The Future of Tradition

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

I’ve cited Lee Harris’s The Future of Tradition before, but I stumbled across it again, and I find it well worth re-reading:

A tradition, [Hayek] 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.
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?

Leave a Reply