The Past in Ruins: Tradition and the Critique of Modernity

The Past in Ruins: Tradition and the Critique of Modernity

The Past in Ruins: Tradition and the Critique of Modernity

The Past in Ruins: Tradition and the Critique of Modernity

Synopsis

What is the fate of tradition in the modern world? Once a vital source of social cohesion and continuity, many traditions in the West today seem to have been undermined or to have disappeared altogether. Some observers regard this erosion of past values and practices as a disaster, the root cause of contemporary spiritual and social decay. Others see the same phenomenon as emancipatory, making possible new ways of living and new modes of cultural expression.

Excerpt

Tradition has been central to human life for millennia. Its main function has been to provide the values, beliefs, and guidelines for conduct that have helped mold communities into organic wholes. It has also been the crucial force providing linkage from one generation to the next. Where animals have had instinct to bind them together, human beings have had tradition. From the very earliest tribal and communal beginnings down to the advent of the modern age, tradition has always been present as virtual second nature. Without it there would have been no effective social integration, nor any connecting tissue holding together, in Edmund Burke's words, "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are [yet] to be born."

It is also true that for at least as long as there have been written records there have been complaints that tradition has not been given due respect. Some of the most ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern texts indicate a concern that the "old ways" were not being sufficiently honored, or that ancestral values were not being treated with the piety they deserve. Charges like these continue to echo through the centuries, but one has to wait until relatively recent times to hear another, very different charge: that tradition itself is disappearing, or that it is simply no longer able to provide the thread needed to keep the fabric of social life from unravelling.

A variety of explanations have been given to account for the alleged disintegration of tradition in the modern period. I will discuss these explanations later in the book, but for now it is important to point out that this supposed "withering away" of tradition has provoked two contradictory responses. The first is that the decline of tradition is an unmitigated disaster. Without tradition, it is said, we are thrown into . . .

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