It is generally assumed that traditionalists are hostile to free inquiry and experimentation. On the contrary, they revere them. But traditionalists also recognize the difference between open-mindedness and empty-mindedness.
I am a respecter of traditions because I know that they are rational, and that they work. Though possessed of a gargantuan ego–what else would impel me to write a blog?—I have just enough humility to acknowledge that it is unlikely that I, Harleius Pretius, sitting alone in the solitude of my study, and owning no more than the meager quotient of intelligence and life-experience with which any single individual can ever hope to be endowed, could come up with a better solution to the problems besetting humanity than those hammered out at some point during the half-million-year history of human reflection and trial by the cumulative genius of mankind that preceded my glorious birth. I’m no paragon of Socratic humility, but I hesitate to pit my lonely intellect against a collective braintrust that includes the likes of Johnson, Pope, Milton, More, Erasmus, Pico, Aquinas, Boethius, Augustine, Aristotle, and, well, Socrates.
Even the most “knee-jerk” adherents of tradition have a well-grounded intuition that the customs and practices they follow have been rationally and empirically demonstrated over time. If today’s cabinet makers “mindlessly” continue to build carcasses and drawers with the same old dovetail joints as have been sawn and chopped since the William and Mary period, it’s because they know that after having experimented with butt joints, rabbets, tongues-and-grooves, round dowels, square pegs, iron pins, steel screws, hide glue, glue from fish bones, and probably human spittle, their predecessors long ago agreed that the dovetail was a superior mechanism. In putting two pieces of wood together at right angles along end grain, the dovetail joint works splendidly within the limitations fixed by the nature of the material and the laws of geometry. Traditionalists accept the immutable conditions of the world into which they have been born, and woodworkers are no different. (They’d certainly regard any cabinet maker who built drawers using an inferior joint for the sake of novelty as a lunatic.)
Most traditional social or moral arrangements—heterosexual monogamy; the nuclear family, with its division of labour; the prohibition against adultery and pre-marital sex; the abhorrence of infanticide and abortion–were established in the mists of antiquity, but then only at the end of an earlier, protracted period of human experimentation and adjustment. A traditionalist is one who has the sense to recognize when the experiment has succeeded, and to stop, on the principle that there is nothing more mindless—because it is insane—than to go on experimenting for experiment’s sake. But we are a culture confused: in some cases we treat a hyperactive compulsion for change with Ritalin; in others, we elect its sufferer President.
Of course, “knee-jerk” and “mindless” are insults to which the enemies of tradition have staked a proud and exclusive claim. Progressives have always regarded traditionalists as craven and uncritical conformists (whereas they, by contrast, are fearless free-thinkers, whose every opinion has been won in a protracted agon of self-examination and untrammeled rational inquiry). It is, moreover, in brave defiance of their relentless persecutors (here cue the music of the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunt, or the McCarthy Hearings) that they display their hard-won laurels of victory.
The truth, however, is that those who reject tradition tend to do so as reflexively and out of as servile a submission to authority as any medieval divine. It is just that the authorities they venerate are more recent and modish. Chesterton said that tradition is the democracy of the dead; progressives believe in a tradition that is the oligarchy of the fashionable. (Whether it is rational to conclude that the world-view of today’s sages is more just and wise than that of the perennial consensus of historical humanity, merely because its advocates are currently breathing and capable of filling a lecture hall, remains an open question.)
No era in history has, in any case, ever achieved a more perfect and universal conformity of thought, taste, dress, and demeanor than our own “revolutionary” age, or exhibited a more slavish subjection to authority. In university I remember the free-thinking and free-loving opponents of mindless tradition carrying around copies of Chomsky and Mao’s Little Red Book, and quoting verses from Lennon and Dylan in the same transports of ecstasy as any Bible-thumping Southern Baptist quoting from the Book of Revelation. Today’s undergraduates carry copies of Derrida and Foucault and cite apocalyptic dooms from An Inconvenient Truth. Modern anti-traditionalists even willingly don the habits of their religious order: in the Sixties, jeans and Mao jackets; today, Nikes and backwards baseball caps. It’s getting harder and harder to take their lectures about mindless conformity and reverence for authority seriously.
If traditionalists are supposedly enslaved to a static past, progressives are surely enslaved to a fleeting present. And their serial submission to the dogma du jour makes for an amusing spectacle in which they are constantly changing masters: from Freud to Marx to Mao to Greer to Gore, to who-knows-whom. Their appetite for authority is apparently so insatiable that, whenever the obsolescence of intellectual fashion or the vicissitudes of history conspire to liberate them from one form of it, they rush headlong into the shackles of another.