Pieper: Tradition

November 16, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim (1970)
Josef Pieper (ISI, 2008; trans: E.C.Kopff)
128 p. First reading.

Our time is unfriendly to the idea of tradition, so much so that the word itself acquires in some circles a perjorative connotation.  Nietzsche said, “What is under the most profound attack today is the instinct and will of tradition.  All institutions which owe their origin to this instinct are opposed to the taste of the modern intellect.” Pieper’s tastes are rather different, and he is especially interested in traditions of teaching — that is, traditions which aim to preserve important truths.  This little book is an examination of the concept and the value of tradition.

The purpose of a tradition is to preserve something through time, passing it from one generation to the next.  Tradition requires two unequal partners: the one who “hands down” the teaching, and the one who receives it. The thing handed down is not an original contribution of the one who hands down, but rather something he himself received. “I received what I handed down to you”, as the Apostle says. The act of reception is not “learning”; receiving a tradition is not the same as gathering information.  The tradition is only received when the hearer accepts and appropriates the thing handed down.

A paradox in tradition is that a healthy tradition does not talk about itself as a tradition.  The tradition is not accepted because it is “traditional”; it is accepted simply and solely because it is true and valid.  Yet the one to whom a tradition is offered cannot independently know that the tradition is true; if he could, he would not need to receive it.  This means, says Pieper, that “accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief.”

Since participating in a tradition involves relying on the testimony of someone else, the question of authority necessarily arises.  (This is the point on which tradition runs aground in our culture, which is so allergic to authorities.  Tradition is incommensurable with the doctrine of the autonomy of the will.)  For the one who receives, the one who hands down acts as an authority.  Yet he himself relies on the word of the one who handed the tradition down before, and so on.  When we accept a tradition, therefore, the one in whom we ultimately place our trust is the one who stands at the beginning of this chain.  Plato called these originators “the ancients” or “the men of old”.  Yet their authority was not derived simply from the fact that they lived long ago, but from the fact that they received a divine gift:

This is the definitive platonic formulation about the status and authority of the “ancients”.  Their dignity consists in the fact that they received from a divine source a message, a pheme, something spoken, and handed on what they had received in this way.  This is the only reason why they are the “ancients”.

In this understanding, by accepting a tradition one places one’s trust in the divine source that originally spoke the truth which the tradition preserves.  This means that the concept of tradition is intrinsically related to revelation.  In fact, the only legitimate way something can merit preservation for all time is if it goes back to divine speech. By believing this word, we are in a real sense united to that divine source, for “whoever believes in another person by that act wants and realizes ‘spiritual union’ and communion with him.”

This analysis seems to imply that tradition is always at least implicitly sacred tradition, and Pieper does indeed want to define this strict sense of the word.  In this strict sense, Catholic Christianity is obviously an example of a tradition: it claims to possess a divine revelation which it preserves from corruption and forgetfulness through time, passing from one generation to the next truths of great and abiding value.  Yet Pieper points out that even Christian theologians acknowledge that other legitimate traditions exist: from its early days the idea has been put forward, renewed and emphasized again by Vatican II, that all people possess an “original revelation”.  All have heard, in one way or another, the divine Logos who is Christ.  This divine speech has entered into the respective myths and religions of different cultures, though “hidden beneath a thicket of fanciful additions”, and mixed with heterogeneous elements.  When Plato turns to myths in his dialogues, he seems to recognize that they are “only broken shards, fragments of a tradition which can no longer be grasped as a whole”.  Here, indeed, is the difficulty: this fragmented tradition cannot be restored to its original form without a further divine intervention.  (It is this further revelation that Christianity claims to have been entrusted with.)

The practice of handing down a tradition poses challenges to both parties.  The one who receives does not do so casually or uncritically.  It is natural and important that the value of the tradition be questioned and its claims probed if it is to be truly appropriated and its value truly appreciated.  This critical attitude, however, must remain humble, open to the possibility that it may reap a unique benefit from this gift that is offered.

The challenge is more severe for the one who hands down the tradition.  If the tradition is to be kept alive and vibrant, the truths it conveys must be presented in a compelling and credible manner.  To do so, especially in a culture that changes rapidly under the influence of powerful forces alien to the tradition, is extremely difficult.  Pieper quotes a Hebrew proverb: “Teaching the old is harder than teaching the new”.  We can draw a distinction between the core truths of the tradition and the external form in which they are presented.  Granting, and even insisting, that the relationship between these two elements, inner and outer, is not to be lightly tampered with, we must acknowledge that it is legitimate, and may at times be necessary, to alter the external form in order to preserve the inner substance.  To be stubbornly attached to a particular historically accidental form may hinder the transmission and reception of something truly worthy of preservation, and is, says Pieper, a form of decadence.  At the same time, the essence of what is to be preserved becomes naturally entangled with particular historical forms, and altering those forms risks altering or destroying the understanding of those essential truths.  It is a delicate business, then, requiring what Pieper calls a “very rare linking of prudence and courage”.

We can see this delicate interplay of historical forms and inner truths in recent Catholic history.  The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II are an obvious example: the outer form changed considerably, and to this day people argue about the degree to which our understanding of the theological truths conveyed by the liturgy has been damaged.  Another example is John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, in which he reformulated in modern, humanistic language the historic teachings of the Church with respect to human sexuality, teachings which had traditionally been presented with quite different language and reasoning.

With this understanding of the nature of tradition and the challenges it poses, we can briefly sketch the character of the ideal “critical traditionalist”.  We look for “a characteristic element of fundamental reverence and thankfulness”, for he recognizes his debt to those who have proclaimed and entrusted these truths to him.  His respect for tradition produces “distrust of that zero-point radicalism that fancies it always possible to start again from scratch with a tabula rasa, as well as distrust of the inclination to treat each new moment as a ‘completely new situation’, and so forth.”  A traditionalist makes a distinction between innovations in science or medicine, and innovations in our basic understanding of human nature, death, love, or God.  The former may be warmly welcomed; the latter provoke grave suspicion.

When a generation tries, as ours does, to emancipate itself from reliance on tradition, a consequence is that it loses sight of those truths which were the special province of the tradition.  If those truths were trivial or otherwise insignificant this is fine, but if they were of genuine value the result is inevitably an impoverishment.  Karl Jaspers remarked that divorced from sacred tradition philosophy was characterized by “an increasingly empty seriousness”.  Pieper cites the following aphorism by Viacheslav Ivanov: “Freedom achieved by forgetting is empty”.  “Empty freedom”: the phrase describes quite aptly the modern spiritual situation.

Although Tradition was written in 1970, this is (I believe) the first English translation to be published.  The translator, E. Christian Kopff, also provides a lengthy introduction and extensive notes and bibliography.  The length of Pieper’s text is just over half the length of the whole volume.

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