The late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) argued that culture, not economics or ideology, was the key to understanding world affairs after the Cold War’s end. Different civilizations, he argued—he identified nine, including the Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Sinic, and Hindu—with different histories, religions, and values, were now reasserting themselves after a brief period of quiescence. These different civilizations would inevitably clash with one another and with liberalism, an ideology that presumed itself universal, but which was actually the product of one of those civilizations, the Western. To expect non-Western civilizations to reject their own cultures and adopt liberalism wholesale, he argued, was folly.
In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition. If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued. Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.
Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.
Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created. Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition.
Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the Tradition Project run by Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami of St. John’s Law School. The subject of this year’s conference was tradition in law and politics. One of the high points for me was the opportunity to read Harry Jaffa. He turned out to be a very interesting thinker. But I found that his famous claim that the Declaration of Independence has a constitutional status weakly defended. In particular, he fails to distinguish between positive constitutional law and constitutive traditions—a distinction that I think central to political life in a constitutional republic.
The Declaration of Independence is not positive law. It is instead a declaration of the reasons that the colonies were breaking with Great Britain. Courts do not enforce it as law. While other officials reference the Declaration on occasion, they do not generally do so in a way that suggests that it represents a binding legal obligation. It would be hard to make it so, because while the Declaration announces general truths of politics, it does not impose specific legal norms. And, unlike the Constitution, it was not ratified by the people and is not the product of a process that Mike Rappaport and I have described elsewhere as conducive to good constitutions.
While it does not create positive law, the Declaration of Independence is an important source—the most importance source— of our constitutive traditions.
The prospects for law and tradition are difficult to discern. This is in no small measure because the most frequent predictions about tradition’s future have little time for any traditions other than those of science and technology. And these generally are not presented as traditions but instead as repudiations of tradition—as simply rational responses to changing circumstances in the service of progress and present need. The prophets of the traditionless society never go quite so far as to strike out the traditions of science from their predictions.