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June 1, 2005

The Future of Tradition

Transmitting the visceral ethical code of civilization

America has been in the midst of a culture war for some time and will probably remain so for some time longer. But culture war is not peculiar to this country. Indeed, there have been at least three great culture wars fought in the course of Western history, including one contemporaneous with the rise of the Sophists in ancient Greece, the epoch identified with the French Enlightenment and the German Aufklärung, and our own current battle. The first two ended in disaster for the societies in which they occurred — the outcome of the third is still pending.

Each of these wars has its own particular antagonists, each its own weapons of combat, each its own battlefield. But the essential nature of a culture war is invariant: A set of traditional values comes under attack by those who, like the Greek Sophist, the French philosophe, and the American intellectual, make their living by their superior proficiency in handling abstract ideas, and promote a radically new and revolutionary set of values. This is precisely what one would expect from those who excel in dispute and argumentation.

In every culture war the existing customs and traditions of a society are called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite asking whether they can be rationally justified or are simply the products of superstition and thus unworthy of being taken seriously by enlightened men and women.

Indeed, there could be no better example of this disdainful attitude toward inherited tradition than that displayed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in discussing her court’s legalization of gay marriage, clearly expressed by her summary dismissal of any opposition to the high court’s decision as arising from nothing more than “residual personal prejudice.” Against such opposition, it is no wonder that many conservatives — including many of those who call themselves neoconservatives — have attempted to combat the opponents of tradition with their opponents’ own weapon of enlightened rationality.

But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason — can we rationally justify keeping it? Suppose we have been raised in the belief that we must wash our hands before every meal in order to appease a local deity in our pantheon, say, the god of the harvest; and suppose again that we have come to learn of the hygienic benefits of washing our hands before every meal. Must we keep the absurd tradition once we have grasped its scientific rationale? In either case, whether tradition and reason conflict, or tradition is revealed to be reason disguised, reason wins and tradition loses.

Where reason shines forth, then, tradition is no longer necessary. Hence the question before us: In a world that is being more and more rationalized, does tradition have a future? Or will we one day look upon it as we now look upon the myths of the ancient world — quaint and amusing, but of no real relevance to our lives?

The quandary of cultural relativism

Perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most distinguished, attempts to rationalize a tradition was made by the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides as he contemplated the laws regulating dietary customs presented in Leviticus. Should these regulations be obeyed simply because we are commanded to obey them, as a strict traditionalist will insist; or should they be obeyed because they represent prudent counsel concerning what foods are healthy for us, as Maimonides, himself a physician, asserts?

In order to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Maimonides’s defense of inherited custom, we must recall that the question could not even be asked in most tradition-bound societies. In the kind of primitive and compact society that Walter Bagehot described as cemented in a cake of custom — totally absorbed within a particular traditional ethos — such a dilemma cannot be articulated. People who have followed the same routine for centuries find it inconceivable that other human beings might do things differently; certainly no one within their traditional ethos challenges the ethical obviousness of their tradition. So taken for granted is the ethos that no one can imagine an alternative; any suggestion of change, if it did miraculously happen to occur to someone within that society, would be received by the rest of the society with disbelief and/or revulsion.

But the ethical obviousness of a tradition vanishes once members of a society become aware that others live by different traditions, since they are thereby forced to imagine different ways of doing things and ask the irresistible question, “Why do they do things differently from us?” The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, reflecting on his culture’s experience of the diversity of other cultures, noticed that each created gods in its own image, thus raising the issue that would come down to our time as the question of cultural relativism. If a culture created gods suitable to it, might the same also be true of the traditional ethos each culture created? If so, there is no point in trying to compare the traditional ethos of one culture with that of another: Each is suitable for its own culture, and that’s all you can say.

This conclusion might appear satisfactory for a moment; but on further reflection, a difficulty arises. What about traditions that are ghastly, like the cruel sacrifice of innocent children to Moloch? If we insist on abiding by our original conclusion, that each tradition is suitable to those who follow it, then we are prohibited from condemning even the most bloodthirsty traditions of another culture, as it may always be argued that they must suit the needs of the culture in which they arose. If they seem unspeakable to us, that is simply because they violate our own deeply instilled traditional ethos.

Too often, cultural relativists cannot get beyond drawing this one conclusion, which they use as ammunition against traditionalists: “The traditions you think of as having an absolute claim on the human race are merely those that happened to have come down to us, and which we have blindly accepted.” While this objection does follow logically from the cultural relativists’ premise, so too — and just as logically — does this conclusion: If we cannot use our traditional ethos to attack another’s, it is equally illegitimate for him to use his to attack ours. If our cultural relativists must forgive those who sacrifice their infants to Moloch, they must also forgive members of their own society who wish to abide by their own traditions. The cultural relativist’s position, practiced consistently, collapses into reactionary obscurantism: All cultures, including his own, are incommensurable, so it is impossible to judge any of them by higher standards than those offered by the cultures themselves. The appeal to enlightened reason rings hollow, for if enlightened reason can guide us to condemn characteristics of our own culture by offering us a higher standard by which to judge them, the same standard may also be used to judge other cultures as well. The cultural relativist must make up his mind: Either there is a higher standard or there isn’t. If there isn’t, it is impossible to judge among competing traditions, as the cultural relativist argues; if there is, it is possible to judge tradition A to be superior to tradition B, provided A meets the higher standard and B does not.

The higher standard offered by enlightened reason is incompatible with a belief in the strong formulation of cultural relativism; unfortunately, however, it is also incompatible with the traditionalist’s defense of tradition. For, granting the existence of a higher standard, the first question that we must ask about a cultural tradition is, “Is it conformable to our standard?” If it is, the tradition may be retained; but what if it isn’t?

There are only two alternatives: Either you abandon the standard or you abandon the tradition that clashes with it. This leaves us with something of a paradox. Those defending a tradition at all costs must adopt the relativist view that there is no higher standard by which to judge one tradition against another, as this is the only way to make sure that tradition may not be overthrown by the confrontation with such a standard. On the other hand, those who wish to defend a tradition by showing it to conform to a higher standard reduce the tradition to the status of means to an end.

This was precisely the problem encountered by Maimonides when he chose to defend the inherited Hebrew dietary code by relying on his expert knowledge of food and nutrition to demonstrate the code’s rational soundness. If the code was meant to provide the Hebrew people with useful information concerning the dangers of certain foods and the nutritional value of others, a clearly written, up-to-date, scientific manual on proper dietary habits would make the original text superfluous.

Defended this way, tradition becomes merely a primitive method for doing what empirical science does better. Here we have one horn of the dilemma: If a tradition is reason in a somewhat garbled code, decipher the code and throw away the tradition through which it was transmitted. If pork should be avoided because of the dangers of trichinosis, simply state this as a fact, and those who can appreciate the value of scientific information and who can heed maxims of prudence will be able to make the proper judgments about the dangers and benefits of eating pork.

This was the solution favored by all anti-traditional rationalists, some of whom, like August Comte, were willing to admit that tradition might have served an educational purpose during mankind’s mythological phase of development, as revelation had earlier been seen to have a purely progressive pedagogical function by the eighteenth-century German thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Yet no matter how you might dress up this thesis, it invariably ended the same way. Once mankind had grown up and was capable of thinking for itself, these superceded and defective modes of knowledge would no longer serve a purpose.

Against this view of tradition as serving a purely transitional function, there have been three efforts to defend it as valuable in and of itself. All have had distinguished proponents, and all, as I hope to show, have failed miserably.

Three defenses

Tradition as a “useful fiction.” This position defends tradition as a defective mode of knowledge appropriate for those who are incapable of obtaining to genuine scientific knowledge — it is the sugar coating on a genuinely useful pill, designed to make that pill go down easier with the uneducated masses. While Maimonides, as a physician, was capable of seeing the “real” reasons for the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus, this form of knowledge was not accessible to those who lacked the proper training or the intellectual gifts he possessed. Yet their health and well-being were just as important as those of the scientific elite, so there had to be some way of communicating the gist of the elite’s higher knowledge in a form that would be effective for the masses. What better way to frame the principles of good nutrition than in the form of divine commandments and prohibitions?

The idea of tradition as a “useful fiction” sets up the esoteric/exoteric distinction that first appears in Plato’s discussion of the noble lie, surfaces again both in Maimonides and in various Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages, and has returned to the modern world in the thinking of Leo Strauss and his followers. Tradition is an essential prop for the masses — they cannot dispense with it without chaos and havoc ensuing. The common people need their myths and their illusions; but the elite can dispense with them, provided they scrupulously avoid saying or doing anything that would disturb the cognitive complacency of the masses.

The argument from skepticism. This defense of tradition goes to the other extreme. It argues that even the most intelligent among us cannot be trusted to comprehend all that is involved in a tradition, because there is always something in a tradition that even the most advanced scientific thinking of the time cannot fathom, and because there is a danger in attempting to replace an inherited tradition with what is regarded as up-to-date scientific knowledge. Moreover, no intellectual elite can be trusted to decide what should be rejected and what retained from a certain tradition, as the tradition may embody a transgenerational fund of wisdom greatly exceeding the wisdom of any one generation, however wise or enlightened it believes itself to be.

The original Burkean faith in inherited tradition as a divine dispensation has been radically secularized by many modern conservatives, so what started as an argument from faith has become an argument from skepticism. This formulation of the argument begins by asking a simple question: When looking at the inherited traditions of a society, how can we know with certainty which are essential and which are dispensable? Yes, we may think that we can do without a particular tradition, but the only way to be sure is to get rid of it and see what happens. But that is the very problem: When we are dealing with a complexity like a society, how can we ever be completely certain about the unintended consequences of abolishing any particular tradition? It is best, then, to adopt a prudent skepticism and to recognize the limitations of our own knowledge.

The argument from skepticism is a useful reminder that societies are complicated and should be tampered with only with great circumspection — especially in light of the horrific attempts of the twentieth century to liquidate all existing traditions and create a new social order, and even a New Man, from scratch. But what value is such general advice when you are trying to decide whether a particular tradition should go or stay? None.

No argument from skepticism can ever be expected to end with a deep commitment to anything, for while discarding a particular tradition might be to court social chaos, we can never know this for certain; nor can we exclude, with a certainty, the possibility that discarding this tradition might not be the best thing that ever happened to our society. Hence the skeptic’s fence-straddling and refusal to rush into the fray.

The argument from skepticism, then, is simply too skeptical: As it only defends traditions in general, it cannot defend a particular tradition as rational. But “defend” here may be too strong a word. What the argument really asserts is that it may be dangerous to change a particular tradition, not because it was rational in the first place, but because of the unintended consequences that might ensue. Hence, for example, the argument from skepticism tells us that doing away with the tradition of slavery may unleash unintended consequences of the most unpleasant kind — not as a defense of slavery but as a warning about the consequences of abolition. Indeed, the argument is compatible with resigning oneself to the most monstrous and hateful irrationalities, provided their removal is dreaded as a far worse calamity than their continuation.

Friedrich Hayek’s defense of tradition. In the twentieth century, the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek attempted to defend the rationality of tradition by means of what he called the empiricist evolutionary model. Hayek wanted to provide a reason for respecting traditions that went beyond acceptance of them merely on account of their Burkean venerability. A tradition’s very oldness — its survival through the vicissitudes of centuries and adaptability to so many social and historical “environments” — was for him prima facie evidence that it was “fit” to survive, just as a species that has survived a variety of environmental challenges may be said to be “fit” in terms of the evolutionary struggle.

Of course, Hayek was not arguing that a traditional belief is true simply because it has been believed for a long time — that would render the empiricist part of his model nonsense. But he was saying that the tradition is “suitable” for those who have practiced in it for a long time. Or, to use his exact words from The Constitution of Liberty: “Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions — all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct [emphasis added].”

The analogy here to Darwin’s theory of evolution is obvious in the words “adaptations,” “selective elimination,” and “suitable.” In particular, this last term would appear to be the equivalent of the Darwinian notion of “the fittest” — or perhaps, considering Hayek’s careful phrasing, “the least unfit.” This interpretation of “suitable” is also supported by Hayek’s statement, again from The Constitution of Liberty: “Not all these non-rational factors [i.e., habits, skills, emotional attitudes, etc.] underlying our action are always conducive to success. Some may be retained long after they have outlived their usefulness [emphasis added].”

It might appear that we have here found a way of justifying rationally certain traditions — those that are still “conducive to success” and maintain their “usefulness.” Furthermore, it is a solution that also seems to offer a rational criterion for the removal of those traditions that are neither. In short, it would appear to provide us with a procedure for picking and choosing between inherited traditions.

But does it?

Karl Popper’s tigers

Karl popper once invoked an imaginary village in India where everyone believed that tigers were harmless; this belief soon died out, according Popper, because those who acted on it were eventually eaten up by tigers.

The beauty of Popper’s fable is that it permits Darwin’s theory of natural selection, at one swift stroke, to eliminate unfit individuals as well as to demonstrate the irrationality of the unsuitable tradition that led to their biological extinction in the first place. And this would appear to provide us with exactly the kind of decision-making procedure we are looking for: If an inherited tradition leads to the extinction of those who live by it, the tradition in question should be eliminated — before those who follow it are.

The tradition that tigers are harmless would certainly prove less “conducive to success” than other competing traditions about tigers, such as the one that says they are dangerous. Thus, it would seem we have finally solved the problem of tradition — some can be shown to be rational, others irrational. In short, any tradition that leads to the biological elimination of the community that embodies it will obviously be judged irrational.

Yet, although this gives a clear criterion by which to decide whether a community has fallen short of Hayek’s standard of suitability, success, and usefulness — namely, its biological extinction — there is a catch. Clearly there are many imaginary cultural practices — killing all newborn children, or forbidding any sexual act that might issue in procreation, or ritual mass suicide — that if carried out consistently would yield communal extinction; but, for rather obvious reasons, one needs to seek far and wide to find historical communities that insisted on a policy of short-term auto-genocide.

This is the problem with trying to push the Darwinian evolutionary model too far: Its exclusive mechanism for “successful” adaptation is the sentence of death and extinction it passes on the animals and species that come before its Draconian bar of judgment. But only rarely, and then in trivial cases, can this same ruthlessly objective standard be applied to cultural evolution. The Easter Islanders developed habits and skills, and perhaps even institutions, that led to the total deforestation of their small island; but while most of us would agree that this was a piece of folly, and not too far from the folly of Popper’s Indian villagers, in fact this practice did not result in the biological elimination of Easter Islanders.

To take the most extreme case, consider the American Shakers, whose community rejects any sex that might result in procreation. If ever there was a recipe for biological self-extermination, this is it; and yet a handful of Shakers still exist, by virtue of their ability to recruit new Shakers in each rising generation. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to imagine a future ecomania in which men and women pledge themselves not to pollute the planet with any more human beings, with the ultimate purpose of returning the Earth to its pristine, pre-Adamite stage; and it is also perfectly possible to imagine the same ecomania continuing for centuries without ever running out of new converts.

If the empiricist evolutionary approach permits us to condemn only those traditions and institutions that end in biological elimination, it turns out to be far less useful than it first appeared. For if these alone are irrational, then all traditions that fail to end in biological elimination must be deemed rational. If complete communal extinction provides a decision-making procedure for distinguishing good traditions from bad, then virtually all known traditions would have to qualify as good.

Nor can this dilemma be avoided by redefining the terms “useful” and “suitable” as employed by Hayek. Originally they appeared to hold out hope of an objective solution precisely because they could be defined entirely in terms of a culturally neutral value — namely, the survival of the community. To notice that a community had wiped itself out by honoring its customs is not a value judgment. But this is no longer true if we change these terms to mean “useful” or “suitable” for us, or “useful” or “suitable” to the culture under consideration, for then we are once more dealing with subjective value judgments, either ours or the culture’s, and are plunged right back into the quandary of ethical relativism.

This is obviously true if we take “useful” to mean “useful to us,” because in that case utterly insane traditions that weaken our enemies would be judged rational because they serve our own purposes. On the other hand, if we mean useful to the society with the tradition, then we lose completely what little gain we thought we had made. Suppose Popper’s Indians had not been deluded about the nature of tigers. Suppose they all said, “Yes, of course tigers are dangerous. Any fool could tell you that. But, you see, we don’t care. Our tradition says, Resist not the tiger when he comes. It is our highest duty, and we calmly accept the consequences of fulfilling it.”

In this scenario, the villagers are not dupes of a false declarative sentence: “Tigers are not dangerous.” Rather, they are noble heroes sacrificing themselves to the imperative, “Resist not the tiger.” When a person dies because he believed in an empirical falsehood, it makes sense to say that his holding of this empirical belief was not useful or conducive to Darwinian success, and hence not rational. But when he dies in obedience to an imperative that he holds to be his sacred duty, you can say nothing at all. When someone says to you, “Resist not the tiger,” he is not offering you a scientific proposition to be refuted by empirical evidence and logical argument; he is commanding you to behave in a certain way, and in this case, all you can do is to refuse. Otherwise you would have to argue that Christian martyrs died simply because they did not clearly understand the physical effects of raging fires on the human anatomy.

The declarative fallacy

What all the theories of tradition we have examined have in common is that each looks upon a tradition as a set of declarative sentences passing on information that may be evaluated as true or false, and that a tradition is rationally justifiable only to the degree that it is the means of conveying such a truth. Thus, when Maimonides examined the dietary code in Leviticus and asked himself, “What true pieces of dietary information is this tradition passing on?” his own particular answer was quite favorable to tradition, as he argued that the code contained much that was of genuine medical value; but suppose he had not found any true pieces of dietary information in Leviticus?

By one of those paradoxes normal to the dialectical twists and turns of human thought, the defense of tradition offered by Maimonides would turn out to be the undoing of tradition. If tradition did badly what science did better, then those who were themselves capable of scientific knowledge no longer had any use for it. True, the ignorant masses might still require it, but not the intellectual elite — and thus, out of the logic of Maimonides’ defense came the Enlightenment, and the culture war that the West has been fighting ever since.

But what if tradition is not reducible to a set of declarative sentences? What if all tradition took the form of “Resist not the tiger” rather than “Tigers are harmless?” The declarative-sentence paradigm suggests a tradition can be reduced to a set of formal beliefs that can be stated, catechism-like, as a proposition, such as “Tigers are not dangerous” or “Celibacy is better than procreation.” But once we have freed ourselves from the declarative illusion we can see that a tradition always emerges first in the form of commands, prohibitions, and instructions and that the formalization of this tradition into a set of declarative propositions comes at a secondary stage — the stage of reflection and thought. In the beginning, as Goethe’s Faust declares, was not the Word, but the Act. Or, to adopt the framework of Goethe’s contemporary, Hegel, phenomenologically, tradition emerges originally as an imperative behavioral code wired into our visceral systems long before it is reflected as an idea in our minds.

The intellectualist interpretation of a tradition as a corpus of formal propositions whose truth or falsity may be argued lies at the heart of all efforts to find an objective or neutral way to judge among competing traditions. This is evident in the Enlightenment’s attack on tradition as outmoded superstition — an argument Hayek brilliantly demolishes. A tradition, he realizes, may well be justified by a community on nonsensical or irrational grounds; but this by itself need not make the tradition less useful to those who follow it. If a primitive tribe justifies its incest taboo with a myth about divine siblings whose sexual liaison produced a monstrously deformed cockroach, this does not make the tradition a bit less useful to the community.

Hayek’s observation comes as an afterthought to his empiricist evolutionary model, and it is a great pity that he did not pursue it, and turned instead to the false promise of the evolutionary model. For implicit in this observation is the insight that every inherited tradition has come down to us at two distinct levels — first, as a behavioral phenomenon, as an embodied value hardwired into our neural circuitry and into our sweat glands, and secondly, as an articulated value that can be analyzed and discussed, attacked and defended, in words.

In the case of the tradition against incest, at the primary level it exists in the form of the commandments, injunctions, prohibition, and so on, to keep brothers and sisters, or parents and children, from having sexual intercourse. They work by programming the members of the community to automatically and instinctively avoid committing incest. They constitute the visceral code of the community that commands us to act in certain ways and forbids us to act in other ways.

At the secondary level, there is what might be called (to use Marxist terminology) the ideological superstructure; i.e., the system of myths and statements and arguments that are used by the community to justify obedience to the commandments, injunctions, and prohibitions. In the case of our islander, this secondary level is represented by the myth of the gigantic cockroach spawned by incest. This ideological superstructure may be used polemically and apologetically as well and is often most fully developed and exploited for this purpose, frequently ending up in immense intellectual constructions that are Summa contra Gentiles: everything that can be argued against those who challenge the truth of the ideological superstructure.

In evaluating whether a “tradition” is useful or not, we must keep this distinction in mind. For when confronted with any particular tradition, we now have two different criteria to evaluate its usefulness — first, the usefulness of the tradition’s base, the visceral code out of which the social structure of the community is created, and second, the usefulness of the tradition’s ideological superstructure.

But once we grasp this distinction, it immediately becomes apparent that there can be a conflict, perhaps violent, between the two manifestations of one tradition: the embodied and visceral version versus the articulated and ideal version. In our primitive island’s traditional taboo against incest, for example, the visceral form of the tradition might succeed in preventing inbreeding among the islanders by producing visceral aversion; yet its articulated form, namely, the myth of the monstrously deformed cockroach, may work quite differently. Indeed, as the islanders become more and more sophisticated, the continued use of this myth may actually tend to make people more likely to violate the visceral code and to commit incest on the basis of the quite correct empirical belief that incestuous unions do not produce gigantic deformed cockroaches.

This means that as a population becomes more “enlightened,” it is more likely to challenge the tradition on the basis of its transparently mythic or fabulous origin; this in turn threatens to undermine the population’s willingness to instill the visceral code into its children. If “everyone” knows that incestuous lovers do not spawn enormous insect children, then what is the point of teaching one’s children not to commit incest?

But a tradition that has lost its ethical obviousness has thereby become vulnerable to challenge, and the question soon arises: Why this tradition rather than the tradition of foreigners? Indeed, that was the theme of the first cultural warriors, the Greek Sophists, who, wandering as homeless strangers, went from polis to polis undermining the traditional ethos everywhere they stopped — not by willful subversion, but merely by calling the traditional ethos into question. To cause people to have even the first shadow of a doubt about the rightness of their inherited tradition is to exercise a staggering power over them, and it explains the often violent reaction of the Greek city-states against those who were perceived, fairly or unfairly, to be subverting the traditional order through the mere use of words.

Reason, logic, the endless quest for knowledge — these are all noble things. But no sensible person will agree to have them used against him to undermine his happiness and tranquility. Imagine your response if someone forced you to consider that your spouse might be cheating on you without your knowledge, or harangued you about how much you really know about what your teenage children do when you are not looking. Yes, we are willing to admit that there is much we cannot know about the people we love, and much that we have to take on blind faith, and much indeed about which a skeptic can raise questions — but must we hear it all?

We grasp this at once when dealing with individuals but fail to see it when dealing with whole communities. Yet isn’t it permissible for a community to wish to guard its own cherished habits of the heart against the same endless skeptical interrogation, especially when the intent of the interrogators is to subvert the visceral code that embodies these habits of the heart? The visceral code is like the dna of the community: It tells us what behavior must be passed on through the social emotions of shame, honor, and pride. It demands that we behave; it molds us and makes us, just as our parents do, for their doing is always its doing. It is Hegel’s objective spirit, the collective mind, but understood in terms of automatic reactions hardwired into us, operating through adrenaline and rushes of blood to the face. It is what makes us feel who we are and react as we do — in short, it constitutes our being. We cannot ask whether the visceral code is useful to the community when it is in fact constitutive of the community:  It is the foundation on which the community is built. It is a necessary precondition of achieving community at all, and hence it is improper to evaluate it in terms of its mere utility.

It is not merely that it is useful to produce honest men and women. In order to obtain certain collective social goods, a society must first create human actors who are capable of achieving them. You must first produce courageous men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of defending your society; you must first produce prudent men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of keeping your society on a stable course; you must first produce men who are willing to control their impulses in order to create the collective social good of an orderly society.

This, too, explains why communities have historically reacted so severely against those who challenged their habits of the heart. What was really at stake in such a challenge was not the community’s ideological superstructure but the ethical foundation on which it had been socially constructed — its inherited visceral code.

Traditions as recipes

Tradition, then, is the only possible mode for transmitting a community’s habits of the heart, and it does this by providing the recipe for making the kind of human beings who will viscerally feel and respond to the same habits of the heart as the community to which they belong.

Yet these recipes, like those used for cooking, do not by any means demand to be rigidly or mechanically followed. To make pasta, for instance, you need the essential ingredients — Italian noodles and sauce — but otherwise you are free to experiment. You may vary the sauce as you wish, from tomato to cream, adding mushrooms or black olives or spinach, or you may mix the sauce with different types of noodles, like spaghetti or angel hair or vermicelli. But all in the end have the same essential nature and accomplish the same pragmatic purpose — a satisfying bowl of pasta.

This allows us an interesting new way to appraise a tradition. We can look at it as if it were a recipe and say, “This is what you must do, if you are to create a certain type of community — and these are the options you have, once you have done this.”

To see institutions and traditions as recipes is to grasp at once how pointless it is to debate their truth or falsity. Is Julia Child’s recipe for Bouillabaisse true or false? The question sounds absurd because it is. Here again, we seem to be caught in the quandary of cultural relativism. The recipe for creating different habits of the heart, like the recipes for creating different authentic dishes of various cultures, would appear to be ultimately a matter of taste. Indians like plenty of fiery spices; most American southerners do not. How is it possible to devise a neutral method by which to judge which dish or which culture is objectively better?

Let us grant that this is the case; no one is really in a position to judge fairly whether the cuisine of his own culture is better or worse than that of another. But there is something that everyone can judge for himself — whether he prefers the old recipe for making meatloaf (or Bombay curry or Bouillabaisse or Pad Thai) or the new one.

Taking this to a higher ethical plane, we can ask ourselves as individuals whether we like ourselves the way we are today, or whether we liked ourselves better in the past. And we can do the same thing collectively. The members of a country club may prefer older customs to newer ones, a baseball franchise may no longer have the team spirit it once had, or a church may have suddenly found religion and be in the midst of a revival. More generally speaking, a community can judge for itself whether it prefers the habits of the heart by which it now operates to those by which it operated in the past. Both the individual and the communal mind can make comparisons between their before and their after. Experiencing both childhood and adulthood, a man can judge the relative merits of each stage from the inside, something no child, however precocious, can ever hope to do, just as a man who has experienced drunkenness may appreciate the value of sobriety and may even make a point of never having that experience again.

An individual may try new things and like them so much that he decides never to go back again to the old ways. But so too may an entire culture. During the Meiji Restoration in nineteenth-century Japan, an entire society discarded or revamped many of its own traditions in order to preserve its independence and avoid falling prey to the rampant imperialism that had left China weak and mutilated. The Japanese, grasping that new traditions were imperative, “imported” them from the West, sending intelligent young Japanese to study and master these traditions “hands-on” as they were practiced in Europe and America.

The Japanese were able to gain an insider’s knowledge of the West in the only way such knowledge can be gained — by assimilating into their own visceral code elements they acquired from the West and evaluating the social world this adaptation produced within Japanese culture itself. This demonstrates the Janus-faced quality of tradition: In the culture that produced the tradition, it is old, while in the culture that adopts it, it is brand-new. In the first, it represents the wisdom of our ancestors; in the second, it represents the creative innovation of those who are currently living.

Thus, a tradition can be a passive inheritance from the past that weighs heavily on the present generation or a vehicle for actively transforming the present generation in accordance with the pattern set by the borrowed tradition. A society may take what was close to becoming a moribund ethical institution and suddenly breathe new life into it — treating it not as a relic of the past but as a blueprint for the future. It is also possible for a tradition to shed its original ideological superstructure but continue to function as a perfectly valid visceral code within the same community, much as Victorian infidels continued to scrupulously honor the visceral code that had been programmed into them as children. Finally, the same visceral code may be justified by competing and even contradictory ideological superstructures: A southern Baptist may justify his own exemplary conduct by invoking the name of Jesus, whereas a Buddhist may do so by invoking the name of the Enlightened One. Indeed, it has not infrequently happened that a tradition continued an underground existence as a visceral code while undergoing drastic remolding at the level of its ideological superstructure.

But there is another possibility altogether: An individual or a community may entirely reject its own visceral code, root and branch, for the sake of what it has come to see as an ethically superior plane of existence. This “conversion” experience is the key to understanding the uniquely arresting phenomenon of a newly “revealed” or intuited code that is explicitly seen as a break with the past.

A collective metastasis at the primary level of the visceral code is the most profound change that a society can undergo — far and away more earthshaking than a change in its ideological superstructure. When carried out on a grand scale, such changes constitute a genuine cultural revolution. After one, men and women not only think and argue differently; they feel and respond differently. They are now ashamed of what once made them proud and proud of what once shamed them. In certain cases, this is due to a revelation of a higher ethos, such as occurred to the Hebrews; in other cases, it may be due to the revival and reclaiming of an older visceral code that, though it has ceased to function within the community, is now made a conscious object of imitation, as in the southern Baptist revival or the rebirth of pagan classicism during the Renaissance.

Transformative traditions

The conversion experience is the key to grasping the nature of transformative customs and traditions. A convinced ethical relativist may hold that one ethical norm is no higher or lower than another, but he cannot deny that others have been sincerely convinced that the ethical norms they have consciously adopted are vastly superior to those of their own collectively recollected past. He may call it an illusion, but he must acknowledge the power of this illusion to generate profound and lasting behavioral differences in those groups under its spell.

It is important to be clear about the experiential source of this sense of ethical superiority. It arises not from a feeling of being born superior to others, but from a feeling of having become superior to what we ourselves once were. In the Christian tradition, this experience is called being born again; in the Jewish tradition, it is identified with the story of the Exodus, the transformation of former slaves into the Chosen People. In both cases, the outcome of the transformative experience is the same: a firm determination to be lifted from a stage of ethical experience that has now come to be seen as lower, and an aspiration to a stage of ethical experience that is higher.

A transformative custom takes us from a more natural (or more probable) state of being to a less natural (or more improbable) one. Thus, it is important for a community to signal the critical significance of the transformative custom it has adopted — indeed, to make it uniquely sacred — because it is a custom that departs so drastically from the path of instinctive nature. No one needs to be taught to strike back; it is the refusal to strike back that must be instilled by our ethical training.

Furthermore, a transformative custom may also be understood as a barrier, a device to keep those who have reached a higher ethical stage from backsliding. Such a custom is by nature intolerant. It may permit us to change our manner of doing things in certain areas of life, but it prohibits us from changing the way we embody those essential values without which we would fall back into the old ways. We are determined not to return to our transcended past, and we establish our set of transformative customs and traditions to make sure that neither we nor our children, nor our children’s children, will do so.

There is an important qualification here: We must retain a collective memory of what we were like before we had mastered the technique of transcending our lower nature. If we no longer know what it is that we have escaped from, we will be unable to appreciate the significance of the technique that permitted us to escape. Indeed, at the maximal point of societal forgetfulness, there is the danger that even the most critical transformative customs will no longer be grasped for what they are. Instead of being understood as techniques for the achievement of collective self-mastery, they are reduced to being mere folkways — or, to use the language of contemporary enlightened rationality, “residual personal prejudice.”

There is a safe and certain way of passing on these transformative customs, and in the most compelling manner possible — through the ethical institution known as the family. Of course, the family must first be raised to the ethical plane where the parents’ first concern is to compel their biological offspring to abandon their original state of nature and take on a transformed identity as civilized adults.  

The ethical, as opposed to the merely biological, family is the site for the making of civilized human beings out of id-governed monsters. It turns man’s purely animalist collection of impulses and urges into a vehicle for passing on not merely accidental memes, but deliberately engineered transformative customs across generations. It is, in a sense, a meta-custom — the transformative custom that is responsible for the existence of all other transformative customs. You must first be trained to pass on the ethical family itself before you can hope to transmit what the ethical family finds so valuable, namely, the civilizing process by which men and women obtain self-mastery.

Seen from this perspective, marriage has nothing to do with biology:  It is an elaborate social construction that has been erected against the anarchy of the human id, not merely to keep it from doing damage, but for the purpose of transforming the id nature into the highest ethical ideal — the father who raises his son to be a good father, so that his grandson will have a life no worse than his own, and hopefully better. And the mother who does the same.

Transgenerational stability

In even the shortest possible list of the attributes of a civilization, you are certain to discover the feature of transgenerational stability. A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence, which is to say that it must be a multi-generational project. A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations — ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.

But how exactly is a civilization passed on from generation to generation? We can understand passing on an heirloom, like a set of fancy china, from one generation to another. But a civilization cannot be reduced merely to the physical props that are associated with it: the buildings, the transportation system, the machines and the tools, the gold and the treasure. What possible use would America’s complex superhighway system be to a generation no one had taken the trouble to teach how to drive?

A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe, and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.

If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.

The grandchild, far from being incidental, is decisive. Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation — their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time — indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within. Which leads to our main question: How is this task accomplished? How do you make parents feel such a deep and unshakeable ethical commitment to their grandchildren?

Civilizing tradition

I have suggested that a tradition is a recipe. We now need to refine this concept further. After all, there are techniques for making soap box racers, paper airplanes, and omelets, as well as for the proper way to brush one’s teeth; but clearly, these do not represent the core traditions that parents feel ethically bound to pass on to their grandchildren. This means that what we are looking for is, in effect, a recipe for producing a certain character and class of people.

In ancient Greece, in addition to passing on techniques for making swords and pots, men had to pass on the recipe for producing sons who would grow up willing to fight to the death to defend their polis. A city-state that lost the recipe for producing such men also lost the recipe for constructing civic freedom and exposed the city-state to the most horrible fate that a free people can imagine: enslavement.

This is something to keep in mind when we compare the theory of tradition being developed here with Hayek’s empiricist evolutionary theory. For Hayek, a tradition was viable if it was well adapted to the past circumstances of the society; in the view outlined here, a tradition is viable if it effectively keeps future generations from backsliding to a lower ethical or civilizational state. The track record of a tradition is irrelevant here; it may have been supremely useful in the past, but if its continuing embodiment in the rising generation begins to lower the society’s civilizational standards, the tradition must be discarded and replaced, and it makes no difference how many evolutionary challenges it may have successfully overcome in the past.

The theory of tradition offered here is a pragmatic one: Does it keep up the established level of civilization? But, as we shall see, it is also dialectical: A tradition will be evaluated in terms of its success not only in keeping up the civilizational standards of the past, but also in providing the foundation for future civilizational improvement, meaning not merely improvements in the making of things, but in the making of human character, both at the individual and at the collective level.

Tradition, in short, is of value in keeping us civilized and in offering us a foundation for becoming even more civilized. It is a social construction that, being embodied in the behavior of future generations, becomes the basis of ever more elaborate and, indeed, even improbable social constructions.

We take for granted the social construction of reality; what we need to begin to focus on is the reality of the social construction that has been successfully achieved in the past and transmitted to the present. We need to grasp the fact that this socially constructed reality provides the basis for further social constructions that would be unthinkable without it.

This is the realm that Hegel calls “objective spirit,” in which human beings construct for themselves a social reality that, in turn, produces human beings capable of constructing a social reality ethically superior to that which preceded it — indeed, a social reality that is pledged not to return to a lower ethical plane.


But here we need to take a slight digression, for the question can already be heard: Who is to say what ethical plane is higher and what ethical plane is lower? Isn’t that entirely relative?

We addressed this question in a different form in discussing how anyone can decide for himself whether he prefers a new recipe to an old, or, indeed, whether he likes himself better now than he did before. In this case, the disagreement takes place not between two different minds, but within the same mind. And here again we see the same principle at work.

It is the same mind that decides for itself what plane is ethically high and what is low, and the same mind does this, first and foremost, by its conduct and behavior in the world and only secondarily, if at all, through an explicit formulation of its ethical theory. For example, if a mother teaches her child not to twist the tail of a cat, she is not articulating a pro-peta position, but trying to construct a child who will not hurt animals; but, in doing this, she is also helping to construct a social reality in which animals will not be cruelly mistreated — which is quite a different social construction from one in which they are.

The basis of the mother’s response is her own awareness that it may be natural for children to play too roughly with animals, since she herself was once a child and did such things herself. But now, judging between her way of treating animals then and her way of treating them now, there is no doubt in her mind which way is better. It is not that she is blindly condemning other people’s ways of doing things; she is condemning her own past behavior, and that makes all the difference.

Her higher ethical stance toward animals, to use Hegel’s language, is the triumph of dialectical reason: She has herself, within her own experience, come to see the error of her ways, condemned these ways, and then sought a better one. Unlike the person who dismisses unthinkingly and unsympathetically the ways of others, the mother has reached a higher truth not by dismissing the lower truth, but by experiencing it fully enough to see its shortcomings.

The mother does not need to be aware of all this; nor does she need to be conscious that there are philosophical issues at stake in the problem of animal suffering. In truth, the mother is interested only in making her son embody in his actions the virtue of kindness to animals, to make it part of his visceral code, so that he will no longer be able even to imagine himself as the kind of child who would hurt an animal. Indeed, it may only be to us, as outside philosophical observers, for whom what she is instilling appears as a virtue. For the mother herself, it may well be no such thing; it may rather represent an absolute minimum of decency by which one gets no praise for upholding the code but is sure to be crucified for violating it. And, at all events, what concerns her is not her child’s moral principles, but his practical behavior. He must not pull cats’ tails — a categorical imperative hardwired into the boy’s visceral system by whatever set of admonitions, shouts, screams, slaps, spankings it took to etch the apodictic quality of her message into the boy’s core character. It is certainly not a Maimonides-like encryption of an empirical truth about the dangers of behaving in ways that might be conducive to getting scratched by a cat, and thereby contracting cat-scratch fever.

It is the mother’s repertoire of behavior that contributes to her social construction of her community’s reality. But implicit in her shouts and slaps is a stern value judgment that there is a radical distinction between the ethical plane on which one refuses to torture animals, on the one hand, and the ethical plane on which one enjoys torturing animals, on the other.

This is not to suggest that you need think that there is any big difference yourself. But you must recognize that the mother feels this.  Indeed, it is precisely this feeling for ethical value that makes her work so hard to embody this particular one in her son’s conduct as opposed to the other particular one. It is the most real ethical choice one can imagine — the choice of how to raise one’s kids.

This is a realm in which no one is an ethical relativist. A consistent ethical relativist would refuse to scold her child for doing anything whatsoever. Stab the poodle to death? To each his own. Toss your favorite cds out the window? Who is to judge? Set the house on fire and gleefully watch it burn down? It all depends on your point of view.

In the beginning was the Deed, to quote Goethe’s Faust once more, and it is the mother’s deeds that provide the fundamental ethical substratum on which the rest of the social construction rests. But, in certain societies, it is more than just that. It is an insistence that this fundamental ethical substratum — the ethical baseline according to which praise, honor, and shame shall be distributed according to how one measures up to it — is raised far above the ethical baseline that prevailed in the past and even persists in large parts of the present population.

Thus, the transgenerational duty to one’s grandchildren may be put in these simple terms: Members of each generation are committed to making sure that the ethical baseline of their society does not move in a manner that their visceral code instantly tells them is wrong. How much philosophical thought is given in explaining this wrong, or in disputing its validity — all that is irrelevant to the theory of tradition contained here.

But, once again, we confront the practical problem: How does a society go about ensuring that the ethical baseline will be maintained at all costs, and even when it is most tempting to depart from it in a downward direction? Through appeals to enlightened self-interest, or through sermons and philosophical tracts?

How we turn out

In every society, there are two different ways for a child to be bad: One is by doing things for which he is scolded, and the other is by doing things for which his parents are scolded. There is a profound reason for this distinction. We scold the child when he has been naughty; we scold the parents when he has been wicked. In that case we are inclined to feel that the parents have failed to do their primary parental duty, namely, to implant those stern universal rules for minimal tolerable behavior in one’s neighbor’s children.

Seen from this angle, parenthood is no longer a biological mode of reproduction, but becomes transformed into a social construction that permits the community to hold people responsible for the behavior of their biological offspring. By holding the parents responsible for wiring the minimal ethical baseline into the visceral code of their children, the community exponentially increases its power to maintain the standards of its ethical baseline.

There are, in truth, only so many ways to preserve the ethical baseline of a society, all of them radically less effective, and far more intrusive, than the method offered by the family. Plato offered one of them in his Republic: The elite guardians directly controlled the ethical molding of the children by reducing the populace to puppets in the hands of master manipulators.

But there is one advantage above all advantages that the family possesses: the long-term temporal framework within which it operates. The playmate, the buddy, the girlfriends, the colleagues, the guys — all see us as a given thing with an established set of attributes, and this is just as true when we meet them at six as at 60: We are what they see us as. But for our families we can never be reduced to being something fixed and permanent. To them we are not six feet tall; to them we turned out to be six feet tall, and who knows how much more we might grow in our mothers’ eyes — even if we are in our 50s and shrinking.

To a mother and father, a child is a project and the child’s personality a trajectory. This is not a consciously held value or principle, taught by a book: It is the natural cognitive mode of the parent who, in looking upon a child, sees its past, present, and future all at once, in a vision that is genuinely sub species aeternatis and not entirely unlike God’s vision of the universe, even if it is a bit more partial. Others teach us how to be; our family teaches us how to become.

The one thing we are incapable of learning by imitating our friends and peers and playmates is the life trajectory that has been prepared for us. We cannot understand what it is to be an old man when we are in our teens, nor what a father must do when we are children. Being married is not a skill that we can master when we are in first grade, because our limited experience hasn’t prepared us for it yet.

The ethical baseline of any community will be seen to have two dimensions: One is synchronic, and it relates to the ethical minimum for the individual at any one stage of his chronological development. The other is diachronic, and this regulates the normative life trajectory that any particular individual is expected to follow. This trajectory establishes something like a moving ethical baseline that steadily becomes more and more rigorous as the child moves from infancy to adulthood.

The primary function of the family as an ethical institution is to provide a schedule of developmental expectations appropriate to males and to females — to wire this set of normative expectations into the visceral system of the child while he or she is still young. Yet is any of this the parents’ own idea? No. They are simply and, generally speaking, automatically doing what their own parents taught them they had to do.

When an ethical code is wired into our visceral system, it is constructing a certain character type — the human being who has been “raised according to this tradition” has been programmed to feel shame and praise in a way that allows him to be a kinder and more thoughtful person. Certain ethical routes have been closed off to him, and he now knows that it is shameful to travel back down them. But something of equal and perhaps greater importance is shown to him, and this is the path that brings praise.

This is the highest ethical contribution of the family — setting for the child not merely the minimal acceptable ethical baseline, but the promotion of its most cherished ethical ideal in the form of our developmental destiny — what Aristotle called our telos. In short, what we want to be when we grow up.

But a telos, to be the focus of a concrete ambition, must exist in the form of an actual individual who has fulfilled this ambition in an exemplary way. Such an individual we will call a shining example.

From real to abstract

The shining example establishes that the telos is capable of being actualized by a real human being and is not merely a fantasy ideal. The shining example does not need to be the paragon of all virtues; in fact, he must not be. This is because what makes the shining example shine is not his immunity to human frailty, but his ability to rise above it when he encounters it in his own nature. The fantasy hero is congenitally incapable of feeling fear before battle; the shining example feels it but is able to master this feeling — and, indeed, in mastering this feeling is able to show others how it is possible for them to master theirs. Similarly, the shining example of marital fidelity need not, indeed must not, be above all sexual temptation. Here, too, he will feel the same wayward urges that lesser mortals feel, only in his case he will know how to put these feelings in their proper place. What makes the shining example shine is not exemption from human weakness, but the unfailing capacity to transcend it. He is tried but always proves true; this pattern of virtuous persistence through adversity provides a living model for those who aspire to become shining examples themselves. The worthiness of a shining example is a worthiness obtainable by virtually anyone who is prepared to follow in the footsteps of the shining examples who preceded him.

To follow in the footsteps of a living person is a radically different process from attempting to conform one’s day-to-day life according to an abstract principle or maxim. If someone tells a child to show respect to other people, the child may sincerely wish to do so, but he may not have a clue how to go about it. His plight, moreover, is precisely analogous to the plight of any modern adult who found himself suddenly whisked away to a radically different epoch and cultural milieu — say, ancient Babylon. Naturally, our time-traveler would want to show respect to the people around him, but he would also be painfully aware that his lack of inside knowledge about the customs of the ancient Babylonians would seriously militate against the accomplishment of his goal. He would not know how to greet other people, how to pass by them on the street, how to look at them when they were in front of him, whether to bow and scrape before those in authority, what hand to use in taking food at the dinner table, or even whether to sit or  stand or lie during the meal itself. He would face exactly the same problem that any child faces when those responsible for his upbringing are content to fill him full of abstract maxims and vacuous ideals. Yes, he wants to be a good boy — but how the devil is a good boy expected to behave when confronted with vexing dilemmas and confusing choices? Does he tattle on a friend when the friend is bad, or does he remain loyal to him? Does he look into an adult’s eyes when one is talking to him, or is it okay to wiggle in his seat and let his eyes wander off where they will?

These are exactly the kinds of questions that must be answered for a child if he is to have any hope of fulfilling the behavioral imperative that has been imposed on him. He must be shown, in concrete situation after concrete situation, what kind of conduct counts — for a child of his age and, depending on the culture, his gender, race, caste, ethnicity, religion, and so forth — as “showing respect.” For all such purposes, the shining example is indispensable. In classrooms of a not so distant past, the teacher would often actually point to the model pupil and say to the other children, “You should learn to act like Bobby does. Watch how he handles himself, and try to model yourself on his conduct.” And, again in the not so distant past, this technique actually worked: Other pupils did try to model their behavior on that of the exemplar authoritatively presented to them.

This modeling of our own behavior upon that of others is not to be confused with simple mimetism, a term adopted from the French neologism, mimetisme, coined by Gabriel de Tarde, the nineteenth-century French sociologist and rival of Emile Durkheim. The word describes the natural tendency of human beings to imitate unthinkingly the ways and manners of those in their immediate environment, a kind of automatic duplication of the behavior of others that occurs without any conscious intent to acquire the behavioral characteristic in question. The imitated behavior is simply picked up the same way that people pick up a novel bit of slang or a new fad in salutations, such as the high-five.

The inadvertent acquisition of memes that happen to be floating in a person’s environment is a radically distinct operation from the deliberate modeling of one’s behavior on the living pattern provided by the shining example. In the latter case, there is the conscious design to replace one’s own defective behavior with the conduct exemplified by the shining example. It is, in other words, the explicitly formulated desire to transform and recreate one’s self. When an eight-year-old boy reflects on another eight-year-old boy and says to himself, “I wish I could be like John,” he is not merely engaging in hero worship; he is also setting himself the transformative project of making himself as much like John as is humanly possible.

This connecting link is a critical one, but one that we have tended to discount in contemporary American culture. For us, it is imperative that an eight-year-old boy should have esteem for himself, for the person that he is. We do not want him thinking, “I wish I could be like John”; instead, we demand that he think, “I’m just fine the way I am. I don’t need to model my behavior on anyone else.” But our insistence on creating self-esteem in an eight-year-old boy comes with a high price tag — by refusing to encourage the boy’s dissatisfaction with himself as he is, we are inadvertently taking from him the primary human motivation to change oneself for the better. By pumping him full of self-esteem, we rob him of the will to set himself transformative projects and goals. Totally at peace with what he is, he ceases to have any reason to become something more — and certainly no reason at all to become what he could be.

The contemporary gospel of individual self-esteem is at odds with the universal tradition of mankind — a tradition that the German poet, Rilke, summed up in the concluding lines of a poem addressed to the torso of Apollo, whose heroic perfection Rilke saw as a challenge to our own far from perfect status quo — “Du must dein Leben andern.” You must change your life.

A shining example is the flesh-and-blood embodiment of an ideal value that we only later come to appreciate by recognizing it in the person who first incarnates that virtue for us. We admire him or her first, and only by a delayed process of reflection do we come to discern the abstract virtue embedded in his day-to-day existence. Love and admiration precedes reflection and abstraction.

This represents a view of tradition that is radically at odds with the view that sees tradition only as a useful esoteric fiction. The shining examples of our community are not there merely for the stooges and the proles; they are there for all of us. The ambition to be a good father is not the preserve of the fools and unwashed of the world, but of college professors and billionaires as well. The ideological superstructure that justifies the visceral code may be pulp for the masses, but the code itself is mandatory for all of us without exception.

And for good reason. In a world where shining examples are no longer pointed out, what is there to aspire to? You must change yourself, as Rilke’s poem tells us, but into what? A tolerant person? A wise person? These are abstractions. They permit us to declare ourselves “tolerant” without further ado, just as we can equally well declare ourselves “caring” or “loving” or “open-minded.” We can make a resolution to become more sensitive to others or more appreciative of their feelings. Indeed, we can even display bumper stickers that assure both us and the world of our deep devotion to world peace and the brotherhood of man.

A society that moves from seeing the human ideal in terms of shining examples to thinking of the human ideal in abstract terms is a society that has undergone the most traumatic and wrenching change imaginable — a change so drastic that those who come out on the other side of it cannot comprehend the position of those who have been left behind by it. These are your shining examples, but they have no meaning for me. They are not my heroes, but yours.

The moment we leave it to ourselves to measure our own progress, we have lost the most powerful motive for making progress, and that is to make ourselves as close to our shining example as we possibly can. Only a shining example has the power to transform us from our present state to a higher one — abstract principles alone can never do this. Indeed, their very abstractness serves to camouflage all sorts of disreputable self-deceptions, as no abstract term can ever protest against even its most wanton misuse.

Death to the exemplary

In the culture war of today, the representatives of one side have systematically set out to destroy the shining examples of middle America. They seem to be doing so with an unconscious fanaticism that most closely parallels the conscious fanaticism of the various iconoclastic movements in the history of Christianity. They are doing this in a variety of ways — through the media, of course, and through the educational system. They are very thorough in their work and no less bold in the astonishingly specious pretexts upon which they demand the sacrifice of yet another shining example.

In the current debate on gay marriage, its advocates are cast in the role of long-oppressed suppliants demanding their just due. Indeed, the whole question is put in terms of their legal and moral rights, against which the opponents of gay marriage have nothing to offer but “residual personal prejudice,” to recall again the memorable words of the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court.

But it is a mistake to conflate the automatic with the irrational, since, as we have seen, an automatic and mindless response is precisely the mechanism by which the visceral code speaks to us. It triggers a rush of emotions because it is designed to do precisely this. Like certain automatic reflexes, such as jerking your hand off a burning stovetop, the sheer immediacy of our visceral response, far from being proof of its irrationality, demonstrates the critical importance, in times of peril and crisis, of not thinking before we act. If a man had to think before jumping out of the way of an onrushing car, or to meditate on his options before removing his hand from that hot stovetop, then reason, rather than being our help, would become our enemy. Some decisions are better left to reflexes — be these of our neurological system or of our visceral system.

This is why for most people, including many gay men and women, the immediate response to the idea of gay marriage came at the gut level — it somehow felt funny and wrong, and it felt this way long before they were able to spare a moment’s reflection on the question of whether they were for it or against it. There is a reason for that: They were overwhelmed at having been asked the question at all. How do you explain what you have against what had never crossed your mind as something anyone on Earth would ever think of doing? This invitation to reason calmly about the hitherto unthinkable is the source of the uneasy visceral response. To ask someone to reason calmly about something that he regards as simply beyond the pale is to ask him to concede precisely what he must not concede — the mere admissibility of the question.

Imagine a stranger coming up to you and asking if he can drive your eight-year-old daughter around town in his new car. Presumably, no matter how nicely the stranger asked this question, you would say no. But suppose he started to ask why you won’t let him take your little girl for a ride. What if he said, “Listen, tell you what. I’ll give her my cell phone and you can call her anytime you want”? What kind of obligation are you under to give a reason to a complete stranger for why he shouldn’t be allowed to drive off with your daughter?

None. A question that is out of order does not require or deserve an answer. The moment you begin to answer the question as if it were in order, it is too late to point out your original objection to the question in the first place, which really was: Over my dead body.

Marriage was something that, until only quite recently, seemed to be securely in the hands of married people. It was what married people had engaged in, and certainly not a special privilege that had been extended to them to the exclusion of other human beings. Who, after all, could not get married? You didn’t have to be straight; you could be gay. So what? Marriage was the most liberal institution known to man. It opened its arms to the ugly and the homely as well as to the beautiful and the stunning. Was it defined as between a man and a woman? Well, yes, but only in the sense that a cheese omelet is defined as an egg and some cheese — without the least intention of insulting either orange juice or toast by their omission from this definition. Orange juice and toast are fine things in themselves — you just can’t make an omelet out of them.

Those who are married now, and those thinking about getting married or teaching their children that they should grow up and get married, may all be perfect idiots, mindlessly parroting a message wired into them before they were old enough to know better. But they are passing on, through the uniquely reliable visceral code, the great postulate of transgenerational duty: not to beseech people to make the world a better place, but to make children whose children will leave it a better world and not merely a world with better abstract ideals.

We have all personally known shining examples of such human beings, just as we have all known mediocre parents as well as some absolutely dreadful ones. Now suppose we are told, as we often are told in the gay-marriage debate, that the institution of marriage is not what it used to be. What does this mean? Does it mean that the shining example of a good marriage, of a good father and a good mother, and of a happy family has ceased to be one that we want to realize in our own lives? Not at all. We may in fact be farther than ever from living up to the shining example — but that is hardly proof that we should abandon it as an ideal to which to aspire. If the crew of a ship is developing scurvy because limes have gone out of fashion, is this a reason to throw the limes overboard or a reason to change the fashion?

The shining example of a happy marriage and its inherent ideality was something that we once could all agree on; but now it is a shining example that has been subjected to the worst fate that can befall one: It has been become a subject of controversy and has thereby lost its most essential protective quality: its ethical obviousness in the eyes of the community. Once the phrase “gay marriage” was in the air, marriage was suddenly what it had never thought to be before: a kind of marriage, a type — traditional marriage, or that even worse monstrosity, heterosexual marriage.

Ethical fundamentalism

The high solemnity of marriage has been transgenerationally wired into our visceral system. We must take it seriously and treat it solemnly, and this “must” must appear to us at the level of second nature; it must possess the quality of being ethically obvious. Marriage must not be mocked or ridiculed. But can marriage keep its solemnity now? Who will tell the rising generation that there are standards they must not fail to meet if they wish to live in a way that their grandfathers could respect?

This is how those fond of abstract reasoning can destroy the ethical foundations of a society without anyone’s noticing it. They throw up for debate that which no one before ever thought about debating. They take the collective visceral code that has bound parents to grandchildren from time immemorial, in every culture known to man, and make of it a topic for fashionable intellectual chatter.

Ask yourself what is so secure about the ethical baseline of our current level of civilization that it might not be opened up for question, or what deeply cherished way of doing things will suddenly be cast in the role of a “residual personal prejudice.”

We are witnessing the triumph of a Newspeak in which those who simply wish to preserve their own way of life, to pass their core values down to their grandchildren more or less intact, no longer even have a language in which they can address their grievances. In this essay I have tried to produce the roughest sketch of what such language might look like and how it could be used to defend those values that represent what Hegel called the substantive class of community — the class that represents the ethical baseline of the society and whose ethical solidity and unimaginativeness permit the high-spirited experimentation of the reflective class to go forward without the risk of complete societal collapse.

If the reflective class, represented by intellectuals in the media and the academic world, continues to undermine the ideological superstructure of the visceral code operative among the “culturally backward,” it may eventually succeed in subverting and even destroying the visceral code that has established the common high ethical baseline of the average American — and it will have done all of this out of the insane belief that abstract maxims concerning justice and tolerance can take the place of a visceral code that is the outcome of the accumulated cultural revolution of our long human past.

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.

Middle Americans have increasingly tolerated the experiments in living of people like myself not out of stupidity, but out of the trustful magnanimity that is one of the great gifts of the Protestant ethos to our country and to the world. It is time for us all to begin tolerating back. The first step would be a rapid retreat from even the slightest whisper that marriage ever was or ever could be anything other than the shining example that most Americans still hold so sacred within their hearts, as they have every right to do. They have let us imagine the world as we wish; it is time we begin to let them imagine it as they wish.

If gay men and women want to create their own shining examples, they must do this themselves, by their own actions and by their own imagination. They must construct for themselves, out of their own unique perspective on the world, an ethos that can be admired both by future gay men and women and perhaps, eventually, by the rest of society. But there can be no advantage to them if they insist on trying to co-opt the shining example of an ethical tradition that they themselves have abandoned in order to find their own way in the world. It will end only in self-delusion and bitter disappointment

One of the preconditions of a civilization is that there is a fundamental ethical baseline below which it cannot be allowed to fall. Unless there is a deep and massive and unthinking commitment on the part of most people to the well-being not merely of their children, but of their children’s children, then the essential transgenerational duty of preserving the ethical baseline of our civilization will become a matter of hit-and-miss. It may be performed, but there is no longer any guarantee that it will be. The guarantee comes from shining examples.