition is also a guide for our present worries and undertakings is not so common.
The role tradition plays in our moral upbringing is easily recognized. It takes only a moment’s thought to realize our everyday manners and preferences, the rules and codes that help us distinguish between right and wrong, and even our deeper thoughts about the human condition and the general fate of humankind are no less traditional than the language we speak, the clothes we wear, or the kind of food we eat. We did not come up with these manners, rules and thoughts on our own; they have been given to us and moral education is nothing more than the process of learning our way about this peculiar immaterial inheritance. It was Gustav Mahler who said “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
The claim that morality is something passed down from generation to generation is somewhat common currency, but to claim tradition plays another role besides that of explaining how we came to have our moral beliefs, that it’s not only the medium through which these beliefs have been given to us, but also a guide for our present worries and undertakings, is not so common. It takes a lot more reflection (and life experience) to realize the rules and ideas about behavior we have been given cannot be detached from the thoughts and reflections of the ancestors that first formulated them. Moral ideas are not dead things nor are moral rules simple reports of past accomplishments. Sustaining each and every one of them one finds the overall, comprehensive thoughts of these great men; they are the product of their elucubrations and labor. Every moral idea, every moral sentence stumbling our way entices us to go deeper and reflect upon the meaning of things, to imagine how our ancestors conceived human nature and to think about what they thought was dangerous and unfruitful and why they felt the need to issue an advice and a warning for the living. To be morally aware is not to repeat patterns and follow rules of conduct in a mechanical, instinctive manner: it is to know the reasons behind these rules and, not less importantly, to know their limitations.
Regrettably, it seems it is only in times of trouble and uncertainty when we begin to realize tradition is a living and operative reality. Thinking about the experiences of the French in the midst of the Vichy regime and the Second World War, Simone Weil wrote:
“In the atmosphere of anguish, confusion, solitude, uprootedness in which the French find themselves, all loyalties, all attachments are worth preserving like treasures of infinite value and rarity, worth tending like the most delicate plants.”
In times of trouble we begin looking for guidance and for models that could help us deal with our conundrums and it is only at that moment when we realize that all of these moral ideas we have been given are the product of people going through the same type of trouble we are now facing. It is the task of the educated mind, not only to preserve what is valuable in its moral tradition, but to transform those valuable things into a true and genuine spiritual experience.