Response to Poulos: On the Authority of Tradition

James Poulos’s wonderfully rich response (and his second one too!) in some ways seem to anticipate and take issue with my reply to John Fea, what with my talk about the “democratic input of the people” and the “civic order.” Poulos’s thoughtful argument is that what truly threatens traditions is not the tendency of moderns to see themselves as somehow having comprehended the past and therefore having escaped from the “naïve” believing work of the past. He blames instead modernity’s ideological content, namely our authority-denying ideal of equality. This is a perhaps somewhat inevitable consequence of the creation of a civic order that respects the democratic individual. Poulos’s use of both Tocqueville and Nietzsche in exploring this claim only raises the stakes even higher: if equality, and the resulting doubting of authority, is the true cause of tradition’s decline in the modern world, then perhaps the roots of this problem are as old as Christianity itself.

The implication at the heart of Poulos’s question is thus a deeply challenging one: perhaps “tradition,” far from being an interpretive and participatory creation, one which arises via the active subjectivity and involvement of all who are touched by and enlisted into a given significant belief or practice, is actually fundamentally aristocratic. Perhaps tradition is an authority that is to be responded to…and that has been on the defensive ever since the message of the radical equality of all human beings began its slow, confusing, sometimes contradictory, but ultimately always liberating work. Poulos’s comments about marriage fit this perspective quite well; it isn’t difficult to read the gradual evolutions and adaptations of the ideal of heterosexual monogamy over the centuries as a long, haphazard retreat, with the authoritative principle itself always casting about for one justification or another, as the aristocratic ethos it once presumed weakened before the slow rise of gender and economic egalitarianism.

This is an abstract and theoretical argument, but it has immediately relevant applications, as Andrew Sullivan’s engagement makes clear. If Poulos is right, and the real issue is the question of authority (a question, really, about who or what, if anything, a democratically inclined people will fully accept as sovereign) then the compromise he gestures at—“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”—might be the only way to keep the aristocratic principle arguably contained within “traditional marriage” alive. Save marriage-as-an-acceptance-of-authority by separating marriage from the increasingly authority-absent civic order entirely! It’s a compelling compromise, and libertarians will love it. But I would prefer to see if formalizable, meaningful traditions might not emerge as the legal, social, and religious particulars of marriage continue to be hashed out through the breadth of our democracy, without either side calling for a full retreat or complete victory. That sounds almost hopeful, I realize, and I suppose it is. If I am hopeful about tradition’s continuing relevance to how we think about things like marriage, it is because I’m not sure I can agree with Poulos’s account of tradition’s authority as necessarily involving a degree of aristocratic acceptance.

Poulos, is his second response, notes my dissent from one of Tushnet’s points. I wrote:

I would quibble 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.

and he concludes: “Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this.

Now perhaps there is simply some confusion here in how certain philosophical or theological terms are being used, but I’m not sure how Poulos comes to this conclusion. He may well be understanding me correctly, but if so, I’m not certain that can be discerned from my disagreement with Eve Tushnet above. She suggested that certain institutionalized practices, through their repeated performance, might themselves become authoritative simply through a process of accretion. I find this unlikely. Now, if Poulos is taking Tushnet to mean that a community of practice (her specific example was journalists going about their work) have within them a source of teleological or moral meaning which will be immanent solely to the performance of the work involved, then yes, I do reject that idea. (Though I do not think that is what Tushnet was talking about; I read her instead as stating that some institutionalized practices precede any authority entirely, and gain authority simply through repeated performance, and I disagree with that for the same reason I agree with her about brushing your teeth: just because you may always brush your teeth in a certain way doesn’t make it a “tradition,” because there’s nothing social or authoritative involved, binding you or anyone else together.)

What is the relationship between authority, community, and tradition? I hold that, at some point through the history of a particular belief or practice, some one or some thing emerges or stands revealed in connection with it which those who hold to the belief or practice subjectively experience a sense of authority for. Obviously, this could occur at the origin of the belief or practice: Moses coming down from Sinai, speaking in the name of God. On the other hand, it could be a revelation that comes almost accidentally, one piece at a time. But whatever the case, there is not, I think, some foundational moment where authority becomes obviously immanent to all subsequent performance of the beliefs and practices; the authority comes through and in its subjective recognition by those who come together as a community around it. That is the interpretive, revelatory work of traditions: a situating of the self in regards to something which comes along with a community of belief or practice. This subjective realization may take the form of acknowledging an aristocratic ideal being so communicated—indeed, I would agree with Poulos enough to say that such might well often be the case—but it is not as though that sense of authority was immanent to the tradition the very first time it was ever enacted.

Now in disagreeing with Poulos here, I do not mean to reduce all traditions to an identical intellectual and experiential process. There is surely an immense historical variety in how these processes play out. The Puritan communities of 17th-century Massachusetts and the classical Confucian communities of Han dynasty China, for example, were both, in their own ways, profoundly traditional. Both had traditions that bound those communities together; in each, they were held as highly authoritative. But the experiential realization of that tradition and authority was quite different. For Puritans, it was a process of recognizing a spiritual authority in congregational leaders, through accepting a covenant of grace that the Puritans believed jointly set them apart from other Christians. This was a highly unequal context—Puritan town meetings were not modern democracies—yet it still depended upon a uniform, participatory acceptance of that singular source of authority by all in the community. For Confucians, it was a process of adhering to a set of ritual instructions and performances, ones believed to have been handed down from the ancient Zhou, the performance of which could align human beings with the Dao of nature and heaven. There was also a great of inequality in these communities—and yet, again, the actual binding authority of the rites was identified with the moralistic relationships and connections which the enacting the diverse roles and responsibilities specified by the rites (father, husband, teacher, servant, wife, son, minister, friend, etc.) instantiated. In neither case can one discern assumed, automatic, aristocratic authoritative model existing apart from a subjective, participatory contribution.[1]

Traditions should be preserved. Do we need to worry about preserving the authority of traditions, and perhaps separating them out from a democratic, anti-authoritarian civic order in order to do so? While I find Poulos’s speculations about the authority of traditions challenging, I am not persuaded that modernity’s loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos (which hasn’t been, it should be noted, a total loss) renders traditions incapable of doing their shaping, modeling, and binding work. The experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent as he implies, I think, upon getting and keeping the foundations right.

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.