Tradition and the Problem of Pride

In his rejoinder to Eve, Russell dwells upon, but also wants to point beyond, the liberal-communitarian debate. For a generation, that debate has threatened to consume the resources of social and political thought in the American academy. But in important ways, it is a sterile debate. On its terms, even the path beyond the debate appears to involve the sort of epistemological modesty and ecumenical capitulation that casts doubt on the whole enterprise of disciplined philosophical conversation. When viewing the world—not least tradition—through the lens of liberalism versus communitarianism, one casts about in vain for the resources necessary either to resolve it or discard it. Fruitful progress seems to require a lucky hit.

Consider the disagreement between Russell and Eve on the question of origins:

I would quibble [says Russell] with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly.

Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this. In my response to Russell, I made the argument that tradition, at least in a democratic age, cannot supply its own foundations. As formulated, this is a more modest version of what Hobbes argued. As Joshua Mitchell has shown, Hobbes took the anti-Aristotelian position that community “is a unity (made possible by the one) of the many strangers, who are not by disposition prone to form a community together.”[1] The community is only possible under the Sovereign. Strikingly, Hobbes claims that “human beings are not by nature social, they are by nature prideful, and this is a massive obstacle to community which can be overcome only by the equality of all under the one. The question of the ontological preeminence of the community or the individual,” Mitchell concludes, “is a nonissue for Hobbes. The problem of pride, in a word, does not map onto the contemporary liberal-communitarian debate!”

This is more than a merely academic point. It presses, in fact, on the very pulse of our contemporary unease. (David Brooks is on the verge of publishing a sweeping summation of American life entitled The Social Animal.) Today’s educated general audience is, I think, deeply but rather incoherently concerned about the problem of pride. Picking up Mitchell where he left off:

When the progenitive Protestant vision (which insisted upon the theological notion of the equality of the all under the one) ebbs, then perhaps it begins to make sense to speak of the frailty and instability of a community of strangers. But not until then. What happens hypothetically without a sovereign in Hobbes’s commonwealth happens empirically in a Reformation culture without Christ the sovereign: all strangers lose their basis for unity. The community of strangers now become—mere strangers. This is a profound difficulty, to be sure, and it is at present impelling more and more people to search for a less scandalous basis of unity than through a Sovereign, to search for ways in which they may have something in common (by affirming their membership, say, in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or national community).

That was written in the early ’90s; nowadays, the scandal of the Sovereign is wearing off. Parochial identities provide poetic resources for the art of living; the federal sovereign provides, it is perhaps not too soon to say, the only basis for belief in an authoritative unity. Unlike Hobbes’s sovereign, ours does not officially set religious doctrine. Yet perhaps it has already begun to do so unofficially. There is some wiggle room in the particulars of that doctrine, but a sense of its parameters can be quickly gleaned from Andrew Sullivan, whose Catholic Oakeshottianism is a subtly clever (but dangerously unstable) effort to surmount the problem described by Mitchell. Reacting to my remarks on plural practices and conceptions of marriage, Sullivan asks:

How do we do manage to include all these experiences as part of the same core institution? James has an expression that captures my view:

If our democratic age cannot abide such a closed system [of strictly traditional marriage], the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak—with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private.

This is the argument in the closing chapter of Virtually Normal—and also explains why I put that “virtually” in the title. Civil equality need not mean an erasure of cultural or religious difference. That is why, as a longtime activist for marriage equality for gays, I also strongly support and respect much more traditional marriages. And any civil attempt to delegitimize the truly traditional should be fought, in my view, by the marriage equality movement.

Modernity requires living with cultural contradictions. And the worst response to modernity is to try and stamp those contradictions out, rather than finding ways to live them, with mutual respect, and civility.

The devil is in those brackets. The closed system to which I referred is not “strictly traditional marriage” but the authority of our federal sovereign, as it is, to take only one example, forced to supply an official definition of marriage that goes far beyond the strictly traditional. Whereas this move is entirely acceptable in a Hobbesian commonwealth—indeed, Hobbes’s whole point is that it is just this move that defines true sovereignty and the only possible authority in a post-Reformation world—it is, by Tocqueville’s lights, wholly incompatible with political liberty in a democratic age. I supposed in my essay that, for the foreseeable future, Americans are still of the sort who cannot withstand the complete surrender of their cultural prerogatives to the sovereign—even though, in an age of equality, the state (as my libertarian friends would call it) is the only institution capable of satisfying the democratic demand for full—that is, universal—equality.

But why would this be so? I would like to suggest, following Hobbes and Mitchell, that the answer is brief but nettlesome: pride.

[1] This and foregoing from Mitchell, Not By Reason Alone. Chicago: Chicago University Press, p. 146.

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.