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Friday, December 28, 2007

Tradition vs. Reason

"Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig"

Many of our traditions are unexamined. When they come under assault, people who accept these traditions are ill equipped to defend them. That is why the chattering classes are able to experiment on society so easily. Take the assault on traditional marriage.

The intellectual conservative of our day excels in good arguments. His policy positions are reasoned and based on well-documented evidence. If he supports a cultural tradition, it is not because of his blind and irrational attachment to the tradition in question, but because he has come up with a solid reason for adhering to the tradition. This line of argument can be traced back to the great Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, who used his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary medicine in order to justify the hygienic rationality of the Hebrew dietary code. Pork, for example, was forbidden because it caused trichinosis, a frequently fatal disease. Yahweh, in forbidding the Chosen People the flesh of swine, was not acting arbitrarily, but with prudent economy. Knowing, as he did, that the ancient Jews lacked sufficient medical knowledge to prohibit the eating of pork on the basis of reason alone, he supplied them with a revealed commandment: "Thou shalt not eat pork!"

But there is a problem with Maimonides' approach. As I argued in my Policy Review essay, "The Future of Tradition," those who seek to justify a cultural tradition by appealing to reason are unwittingly subverting the authority of the very tradition they are trying to bolster.
The same principle applies not just to eating pork, but to any of the traditional imperatives passed down from generation to generation. If traditional marriage needs to be defended by good arguments, then it stands or falls on the validity of these arguments, and where good arguments can be put forward to justify alternative "experiments in living," then the authority of tradition as tradition is overthrown, and whoever comes up with the best argument carries the day. The end result of this process is that intellectuals, trained to be good at arguing, inevitably gain an undue influence in the shaping of public opinion, while those who adhere to traditions simply because they are their tradition are left vulnerable to attack and ridicule because they have difficulty defending positions they have never found cause to question. In such a case, the traditionalist must either abandon his sacred ground, and learn to argue, or else he must be prepared to accept the derogatory label fixed upon him by the intelligentsia. In short, he must not mind too much being called stupid.

In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer, just as Odysseus found that stuffing cotton in his ears was his best defense against beguiling but fatal song of the sirens.

Sometimes it is simply better to ignore the rationalizations of the intelligentsia rather than try to rebut them.

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