‘To participate in a tradition,’ ‘to be in a tradition’ means: to accept something handed down as a thing handed down.
…anyone who carelessly rejects the external traditions or treats them with irony is doing something dangerous.”
Josef Pieper, The Concept of Tradition
The fact is we live in an age that has consciously thrown off the importance of tradition. This fact can be considered in itself apart from evaluating any particular traditional proposition or practice that is set aside.
Josef Pieper suggests that respect and docility toward tradition is a great good that has an indispensable role in human life and community. To flourish in the great drama of human life we need the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before us. Pieper points out that for Plato and Aristotle, as well as for Christianity, there are certain great truths that were first shared with men from a divine source. Our access to these truths requires receiving them through a tradition.
Beyond and in addition to such tradition, there are lesser truths, and also a whole set of practices that are passed down by tradition. These are more variable and subject to modification, but they retain an essential role in life. A respectful receptivity toward them, though not a slavish adherence to them, is a disposition to be fostered, and one that is lost only at great peril.
Changing technologies pose a particular challenge to our disposition toward and practice of cultural traditions. New gadgets, the use of which are foisted upon us with uncanny success, often undermine traditional practices—and this all unconsciously. Consider how Thanksgiving weekend has become a very different affair for most people, and this especially through the shopping and entertainment activities that technology brings into the recesses of our homes. It seems inexorable. Now we do things differently, and who knows what is next?
Especially worthy of attention here is how at least in practice the whole realm of tradition is called into question.
The response is surely not to assume an attitude of rigid and unreflective conservatism. Our situation calls for something more subtle and more difficult: to weigh and to examine, and to reconsider what we are losing or have lost. And then to be willing, in the name of deeply precious realities, to do what seems radically new.
Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German philosopher in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Many of his works have been translated into English and are still in print, including Leisure the Basis of Culture, Happiness and Contemplation, The Silence of St. Thomas, and The Four Cardinal Virtues, to name just a few.
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