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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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Backhanded as the compliment may seem, it's meant as a form of ecumenical embrace. Pieper thinks all religious traditions, even the divine shenanigans of ancient paganism, and the great Western philosophical and aesthetic traditions as well, share a primary universal aim, the preservation of an original transcendent legacy. "Primordial ideas" like "salvation, disaster, guilt, punishment, harmony, happiness" are found in every mythic tradition and are unconsciously assimilated by individuals so that "de facto we build our lives on them and become at odds with ourselves if we try to live otherwise."

In this context he alludes rather vaguely to the findings of depth psychology and briefly mentions Jung, though he's apparently not endorsing Jung's archetype-filled collective unconscious, just a kind of built-in moral order or spiritual compass given in some form to all peoples through their own traditional cultures and myths.

Pieper therefore deplores the "secularizing global civilization" that seems intent on uprooting them, and he uses as an epigraph a passage from Gerhard Krüger in History and Tradition: "The only reason we are still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition." Without its connection to the transcendent tradition, philosophy becomes, in the words of Karl Jaspers, "an increasingly empty seriousness," while art, Pieper implies (quoting Goethe), becomes empty frivolity.

If man really is a tradition-forming, tradition-following animal, we are never going to silence all tradition, but we are always, inevitably, going to be in the elegiac position of Lampedusa's Don Fabrizio in The Leopard, watching cherished traditional ways of life slip away into oblivion, since that's how history gets made. But traditions are only really appreciated when they're already fraying and fading. Before that they're hardly recognized as traditions; they're just the way things are.

Who knew daily newspapers were a "traditional print medium," rich in colorful newsroom customs and lore, until they started going under? Who fully savored Wrigley Field as a traditional ballpark until there were hardly any left like it? Who thought of painted pictures as a precious traditional art form until galleries started filling up with stained mattresses and old socks and vials full of the body fluids of "artists"? And who approached religion as traditional mythology when it seemed as solid and immovable as the earth itself--the earth in the traditional medieval cosmology, that is?

Threatened traditions may mutate into rigid fundamentalisms, or they may just be done in by the committees and regulations formed to save them. But the way you know something is a hallowed tradition is that it isn't what it used to be. Then "traditional" suddenly becomes a compliment. I saw a hand-lettered sign outside a gas station recently: "Old-fashioned Full Service." Once upon a time "old-fashioned" was a pejorative, too.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.