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Beware the starry-eyed discipleship of progress

KISS OF DEATH,STATUE
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The haunting words of HItler and the great Catholic thinkers remind us why tradition matters.

Recently, I came across an old poem by Hilaire Belloc titled “The Statue.”

When we are dead, some Hunting-boy will pass
And find a stone half-hidden in tall grass
And grey with age: but having seen that stone
(Which was your image), ride more slowly on.

It was a short ditty. But a striking one.

In it, we’re dead. A Hunting-boy sees your gravestone (and statue). And he rides more slowly on. He is moved, if only for a moment. Perhaps because he knew you. Perhaps because he felt sorry that you should be so forgotten amidst the tall grass. Perhaps because momentarily, even in his youth, he remembered that he too shall die.

It was quick, to be sure. But for a moment, the dead communicated with the living. And the living was changed.

I am fascinated with those things that have passed that still affect us in the present. This fascination may be because I am an old soul. It also may be because I find our current philosophies, pastimes and obsessions so devastatingly shallow. Or maybe it’s just that I think the starry-eyed discipleship of Progress and the spitting disdain for Tradition is among the most tragic of ignorances mankind has yet to bring forth.

Now, let me say that of course, not all tradition is right. The legacy of slavery or segregation, in spite of its dark longevity in our Republic, is happily blotted out of existence. And not all tradition is rooted in good sense. There is a story told of a mother who bought the Easter ham only to cut a third of it away before placing it first in the pan and then in the oven. When asked by her daughter why she cut it this way, the mother answered, “Well, my mother always did it this way. And that’s how you cook an Easter ham.” Next, the young girl approached her grandmother who, in turn, gave the same answer about her own mother. Finally, the inquisitive little girl arrived at her great-grandmother’s knee and, once again, asked the same question. The old woman paused and answered quite succinctly, “I cut the ham that way because my pan wasn’t big enough.”

Traditions aren’t always right or sensible.

But just because something is tradition, we should at least pause and exercise considerable prudence before casually (or fervently) dismissing or disdaining it. After all, tradition is born of a collective, multi-generational wisdom that just may have a little more insight than your or my grandiose little minds. Tradition is the stuff of religion and love, of constitutions and legislation, of social movements and family celebrations. It is the marker of where we’ve been and a guidepost to where we are going. Tradition should be not be trifled with, but instead approached with respect and gravity. G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

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 the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

But what about self-actualizing? What about wriggling free of the skins of our fathers, our mothers, or collective ancestry who seemed to get so much wrong when we have the vision to set so many things right? Do we need to stand on our predecessors’ shoulders or can we just kick them out from under us? This is hubris, Chesterton warns.

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’

Hubris, however is a tough thing to shake. But what if I am convinced that I am right? What if I insist that this new world will be better when it is rid of the old? Perhaps that is a good point, but don’t forget that the new is not always better than the old. And that the shackles that prevented progress are often the restraints that prevented horrors.  The French Revolution did away with the traditions of Church, Aristocracy and Monarchy and gave rise to capricious mobs and the guillotine. The Bolshevik Revolution collapsed the Tsar’s mean rule and eradicated civil traditions, but crafted Gulags that killed significantly more citizens. The Nazi Party upended traditional religious and cultural mores in favor for a blood and soil nationalism leading to genocide and world war. And don’t forget, ill-considered dogmas and dehumanizing constraints are not solely the product of times gone by. They are feverishly manufactured anew every day. Just consider the haunting words of Adolf Hitler in 1933:

When an opponent declares, “I will not come over to your side,” I calmly say, “Your child belongs to us already … What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.”

Tradition is something that should be explored for its virtues as well as its hidden vices. There is no shortage of intrepid reformers, but there is a shortage of earnest defenders. Tradition should be looked upon with humility as well as healthy scrutiny. Of course, tradition has perpetuated abuses and justified horrors, but it has also humanized and liberated. Just as slavery could be considered a tradition, so could the Christianity that ended it. Whittaker Chambers, once trapped in the inky, blood-filled darkness of Communism, saw the world’s redemption not in progress, but in tradition.

It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the [embers], and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

There was once something else. Preserved tokens of hope and truth. Tradition well considered. Tradition well kept.

Perhaps we ourselves are walking on our errand through the tall weeds oblivious to everything other than our task at hand, focused intently on the quarry ahead of us. Or perhaps, we should be like Belloc’s Hunting-boy, who happened to notice — to consider and reckon with — that half-hidden marker of the past. I hope and pray that we favor the latter more than the former. And perhaps, as a result, we too will be changed and ride more slowly on.

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