Tradition and the Individual Talent in Folklore and Literature

By Baker, Ronald L. | Western Folklore, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Tradition and the Individual Talent in Folklore and Literature


Baker, Ronald L., Western Folklore


Tradition is the illusion of permanence.

-Woody Allen

In the section of Plato's Phaedrus (274 B, C) dealing with the superiority of the spoken word and the invention of writing, Socrates asks Phaedrus if he knows how to "best please God, in practice and in theory, in this matter of words," and Phaedrus acknowledges that indeed he doesn't and inquires if Socrates knows how to do so. Socrates tells his old friend that "I can tell you a tradition that has come down from our forefathers, but they alone know the truth of it" (Hackforth 1972:156). Evidently Plato viewed tradition as something from the past, but obviously he didn't see tradition as something unchanging or unalterable and had no reservations about reinventing (or even inventing) tradition as a rhetorical strategy in his dialogue; for while Plato borrowed the characters in Socrates' narrative of the invention of writing from Egyptian legend, the story Socrates relates apparently is of Plato's own fabrication.

The word tradition, ultimately from Latin, came into the English language from Middle French, and by 1380, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1971, s.v. "tradition"), generally meant 'That which.. is handed down; a statement, belief, or practice transmitted (esp. orally) from generation to generation." As the concept developed, it has come to mean, according to one definition in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1981, s.v. "tradition"), "cultural continuity embodied in a massive complex of evolving social attitudes, beliefs, conventions, and institutions rooted in the experience of the past and exerting an orienting and normative influence on the present." In dictionary definitions as well as in common usage, linkage with the past and cultural continuity are typical qualities of what we have come to think of as tradition.

Like Plato, our forefathers in folklore studies did not question the meaning and importance of tradition; oral tradition, in fact, was synonymous with folklore. Likewise, in literary studies, the modernists as well as the ancients considered the meaning of tradition self-evident: a body of conventions inherited from the past as distinct from an author's own creations. As Cunningham observes, although historical, literary tradition is not the same as history, for tradition, as Levi-Strauss observes of myth (LeviStrauss 1965:87 ff.), is synchronic as well as diachronic:

Consequently, though a tradition is historical in that it issues from an historical process, it is not in itself its history. It exists at each moment in completed form. For a tradition is rather, both in the terms in which it must be described and reconstituted by the literary historian and in the actual way in which it is attained and apprehended by a given writer at a given time, a context of notions, often jumbled and sometimes not too consistent with one another, together with the methods and attitudes by which these notions are grasped and applied. A tradition can be located in a body of texts and interpretations current among a given group of writers and readers. Such a description applies equally to the traditions in which Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote and to those which are now current: one must be learned as well as the other, and in the same way.

... [T] he notions which constitute a tradition are not ideas merely, but principles of order. They are schemes which direct the production of works... [Cunningham 1960:19]

Since the 1980s, however, the concept of tradition, as well as of other familiar concepts, has been argued and deconstructed by postmodernists. One book that inspired students of folklore, literature, and culture studies to examine the meaning of tradition was Hobsbawm and Ranger's The Invention of Tradition, published in 1983, in which Hobsbawm in the introduction distinguishes between invented traditions and genuine traditions. Hobsbawm explains that "`Invented tradition' is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983:1). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Tradition and the Individual Talent in Folklore and Literature
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.