Tradition: The Engine of Genuine Human Progress

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
“All the men in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past.” ( G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, Part 1, sec.4)
 “Conservation is the very instinct of life, a disposition essential for existence. We shall be truly progressive if we hold fast to this spirit, for there is no progress for a living organism which does not preserve continuity with its past.” (Dom Paul Delatte, Rule of St. Benedict: A Commentary)


On December 11, 1974, Friedrich Hayek, during the official ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, in which he received the Nobel Prize in economics, shocked many with his lecture entitled “The Pretence of Knowledge”.[1]

He persuasively attacked the social engineering of politicians and intellectuals who seek to redesign society through coercive government, whether socialist or interventionist, especially through micro-managing the economy with the unworkable goal of thus assuring economic growth. Such a policy is “the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals”.[2]

Like Churchill and Hayek and Slim, the genuine “traditionalist” is sensitive to the fact that all progress into the future relies not on isolated individual effort but on culture and civilization formed from the past, from the wisdom of generations of our forefathers embodied in countless doctrines and customs, held and lived out in personal, family and social life.

In the genuine – as distinct from the counterfeit ‒ lover of tradition you find a man who does not oppose change merely because it is change. He is no lover of stagnation. Merely because something has “always” been thought or done “this way” does not justify it as worthwhile. Slavishness to past customs and methods of work in changed circumstances and with little or no connection with the Natural Law and the “Ancient Truth” (Newman) is not the mark of the individual who cherishes Tradition.

However, he refuses to believe in the myth that what is modern is better, that what is pre-modern is obsolete, that what is new is necessarily better.

While he accepts rapid technological change as capable of producing good for mankind if used according to man’s dignity, he opposes all social change that is sudden, violent, and imposed by elites on the masses.

Change in society at large and in the Church that is gradual and organic, growing from the sap of the inner life of our common humanity and the supernatural truths and energies of divine revelation as guarded and practiced through the ages, he welcomes and promotes.

Such change is almost always “democratic”, in the sense that it is a movement of the masses, even if it started out from certain elites which, however, were elites who shared the same truths as the people from whom they had come. The Catholic civilization of the Middle Ages that put an end to slavery in Europe, exalted the status of womanhood, and built the most complex architectural monuments the world has ever known, is the towering witness to this. See, William J. Slattery, Heroism and Genius.

The man who cherishes tradition is deeply sensitive to, respectful of, and grateful towards the achievements of his forefathers. He holds to a common sense principle that if people for countless generations have lived benefically in a certain way their behavior at least merits close consideration. And if that behavior crosses not only the centuries but the continents and the cultures to the point that it seems bonded to our natural humanity, then, he agrees with this paraphrase of Edmund Burke’s principle: “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise”.

Many of our contemporaries increasingly suspect that this principle is true, at least in certain dimensions of living. For instance, the diet and health customs that protected our ancestors from numerous diseases but which were disdainfully thrown out by twentieth century “progressives” for the sake of “the modern”, are now being admiringly rediscovered by natural health medicine. After decades of widespread growth in the Western world of obesity and the horrendous surge in numbers of individuals suffering sicknesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, natural health medicine seeks remedies in the traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

[1] Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge”, American Economic Review, 79, no. 6 (December 1989), pp. 3–7: quoted in William J. Slattery, Heroism and Genius.

[2] Ibid., p. 7.