Tradition and Foundations: Problems in Nature, Authority, and Equality

In his round of responses, Russell gives us much to think and talk about. Here I can only pluck out a few threads.

First, I applaud his care in noting that “modernity’s loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos” has not been “a total loss.” And I am intrigued that he follows this up by suggesting that the “experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent” as I think “upon getting and keeping the foundations right.”

In his further response to Eve, Russell gives us a hint of how we might develop these points by proposing, in place of my use of the language of equalization, communitarian Michael Walzer’s language of “mobilization.” Russell seems to suggest that the residue of an inegalitarian ethos is capable of persisting in a world dominated by Walzer’s “four mobilities”—geographic, social, marital, and political. Perhaps our “mobilized” world is like something of an overlay atop some foundation that survives the modern destruction of old aristocratic authorities to supply a minimal kind of inegalitarianism.

Let’s draw that out. I am struck that all Walzer’s mobilities are horizontal, not vertical. Places of residence cycle in and out, as do friendships, family members, spouses, and affinity or interest groups; in a ‘mobilized’ world, we are all more interchangeable. Now, the triumph of equality, I think, is the necessary precondition for the triumph of interchangeability. I also think we are all likely to agree that interchangeability—and its attendant ethic—is not the necessary outcome of equality. The great sociologist of authority Philip Rieff described the foundation of Jewish and Christian faith, for example, as the recognition, in all its fullness, that there was only one God and only one you.

According to the tradition Rieff describes, our radical equality is deep but narrow. It is no less than an attack on our natural capability to render ourselves, sinfully, all too interchangeable. (It is an attack on the temptation to do so, too.) Rieff and the tradition he describes are concerned with something more foundational than Walzer’s mobilities—with the relation between supernatural and natural authority. Nature furnishes an authority with mixed messages: we are somehow both the greatest of all the animals and the kind of animal most capable of lowering itself through transgressive acts of interchangeability. Nietzsche tried to reconcile these two features, human nature’s inegalitarianism and its egalitarianism, into a single ethic, “Dionysian pessimism.” The Dionysian cult of the orgy revealed the truth, which Nietzsche thought sacred, that the destiny of the greatest few was destruction by disincorporation into the many.

Though he sought to overcome it, Nietzsche was firmly indebted to Western religion for his categories of thought. Biblical faith works to adjudicate both varieties of natural authority—aiming to edify, control, and perhaps overcome not only those elements of natural inequality understood as opening onto sin, but those elements of natural equality which did the same. Yet, as we all know, Christianity, especially in its ‘modern’ forms, has struggled to reconcile on its own terms the two parallel varieties of supernatural authority, egalitarian and inegalitarian, to which it lays claim. As we’re also aware, Christian inegalitarianism, no matter how sincere, honest, thoughtful, naive, or modest, is taken with a minimum of seriousness and a maximum of offense by fashionable public opinion, high, low, and middlebrow.

Christian egalitarianism, by contrast, as I suggested in my initial response, meets a different response. Interestingly, however, contemporary, ecumenical Christianity tries to insist that its vision of marriage is one of a supernatural overcoming of our natural interchangeability—two unique, irreplaceable individuals freely form a spiritual union in fulfillment of God’s design. From this perspective, it is possible to conclude that gay marriage is not simply okay but is just as holy as heterosexual marriage. Here indeed we would find a still-powerful residue of an inegalitarian ethos!

But would we call it aristocratic? Not quite. We still (rightly) associate ethics of aristocracy with an emphasis on nature’s authoritative inegalitarian character. Yet we also find that emphasis silly, suspect, even dishonest. Human nature hardly admits of really natural selection. Nowhere are more profoundly unnatural matches to be found than in a well-developed aristocracy. We democratic folk, in short, have a bad conscience when it comes to nature’s inequalities. To the degree we permit ourselves to acknowledge and celebrate them (strong men, beautiful women), we insist on as massive and public and unnatural a compensatory redistribution of the experience of those inequalities as possible (cross-platform media saturation). How much money our naturally best specimens make is virtually beside the point. The more naturally well-endowed an individual, the more public a figure we demand them to be.

It is entirely consistent with this democratic attitude that we look upon the privatization of inequality with anger. Our dynastic celebrities most assuredly do not run afoul of our cultural prejudices in the way that, say, young, handsome, wealthy, married white fathers of children groomed for distinction and exclusivity do. No one could set himself more fully against his time than such a father who believes that the deliberate development of such a family is the highest form of glory to God. Sure enough, that kind of undertaking is more than difficult in a mobilized, egalitarian society like ours. But my aim is not to hold it up for praise or scorn as a lifeplan. It is, rather, to dramatize the way in which the authority of nature—the one authority that would seem to remain after the all the artifice of aristocratic trappings were swept away by equality, mobility, and interchangeability—remains persistently ambiguous and problematic in contemporary life. On such uncertain ground, traditions—like the very concept of tradition itself—seem destined to be contested in democratic times.

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.