The fundamental Traditionalist principle is that truth, which includes morality, is both knowable and unchanging. But is a traditionalist society possible in today’s day and age?
The best way, I have found, to sum up my own views of society and politics is to call myself a Traditionalist. I was rather surprised to learn that this term has actually begun to be taken up by others who more or less share my views (though some prefer ‘reactionary’), and if it is, it seems only right to try to give a brief explanation of the perspective for those who have not yet had much exposure to it.
Traditionalism fundamentally rejects the Whig interpretation of history, namely that mankind lived for age upon age in superstitious ignorance, which through the dawning light of reason, he emerged about the Renaissance and continues on an upward trend to ever-greater liberty and understanding. The Traditionalist would say that there would be nothing strange in reading Medieval thinkers and judging that they were actually correct and their successors in the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ were wrong.
Now, Traditionalists do not necessarily say that, for instance, Thomas Aquinas is always right and Thomas Hobbes always wrong. But he would say that on any given topic you have to judge between them using the exact same standards of logic: the fact that Aquinas wrote in the thirteenth century and Hobbes in the seventeenth is simply irrelevant to the question. Moreover, if Hobbes disagrees with Aquinas, then, since he is coming after, he has to show how Aquinas was wrong.
The fundamental Traditionalist principle is that truth, which includes morality, is both knowable and unchanging. The Medievals were not necessarily right, but neither were they necessarily wrong. And the men of the ‘Enlightenment’ were not necessarily wrong, but neither were they necessarily right. They are both shown to be correct or mistaken on the exact same grounds.
Now, the dominant post-Enlightenment philosophy is generally called Liberalism, characterized by secular government (the idea that metaphysical ideas ought to be kept out of government and left up to the individual), religious agnosticism or pluralism, democracy, and the idea of natural and equal rights, among other things. This has since branched into numerous different and contradictory camps, which we today call ‘conservatism,’ ‘libertarianism,’ ‘liberalism/progressivism,’ and so on.
The Traditionalist, however, rejects the philosophy as a whole. He aims at many of the same pragmatic goals as the conservative or libertarian (e.g. a limited government, protection for the individual), as well as many of the stated goals of the progressive (e.g. care for the poor) but he would make his case on different grounds and would carry his point further.
The Fallacy of Religious Neutrality
For instance, the Traditionalist rejects the idea of official ‘neutrality’ on religious and moral matters—the idea that there is or can be a purely secular government. The reason is that laws and principles of government, including the principle of religious neutrality itself, must have some form of justification, which in turn requires a system of value and an understanding of the nature of the world. What in fact happens in an officially secular state is that the state advances a particular philosophy as its established ‘creed’ while tolerating individual dissent—which is, in fact, the same state of affairs as if there were an explicit established creed, with only two crucial differences: the first is that the secular ‘creed’ is self-contradictory (the established principle is that there are to be no established principles); the second is that it is presented as a ‘neutral’ position.
This latter point is the dangerous one, for it means that the content of the official philosophy can never be clearly defined or debated. To even raise the question is to violate the state’s official neutrality. The result is that the ‘neutral’ position is whatever the most powerful or the most unscrupulous say it is. Thus the ‘neutral’ position is now that abortion is a human right and that prayer has no place in public schools.
It should be clear that this is not necessarily an argument for any particular creed or confessional state. It is only to argue that there must be an official creed, even if it is only general deism. There must be an official, established moral system, which the state holds itself subject to. Again, this does not preclude freedom of religion (since reason dictates that both the state goal of maintaining the peace and the religious goal of conversion are generally better served by leaving such matters to the individuals and clergy), but it sets clear limits and standards on the state’s actions.
Conflicting definitions of freedom
Another point where the Traditionalist would reject Liberalism is on the question of freedom. For the Liberal, freedom is the highest good, and he would define freedom along the lines of, “the right to do whatever you like provided you do not interfere with another person’s rights.”
Of course, this requires a clear set of rights, which in turn require a standard for what is and is not a ‘right.’ Because if we take that definition of liberty to be substantially correct, then paradoxically the more ‘rights’ people have, the less freedom any one individual has (again, as we are daily observing in our own culture: if one man claims a right to not be insulted, then another man’s freedom of speech is proportionately limited).
As far as I am aware, this is a standard that Liberals have never been able to establish: there is no clear and objective way for a Liberal to determine what does and does not qualify as a ‘right.’ In fact, the Liberal principle that freedom is the highest good means that there can be no standard by which to judge of rights or freedoms (what can the highest or most basic of goods be judged against?).
Traditionalists, following classical philosophy, would say that rights, rather than being ‘self-evident’ foundations of freedom, are derived from moral duties and observable facts. That is, where a Liberal would say that natural rights determine moral duties, the Traditionalist would say that rationally discerned moral duties require certain rights. For instance, the fact that a man is a father imposes on him duties to provide for his family. This, in turn, requires the right of private property, since it would only be out of his own property that a man could be said to be providing (otherwise whoever owns that property—e.g. the State—would, in fact, be doing the providing). Now, that is not necessarily the only traditional justification for property, the point is that it is a justification, and one that is entirely logical.
As for freedom, the traditionalist understands it to be, like choice, a transitory noun: freedom of what? Freedom to what? Freedom from what? Its value is not inherent, but derived from its end. Now, following reason, the Traditionalist would call righteous living—the state in which a man is able to pursue and fulfill his duties without obstruction—to be the proper end of freedom. Thus legitimate freedom is freedom oriented toward that end. So, freedom to travel according to your own judgment would be considered a legitimate freedom; freedom to smoke dope would not.
Monarchy vs Democracy
Those are just a couple of examples of where Traditionalism differs from Liberalism in theory. Now, to touch briefly on the question of what a Traditionalist society looks like in practice. In the interest of time, I will only tackle, in brief, the broad, ‘typical’ governmental forms of the two philosophies: democracy for Liberalism, monarchy for Traditionalism, and specifically why the Traditionalist generally favors monarchy.
Traditionalist societies are not necessarily monarchical; republics or mixed systems are also common (and since traditionalism recognizes the duty of individuals to manage their own community, there is naturally a democratic element at least in the local level). But monarchies tend to be typical, for the very good reason that it reflects the natural structure of the family: just as the father is head of the household, so the king is head of the nation, and in almost the same way.
Now, the Liberal would object that a king is not chosen by the people, but only inherits his position by family line. The traditionalist would call that an argument for kingship.
Democracy is often called “government by the people.” As a matter of fact, it is government by a particular section of the people, and that by no means the best: namely, the section with the most votes. Even the best elected official is, by his nature, a divisive figure—consider how George Washington, one of the finest men of his age, was nevertheless beset with controversies and attacks during his time in office, and he was the least divisive President we’ve ever had.
A king, on the other hand, ascends due to his family line and due to what his ancestors have done. That is to say, his authority is based on his relationship with the whole of his people; on that complex combination of culture, religion, history, and tradition that makes up a people. The king is what he is in the same way and for the same reason that the nation itself is what it is. Again, he stands in relation to them as a father stands in relation to his family, with more or less the same relative duties and rights (and, consequently, limitations; when the king violates his duties, he likewise forfeits his rights).
This is all a very broad and light summary, but it raises the question: is a traditionalist society possible in today’s day and age? If not, then is any of this relevant?
As to the latter question, of course it is. To speak the truth and say what ought to be, whether or not it’s at all likely to happen, is always a duty. As for the former question, I honestly don’t think it can or will in the foreseeable future. The line of tradition and culture has been too badly broken. It takes time to establish kings and noble lines and to build strong cultural norms, just at it takes time to build relationships. The destruction of both is the work of a moment. We have been thinking in terms of power and wealth and shallow ‘equality’ for too long and are badly out of practice when it comes to thinking in terms of honor, duty, and righteousness. Simply put, there are so few people who even remember how to live in a traditionalist society.
But regardless of whether a truly traditionalist form of society will ever come to be again, I think the principles—the primacy of truth and righteousness, duties before rights, the grounding in reality and so on—are ones that we all desperately need to recapture and put into practice. Whether this is likely to happen or not is less important than that it is the truth.
That is the heart of Traditionalism.
Republished with gracious permission from The Everyman (February 2019).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Saint Marc récompensant les vertus (Saint Marc Rewarding Virtues)” (1556) by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.