The ancient rhetoricians, who knew their business, taught that the way to begin a speech, the more so a breakfast talk, was with what they called a captatio benevolentiae, a “capturing of goodwill.” I’ll try that on you—I’ll try to snaffle your benevolence by claiming that we are likely to have this in common: a great respect for tradition.
“Tradition” is a broad term. I think we commonly understand by a tradition a practice we repeat, say every week or every year, just because we’ve always done it. Part of its meaning comes precisely from its age, which makes it venerable, worthy of reverence.
For example, just two weeks ago I was in the American city so wonderfully called Athens, in Georgia, to lecture at the university there. The professor who had invited me, an orthodox Jew, asked me to dinner at his house. It was a Friday, erev shabbat, Sabbath evening, and though I was brought up in an assimilated household without Jewish ritual, this celebration of the seventh day, when God finished his creation and saw it was very good, was very familiar and poignant to me. But evidently a good Jew can’t stop himself from waxing witty even in sacred matters. And so I learned something hilarious: It is evidently a matter of competition what father of the house can say the erev shabbat’s blessing, the bracha, and other preliminary prayers at the fastest clip—in consideration of the hungry family that’s drawing in delicious aromas from the kitchen. And so my professional host outdid any auctioneer in addressing our Lord, who is, presumably, also pressed for earthly time. It was purely wonderful because 1) I too was hungry and tired, having passed an afternoon trying to deal with the clever questions of a bunch of terrific graduate students in philosophy. And because 2) I’ve often observed that true reverence is full of puckish laughter, and here was corroboration from a genuine practitioner of Judaism.
What I’ve been describing, then, is tradition as ritual, which gains a certain patina, as copper grows green, from mere age. There’s nothing in our constitution that keeps darn fools from doing their thing, just as, for example, in the book of ritual for Passover, the Haggadah, in which one of those ridiculously smart kids we’ve all run into, is allowed to sit at the seder table and ask aggressively contemptuous questions. For my part, I don’t think you ought to do everything you have a constitutionally protected right or your family’s forbearing permission to do. But there’s no question about the right—as long as you are willing to put up with the retaliation in which the offended side is, under the same constitution, entitled to engage.
I’ve referenced a recent event* to make the point that traditions that are venerable as settled ritual are vulnerable to disruptions: In fact, they are easy pickings for rebellious spirits in the demonstrative mode. Indeed, it is an urgent question how to protect our shrinking public forms and rituals without becoming reactionary about them; by “reactionary” I mean a mode that concentrates all feelings on defense, with little left over for the positive love of old forms, whose age is often a part of their beauty.
But I want to talk to you this morning of tradition in another sense, a sense that is the opposite of old. To be sure, the word “tradition” itself means “that which is handed over” or “handed down,” and so by its very meaning tradition comes from the past. Now “past” too has two meanings. One, probably the more common sense, is “passed away, bygone, finished and done with”—as when we sometimes say “It’s history,” meaning that an event has seen its moment and no longer counts.
I’ll tell you my favorite example of what ought to be past in that sense. If somebody has done you a bad turn, he might ask you to forgive him, and you might give him what he’s asked for because he’s said that he’s sorry. Or you might even forgive him without his asking, because you—rightly I think—don’t believe that it’s in our human power to forgive, that is, to declare someone else’s wrong-doing alright, to undo a bad deed. You can’t reach into the past and tweak it by making what’s packed away there un-happen. “What’s done cannot be undone” says that once-intrepid evil-doer, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth (V 1 76), who goes mad through that knowledge.
And you probably know it from your own experience—you feel practically forever in debt to people who’ve forgiven you, and they feel it too, so your offense is alive in you both.
On the other hand, there’s forgetting. If you’ve suffered a wrong, forget it in due time, not for the sake of the perpetrator who can justifiably be left to dangle a while, but for your own sake, to nullify the whole sorry business. Forgetting, however, isn’t really discretionary; you can try, but trying really hard is counterproductive. So even a suppressed fact will rise up, unbidden, from memory. But what is in your power is to suppress this feeling of having been wronged, to re-focus, re-position your awareness so that your sense of insult or victimhood is displaced because you’re otherwise occupied. And behold the incident is truly past where alone its presence matters: in yourself. Moreover, a forgotten wrong is a much truer blessing for the sorry perpetrator as well. He’ll say, ages after, “I’m so sorry for what I did,” and you’ll say, “Jeez, I can’t even recall what you did do.” It might even induce a slight and well-deserved feeling of neglect on the part of the forgotten sinner.
All this was to set me up for that meaning of tradition which has, most rigorously, nothing to do with being past. That is the tradition, for us in America, the Western Tradition, most ours because it has given us the two notions and their realizations which we live by in much of our private and civic life. I’m speaking of mathematical science and of representative democracy, both of which are first set out in the philosophical books of which this tradition is partly composed. Add to this the texts, novels and poetry, musical compositions and works of visual art that have shaped our sensibility, our taste. This tradition, the elements of which used to be taught in public school and the masterworks of which made up the college curriculum, has only a circumstantial relation to the past: Its works were largely made there, but they themselves are in no way history, in no way by-gone, in no way passed away. Perhaps “in no way” is overstating it; I should say “in no essential way.” For some of these texts employ languages no longer spoken and notations no longer in use and examples no longer familiar. That used to be a minor part of education: to catch you up on that left-behind information.
The books themselves, however, mostly don’t even pretend to contain primarily information but rather thinking and imagining. And since little in them is intended to be data for us, nothing essential in there is dated. The best I can do so early in the day is to give the example that I imagine is most familiar and closest to many to you, the book of books, the Bible—as you probably know, from the Greek word biblos, book—The Book.
This book comes in two parts, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and the Christian Bible or New Testament. The Hebrew Bible, my book, with which in all candor, I’m woefully ill-acquainted, gives an account—it is not clear what its origin is—of the coming-into-being, by Creation, of our universe and of the story of a people: the Hebrews, who think of themselves as chosen by their divinity to carry on his business on earth, which they do very defectively in the short run and quite undeflectedly in the long run. It also contains the basic imperatives, namely ten, of their ethical life and the numerous rules, namely five-hundred plus, of their daily observance. The second part of this dual book contains the personal accounts of witnesses to a new beginning in which God, in ways its interpreters think is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, empties himself of his divinity to take on human form and a new law is instituted around his incarnation.
Post-Biblically, the Hebrews are dispersed out of the land they occupy in the Bible until the nation is reconstituted in Israel in the last century; the Christians as a community of faith spread over the West but face the threat of decline in recent times.
Now while the two communities, Jews and Christians, that live by these Bibles are, for all the dangers that dog them, still vitally alive, the books themselves seem vulnerable to aging, to being passé. Some Israelis I know think of the older Bible as simply a history book, venerable but subject to revision by archaeological research. Some American students I’ve had in class have never read either Testament at all, because faith was to their enlightened parents an antiquated mode and its laws for living seemed to be an antiquated imposition.
To me, these attitudes seem nonsensical. Neither failure of faith or of ethical adequacy is relevant to the reading, the keeping alive, of this first book of one of the two parts of our Tradition. (The second part of the Western Tradition is Greek: Jerusalem and Athens together are our ancestral cities, our spiritual hometowns. If you ask me to breakfast again, I’ll talk about our Greek origin, to which I’m actually closer.)
Here is what I think counts. First, an unsquashable sense of the craggy grandeur of Volume I and of the stupendous novelty of Volume II of our Book, a sense that can come, to be sure, only to those who’ve been made, by their elders or their own curiosity, to open it.
But second, and far more to the point, is the objective content that arouses such veneration. Is there anything in the stories, songs, sayings, teachings, and revelations that does not move to thought a human being who is all there?—I mean one who doesn’t live in the infinitesimally brief now, but whose soul is extended forward into expectation and backward into memory?
Take Genesis, whoever its author. Our personal memory does not reach to the universal beginning, the genesis of our world, but our imagination surely does. And then arises the question, an unavoidable question to an untruncated human being: Is that beginning self-constituting from a few elements and a few rules of combination, or is it from the first the institution of an intelligent design? Which one is more compatible with thinking, which more in accord with evidence?
Or take the end, John’s Revelation, which is a wild prophecy of the way our world will end. What thoughtful person is not, now and then, overcome by the question how it will end or whether it will end, and if the end comes, whether it will come with a bang or a whimper, a bang being nuclear explosions (first strike and retaliation) and a whimper being the final taking down of the internet by cyber terror (be it by a government or a lone wolf). Will Armageddon, if it comes, happen literally, at Megiddo in Israel? Or possibly we have a chance to muddle through and go on, and John’s vision will prove to be a fantasy.
So present faith is not necessary to declaring the Bible as unaffected by time. Nor is practical applicability to current conditions needed. For what comes first is non-practical thinking out of “should” and “shouldn’t” quite aside from “could” and “couldn’t.” For example, I start to read Leviticus; I can’t pretend to get through it. But I take in enough to see that to live by it as an American is to draw large drafts on my account of others’ tolerance, to cut myself off from most of my contemporaries—which was, I’m told, the actual intention of this rule-enclosed way of life. But all that’s got nothing to do with the actuality of this priestly book. Who can live in this land of the free without wondering whether life without the constraints of obedience, obedience not to a person but to a law from on high, does not make us miserably shapeless, and where we should look for our rules, at what level or realm they should operate, and how much self-forgiving transgression is permissible.
So let me sum up what I’m trying to say. The Bible is not passé, not of the past, in the sense of “bygone” insofar as faith may be failing, because its depths are thought-inducing for the faithful as well as the faithless—perhaps they ought to be ever more so for the latter. And similarly, the Bible is not out of fashion insofar as its prescriptions may be inapplicable to contemporary life because it is the very lesson book for thinking about what it means to duck out from under obedience to a divinity and to be driven only by the necessities of the world.
The Bible is just the best example for my claim: None of the works of the Tradition are to be considered old, except insofar as in human works—not so much in human beings—old age often brings beauty. These works are hardly ever doctrinal catechisms or operational manuals but something in-between: places where incitements to ever-active questions and treasures of attempted answers are recorded.
Here I’ll end. I think I may have been preaching to the choir, but I don’t think I need to apologize. Since I agreed to make a speech, it was my duty to say something in which I believe. And since I knew I was going to be addressing friends, I also knew that you might have had such thoughts before I came along. Well, so much the better—as Socrates says in his prayer at the end of Plato’s grandest dialogue: “Friends have things in common” (Phaedrus).
*I have in mind a recent to-do brought on by a football player who refused to stand up for the national anthem to protest social injustice.
This essay was originally delivered as a speech at the Free Enterprise Institute’s 40th Annual Founders’ Day Breakfast (October 2016).