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Tested by Time

Tradition is 'gratitude toward the past and harmony with it.'

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Concept and Claim

by Josef Pieper

Translated by E. Christian Kopff

ISI Books, 130 pp., $25

Man is a rational animal, said Aristotle, who forgot to add, "maybe 45 minutes a day, on a good day." What about something more negotiable, like "traditional animal"? The case has been made by conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, and, with one foot still in Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre. But modern urban industrial civilization has specialized in fracturing traditional cultures, a process usually accompanied by convulsions. Modern barbarism, in fact, has taken two forms: fanatical attempts to impose some extreme or purified version of threatened traditions, and fanatical attempts to abolish tradition altogether.

The French Revolution, communism, and similar futuristic experiments that exploded in modernity's face demonstrated that measuring all social customs and institutions by reductive standards of rationality or utility or progress doesn't work. Even progressive politicians now have to admit that traditions anchor identity and basic values in ways that can cancel out calculations of economic self-interest, or the forced march of progress.

On the other hand, even most contemporary Western conservatives are heirs to the Enlightenment premise that time-honored legacies of the past (most of them stoutly defended by conservatives) are subject to irreverent criticism or condemnation, if only in light of what by now can be spoken of as an Enlightenment tradition, an open-minded, questioning, scientific, democratic way of life.

So we are left without the kind of authority tradition once had and the kind of tradition authority once had. We still, of course, have plenty of genial seasonal and ceremonial traditions, ranging from wedding cakes to Christmas trees to New Year's Eve in Times Square to the seventh inning stretch. But tradition itself has needed a philosophy, not just the test of time, for a long time.
Burke et al. can be quoted in tradition's moderate defense; and now, in English, so can Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a modest, self-consciously traditional philosopher. Pieper was an independent German Catholic thinker whose touchstones were Plato and Thomas Aquinas and who established a reputation after the war with a series of popular short books on assorted cultural and ethical topics. The best-known in English is probably Leisure: The Basis of Culture (published in 1948 and translated in the early 1950s), a cogent case against relentlessly utilitarian approaches to life.

For Pieper, leisure, which is not to be confused with idleness or weekends filled with a frenzy of "leisure activities," is related to both festival and contemplation and the religious origins of each. It is time spent experiencing a harmony with the whole of existence, as opposed to the workaday task of tinkering with or subduing some part of it. Pieper approaches tradition in the same spirit in this little book (first published in German 38 years ago), which is devoid of the portentous density often associated with works of philosophy written in German and, despite a few puzzling or hairsplitting passages, resembles good conversation, wearing its learning lightly, full of arresting quotations and digressions.

Tradition is "society's memory." It's not to be confused with unthinking, obstinate persistence in something because "it's just tradition." It's an expression of a conscious, reflective gratitude toward the past and harmony with it, though not every implicit meaning of a tradition can be articulated or consciously understood while it's being practiced and handed on (and sometimes recast). But Pieper, while conceding the significance of secular traditions, is far more interested in "sacred tradition."

He uses Plato's frequent invocation of the wisdom of "the ancients" and their (in Plato's view) superior -attunement to the transcendent origins and meanings of things to establish a parallel between the Platonic tradition in philosophy and the Christian idea of sacred tradition founded in an original revelation. Tradition, in this sense, is a distant echo of divine speech. As such, Pieper argues, it is the archetype of all mythological traditions. The original revelation is, to be sure, in some cases "hidden beneath a thicket of fanciful additions," even "deformed and mangled," like the underwater marble statue of the god in Plato's Republic, "its limbs broken to pieces and crusted over with mussels, seaweed, and gravel, so it looks more like a monster than what it really is."