It was a ceremony that made [Tocqueville and Beaumont] want to smile. The trade associations and the militia marched past with an entirely spontaneous gravity and order, then the procession surged into a church where everyone sang verses to the tune of the Marseillaise accompanied by a single flute. The speech made by a lawyer foundered in rhetorical commonplaces. But the reading of the Declaration of Independence gave rise to a unanimous feeling that Tocqueville describes in the following way: “It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there. It was in no way a theatrical performance. In this reading of the promises of independence that have been kept so well, in this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with one that is no longer and with which, for a moment, it shared all those generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”From Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (Lydia Davis trans. 1988)
For the past few years, our Center has hosted the Tradition Project, a research project on the continuing importance of received wisdom in law, politics, and culture. Our participants have heard more than once how Marc and I disagreed on what to name the project. I thought we should call it the Traditions Project, because of the many different cultural and political traditions that exist and give meaning to people’s lives. But Marc thought it should be the Tradition Project, to highlight the existence of the Western tradition, and eventually persuaded me to go along. Still, it seems to me that, especially in America, the plurality of sometimes consonant and sometimes dissonant traditions makes it more appropriate to conceive of the subject in the plural.
A forthcoming book by Michael Brendan Dougherty, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home (Sentinel) explores how cultural traditions from other countries continue to influence Americans today–in the author’s case, the Irish tradition. The book has received great advance reviews and looks like it will interest people who think, as I do, that in America, anyway, traditions are best understood in the plural. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty delivers a meditation on belonging, fatherhood, and nationalism, through a series of letters to his estranged Irish father.
The child of an Irish man and an Irish-American woman who split up soon after he was born, Michael Brendan Dougherty grew up with an acute sense of absence. He was raised in New Jersey by his hard-working single mother, who gave him a passion for Ireland, the land of her roots and the home of Michael’s father. She put him to bed using little phrases in the Irish language, sang traditional songs, and filled their home with a romantic vision of a homeland over the horizon.
Every few years, his father returned from Dublin for a visit, but those encounters were never long enough. Devastated by his father’s departures, Michael eventually consoled himself by believing that fatherhood was best understood as a check in the mail. Wearied by the Irish kitsch of the 1990s, he began to reject his mother’s Irish nationalism as a romantic myth.
Years later, when Michael found out that he would soon be a father himself, he could no longer afford to be jaded; he would need to tell his daughter who she is and where she comes from. He immediately re-immersed himself in the biographies of firebrands like Patrick Pearse and studied the Irish language. And he decided to reconnect with the man who had left him behind, and the nation just over the horizon. He began writing letters to his father about what he remembered, missed, and longed for. Those letters would become this book.
Along the way, Michael realized that his longings were shared by many Americans of every ethnicity and background. So many of us these days lack a clear sense of our cultural origins or even a vocabulary for expressing this lack–so we avoid talking about our roots altogether. As a result, the traditional sense of pride has started to feel foreign and dangerous; we’ve become great consumers of cultural kitsch, but useless conservators of our true history.
In these deeply felt and fascinating letters, Dougherty goes beyond his family’s story to share a fascinating meditation on the meaning of identity in America.
Here at the Center, we’re very interested in the relationship among law, religion, and tradition. In fact, exploring that relationship is the mission of the Tradition Project, which we started three years ago. So it’s good to see others writing in the area as well. A new collection of essays from Springer, Law, Religion and Tradition (Giles et al., eds) looks very interesting. One of the book’s editors is Tradition Project member Andrea Pin. Here’s the description from the Springer website:
This book explores different theories of law, religion, and tradition, from both a secular and a religious perspective. It reflects on how tradition and change can affect religious and secular legal reasoning, identifying the patterns of legal evolution within religious and secular traditions. It is often taken for granted that, even in law, change corresponds and correlates to progress – that things ought to be changed and they will necessarily get better. There is no doubt that legal changes over the centuries have made it possible to enhance the protection of individual rights and to somewhat contain the possibility of tyranny and despotism. But progress is not everything in law: stability and certainty lie at the core of the rule of law. Similarly, religions and religious laws could not survive without traditions; and yet, they still evolve, and their evolution is often intermingled with secular law. The book asks (and in some ways answers) the questions: What is the role of tradition within religions and religious laws? What is the impact of religious traditions on secular laws, and vice-versa? How are the elements of tradition to be identified? Are they the same within the secular and the religious realm? Do secular law and religious law follow comparable patterns of change? Do their levels of resilience differ significantly? How does the history of religion and law affect changes within religious traditions and legal systems? The overall focus of the book addresses the extent to which tradition plays a role in shaping and re-shaping secular and religious laws, as well as their mutual boundaries.
Everywhere today, thinkers are evaluating the continued viability of the liberal project. Some argue that liberalism has run its course, the victim of its own success; others, that liberalism still has something great to offer, if we can salvage it; and others, that the crisis in liberalism is exaggerated and that liberalism is still the only political game in town. A new book from Notre Dame Press, The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom, by government professor Mark T. Mitchell (Patrick Henry College), seems to fall in the first camp. Mitchell argues that liberalism’s rejection of tradition has created a false conception of the self, which has led to a false conception of liberty. He argues for a reconstruction of tradition as an antidote to liberalism’s failings. Looks very interesting, especially for those of us involved in the Tradition Project. Here’s the description from the Notre Dame website:
In The Limits of Liberalism, Mark T. Mitchell argues that a rejection of tradition is both philosophically incoherent and politically harmful. This false conception of tradition helps to facilitate both liberal cosmopolitanism and identity politics. The incoherencies are revealed through an investigation of the works of Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Polanyi.
Mitchell demonstrates that the rejection of tradition as an epistemic necessity has produced a false conception of the human person—the liberal self—which in turn has produced a false conception of freedom. This book identifies why most modern thinkers have denied the essential role of tradition and explains how tradition can be restored to its proper place.
Oakeshott, MacIntyre, and Polanyi all, in various ways, emphasize the necessity of tradition, and although these thinkers approach tradition in different ways, Mitchell finds useful elements within each to build an argument for a reconstructed view of tradition and, as a result, a reconstructed view of freedom. Mitchell argues that only by finding an alternative to the liberal self can we escape the incoherencies and pathologies inherent therein.
This book will appeal to undergraduates, graduate students, professional scholars, and educated laypersons in the history of ideas and late modern culture.
I don’t know too much about the subject, but the description of this new book on the history of economics from Princeton University Press caught my attention. The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism, by Cambridge historian Tim Rogan, recounts the criticisms of a set of twentieth-century British scholars who argued that capitalism is morally and spiritually lacking. These scholars sought a middle ground between an empty individualism and an authoritarian socialism and looked to tradition and custom — the book description puts those words in scare quote — as guides.
It looks to be an interesting intellectual history. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the book, which I haven’t read, but an even older body of thought, one that long predates the 20th Century, also seeks to apply moral values to economics and to chart a middle path between individualism and authoritarianism, and values tradition and custom to boot: Christian teaching on law and society. It’s odd that economists continue to ignore that source of insights and try to reinvent the wheel with each new generation. But maybe we’ll come up with something better. [UPDATE: Reader Samuel Moyn writes that Rogan does indeed address Christianity in the book. I was going by the description, which doesn’t mention Christianity at all. Now the book looks even more interesting!]
Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:
A fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens
What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.
Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalism—R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.
Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.
Earlier this week, I had a post at the Liberty Law site on a recent Seventh Circuit decision in the GoTopless case, a challenge to Chicago’s public nudity ordinance, which forbids women, but not men, to remove their tops in public. The majority maintained that the city’s interest in promoting traditional norms justified the ban, but the dissent disagreed, arguing, among other things, that the city was simply promoting outdated cultural stereotypes.
Here’s an excerpt from my post on the case:
Judge Sykes’s opinion suggests that, even after cases like Obergefell, Lawrence, and Casey, tradition continues to have an important place in constitutional law. It’s true those decisions held that traditional moral norms cannot serve as a legitimate basis for law, at least not where they infringe on personal identity or the individual’s search for meaning. But it’s also true, as the late Justice Scalia and others repeatedly pointed out in response, that the Court cannot possibly have meant what it said. Too much law relies on traditional morality as a justification; to deny that tradition can legitimate law would throw our legal system into chaos. Judges will need to find some way to distinguish between those cases where traditional norms can serve to justify state action and those where they cannot. Judge Sykes’s opinion, which suggests that traditional norms can still govern questions of “public order,” is perhaps a start.
Second, Judge Rovner’s dissent suggesting that the law should follow biology rather than culture is misleading. Of course rules regarding public nudity are a cultural phenomenon. Culture is, among other things, a reflection on human biology; different cultures have different perceptions. In some cultures women appear topless in public; in others they do not. Allowing women to appear topless in public is not to substitute biology for culture, but rather to replace one culture with another—a culture that sees public nudity as appropriate for one that does not. Perhaps that is a good idea, but it has little to do with the objective facts of biology.
You can read the whole post here.
One of the themes we’ve been discussing in the Tradition Project is the relationship between tradition and reason. Since the Enlightenment, the West has distinguished the two. Tradition is the language of faith, mystery, and reaction; reason, of science, empiricism, and progress. If you think about it for a moment, though, you see tradition and reason are deeply related. Tradition relies on reason and real-world facts, and science is impossible except within a tradition of thought. That so many of us today assume that tradition is simply a matter of darkness and unreason reflects how successful Enlightenment thinkers were at demonizing it.
The relation of faith and science is explored in an interesting-looking new book from Yale University Press, On Faith and Science, by historian and law professor Edward Larson (Pepperdine) and historian of science Michael Ruse (Florida State). Here is the description from the Yale website:
A captivating historical survey of the key debates, questions, and controversies at the intersection of science and religion
Throughout history, scientific discovery has clashed with religious dogma, creating conflict, controversy, and sometimes violent dispute. In this enlightening and accessible volume, distinguished historian and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward Larson and Michael Ruse, philosopher of science and Gifford Lecturer, offer their distinctive viewpoints on the sometimes contentious relationship between science and religion. The authors explore how scientists, philosophers, and theologians through time and today approach vitally important topics, including cosmology, geology, evolution, genetics, neurobiology, gender, and the environment. Broaching their subjects from both historical and philosophical perspectives, Larson and Ruse avoid rancor and polemic as they address many of the core issues currently under debate by the adherents of science and the advocates of faith, shedding light on the richly diverse field of ideas at the crossroads where science meets spiritual belief.
As readers of this blog know, our center is in the midst of the Tradition Project, a multi-year research initiative on the continuing role of tradition in politics, law, and culture. One of the project’s themes is how traditional religious communities adapt to American liberalism. The religions change, of course–a strong pressure exists to reform along Protestant lines–yet they also remain, in some respects, the same. A new book from the University of Notre Dame Press, Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America, by Loyola Marymount University professor Nicholas Denysenko, examines how Orthodox parishes adapt traditional architectural forms in the new world, and how the adaptations influence liturgy and parish identity. Looks fascinating. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
How do space and architecture shape liturgical celebrations within a parish? In Theology and Form: Contemporary Orthodox Architecture in America, Nicholas Denysenko profiles seven contemporary Eastern Orthodox communities in the United States and analyzes how their ecclesiastical identities are affected by their physical space and architecture. He begins with an overview of the Orthodox architectural heritage and its relation to liturgy and ecclesiology, including topics such as stational liturgy, mobility of the assembly, the symbiosis between celebrants and assembly, placement of musicians, and festal processions representative of the Orthodox liturgy. Chapters 2–7 present comparative case studies of seven Orthodox parishes. Some of these have purchased their property and built new edifices; Denysenko analyzes how contemporary architecture makes use of sacred space and engages visitors. Others are mission parishes that purchased existing properties and buildings, posing challenges for and limitations of their liturgical practices. The book concludes with a reflection on how these parish examples might contribute to the future trajectory of Orthodox architecture in America and its dialogical relationship with liturgy and ecclesial identity.
Tradition’s continuing role in law, politics, and culture is the main focus of our Center’s ongoing Tradition Project, a multi-year research initiative. It’s also one of the central themes of a new book from Encounter Books, a collection of essays by the famous American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Post-Modernists (Encounter). Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. In Past and Present, an eminent American historian and cultural critic shows the truth of that statement. The common theme of the twenty essays gathered here is the intriguing, often unexpected ways in which the past continues to illuminate the present.
Gertrude Himmelfarb helps us find a new perspective on contemporary issues through a trenchant analysis of debates and thinkers from earlier times.
The topics of the essays vary widely, from the disorders of modern democracy to the challenges of postmodernism, from the Victorian ethos to the Jewish question. The thinkers examined range from Edmund Burke to Leo Strauss, from Cardinal Newman to Lionel Trilling. The political figures who appear here are also diverse, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill, from the American founders to Queen Elizabeth II.
Running through all the essays as a first premise is the conviction that the pursuit of knowledge and truth, however difficult or discomfiting, matters immensely in the “practical life,” to use Trilling’s terms, as it does in the “moral life.” Past and Present is a notable contribution to this endeavor—to understanding where we have been, where we are today, and where we may be (or should be) going.
As readers of this blog know, the Center co-sponsored a conference last week at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trent, Italy on tradition in American and Russian thought. One thing the conference made clear to me is that, to understand Russian traditionalism, and its implications for law, one must engage with the writings of Orthodox scholars. Sadly, these writings are often untranslated. But here is a new Eerdman’s translation of the writings of one such scholar, Fr. Pavel Florensky: Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909. Florensky, whom the Communists executed in 1937, is known for his insistence on the importance of intuition and experience, rather than reason, as the basis for communion with God, a point some of our Russian interlocutors made at our event last week. Here’s a description of the book from the Eerdman’s website:
Profound writings by one of the twentieth century’s greatest polymaths
“Perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the Gulag” is how Alexandr Solzhenitsyn described Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox mathematician, scientist, linguist, art historian, philosopher, theologian, and priest who was martyred during the Bolshevik purges of the 1930s.
This volume contains eight important religious works written by Florensky in the first decade of the twentieth century, now translated into English—most of them for the first time. Splendidly interweaving religious, scientific, and literary themes, these essays showcase the diversity of Florensky’s broad learning and interests. Including reflections on the sacraments and explorations of Russian monastic culture, the volume concludes with “The Salt of the Earth,” arguably Florensky’s most spiritually moving work.