Thursday, 8 March 2007

In Keeping with the Times

“Nothing avails: one must go forward—step by step further into decadence” [1]. Nietzsche was never one to understate his case; but if one has not yet succumbed to the doctrine of the proverbial ostrich, one might still see that customs, old institutions, anything that smacks, in a word, of tradition: all such must now be cast aside in keeping with the times, that is to say, in keeping with a political passion and a public temper that cannot tolerate anything that might hold it back; for there has crept into the mind of modern man a quite pathetic submission to the practicalities of political power.
The dangers we have to fear may roughly be summed up in the single word — disintegration. It is the end to which we are being driven, alike by the defective working of our political machinery, and by the public temper of the time. [2]
The odd thing about modern “progressive” man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself, as though it were the wild and dangerous upstart, the foreign interloper — and this in an age that quite ludicrously prides itself on its tolerance! It is an age, however, in which the greater part of tolerance is given over to that which destroys.
Nowadays it is enough that any idea or proposal be meant in the conservative’s sense for it to come to nothing; only that which disintegrates and levels has any real power now. [3]
The present merits of an old custom or institution, its historic service to ideals such as harmony, authority, liberty, or justice — always imperfectly realised — cannot bear scrutiny in a mind that has been seduced by the promise of perfection, still less in one that has been flattered into believing that this perfection is a birthright soon to be realised in the practical application of political power.
Devices laboriously set up to keep popular passions within bounds are now derided as little better than superstitions. [4]
The hubris with which modern “progressive” man proceeds will likely lead to all the adverse consequences which experience relates, unless, that is, there will be something new or hitherto unseen in the unfettered but harnessed expression of popular passions, something that leads to more than just a practical, brutish, and uncultured system for the accrual of power and wealth. One would have to be quite the hopeful fool to believe it likely — and quite in keeping with the times.
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[1] F.W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §43, p. 547; original emphasis.
[2] Lord Salisbury, “Disintegration”, in Quarterly Review, October 1883, quoted by Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (London: Phoenix, 2000), pp. 274-5.
[3] [“Es genügt heutigentags, daß irgendein Gedanke, ein Vorschlag im Sinne der Konservativen gemeint sei, so ist es praktisch nichts damit; nur das Auflösende und Nivellierende hat jetzt wirkliche Kraft.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 17. November 1876, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), p. 421.
[4] Richard M. Weaver, “Review of Betrand de Jouvenal, On Power: Its Nature and the History of its Growth”, The Commonweal, Vol. 50:19, 9th August 1949; reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. by T.J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p.514.
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NB: This post also appears at James Higham’s weblog Nourishing Obscurity.

12 comments:

james higham said...

Ah, a bit each way, sire and thanks you kindly. A thought provoking piece which had me momentarily stumped.

Dr Samuel Johnson, A.M. said...

A lucid analysis, Mr D., upon my soul it is. My reading at the moment concerns the conversion to Christianity of the Norsemen, whose pagan culture was exceedingly rich, taking its origins from Germanic myth as well as the beliefs of peoples in the far north.

Their resistance to change was very great. It comprised a fondness for the old gods and the ways that had sustained their culture for centuries; and that had also, as they believed, been of utility to them in the forays that founded colonies all over the North Atlantic, as also in their trade (which reached as far as Baghdad and Constantinople). They were extraordinary and dynamic people, full of innovation (trial by jury and a written legal code are Viking ideas), thrusting and resourceful. It can be argued that they were the dynamo of Europe, kickstarting our emergence from the Dark Ages. My point is that they were innately conservative, and yet open always to the new.

Nothing exemplifies the decay of our present culture more than our attitude to morals. Marriage, for example, is an institution hallowed by long success: it provides the environment most favourable to the stability of children. Along the way it became sanctified by the Christian church, so that unmarried cohabitation became unrespectable -- to the benefit of innumerable generations. But now all that is dismissed as worthless. "What is marriage?" they cry. "Just a bit of paper!"

The high priest of this cult is, I fear, none other than our beloved Prime Minister, whose knowledge of history is about as extensive as his dedication to the truth.

Cirdan said...

The odd thing about modern “progressive” man — what sets him apart from his forebears — is that when some old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial, is said to be not in keeping with the present times, then it is not the present times to which he directs his critical eye, so as to see what therein makes it intolerant of that thing, but rather his eye fixes narrowly on that thing itself,…

The first premiss is false: Socrates spends most of Euthyphro showing the bankruptcy of old Greek piety; the critical examination of tradition in light of present knowledge is not a recent invention. In any case, an 'old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial' can still be an evil. See: slavery, female circumcision, and chinese foot binding for starters. That something is evil is sufficient reason to seek its end. No age is morally infallible; every age is obliged to eradicate those evils that lie in plain sight.

Recusant said...

Cirdan:

I think you might usefully learn the difference between 'some' and 'all'.

Deogolwulf said...

"the critical examination of tradition in light of present knowledge is not a recent invention."

Did you think I had never heard of the Greeks? One can find almost all that is good and bad in the modern world present too in the ancient. Doesn't that go without saying? And I have no problem with "the critical examination of tradition in light of present knowledge". It is with the typicality, tendancy, and degree of antipathy against tradition in the modern world - as though tradition could serve no purpose in it and as though there could be a culture worthy of the name without it - that I am dealing.


"Besides, an 'old custom or institution, tamed and made humane by time and bitter trial' can still be an evil."

Indeed it can. Did you think that I believed that there were no evils enshined by tradition?

dearieme said...

And the verb of the Progressive who wants to change something without being capable of explaining cogently why, is "modernise".

Cirdan said...

Recusant,

Some has an inclusive and an exclusive sense. To borrow Peter Suber’s example for the inclusive sense: Some of you will earn an A on the final exam would remain true even if all in the class earned A’s. The inclusive some and all have a similar sense.

Exclusive some entails the negation of all; it has distinct senses: Have some cake is ambiguous between Have one or more slices of cake, but not all of them, and Have one or more slices of cake, but not many, and not all of them.

The objection you raise relies on the false premiss that all and some always have distinct senses. (My argument above plainly relies on the first exclusive sense of some).

Cirdan said...

It is with the typicality, tendancy, and degree of antipathy against tradition in the modern world - as though tradition could serve no purpose in it and as though there could be a culture worthy of the name without it - that I am dealing.

These days, people are likelier to know of the barefaced lying that tends to accompany the invention of tradition(s).

Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition in Scotland" in The Invention of Tradition nicely points out how the kilt became a piece of immemorial Highland Scottish tradition.

dearieme said...

Though I have been told that Very-Ropey was more careful in his scholarly writing, some of his journalism on Highland Tradition was woefully inaccurate. Even we lowlanders jeered. But then he was an old fraud, wasn't he? He made his reputation with The Last Days of Hitler. Only decades later did we learn that he didn't understand colloquial German. By watching him trying to explain away his Hitler's Diaries fiasco. Bah.

Larry Teabag said...

Certainly there is a pathological modernising "progressive" school of thought which will seek to destroy any tradition. But you exaggerate its extent.

Equally there is a nostalgic "regressive" schook of thought will which argue against any change, any deviation from ancient ways, as nothing more than cultural vandalism, often in apocalyptic and hysterical tones. I assume you wouldn't wish to be grouped with it.

In between are more reasonable people who wish to get rid of those traditions which are evil, adapt for the modern age those which need it to function better, and preserve untouched those which are truly sacred.

John East said...

Shear brilliance, thanks.

Looking ahead, when today's deconstruction workers retire a new generation is sure to appear desiring more continuity and stability. The current disarray will then be increasingly refined and perfected, and traditions will develop, all ready to be torn down again at some point in the more distant future.

james higham said...

Patiently and yet eagerly we await your next.