Beyond Liberalism

“Our teacher simply commanded: ‘Stand up!’ and we put our pointe shoes on our bare feet and started the class,” she remembers. “At the end of the lesson the slippers were covered in blood. I don’t consider them to be relics, but I could never throw those pointes away. They are a very touching reminder of childhood — like my first essays and my first math exercise books, which are covered in scribbles.”

— Mariinsky ballet soloist Yekaterina Kondaurova[1]

If I am understanding him correctly, Russell Arben Fox is asking two questions: What are we doing when we practice a tradition? And what are we doing when we judge a tradition? I will try to give some sense of other possible answers to these questions, and also add a third: What are we doing when we sacrifice for a tradition?

“Tradition” is one of those words, like “conservatism” or “love,” which has too many meanings. The level of abstraction shifts vertiginously when we move from claims about “the tradition of jumping the broom” to “our marriage tradition,” for example; the tradition of Thanksgiving is not the same as one’s own Thanksgiving family traditions, and in neither case is the word being used quite the way it is used in the charmingly paradoxical phrase “the Socratic tradition.” I move pretty fluidly between different senses of the word, partly since much of what I will say applies across several levels or types of tradition and partly since I am attempting a series of provocations rather than an analysis or proof.

First, Fox is right to call out the bizarrely simplistic, ahistorical pictures of premodern society which claim that reflection on, challenge to, and innovation in tradition are purely modern and postmodern practices. Premodern people created new rituals, institutions, and corresponding traditions, and reflected on their permanence, value, and meanings. These traditions often arose in contrast to preexisting institutions and traditions. Take the rise of beguinage in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Rather than taking the veil, pious laywomen called “beguines” lived together without religious superiors. They created a new vocation; they had followers, women who saw their way of life and sought to practice it. When we practice a tradition, we are not attempting an escape from history.

We are also not just repeating actions or pursuing individual goals. Brushing your teeth every day is not a tradition. While repetition and continuity across time is a key feature of tradition, a more central feature is connection to others. Traditions enmesh us — even entangle us.

But with whom? Part of the difficulty in discussing tradition is that the word appears to name an independent authority — “Do this because it’s traditional” — and yet defenses of tradition often collapse into defenses of some other authority to which the tradition is tied. Defenses of tradition thus become defenses of the church or the community, whose authority is considered great enough to trump individual understanding and desire in a way that tradition-as-such cannot. And since traditions can come from sources of wildly varying levels of authority, it’s easy to assume that the traditions themselves have no value outside their ability to connect us to and serve the goals of those authorities. Thus if we think we can find an alternative route to those goals, we can cast off any traditions which we find unintelligible or unpleasant, without losing anything important.

Fox hints at one reason this approach will not work in practice: Authorities may precede traditions (or they may not — I’d argue that some institutions, like journalism, gain their authority as various conflicting-yet-compelling traditions accrete around them), but they can’t substitute for traditions. Tradition gives us our personae, roles, stories. Tradition offers us models of how to submit to those authorities we recognize — parables rather than either rules or rulers.

We need tradition for this because so many of our authorities are abstractions, and no one really loves or follows an abstraction. Traditions, in which specific actions, gestures, symbols, and images accrete around an abstraction like “England,” or “Thanksgiving,” or “philosophy,” or “the black community,” give that abstraction a pointillist face and transform it into something almost like a beloved or hero. The more of these traditions we strip away, the more abstract and faceless the authority becomes, and the harder it is for us even to imagine how we might follow it. One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton. This task involves both restoring lost traditions and creating new ones: figuring out which traditions “fit in” and embellish the portrait and which ones clash; which ones serve the beloved authority and which ones appear to serve it while actually repudiating it. (If you want to see passions unleashed on this subject, hit up an online discussion of contemporary Catholic hymns! But this conflict takes place on every level where tradition is invoked, from American holidays — Columbus Day or Juneteenth? — to marriage and gender roles.)

In order to accomplish this task of re-enfleshment, we need to be able to judge both existing traditions and attempted replacements. Paul W. Kahn points out in Putting Liberalism in Its Place that we’re always simultaneously an “I” and a “me.”[2] We can act and love and follow — and yet that acting, loving, following self can become a “me,” an object of self-reflection, whose choices and even loves can be questioned and criticized by the “I.” (He argues that this is a feature not of modernity but of language.) Defenders of tradition are very good at delineating how traditions and communities shape that “I,” giving us so much of our language and sense of selfhood that rejecting tradition-as-such would make us unable even to speak. But these defenders of tradition are better at telling us why judging tradition is so hard than they are at helping us do it when we have to. As Kahn puts it, “Recognizing that there is no subject without parents, for example, hardly tells us how we should view our parents.”

Here are three criteria which make sense to me when judging a tradition: Is it beautiful or productive of beauty? Does it help us love — love one another when we don’t want to, or love a rightful authority? Does it mitigate, honor, or make sublime the suffering and constraint inherent in our natures?

These three questions take us outside of the goals recognized by almost all liberal philosophy. Kahn argues that liberalism talks almost exclusively in terms of two pairs of twins: reason/discourse, and desire/choice. Beauty and meaning thus get dismissed as irrelevant, fluffy (what does it mean to have meaning, anyway?), or excuses for reactionaries. Kahn — somewhat unhappily, since he’s basically sympathetic to the liberal project of making the world rational and comfortable — points out that virtually no actual existing humans limit their goals to the liberal ones. Thus either men must be changed (since within liberalism there’s no reason to accept that any constraints are “inherent in our natures”) or goals must be added which require a philosophy beyond liberalism.

Suffering and helplessness are humiliating. In their raw form they are degrading and our bad instinct is to respond to those who suffer with shunning or contempt. Many traditions — from soldiers’ traditions to the veneration of saints’ bones, from apprenticeship traditions to marriage traditions — seek instead to honor certain forms of minor or major suffering. Sure, I’m getting yelled at by a crazy person with a cleaver, but I’m like Anthony Bourdain, or that kid in Ratatouille! Yes, things are pretty awful right now and I think I’m falling in love with someone else, but I got my images of marriage from Brief Encounter and my wedding vows made me promise myself for life, and I wouldn’t respect the kind of person I’d become if I left.

I can’t give you a list of criteria for judging which suffering needs honor and role models, and which suffering simply needs to be fought as hard as possible. But tradition does have the power to transform suffering into sacrifice: into something we accept because of whom we love and who we want to be.


[1] “Getting Into Character,” Galina Stolyarova, St. Petersburg Times, December 17, 2010.

[2] Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place. (Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 50–4.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, communitarian political theorist Russell Arben Fox considers the role of tradition in orienting, or perhaps even in fashioning, the individual. Tradition is under assault, we are told, by market forces, global integration, and the ubiquitous media. Marxist and postmodern thinkers have even suggested that under such conditions, all traditions must be somewhat inauthentic — the product of conscious fashioning, and, thus, not really a tradition at all. At times, traditionalists have called for group rights and group protections in an attempt to prevent commerce from eroding tradition, and thus, they hope, they can avoid the postmodern critique entirely.

    But traditions have always been subject to re-invention and re-interpretation, Fox argues. The supposedly new challenge of liberal commercial society is neither new nor even much of a challenge. Traditions are and always have been opportunities for creativity, appropriation, and self-conscious cultural critique. The political implications of traditionalism may be considerably fewer than traditionalists or their critics appreciate.

Response Essays

  • Eve Tushnet argues that liberalism has tended to strip away traditions in a very troubling fashion. “One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now,” she writes “is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton.” At the very least, she argues, traditions fill an important gap in the liberal project. Where liberalism values reason, material comfort, and autonomy, tradition helps us make sense of life’s more senseless and painful aspects. Tradition helps us to understand and, yes, to obey deserving authority. Given that it is human nature to experience frustration and constraint, tradition promises solace, connection to others, and even transcendence.

  • John Fea notes the peculiar place of tradition in American political culture. The United States was the first country self-consciously founded on Enlightenment principles. As such it called many traditions into question. Tom Paine urged his fellow citizens to “begin the world anew.” As a result, progress and tradition are constantly in tension in American political culture. To preserve national traditions from a “cultural holocaust,” Fea defends government funding for historical sites, museums, and other aspects of our heritage.

  • James Poulos argues that what’s eroding tradition today isn’t commercialism or secularization. It’s equality. The democratic ideal of equality is also in some senses a Christian ideal, too. But it often calls into question traditions that presuppose social hierarchy. Traditions emphasizing inequality or privilege have fared badly, while traditions emphasizing equality have flourished. Poulos draws on Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville to ask a very large question: Does the vital core of traditional Christian social thought survive? Or is God really dead in the age of equality? Traditional marriage is offered as an example.