Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim

By Josef Pieper, translated by E. Christian Kopff, ISI Books, hardcover 97 pages, ISBN: 1-933859-54-7, $ 25.

Pieper (1904-97), a German philosopher famous for his simple writing style, succeeds in the important task of defining tradition for our busy, post-modern society, emphasizing tradition's living vitality and accessibility.

Yet the philosopher doesn't want a frozen tradition. Pieper welcomes the harsh questioning and criticizing that adolescents and young adults do towards their cultural and religious inheritance. These repeated challenges can only help sharpen tradition, and encourage the guardians to retain only the central parts.

Pieper notes the connection between reason and tradition. Reason, and philosophy as a whole, cannot indefinitely do without theology, because philosophy needs a compass to set itself towards.

Pieper shows how Western civilization is even now Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman, as he refers to Socrates and Plato again and again. Pieper recounts the Socratic teaching that the gods gave something to humans from heaven that the ancestors handed on, and that we have handed on ever since. The dignity of the ancients was found in this divine source, and not in some special holiness that they had personally attained.

Tradition, for the Greeks as well as for Judeo-Christian thought, finds its source in this original divine revelation. Modern philosophy, though distinct from theology, should also find its impetus from this original divine source, Jesus Christ and the Hebrew writings that He fulfilled. Christ is the ultimate origin of tradition.

Tradition can only succeed and survive as long as people base it on divine revelation. Perhaps with a slightly condemning eye to our modern times, soon after these words, Pieper notes that “If sons really did stop celebrating the religious holidays celebrated by their fathers, or if the tradita of the sacred tradition were no longer handed down, here alone we must talk about a 'loss of tradition,' of 'a complete lack of tradition' and a 'break with tradition.'”

As a philosopher Pieper was all-too-aware of the so-called deconstructionists and post-modernists, who assert that there is no truth, but only truths relative to individuals or, at best, to isolated cultures. Their truth is that there is no truth.

Pieper refutes this with a few choice words: “Tradition is by no means a confused mass of historically transmitted accidents, wherein everything that has been created and preserved, as long as it possesses a certain antiquity, is equally valid.”

Contemporary thought fails on two grounds. First, no individual has direct access to revelation, which must instead be handed down through the proper authorities. Tradition, in fact, is all about the handing down of an original revelation. If people did have direct revelations, tradition would not exist.

Second, the modern notion of progress fails, even when it occasionally tries to wed itself to tradition. The accumulation of more facts, Pieper notes, does not mean that we are more advanced than the church fathers or medieval saints, because progress is really a spiritual good. This is so because of the spiritual nature of tradition, where “the goal is always to represent identically what was originally shared with mankind from a divine source.... I am only interested in using the interpretation that represents the tradition as a means to help me gain access to exactly the same thing that the first recipient of the message had access to: salvation, knowledge, wisdom.”

The unique gift of Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman civilization is freedom. True freedom, as opposed to the self-oriented license of modern freedom lovers, comes from the tradition because of its core truth, which is Christ. Otherwise, Pieper warns, people become enslaved, and “worry obsessively about the cultivation of the 'traditions.'” This was the case with the ancient Romans fighting the Christians, and again seems to be the case today when secular people fight for their pseudo-freedom against the Catholic Church, which forever calls people to a higher freedom.

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