Tradition and the Timeless
Originally published in Athwart Magazine.
Where the social constructivist climate of opinion prevails, the meaning of “tradition” contracts into arbitrary custom and convention. At best, traditions are perceived to be no more than the fossilized remains of a distant—and therefore irrelevant—past. At worst, they are assumed to have been imposed on societies by those with ulterior motives, such as the synthetic contriving of national identity (as theorized by Eric Hobsbawm) or, somewhat more unimaginatively, the brute assertion of power. While such interpretations account for specific instances where traditions have been exploited, they by no means represent the essence of tradition as a concept which was, at least traditionally, far subtler than this. In fact, philosophers often conceived of tradition as a means of transcending the arbitrariness of everyday life; tradition was not considered to be merely incidental to its sociocultural environment, but rather as a vessel of truths existing beyond it.
Of course, through the lens of historical materialism—one that inevitably permits only a two-dimensional view—such a claim may appear unfounded, overly-imaginative, or perhaps susceptible to an overly romanticized impression of the past. Indeed, it is far more appealing for the modern mind to reduce all phenomena to their tangible sociocultural “causes.” Yet, explanations that account only for material causality do not do justice to the immaterial precepts around which tradition, being an essentially metaphysical pursuit, revolves; tradition is a means of establishing permanence in an otherwise contingent and chaotic world. It is, moreover, a means of translating ineffable truth into an intelligible language. In this sense, tradition elevates communities beyond their particulars and toward universal truths, even if its appeal tends to lie in its cherished familiar forms.
Indeed, the term “tradition” derives from the Latin tradere, which denotes the act of “handing over” or “giving up.” While exoterically this refers to the literal handing over or bestowing of customs to each generation, a more perceptive interpretation could render tradere the “giving up” of oneself to something higher. Approached metaphysically, tradition can be conceived of as possessing the noetic power to orient the soul toward a higher order of reality. In this understanding, tradition is not merely a set of conventions imposed on individuals by agents desiring to exert power or control—as the social constructivist interpretation would presume—but a shared means for individuals “below” (that is, in the temporal world) to collectively rise above. Understood this way, tradition need not be understood as an inherently dogmatic force, but rather as something that collectively inspires.
Didactic traditions—namely, the arts of storytelling, narrative, and folklore—are particularly illustrative of tradition as a metaphysical pursuit in this regard. Not only do they establish permanence in an otherwise contingent world, but they also convey eternal truths pertaining to morality and, ultimately, the sacred. By suspending the constructivist-materialist view of culture, we can imaginatively explore this dimension of tradition. Making a particularly interesting contribution to this is the Persian Muslim polymath, Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī. Drawing on an Aristotelianized Neoplatonic worldview (characteristic of many Medieval Islamic thinkers), Al-Fārābī presents literary heritage as an essential component of a spiritually flourishing society. In doing so, he illuminates the metaphysical—as opposed to merely sociocultural—dimension of tradition, particularly in its didactic form.
In both its theoretical and practical elements, Al-Fārābī’s political philosophy is concerned with orienting societies toward higher principles which correspond to the immutable truths residing in The Active Intellect; that is, the extramental realm containing the Platonic forms (or eidos), such as the universal absolutes of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. These, for Al-Fārābī, are the same absolutes transmitted through religion (millah), which he understands to constitute the “impressions” of that which exists in the Active Intellect (with the religion of Islam being set apart as the most quintessential and correctly transmitted “impression”). According to Al-Fārābī, religion is necessary because the masses cannot comprehend eternal truths independently; only those with the highest degree of spiritual refinement—whose minds have achieved a conjunction (ittisāl) with the Active Intellect—can come close to perceiving them. Religion, upheld by scripture and spiritual leadership (Imams play a central role in Al-Fārābī’s polity), is a medium through which higher principles are made, to some degree, accessible. Of the remote knowledge of the Active Intellect, he states:
Man can reach happiness only when the Active Intellect first gives the first intelligibles, which constitute the primary knowledge. However, not every man is equipped by natural disposition to receive the first intelligibles, because individual human beings are made by nature with unequal powers and different preparations
He likewise conceives of religion as that which enables happiness—that is, the collective alignment with the principles contained within the Active Intellect—stating:
Religion is but the impressions of [the eternal truths of the Active Intellect] or the impressions of their images, imprinted in the soul. Because it is difficult for the multitude to comprehend these things themselves as they are, the attempt was made to teach them these things in other ways, which are the ways of imitation. Hence these things are imitated for each group or nation through the matters that are best known to them and it may very well be that what is best known to the one may not be the best known to the other
Notably, Al-Fārābī emphasizes the need for impressions or modes of “imitation” to be particularised “for each group or nation.” In-keeping with his Neoplatonic cosmology—in which immaterial forms reveal themselves, though imperfectly, in differentiated material objects—he believes that each culture must cultivate its own particular mode of apprehending higher truths. The nature of language is analogous to this; though all cultures share an awareness of certain universal concepts, they communicate them amongst themselves using local vernacular tongues. Al-Fārābī himself discusses the nature of language in this respect in his Book of Letters, where he describes how the “utterances” ascribed to concepts are determined by the “disposition” or make-up of each given community. Religion is, of course, the ultimate representation of Truth; however, religion itself remains an abstraction that requires further particularization in order for the masses to apprehend its principles.
Al-Fārābī deems religious leaders to be suitable agents for this particularization, since they can transmit higher knowledge directly to their respective communities; political leaders, he says, should also assume this function. Emulating Plato’s well-known prescription of the philosopher king, Al-Fārābī proposes that the ruler’s primary role is to “communicate with people through the language of images.” That is, a ruler ought to convey eternal truth through the medium of a collectively recognizable material culture. There is also a third category of agents whom Al-Fārābī deems to be suitable for the transmission of eternal truths: “poets and preachers.” These individuals are responsible for circulating literary heritage and essentially upholding the didactic traditions of any given community, in a way which corresponds to their specific cultural disposition. His understanding of didacticism in this sense is encapsulated in the Arabic term iqtisās, which can be translated as “narration” or “storytelling.”
The primary objective of iqtisās is to affirm the moral character of a given community. In doing so, however, it is also conducive to the collective realisation of the Platonic eidos of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. For example, Al-Fārābī describes how stories which portray the victories of virtuous individuals—and, moreover, the misfortunes of wicked ones—convey, through allegory, the nature of the Good. Such can be said of virtually all didactic traditions, be those the fables of Aesop, the Arabian Nights, or the Canterbury Tales. In all of these, “the moral of the story” pertains to universal precepts, doing so through the medium of language and imagery that appeals to each community and its Farabian “disposition.” Moreover, the collective realisation of universals enabled by iqtisās can be conceived of as a process akin to Plato’s anamnesis: the recollection of eternal a priori truths. In this regard, the noetic elevation inspired by didactic tradition is an almost mystical process.
The traditional element is especially significant here. Because these stories, fables and fairytales have been circulated over the course of several generations, their message can be validated on the basis that it has been granted the seal of approval from poets and preachers who are trustworthy—that is, they are themselves attuned to the highest moral virtues—over a long period of time. In light of Al-Fārābī’s Neoplatonism, it can be said that the longer a didactic tradition has been in circulation, the more likely it is for its message to be timeless; moreover, if something is morally timeless, then it is likely to correspond with that which is eternal. Such can be said of tradition more generally; the attribute of permanence is one which corresponds to the primordial. Thus, by cultivating such permanence in an otherwise contingent world, traditions inspire the soul’s rise—or rather, in the spirit of Platonic anamnesis, its return—to immutable truths via the epistemic elevation of glimpsing into the Active Intellect.
Al-Fārābī regards the cultivation of virtue specifically to be an especially effective element of this process, perhaps accounting for why he emphasizes didactic traditions that promote the development of moral character. The peripatetic component of his Aristotelianized Neoplatonism can perhaps be deduced here, with his sentiment echoing that of the following passage from the Nichomachean Ethics:
Neither in moral nor in mathematical science is the knowledge of principles reached by logical means: it is virtue, whether natural or acquired by habituation, that enables us to think rightly about the first principles. (1151a15–19)
The pursuit of tradition, at least in Al-Fārābī’s political philosophy, is not a matter of forcibly transplanting an arbitrary set of ideals into people’s minds; rather, it is a matter of inspiring them upwards to something which is extramental and thus wholly beyond any interpersonal encounter. Once again, parallels can be drawn between tradition and the pursuit of mysticism in this respect, since both entail the elevation above the contingent world and toward the eternal. Arguably, the most salient difference lies in the fact that tradition is a collective pursuit, and not merely an individual one; Al-Fārābī himself considers this to be inherently virtuous, writing that concord (i’itilāf) and mutual affection (tahābub) are necessary in order for communities to flourish in a manner that is not merely sociopolitical but also, and most importantly, spiritual.
The primordial dimension of tradition—particularly in its didactic and literary forms—has also been widely recognised among classical European conservative philosophers. Indeed, it has been suggested that the writings of Al-Fārābī may have influenced Western writers through the intermediary of Leo Strauss. Making a particularly notable contribution to the discussion of tradition was the 20th Century poet T. S. Eliot. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot similarly alludes to the eternal quality of literature that is firmly rooted in tradition. For him, tradition is not merely a figment of a past time, but an impression of that which is beyond time altogether. Following a rationale coherent with Al-Fārābī’s Neoplatonism, he suggests that this is because the “traditional” is that which has been capable of resonating with people over the course of several generations. It is thus more likely to be attuned to the Active Intellect, as it were, than literature which appeals only to the “here and now”; a contingent state of ephemerality, and thus one which is less likely to produce literature corresponding to that which is eternal. The writer, he suggests, need not be entirely removed from the temporal realm; ultimately, however, he or she must plunge beyond it:
This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional
In what could perhaps be read as an implicit sneer towards other writers within his milieu, Eliot emphasises the fundamental deficiency of literature and morality rooted only in the topsoils of the “here and now.” This literature, he suggests, is bound to the subjectivity of the writer’s own physical and temporal disposition; authors of this genre have failed to channel the eternal and instead have expressed only their own selves—in Islamic terms, the nafs—paying no respect to the truths harbored by their ancestors and instead flaunting the falsities of their own consciousness. The moral and (lack of) metaphysical precepts obtained from this are destined to be void of virtue; they are antithetical to the conjunction (ittisāl) with the Active Intellect, representing only subjective personhood as opposed to objective permanence. Traditional writing—and, by extension, tradition itself—is thus essentially a means of ascending above and beyond subjective personhood. Expressing this in the context of poetry as something which should fundamentally tap into extramental phenomena, Eliot remarks:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality . . . the emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done
This passage finds itself to be almost perfectly representative of the aforementioned etymological interpretation of tradere as that which entails giving oneself up to a higher order of reality. As Eliot makes it clear, those modern subjects who strive for constant originality remain in the flux of the contingent world. They acknowledge their dispositions—which are indeed, for both Al-Fārābī and Eliot, ontologically significant—but they do not undertake the vital task of transcending them. Being firmly grounded in tradition is the antidote to such a predicament; though it entices through its particularised and familiar forms, it has the power to magnetize the soul above and beyond its temporal setting.
Didacticism, as both Al-Fārābī and T. S. Eliot acknowledge, can represent tradition in its most quintessential form. It is for this reason that a multitude of political philosophers have regarded storytelling or iqtisās as essential for maintaining virtue and subsequently a collective consciousness of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. The 18th Century German philosopher Johann Herder, for example, promoted the recirculation of the tales of the Brothers Grimm precisely because he believed a shared didactic tradition would be conducive to a shared moral character, and, in turn, a collective consciousness of objective truths. Similarly, the 20th Century literary critic F. R. Leavis advocated the teaching of English literature as a countermeasure to Benthamite liberalism—which placed the contingent human condition at the centre of its own world—as an anchor of objective morals in an increasingly individualistic society. Beyond didacticism, the same could also be said of classical conservative writers such as Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, both of whom sought to preserve traditional architecture and heritage as a means of preserving shared entry points into the realm of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
All of these thinkers were able to identify the eternal and (though often more implicitly) sacred quality of tradition, and the ability of didacticism to translate eternity and sanctity into particularised and therefore collectively comprehensible forms. Indeed, Sir Roger Scruton defended tradition precisely because of its ability to “defend sacred things from deconsecration.” It should perhaps be reiterated, then, that to perceive tradition as an arbitrary set of social constructs is myopic. Far from being a sociocultural incident—or simply a retrospective ‘invention’, as Hobsbawm might have one believe—tradition is a metaphysical necessity that promotes the alignment of a given community with eternal principles. Moreover, it does not necessarily entail the top-down imposition of values, but can instead serve to promote the autonomous ascension beyond temporal subjectivity. In this sense, tradition need not be dogmatic and imposing, but didactic and inspiring.