Tradition: Concept and Claim

Tradition: Concept and Claim


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ISBN-13: 9781587318795
Publisher: St. Augustine's Press
Publication date: 06/28/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 95
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

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By Josef Pieper
ISI BOOKS ISBN: 978-1-933859-54-5


IN THE BEWILDERINGLY diverse web of the complicated process we call "history" we can distinguish countless different strands. Tradition is one, but it is not only fundamentally different from all the rest. The first impression it makes is of something completely odd and inappropriate. You might ask whether tradition is not downright anti-historical.


The most visible strand is certainly the constant progress of scientific research into the natural world and mankind and, conditioned and inspired by this, the increasingly thorough exploitation of all the forces in the cosmos. For this progress to continue and even be possible, what has already been achieved and discovered must be continually passed on and assimilated. In this process some things, perhaps inevitably, are forgotten and disappear. We no longer know, it is said, how to restore certain colors in the stained-glass windows of the cathedral at Chartres. In rebuilding our medieval cathedrals and town halls it is supposed to be difficult at times to find workers who know how to carve a window arch or capital out of stone.

Society itself is subject to constant change, and it is hard to be sure in what direction it is moving. Hegel speaks of progress in the consciousness of freedom. Other prognoses predict the gradual metamorphosis of humanity into a "worldwide army of workers." Sometimes change speeds up, as in an explosion. Violent revolution is a recurrenthistorical phenomenon, and its results are also, so it seems, for the most part ambivalent.

Within the same historical periods and, as it were, at right angles to the passage of time, national cultures exert mutual influence on one another in many different ways, creating hegemonies, dependencies, "alienations," and these then provoke the resistance of contrary movements. The role of the French language in Germany in the time of Frederick the Great is a famous example, but the Americanization of everyday German after World War II is basically a completely analogous process.

Again and again there are "renaissances," which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem. Admittedly, the usual result of such "rebirths" is the unintentional creation of something completely new. What the Carolingian Renaissance of the time of Charlemagne thought of classical antiquity has a different appearance from the Hellenism of Winckelmann. Neither has especially much to do with the historical reality.

All these thoroughly different forms of historical events have, however, one thing in common. Without exception they aim at change, metamorphosis, a break with the past or its overthrow. They all "go with the times." Things must not remain the way they have been up to now. In the process of tradition, on the other hand-at least that is the way it looks at first glance-the situation is not only different, it is absolutely the opposite. Clearly we are not dealing with something new, evolution and metamorphosis. It is a question of preserving through all change the identity of something presupposed and preexisting, against the passage of time and in spite of it. All at once the slogans are fundamentally different. Instead of a "new way of looking at things" and "progress," we hear, "The Word they still shall let remain." One passionately resists "another Gospel" (II Corinthians 11:4). Even Marxists talk of "the doctrine of the classics," which, although written more than a century ago, must be considered sacrosanct even today. In the sphere of this way of thinking we meet such concepts as deviation and orthodoxy, accommodation, aggiornamento and revisionism, reformation and demythologizing. All these concepts have a really defensible meaning only in the realm of tradition. Only there is preserving something originally given considered a vital necessity and a basic mission.

At this point, the question already arises: perhaps tradition, the concept and the thing itself, has a legitimate place only in the area of religious belief and "worldview." This question, I believe, goes to the core of the issue. It cannot be answered, however, with a simple Yes or No. Admittedly, it has been passionately debated over and over again in the humanities-in an especially constructive fashion in a uniquely dramatic debate at the start of the scientific era. This debate deserves to be recalled because of the significance of the participants, figures like Galileo, Descartes, and Pascal. Pascal played a leading role. He not only participated in the debate, he also attempted to explain its significance with a precisely formulated thesis about the realm in which tradition is valid.


This thesis is found in an essay composed by Pascal when he was twenty-four years old. Its title leads us to expect something completely different: "Fragment of a Preface to a Treatise on the Void." (The treatise, by the way, was never written.) "The void," of more precisely nature's abhorrence of a void, horror vacui, is the real occasion and theme of this polemic. Horror vacui was considered one of the fundamental forces of the physical world by the traditional natural philosophy of the age. "You know," Pascal writes in a letter from the year 1647, "how philosophers think about this subject: they hold as an axiom that nature abhors a vacuum." Among contemporary philosophers who shared this opinion was, remarkably enough, Descartes. There is a touch of objective irony in the fact that in the same work that proclaims the principle of doubting everything traditional, he declares the traditional notion of horror vacui a compelling insight of reason. Even Pascal, although he was at the time writing a treatise to refute this dogma of natural philosophy, says in a letter that he does not yet date "to give up the axiom of horror vacui." At any rate, he also formulates a general principle, which diverges from Descartes' in a characteristic way. While Descartes says that one should count as valid nothing that is not completely certain, Pascal finds it neither "right" nor "permitted" "simply to give up the maxims handed down from Antiquity, unless we are compelled to do so by indubitable and irrefutable proofs."

Not even a man like Galileo Galilei could bring himself to ignore the prestige of tradition on the subject of horror vacui. Indeed, the popular opinion of the time seemed to be supported by experiment, the verifiable fact of the suction effect of pumps, siphons, and other hydraulic utensils. Probably, however, a metaphysical argument was more decisive: since "nothing" cannot exist, there can also not be a space in which there is absolutely "nothing." Then, however, new and more precise experiments were made that threw doubt on this argument. About 1640, pump-builders from Florence confronted their famous fellow citizen Galileo, at that time fifty-seven years old, with the question: why could the suction effect of pumps draw water only up to a certain level, so that the entire "void" was not filled up. The only response Galileo could come up with was to modify slightly the principle of horror vacui. Then his disciple Torricelli conducted his famous experiment that solved the problem-at least that is what everybody believes-and refuted the old thesis. By filling a glass tube with mercury and then turning it upside down, he proved by an experiment the existence of the void that had been considered metaphysically impossible, what we still call in his honor the "Torricellian vacuum."

The polemics of this year and Pascal's letters reflect the unusual liveliness of the dispute that this experiment provoked. It is only comprehensible when you consider that a fundamental conception of the structure of the material world appeared to have been undermined, and a debate on method, which had been going on for centuries, had been settled.

As we said, it was Pascal who undertook to salvage from the debate an important and subtle distinction that was far removed from mere polemic, by clarifying the general problem of "tradition," the real if hidden subject of the discussion from the beginning.

Of course, Pascal did not disguise his disgust over the sterile methodology that "makes of every opinion of the Ancients an oracular response and sees holy secrets in its very obscurity." At the same time he explains that he has no intention "of correcting one vice with another and showing absolutely no respect for the Ancients, just because some people have had too much respect." Pascal's own constructive suggestion could be summarized, a little simplistically, as follows: obviously there are two different genres of human knowledge. One rests on experiment and rational argument, the other on tradition and authority. The prime example of the first genre is physics, where an appeal to authority and tradition is meaningless. The second genre is represented by theology. Here only the transmitted word is valid. It makes no sense to talk about the Ancients in physics or in other sciences that are based on empiricism and rational argumentation. Strictly speaking, says Pascal, in comparison with men of bygone epochs it is contemporary men, the moderns, who are the "ancients." "The people we call the 'Ancients' are in reality in all things the beginners. They actually represent the youth of mankind. The 'antiquity' which we honor in them is really to be found in us, since we have added to their knowledge what the following centuries have learned."

Pascal then surveys critically the intellectual situation of his own age. "Once we see this distinction clearly, we shall deplore the blindness of those who in physics want to treat as valid only tradition instead of reason and experiment; and we shall be shocked at the error of those who in theology replace the tradition of the scripture and the church fathers with the argumentation of reason.... Yet the confusion of this century is so great that in theology many new opinions receive a hearing which were unknown to the entire ancient world, while in physics new opinions, as few as they are, are supposed to be immediately considered false, if they contradict in the slightest traditional views."

The fragment ends with a marvelous insight. "No matter what weight we assign to antiquity, truth must always be the prime consideration, however recently it may have been discovered. Truth is older than all opinions which people may cherish about her. People misunderstand her essence, when they believe that she first came into existence when she was first discovered."


What exactly is meant by tradition? What is tradition?

One would think that these questions would be of basic interest to anyone engaged in philosophy. When, however, you try to get a preliminary orientation by turning to the standard German philosophical dictionaries, you discover the surprising fact that they do not contain even an entry under the word. Curiously, they do discuss "Traditionalism," but not "Tradition." Maybe, you may say to yourself, the concept is viewed as reserved for theology, and so you consult theological reference works. There you will find information on the topic, but you will not find a great deal of help, since the concept is usually treated with a narrow concentration on the specifically theological meaning, as if there were not in everyday human language, as spoken and understood by ordinary people, a much more comprehensive but no less precise concept of tradition. Instead of discussing this topic there are articles on the problem of the theological controversy over "Scripture and Tradition." Sometimes "tradition" is understood as referring only to "the oral transmission of Christian truth." Even Kittel's great Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which is usually so outstandingly informative, offers on this topic only an unusually short and meager article, which cannot be compared with the rich documentation from the perspective of the history of religion, and even of philosophy, found in the articles it usually devotes to similar basic concepts-not to mention that the article on paradosis [the Greek word for "tradition"] appears under the main entry didomi [the Greek for "I give"]. Both flora the point of view of content and of the difficulty of looking up the word, this makes about as much sense as putting the German word for tradition, Überlieferung, under the main entry Lieferung, or delivery.

Anyone who thinks of checking that tried-and-true classic of German scholarship, the Pauly-Wissowa Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, is in for a real surprise, unless he is an expert in Roman law. Under the main entry traditio there is indeed a clear and detailed article. Without any reference to the lay usage of the term, it is completely devoted to the juridical concept in Roman law. "Traditio consists in a transfer of possession accompanied by an intention to transfer ownership."



So we need to start at the beginning and try to name in order the individual elements out of which the concept of tradition is constructed as it exists in people's ordinary speech and thought.

First of all it is immediately clear that when we characterize the concept of tradition as an activity, we are thinking of two partners. One person transmits, while the other receives something transmitted. This "something," which is occasionally also given the name "tradition," shall in the following pages be called what is handed down, traditum, or what is supposed to be handed down, tradendum. It can belong to any imaginable realm of human existence. The traditum might be knowledge or doctrine, but a legal maxim can be handed down, as can a song, a skill, a custom, a prayer, an institution, a power of attorney, a holiday, a norm of behavior. By this last I mean the way people address and greet one another, how people behave in church, how they receive a guest, and so forth. Our especial attention will be directed to the tradition of truth, where the traditum (or tradendum) is a teaching, a statement about reality, an interpretation of reality, a proverb. Of course, we have to acknowledge that a custom, a legal maxim and a holiday can contain a doctrine, explicitly or implicitly.

All these tradita have one thing in common: in every case we are dealing with something that can be received and handed down in a personal voluntary act. Maybe this sounds too obvious. There are, however, characterizations of the formal concept of "tradition" that appear to ignore this trait. For instance, tradition has been defined as "the aspect of life that continues to persist in different stages and generations," or as "the repetition of the same," whereby "the identity of what is" is supposed to be preserved. This clearly means that what is to be handed down is that aspect of humanity which remains the same, maybe even man's "essence." Strictly speaking, this is not something that can be handed on as something to transmit, nor can it be received (or rejected) from someone who is transmitting it.

Next, there is still more to be said about the partners who have to deal with one another when tradition takes place. Whether it is a question of individuals or of generations, it must be clearly understood that they are not in a relationship of mutual influence. There is no give and take. Strictly speaking, there is no exchange of opinions. In fact, there is no exchange of any kind, not even a conversation, certainly not a dialogue. "But," someone could immediately object, "insofar as we are dealing with real life, do not fathers and sons have conversations in which both participate with equal right?" I would give the following answer: naturally, many things take place between the generations quite normally which are not tradition! When seen from the outside, the act of tradition itself may be difficult to distinguish from a discussion. In fact, they may be closely connected with one another and may turn into one anther. Tradition, however, is something fundamentally different from a discussion. It is quite normal for teaching and learning to take place between generations, and that activity may take up more time than any thing else they do together. Learning, however, is one thing. To receive something that has been handed down and to accept something transmitted as part of a tradition is quite another. We shall discuss this point in more detail later on. In concrete cases, of course, the difference, as I said, can be almost imperceptible.


Excerpted from TRADITION by Josef Pieper Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Translator's Preface xi

Translator's Introduction Reflections on Tradition and the Philosophical Act in Josef Pieper xvii

Chapter 1 Is Tradition Anti-Historical? 1

I Not change, but preservation

I Pascal's thesis on the two genres of science: physics and theology

III The difficulty of an initial orientation. The silence of the philosophical dictionaries. Ignoring ordinary linguistic usage.

Chapter 2 The Basic Elements of the Concept “Tradition” 9

I The partners in the act of transmitting. The tradendum. Tradition is not discussion.

II Tradition and teaching. “Transmettre” and “handing down.”

III On the one hand, learning; on the other, accepting what has been handed down.

IV Historical knowledge of the tradita may be an obstacle to tradition.

V Tradition does not become obsolete with passing time or increasing knowledge.

VI Tradition and cultural progress. Pure preservation and memory.

Chapter 3 Tradition and Authority 23

I Tradition and authority.

II Who are “the ancients”? The platonic answer: the first recipients of a divinely vouched for proclamation.

III The “ancients” and the prophets.

IV Revelation and sacred tradition.

V The contents of tradition. The binding authority of tradition.

Chapter 4 Is There Only Sacred Tradition? 37

I The binding authority of “secular” traditions.

II Tradition and traditions.

III Authentic consciousness of tradition makes one free and independent in the face of “conservatisms.”

IV The business of theology; the interpretation of sacred tradition. The believer is not interested in theology, but in the Word of God.

Chapter 5 Where Is Sacred Tradition Historically Found? 49

I First: the doctrinal tradition of Christianity.

II Second: the myths of pre- and non-Christian peoples. Myths as echoes of the original revelation. What reason did Socrates have to believe the “ancients&r“dquo;? The fertility of God's word.

III Third: unconscious existential certainties. Memoria: trans-psychological and super-individual.

IV Language as traditum. “Traditionalism.”

V Gratitude and the consciousness of tradition.

Chapter 6 Sacred Tradition and Philosophy: Inclusion of the Tradita 61

I Philosophizing means neither the practice of tradition nor its interpretation.

II Contemporary philosophy and the tradita of the sacred tradition.

III Two ways to eliminate them: jean-Paul Sartre's anti-tradition and “scientific philosophy.” “An increasingly empty seriousness” (Karl Jaspers) and “ empty freedom” Viacheslav Ivanov).

IV The true unity of mankind is based on participation in the sacred tradition.

Notes 69

Bibliography 84

Index 93

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Tradition: Concept and Claim 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
hauptwerk on LibraryThing 4 months ago
The concept of tradition is alternately derided by radical social reformers and sloppily defended by reactionaries who uphold ancient customs solely out of force of habit. Josef Pieper, by contrast, insists that tradition is made meaningful by its preservation of some original truth, bequeathed to future generations and accepted by them as a meaningful part of their own lives. This 'sacred tradition' is not identified exclusively with the truths of Christian revelation - elements of this wisdom exist in every community. For Westerners, some of this traditional knowledge can be sought in the literature and philosophy of classical antiquity. These beliefs and ideas express truths that transcend individual intelligences, and are therefore of the utmost importance to any society.Pieper's emphasis on 'sacred tradition' does not exclude the importance of secular traditions (always plural), which are the manmade conventions that give stability and a framework for meaning in a particular community. Both types of tradition are essential to our common life. If both have been threatened in modern times, Pieper argues, it is because of a category mistake: we assume that the pattern of progressive discovery that we see in the natural sciences, with new knowledge superseding the old, can be extended to encompass the entirety of human existence.Anything Josef Pieper writers is worth reading, and this brief treatise is no exception. At less than seventy pages of body text, this could be a good way in for someone new to Pieper's thought: it takes only an hour or two to read, but addresses fundamental issues that will reward a lifetime of careful thought.