Traditional Cultural Traits

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

It has become very difficult to pass on traditional cultural traits to children in contemporary circumstances, Michael Strong laments:

In the West there are plausible claims that characteristics such as character and integrity, courage and honor are not what they used to be. In Japan, which experienced a very rapid transition to modernity in the late 19th century, older Japanese observed the rapid decline in the Samurai Bushido ethos in a matter of decades. Alaska natives saw an even more rapid introduction to modernity in the mid-20th century, in which thousand-year old survival skills ranging from hunting knowledge to extraordinary physical toughness and prowess, vanished almost overnight.

A skeptic may suggest: Fine and good, but we don’t really need seal-hunting skills, arctic survival skills, Samurai self-discipline and shame, or perhaps even old-style honor and integrity. Regardless of what one thinks of these claims, my point is that if there were any human characteristics whatsoever that required long tutelage by trained masters in a supportive culture they would be invisible to us at present. There may be amazing capabilities that might allow human beings to adapt to the 21st century but which do not exist, which cannot exist, because our society has prevented the development of those institutions that would bring forth such human capabilities.

Traditional cultures, having evolved through centuries of interaction with a relatively stable environment, are models of such integrated, coherent cultures. “Education” in such cultures was a natural, unconscious experience in which young people gradually learned the practices of their culture. With the exception of the rapidly disappearing vestigial remains of such cultures, human beings today are raised in a more or less incoherent cultural universe. In the absence of a coherent culture, humans are more likely to find themselves prey to impulsive and compulsive behaviors, variously directed towards material goods, status, sex, food, vanity, emotional attachments, gambling, electronic stimulation (television, video games, etc.), or drugs. We are very complex organisms; in order to live as healthy adults, we need to be raised well.


  1. Tim Gilley says:

    Traditional culture requires a stable moral foundation. The post-modern society rejects this in favor of situational ethics and moral relativism. Also we think of the strong individual as hunter and survivor. In modern society the concept of the individual is an anachronism as all encroaching government dissuades people to act on their own.

  2. Barnabas says:

    Allow me to play devil’s advocate. Was the seal hunter not also seeking material goods, status, sex, food and vanity? He was using the easiest route available to him in that context which happened to be very arduous. Perhaps the reason that Western culture (anti-culture?) is able to out compete traditional cultures so decisively is that it promises to provide the same payoff with minimal investment of time, effort, or natural ability.

  3. Barnabas says:

    I think about martial arts. You could spend hours a week training in martial arts for years. Those are hours that you didn’t spend doing something else like making money. Now how usefull are the skills I have learned? If I stay in a certain neighborhood it is almost guaranteed that I will never require those skills. If I go to a violent neighborhood then those skills are of marginal benefit since my adversary likely took the modern quick and easy option and bought a gun.

  4. Tim Gilley says:


    In response to your devil’s advocate point of Western culture’s domination, I would say egalitarianism is one of the strongest factors. In traditional culture, especially the tribe, a person’s place in the world is determined by the culture, not the aspirations of the individual. Since the “natural” state of a person desires to attain the best for themselves, the “all men are created equal” concept unleashes endless possibilities for the individual, while reducing the influence of the tribe.

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