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retread| Tradition Good. 2 September 2006

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Culture, History, Philosophy.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 3 Mar 2006.

VARANGALI’s post last week on Cultured Brutes raises the question, “Is tradition good for morality?” I think it is. Sure it curbs thinking, limits individuality and stifles differences of opinion. When you take the long view, however, that’s not all bad.

Let’s start with a small thought experiment. Take a good thing. Anything, really: the best way to cook a pot roast, the name of your next child, a humanitarian ideal. Now make it the subject of discussion for a college seminar, a talk show or a town hall meeting. And watch it die.

Our best schools today do a great job of teaching critical thinking skills. As “intellectual attack dogs” (in the words of a TA), we should be able to swallow, chew and spit out any argument in the book. But deconstruction is only three letters away from destruction. If as a society we are to preserve anything at all, we must have some builders too. Tradition is simply a sign that says: “Stop! Construction underway.”

A second benefit of tradition is the establishment of norms and sanctions to punish variance from those norms. There are serious social consequences (honor, reputation, marriage and business prospects) to sticking out like a sore thumb. While we should resist certain manifestations of this phenomenon (prejudice against your height, complexion or your uncle’s occupation), we would be naive to overlook the value of peer pressure. Human beings are social beings, and our moral lives are tied to our social lives. Water takes the shape of its vessel and all that…

This does not mean that variance from the norm is bad. Far from it. Morality requires navigation between communal wisdom and your personal convictions. But it suffers as much from too much freedom as it does from too little. Pressing this point further, we might even say that tradition creates a productive tension without which moral thought is insipid, flat and collapses on itself. I don’t have to repeat the now common observation that living without any rules is unfulfilling (okay, I just did).

Let me close with an unconventional illustration of the point I’m trying to make. In Plato’s Symposium, the character Pausanias argues that pederasty is not really a bad thing even though society frowns upon it. On the one hand, the stigma of homosexuality is strong enough to prevent boys from falling prey to vulgar and unprincipled men. On the other hand, it is just weak enough to allow a virtuous and wise man to persuade a promising youth of the benefits of his company. The city’s customs are in fact simply a mechanism to filter out less deserving lovers.

The strongest individuals are able to live outside the law, and the strongest ideas are able to make it into the canon. But if we just let any lover get through, what would happen to our boys?

As the title of this post suggests, what I am saying here is hardly conclusive. Let’s see if it gets through.

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Comments»

1. The Turk - 2 September 2006

pretty unconventional, support of pederasty is as unconventional as it gets. The arguement I have with this kind of idea is that who decides which are wise and good men? They best thing is accroding to hadis I read ” There are things are white and black and grey. White is ok and black is wrong and gray is maybe. It is said stay away from the gray because before you know it you could be in the black.” I paraphased here but this was central theme of the hadis I read.

2. ABD - 27 January 2008

The Turk: the pederasty example was merely rhetorical—i hope it’s clear that i’m not actually supporting the practice.

but to address your more serious point: i don’t think it’s always clear which the wise and good men are. in a society that promotes virtue, they would be recognized as the most virtuous–unless, of course, their values differ from those of the community. in a society that plays down virtue, they would be even harder to identify. from a social standpoint, then, i don’t know if it’s ever clear.

but from a private moral standpoint, you can make your own decisions about which social values to support and which to reject—even if only in your heart. i think we all do this at some level.

thank you for the hadith reference—i believe the text is:

“The halal (permitted) is clear and the haram (prohibited) is clear. Between the two there are doubtful matters concerning which people do not know whether they are halal or haram. One who avoids them in order to safeguard his religion and his honor is safe, while if one engages in a part of them he may be doing something haram, like one who grazes his animals near the hima (king’s grounds); it is thus quite likely that some of his animals will stray into it. Truly, every king has a hima, and the hima of Allah is what He has prohibited.”

(found in al-Tirmidhi and elsewhere)


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