Vices and Virtues of Tradition

The process of growth and self-improvement for the individual is to a large extent dependent on following the tracks of others who have come further in life. Early childhood is highly reliant on such imitation, to learn how to walk, speak, read, etc., and likewise must one in many cases seek out help from professionals if one is to acquire mastery at some subject or skill later in life, which is why many top performers have invested a lot in mentors to coach them (Greene, 2012). Similarly, tradition may be said also to have a crucial role on a societal basis, such as in older generations teaching their children good manners, literacy, general life lessons, and so on, as well as maintaining what modes of governing have historically seemed to work better than others.

Although much of this is indubitable, it also has a flip side. Tradition is practical not because of any intrinsic quality, but the process through which knowledge, habits, and skills are transferred across generations. Thus, it is the content that’s being perpetuated through tradition (as a process) that is to be the subject of analysis when judging any one of the many traditions that are “competing” for dominance. Slavery, for instance, was long defended much due to the role of tradition and that it seemingly had existed since the dawn of mankind, even with philosophers like Aristotle deeming it completely natural that some are doomed from birth to be slaves and others, masters. This tradition was perpetuated for thousands of years, and it was no easy process to overturn it.

Although it’s among the more extreme examples, it clearly shows the unreasonableness of blindly accepting any tradition just because that’s how things have been done before. Most progress, innovations, and breakthroughs are borne because there are people who dare to be different; contrarians who are more concerned with trying new things, techniques, ideas, etc. than always to imitate what everyone else is doing. It’s a tautology to say that our individuality can only be found in the qualities that differentiate us from others, yet the implications of this simple statement are plentiful. Such characteristics may be considered positive or negative regardless of whether one has received them through tradition or personal trial-and-error experiences. One ought, therefore, to judge those characteristics, ideas, skills, and habits independently from the historical length and popularity thereof.

One gets the best out of tradition by seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Over the last couple thousand years, plenty of different ideas have been tried, and much of it has been documented and is thus available for us to learn from. Want to start a business? There are many hundred different books to choose from to learn more about how to do it, and with the (relatively) recent emergence of the internet, this kind of information has become superabundant, and it’s right at our fingertips. We can see what has and hasn’t worked well for people, avoid mistakes others have made, and receive lessons from those who have succeeded in doing that one wants to achieve. One needs also, of course, to think critically in this process, as there are many who may exaggerate the extent of their success, or the significance of certain factors or processes to get there.

Destructive traditions tend to be maintained through a failure to learn from such previous experience. This may be due to one or more of the following three reasons: (1) falsely interpreting the negative consequences of the tradition to be causally independent thereof, (2) not reflecting over what led to the negative consequences in the first place, and (3) the failure of an older generation to teach the real lessons to the youngsters and thus leave them to the influence of other traditions which may teach the exact opposite. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than with the effort to implement a Socialist social order. The trend has been especially well-documented by Kristian Niemietz (2019), showing the cycle of support-excuses-denial by supporters of Socialist regimes from the Soviet Union to current-day Venezuela, and the historical examples could also be expanded upon much further back in time before Marx, to “Starving Time” in Jamestown (1609-11) and Lycurgus’ Sparta (9th century B.C.).

The opportunities to learn from the mistakes of the past are endless, and yet there are still those who fail to learn, trapped in idealism and tradition. If we really were attentive to and reflected on what works and what doesn’t work, what’s right and what’s wrong, a mere one or two cases may have sufficed to provide us with some indicators. That’s not where we currently are, however, to our own peril. The support for Socialism is still large, despite its experiments witnessing numerous horrific experiences in the 20th century, and many are still possessed by the philosophy of identity politics, despite its many absurdities (Kløvning, 2019a).

However, the psychological effect of tradition, which I term the tyranny of the status quo, has an example which encompasses a yet larger portion of the population – in fact, the vast majority of people – namely the belief that certain people are morally entitled to rob/extort, kidnap, and murder others, and to a large degree steer and exploit the lives of millions of people. Among non-followers, this belief is called Statism, and it’s maintained through tradition and manipulation of language, i.e. calling the same activities taxation, arrest, and war/capital punishment, respectively, when done by the people operating the tradition-based institution called the “government”. Symbols (flags) and rituals (voting) contribute to making the institution and the tradition that upholds it appear more legitimate, yet no defense thereof really stands up to logical scrutiny (Wedler, 2019; Rose, 2012; Huemer, 2013).

What is then to be done? Challenging every authority and all traditions. To quote Noam Chomsky, “any form of authority, domination, hierarchy, are not self-justifying; they face a burden of proof. And if they can’t meet it […], they should be dismantled in favor of a more free and just social order (The Institute of Arts and Ideas, 2019).” If we really want the best for ourselves and our fellows, we ought not to take traditions for granted, but to challenge the fundamentals and judge their contents in accordance with logical principles. It’s all about taking the next step in the questioning after “what is?”, to “why is it this way?” and “are there any better ways to do this?” Escaping the tyranny of the status quo is no easy task, for there’s a deeply rooted psychological trait in us dedicated to “following the herd”, so to speak, which to some degree (depending on the individual) leaves us vulnerable to emotional manipulation by those unconsciously guarding the gates to outside the Overton window (as is well illustrated in the Matrix trilogy, see Kløvning 2019b).

The first step to freeing oneself is to free one’s mind, and beginning to question everything anew and think critically about the ideas and beliefs one is told by one’s surroundings to adopt and enact. Tradition as a process can be a goldmine if one knows how to use it, i.e. that one judges its contents carefully and critically before adopting or rejecting it, but if this filter isn’t followed, falling into the trap of unconsciously falling in line with the tyranny of the status quo is pretty much an inevitability based on our biochemical wiring. If you manage to avoid that trap, you’ve taken a good first step to truly becoming a sovereign individual, and be an example for others, forming traditions in line with your conscience rather than merely your surroundings.

An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life – nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone – nor sacrifice anyone to myself.” – Ayn Rand

References

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York City: Penguin Group.4

Huemer, M. (2013). The Problem of Political Authority. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kløvning, S. (2019). The Antidote to the Oppression Narrative. [online] MisesRevived. Available at: https://misesrevived.net/2019/01/01/the-antidote-to-the-oppression-narrative/ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].

Kløvning, S. (2019). What The Matrix Can Teach Us About Choice, Free Will and Human Action. [online] MisesRevived. Available at: https://misesrevived.net/2019/04/06/what-the-matrix-can-teach-us-about-choice-free-will-and-human-action/ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].

Niemietz, K. (2019). Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies. [ebook] London: Institute of Economic Affairs. Available at: https://iea.org.uk/publications/socialism-the-failed-idea-that-never-dies/ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].

Rose, L. (2012). The Most Dangerous Superstition. 2nd ed.

The Institute of Arts and Ideas (2019). Noam Chomsky Debate | Why is Authority Dangerous? | Mark Lilla, Deirdre McCloskey. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDoXb1_CbQU [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].

Wedler, C. (2019). Why I’m finally speaking out against the world’s most dangerous religion. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYOtSyrdzvQ [Accessed 29 Sep. 2019].

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