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."
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.