Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Here at Covenant Zone, we've been having an ongoing discussion on the meaning and uses of tradition so I thought I would quote something I've just come across that provides a useful perspective, precisely because it testifies to a realization that developed over time while working within a tradition. It's from the introductory chapter to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987). This reading then led me to write down a few thoughts in a mini essay, which you will find below the Bloom quote. Then, by way of a motivating endnote, we’ll have a look at the latest blog from Gil Bailie. This all makes for a lengthy post; I hope it is of interest.

First Bloom:

[p.48: When I started teaching in the 1950s] this American intellectual obtuseness could seem horrifying and barbarous, a stunting of full humanity, an incapacity to experience the beautiful, an utter lack of engagement in the civilization's ongoing discourse

But for me, and for many better observers, this constituted a large part of the charm of American students. Very often natural curiosity and love of knowing appeared to come into their own in the first flush of maturity. Without traditional constraints or encouragements, without society's rewards and punishments, without snobbism or exclusivity, some Americans discovered that they had a boundless thirst for significant awareness, that their souls had spaces of which they were unaware and which cried out for furnishing. European students whom I taught always knew all about Rousseau and Kant, but such writers had been drummed into them from childhood and, in the new world after the war, they had become routine, as much a part of childhood's limitations as short pants, no longer a source of inspiration. So these students became suckers for the new, the experimental. But for Americans the works of the great writers could be the bright sunlit uplands where they could find the outside, the authentic liberation for which this essay is a plea. The old was new for these American students, and in that they were right, for every important old insight is perennially fresh. It is possible that Americans would always lack the immediate, rooted link to the philosophic and artistic achievements that appear to be part of the growth of particular cultures. But their approach to these works bespoke a free choice and the potential for man as man, regardless of time, place, station or wealth, to participate in what is highest. It would be a sad commentary on the human condition if the brotherhood of man is founded on what is lowest in him, while the higher cultivation required unbridgeably separate "cultures." The American disposition [49] gave witness to an optimistic belief that the two universalities, if the body and of the soul, are possible, that access to the best is not dependent on chance. Young Americans, that is, some young Americans, gave promise of a continuing vitality for the tradition because they did not take it to be tradition.
[50] I was convinced in the early sixties that what was wanted was a liberal education to give such students the wherewithal to examine their lives and survey their potential. This was the one thing the universities were unequipped and unwilling to offer them. The students' wandering and wayward energies finally found a political outlet. By the mid-sixties universities were offering them every concession other than education, but appeasement failed and soon the whole experiment in excellence was washed away, leaving not a trace. The various liberations wasted that [51] marvelous energy and tension, leaving the students' souls exhausted and flaccid, capable of calculating, but not of passionate insight."
But the students who have succeeded that generation of the late fifties and early sixties, when the culture leeches, professional and amateur, began their great spiritual bleeding, have induced me to wonder whether my conviction – the old Great Books conviction – was correct. That conviction was that nature is the only thing that counts in education, that the human desire to know is permanent, that all it really needs is the proper nourishment, and that education is merely putting the feast on the table. At the very best, it is clear to me now that nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man’s art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness.
the impression of natural savagery that Americans used to make was deceptive. It was only relative to the impression made by the Europeans. Today’s select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture. The soil is even thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain the taller growths.
[54] my early experience of American simplicity had persuaded me that we were right, that we could begin with nothing, that uncultivated nature sufficed. I had not, however, paid sufficient attention to what students actually used to bring with them, the education that was once in the air that helped launch them. Most students could be counted on to know the Bible, that ubiquitous source of the older traditions. In America it was not filtered through great national interpreters, but approached directly in the manner of early Protestantism, every man his own interpreter. The Bible was thus a mirror of that indifference to national cultures inherent in the American method. Most students also participated in a remarkably unified and explicit political tradition that possesses one writing known to everyone and probably believed by most, the Declaration of Independence.
[56-7] Passages from the Psalms and the Gospels echoed in the children’s heads. Attending church or synagogue, praying at the table, were a way of life, inseparable from the moral education that was supposed to be the family’s special responsibility in this democracy. Actually, the moral teaching was the religious teaching. There was no abstract doctrine. The things one was supposed to do, the sense that the world supported them and punished disobedience, were all incarnated in the Biblical stories. The loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible must be primarily attributed not to our schools or political life but to the family, which, with all its rights to privacy, has proved unable to maintain any content of its own. The dreariness of the family’s spiritual landscape passes belief. It is as monochrome and unrelated to those who pass through it as are the barren steppes frequented by nomads who take their mere subsistence and move on. The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated…. They have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others. The family requires the most delicate mixture of nature and convention, of human and divine, to subsist and perform its function.
[58] The cause of this decay of the family’s traditional role as the transmitter of tradition is the same as that of the decay of the humanities: nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth. So books have become, at best, “culture,” i.e., boring. As Tocqueville put it, in a democracy tradition is nothing more than information. With the “information explosion,” tradition has become superfluous… In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old, and – as the very model for a vision of the order of the whole of things, as well as the key to the rest of Western art, the greatest works of which were in one way or another responsive to the Bible – provided access to the seriousness of books. With its gradual and inevitable disappearance, the very idea of such a total book and the possibility and necessity of world-explanation is disappearing. And fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise – as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine. Contrary to what is commonly thought, without the book even the idea of the order of the whole is lost.

To paraphrase Allan Bloom, what we, as a single political nation, have lost in our openness to the idea of attempting openness to all cultures and traditions in our “multicultural” (i.e. shallowly ideological, imperial) society is a firm sense of our roots in a specific tradition that can guide us (as a single, self-ruling, "we the people"), to act decently and productively both among ourselves and with Others. This loss involves the need for a shared high culture that, on the one hand, can speak to universal truths while, on the other, remaining a part of our specific historical tradition and way of articulating the competing claims of freedom and equality.

When Bloom writes, “It would be a sad commentary on the human condition if the brotherhood of man is founded on what is lowest in him, while the higher cultivation required unbridgeably separate "cultures,”” he points to the fact that what unites us as human beings is a common origin at the beginning of human language and representation, i.e. the first human language from which all subsequent cultures have evolved. But the realization (suggested by a mound of linguistic, DNA, and archaeological evidence) that we must all share a common origin is not enough to unite us or to provide us a faith or ethical system to guide us in our daily lives. For our faith, hope and ethics, we need to belong to a particular tradition rooted in a history more proximate than our hypothetical shared origin. And yet our particular tradition, as is true with every national high culture, cannot but explore, in one way or another, what is fundamental or original to all humanity; what's more, every high culture learns, to this end, from study of, and competition with, other cultures.

At the common origin of all human languages and forms of representation, we were still many millennia away from evolving the means to make a distinction between high and popular culture, a distinction that well comes into being in the West with the classical civilization of Greece. Thus, what unites us is neither what is lowest nor highest in man, but what is most primitive, that which is the seed for both high and low culture.

Our common origin leaves its finger print on all of the world’s cultures and the outline of this print of that which is specifically human in nature – i.e. that which must have been present and novel (not animal) at the origin of human symbolic language - is something we should seek to hypothesize. This, indeed, is part of the mission of the discipline of Generative Anthropology. GA teaches that we gain much wisdom into humanity by thinking about our shared origins; but, as noted, what we all share is far too minimal to constitute a tradition or faith by which one may live. For example, nothing that is universal is a sufficient guide to understanding how best to organize ourselves politically. For this, we must turn to the laboratory of history to see what has worked in our past and to gain wisdom there about what might work in future.

One’s quest for the universal becomes a vain task if one does not have a way of bringing what one learns from other cultures, and from abstract thought, into some useful conversation with one’s own particular tradition. And yet the idea that we can make some syncretic system out of disparate world cultures, to guide our lives in a “multicultural” environment, has never born much fruit when it has been tried, as it has for some millennia now, amidst the confusions about what is same and different in various cultures, confusions that are created when disparate peoples are brought together under the thumb of the great multicultural empires of ancient and modern history.

In contrast to syncretic imperial systems, there have indeed been profound cultural syntheses that have evolved, over the millennia, as in the Western marriage of Athens, Jerusalem, and local (e.g. Celtic and Germanic) tribal heritages. But a slowly evolved synthesis that has been tested by long exposure to and conversation with worldly realities is not the same as the fanciful notion that an individual or collective genius in the here and now can put together a system that draws on disparate cultures and make this system work as a guide to life and what is fundamental in human nature and existence.

No great effort to build a rational system works, because we are not alone, living in egoistic bubbles of our own profound ratiocination. What we need thinking and culture for is to allow us to live with other people whose desires both mimic and clash with our own (which mimic and clash with theirs) in a dance over the terms of sameness and difference that cannot be delineated rationally for we are at root pretty much all the same but cannot exist together without continually asserting and living markers of difference, to effect both a division of labour and of consumption.

Peace, order, and good government require certain arbitrarily articulated signs, novel historical precedents and positions, around which differences may be exchanged as necessary. Any attempt to model this exchange in advance, to make it more rational, less arbitrary, will only create new understandings and somewhat arbitrary responses to the model, a learning process that will eventually throw the model into doubt.

What we need thinking and culture for is not to provide clockwork models of how to live together, but rather to give us the faith that we can always find temporary solutions to our unending human problems by building covenants that allow us to put an open-ended faith in our exchange with others, our co-citizens, without whom we cannot live in politically and culturally acceptable conditions, unless we think being ruled by bureaucrats, managers, and their ideologies (which tend to the totalitarian, especially under “multicultural” conditions) is how we want to live.

Only individuals who are rooted in and obedient to a particular tradition are suitable material for covenanting, or maximizing the possibilities of exchange. Only individuals who are competent to represent their tradition, that others might follow their lead, can hope to take the first steps in making the kinds of political compacts we need, either renewed compacts within our own tradition, or new compacts that may become necessary with representatives of other traditions in search of a successful synthesis with us, when such synthesis is possible (something that all the multiculti diversity lipservice in the world cannot effect by wishful thinking, for a new synthesis must provide real ethical, organizational, progress by way of expanding freedom of exchange; and much that some people hold sacred about their culture is not amenable to expanding human reciprocity, while some values that are conducive to maximizing exchange - e.g. those that constitute national identities - must remain culturally particular in nature).

None of this, as I say, is amenable to rational planning. For example, when one’s tradition values non-conformists, political outsiders, and exodus, as in Judeo-Christian ethics, one’s obedience to tradition becomes a paradox indeed; but in time, the difference between heresy and genuine renewal becomes clearer, if we maintain honest respect for the historical journey that allows us to better understand the origins and purpose of our tradition. Unless one is alive to certain moral imperatives and ethical possibilities, knowledge of which comes out of a familiarity with, or experience in, tradition, one cannot successfully bring them to bear upon the new political compacts or covenants that hope to achieve a greater order in both freedom and relative equality for all members of an expanding national community. That expansion of exchange can only happen with the wisdom that comes from study of and loyalty to a shared tradition.

High culture, to return to Bloom’s point about what might bring us knowledge and sympathy of other cultures, is, essentially, a commitment to identify with the victims, fictive or real, that are necessary to the production of any particular culture (see the understandings of high culture in Generative Anthropology). Any cultural or social order must create a system of differences around signs whose representation entails forms of both esthetic and ethical closure, a closure of both fictional and real events that defines what it is possible, at a certain point in time, for the community to allow and what it must avoid. Thus, for example, in high cultural tragedy we identify with the hero-victim as a cautionary figure whose demise warns us to defer our disorderly desires by loving the story and its victim, but to beware of loving the tragic folly enacted therein. The victim is not treated, as he is in more resentful popular culture, as a scapegoat to boot around.

But if the high cultural attitude identifies with the victim, it does not do so to the point of seeking to deconstruct or undermine the cultural order simply because this order is built, to some degree, on victims, on the fallen hero, the ethnic Other, etc., on the characters who must lose or die to make our shared story meaningful, significant. All order requires some form of difference, and thus, at any given point in time, a less-than-perfect equality (which is not to deny the need for us always to seek expanded reciprocity and new opportunities for the losers). To pull down our tradition because it does not meet some utopian dream of perfect equality is only to create a vacuum in which a more violent or primitive order, without much of a sense of tradition, is likely to take root. Instead of postmodern nihilism giving way to something worse (as with today’s “Eurabia”), we need a tradition that can renew itself by respecting its primary or original imperative to value love over resentful violence, e.g. through a loving respect for its own necessary degree of “victimization”, of social and political differentiation, a respect that acknowledges its own share of evil without undermining its own order and informed hope for an increased reciprocity in future. The “victims”, and not just the “winners”, must come to terms with their shared (original) sins and attempt to change according to the demands of a tradition in renewal.

If the high cultural attitude requires love of tradition, a desire to study, understand, and protect tradition, to add only what truly fosters and expands the possibilities inherent in its sacred origins, popular culture has traditionally (though not necessarily so today, when high and popular values mix in many different ways) existed to indulge (and thus help defer, if not as ably as high culture) the resentment that any tradition inevitably creates in those who, for whatever reason, cannot measure up - this is all of us at one point or another).

Low resentment, as Bloom suggested, is easier for people to share across the lines of tradition than is love for a particular tradition. Love is always for something particular, something that one must work to appreciate. Resentment has no proper object, since resentment, our unexamined “sense of injustice”, is always, to some unknown degree, a delusion about what it is that is causing us to feel resentful. The cause of our resentment is not so much the guy or the system we think is dealing us wrong (though it may be to some degree), as our inability to find in this world all the love, attention, and status, in relationship to the sacred, that our desire craves. We cannot all be equally proximate to the many sacred centers of shared attention. Any possible human order and freedom requires social differences: to love freedom is to love the difference in positions that risks becoming a scandal for our resentment.

When we consider compacting with members of some other culture, we must ask how much love and how much resentment, how much high and how much popular understanding they can bring to bear in negotiating a covenant that attempts to bond us together. We must first love what is particular to our own historical tradition: a successful marriage can only occur when both parties love something in themselves as well as in each other, a love that allows for them to negotiate differences in openness and honesty, in shared respect for some higher truth, so that the two may live together in a way that, in an unpredictable, open, negotiable, manner, will some day allow someone to successfully articulate a higher synthesis of the two partners, a success that will be measured by the willingness of various others to sign on.

We cannot be commanded to respect our others; they must partner with us in earning that respect, a necessity which requires us to be in touch with what is fundamental to our shared humanity as well as what is particular to our distinctive histories, a particularity which will not show us to be equals in all respects. Covenanting is at base a paradox of grasping to know what is same and different, a paradox that we cannot start to unfold until we try, in good faith, to expand the possibilities of our exchange, and thus learn about human truths through a culture or person’s relative success or failure in free exchange (an exchange which may sometimes have to begin with the most primitive forms of reciprocity, by providing predictable, if violent, responses to others’ violence).

Sometimes a true marriage cannot be effected between two traditions; instead, a conversion and adoption (or even death) where one party does much more to assimilate to the other, even if retaining some sense of difference, is the only way forward. Ultimately, history poses a fundamental test for everyone: what must be done to expand, not contract, human reciprocity? Sooner or later, this test entails eliminating from the world the more barbaric understandings of the sacred. If we lose the nerve and will to do this, we condemn humanity to death and destruction at its own resentful hands.

The spirit of non-judgmentalism that pervades our times makes all this – true covenanting or true adoption - impossible. We live in a time without much true and honest negotiation among traditions, but rather a deferral to high bureaucratic authorities to find ways, in non-smoking back rooms, to create temporary truces but not genuine widespread commitments to new terms of peace. Our so-called leaders keep trying to divvy up pies already baked, the fruits of the accumulated wealth of past covenants, instead of finding ways to bake better pies through new covenants.

Non-judgmentalism leads, eventually, to rule by the logic of lowest common denominators, to rule by the manipulators of resentment. High cultures, loves for tradition, can only be brought together by the careful work of covenanting leading to new syntheses and not by vain syncretic ideologies or religious systems. In the long run, “multiculturalism” will prove about as successful in shaping Canadian culture as syncretic Freemasonry and Rotary Clubs were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, it will not provide the fundamental means by which future generations will put their faith in the political or ethical systems they share together as the basis for hope in the future.

It remains for those of us in Canada who value one or another tradition of high culture to come together, in the Covenant Zone, and hash out the makings of a new compact and synthesis in which future generations may put some political faith and hope.

This takes me to Gil Bailie’s thoughts on the relationship of tradition to our responsibilities to future generations. If we are to have a responsible culture it must, Gil suggests, be a culture bound to tradition:

The word "tradition" and the word "treason" come from the same root.

The very name "modernity" self-consciously used to describe the period of the last several centuries in Western cultural history clearly exemplifies the spirit that has dominated these centuries, and the "postmodernism" that has lately been offered as its sequel -- as it's name makes obvious -- is nothing more than the same spirit, in Shakespeare's words, having eaten everything else in sight, at last eating up itself.

The spirit that animates both these phases of our cultural history is an anti-traditional spirit, rooted in the assumption that liberation from the past is the key to happiness and progress. This "liberationist" spirit has fostered a remarkable degree of economic and political improvements, but it must be said that the most impressive of these are due more to the residual presence of a Judeo-Christian ethos than to the forces that have insisted on its irrelevance.

Slowly but surely, however, the underlying presuppositions of the modern and postmodern eras have led to a loss of cohesion and cultural integrity, resulting in a situation today in the West which is little more than licensed autonomy enforced with increasingly draconian methods, all aimed at neutralizing or penalizing the public presence of traditional religious or moral judgments: what Pope Benedict called "the dictatorship of relativism."
I am even tempted to describe the belligerents in today's culture war as those who are primarily concerned with making the culture more congenial to their own impulses, desires, aptitudes, and preoccupations, on one hand, and, on the other, those primarily concerned with the cultural, moral, and spiritual needs of those who will come after them. I know howls of protest will be forthcoming about that; but I must say this is exactly how it seems to me.

The precise point I want to make is about the very nature of both tradition and culture. Both are received from the distant past, not concocted in the present or in the recent past. That is why we must try to resolve any differences between ourselves, our contemporaries, our ancestors, and our descendants in favor of our ancestors. Paradoxically, that is the only way we can resolve them in favor of our descendants. For what our descendants will most desperately need is an inheritance, a tradition, a moral, religious, and cultural patrimony that has the weight of centuries of affirmation, reflection, scrutiny, and living experience. Anything less ballasted than that will surely be washed away in the cultural tsunamis which are doubtless coming in the decades just ahead.

To hand on to the next generation a culture cobbled together out of the fashions and ideological enthusiasms of the last few decades is to betray them in the most irresponsible way, for such a culture is no culture at all, and it will do them not good.

Just a reminder: Covenant Zone meets every Thursday in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Libary, 7-9 pm. Look for the blue scarves.

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