What Is Tradition?

pieperΑmong the strands in the process of history, which are many, and not all are known, and none are known thoroughly, tradition stands apart from the others. It differs in a single fundamental respect: It preserves something pre-existing through the passage of time and in spite of it.

On one hand, tradition’s constancy through time is a claim more open to objection than assent. Modernity favors the ancient adage, “The only constant is change.” But supposing the claim is true, we have an alternate concern whether it isn’t some unnatural monstrosity, its existence oppressive to history’s other strands—such as the march of scientific progress. The first concern is whether tradition is a farce; the second, with which this books opens, is whether tradition is anti-historical.

Immediately, let’s clarify the prefix. Pieper is asking literally if tradition is against history. This is not to be confused with whether tradition is ahistorical, i.e. without history. The first question presumes tradition operates and originates in history (albeit, perhaps, as a virus or malaise); the other sees tradition as quite unconcerned with history or historical developments. While an interesting question, the latter is not addressed here.


For this chapter, tradition and science are examined side by side. For the purposes of this book practically any other strand would do for such a comparison, but science is especially suited for the role, not only because it is the most visibly successful strand in history but also because it is a striking example of a process that goes along with the times. In this sense, we compare science because it is the first example of how, presumably, a strand ought to interact with history and its developments.

Let’s begin by briefly describing the process of science through time. Pascal describes the march of science as building on, adding to, and refining the scientific knowledge of those who came before. He is not incorrect, but this simplification supposes that what was formerly known remains intact while new information is added. The reality is science forgets as quickly as it learns. In fact, for scientific progress to be possible, what has already been achieved and discovered must be continually passed on, assimilated, amended, or rejected. The displacement of old facts with new ones—in short, scientific progress—can be described as systematic forgetting of scientific knowledge.

Science does not operate in a linear incline, beginning with ignorance and working up to (theoretical) omniscience. When interacting with history, science is a series of detours constituted in paradigms. Old theories, facts, or questions rotate out of favor as new ones take their place; political and economic factors or ideals dictate new avenues of research; new interests draft new standards of funding; old projects are subverted and abandoned. Over time, scientific knowledge is lost. However, this systematic amnesia is to be celebrated, supposing it is the displacement of falsehoods with something closer to the empirical reality of things, as is the claim.

I say this is to point out that the scientific process does not guarantee a preservation of all scientific knowledge because remembrance is not the primary interest of scientists. We have forgotten how to replicate certain colors in the stained-glass windows at some cathedrals. Historians seeking to restore ancient buildings have difficulty finding workers who know how to carve certain arches or capital out of stone. As antiquated methods were replaced (presumably by better ones), they ceased to be practiced or passed on. In fact, the modern world is so astonished at the accomplishments of antiquity that some suspect extraterrestrial intervention because we know they could not do it our way and we have forgotten their way.

What is taught and passed on is just as essential for the scientific process as what isn’t. Things are added to science as quickly as they are lost. The point is a strand like science across time involves a break or outright overthrow of its own past (which is really an overthrow of the present). The case is the same for all other strands of history. Pieper goes through a number of them. Consider social developments. At times, the rate of change may be explosively high, such as during revolutions. But even so-called “rebirths” or renaissances, aspiring to reinstitute a former state, end up instituting something quite new and different. “What the Carolingian Renaissance of the time of Charlemagne thought of classical antiquity has a different appearance from the Hellenism of Winckelmann,” writes Pieper, then adds: “Neither has especially much to do with the historical reality” [p.2]. In any case, all strands of history “go with the times.” That is, what they all have in common is some break with the way of things, a change from events up to this point, a departure, in so many words, with the past/present. This inclination toward evolution, metamorphosis, revolution, etc., is naturally-occurring, in the sense that its occurrence is consistent with the nature of these strands.

Tradition is the remarkable exception. It alone creates this situation where nothing is supposed to be lost or added to. “It is a question of preserving through all change the identity of something presupposed and preexisting, against the passage of time and in spite of it,” says Pieper [p.2-3].

Such a claim against time suggests that what tradition preserves is, in fact, timeless. It is not concerned with what is merely “old” or “ancient,” but what is ancient in both directions. Furthermore, it is relevant no matter what new advances, discoveries, or declines appear. At least, that is the claim.

If tradition is what it claims to be, the preservation of something over time, then can we name it a historical strand at all, if it lacks the defining characteristic of change? Should we reject the word any historical legitimacy and confine it to the department of personal belief or worldview?

Pieper does not believe this question, which he describes as core to the issue, can be adequately answered with a yes or no. He draws our attention to one of the most dramatic episodes of the controversy because it is also one of the most constructive treatments of the age-old issue. And the key player, both a scientist and devoutly religious, is the French mathematician, Blaise Pascal.

Horror vacui, the axiom that nature abhors a vacuum, was “one of the fundamental forces of the physical world” according to “the traditional natural philosophy of the age” [p.4]. The subject of horror vacui had prestige that was difficult to ignore. It was regarded as one of the great accomplishments of the ancient world, a staple of traditional natural sciences, and easily verified by the suction effects of pumps and siphons. More than that, it was a metaphysical truth apparent in the empirical: “Since ‘nothing’ does not exist, there cannot also be a space in which there is absolutely ‘nothing'” [p.4].

However, the scientific era began to corrode the ancient wisdom of horror vacui. The decisive blow came by the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli, the pupil of Galileo Galilei. By filling a glass tube with mercury and turning it upside down, he proved by an experiment the existence of the void that had been considered a physical impossibility—and with it the discovery that traditional notions are unreliable and ignorant.

Pieper says the dispute was colorfully provoked by this experiment because “a fundamental conception of the structure of the material world appeared to have been undermined, and a debate on method, which had been going on for centuries, had been settled” [p.5]. Let’s be clear the real issue is not about whether or not nature actually abhors a vacuum. Pieper is not interested in the scientific credibility of the Torricellian Vacuum, nor in the most recent findings on the subject. It’s beside the point. The Torricellian Vacuum might be total bosh, and the question would still stand: To what extent may tradition interfere with scientific practice? Torrecelli’s findings might have been faulty, but they were scientific nonetheless. When science and tradition conflict, it hardly matters who is right so much as who gets final say. Which authority do we trust?

Pieper characterizes Pascal as a conservative. He contrasts him with Descartes, who famously asserted that one should count as valid nothing that is not completely certain; Pascal, meanwhile, finds it neither right nor permitted “simply to give up the maxims handed down from antiquity unless we are compelled to do so by indubitable and irrefutable proof” [p.4]. The irony is that while Descartes declares the traditional notions of horror vacui a compelling insight of reason, Pascal is willing to question it.

In an unfinished essay, Pascal does his part to salvage the debate by indicating two genres of human knowledge, distinct primarily by their source. There is a genre of knowledge whose claims rest on experiment and rational argument; the other genre rests on tradition and authority. The best example of the first is physics, where appeals to authority and tradition are meaningless. For the latter, theology, where only the traditional word is valid. However ancient the doctrine of horror vacui, Pascal argues, it is ultimately in the realm of reason and experience, not tradition. Therefore, it can be empirically challenged without undermining the authority of the ancients.

Pieper clears the air with this distinction. He defines tradition as a “genre of human knowledge” which rests in authority, i.e., in our trust in another’s eligibility to speak on things we cannot know or see ourselves. This sort of thing does not compete with scientific views of the world because it offers knowledge that resides outside the empirical jurisdiction of science. Pieper in this way invites us to put whatever prejudices we have toward tradition aside and explore this concept and its claim.

Pieper is writing this book because no one else has. He has looked. Nowhere can he find a thorough treatment of “tradition.” Always, it is spoken of vaguely or in contrast to other more established terms like “science” or “scripture.” The best he could find was in an Encyclopedia on Roman law, where the Latin traditio appears as a legal term, meaning “a transfer of possession accompanied by an intention to transfer ownership” [p.7].



I. Is tradition anti-historical?

It is apparent that tradition differs from all other historical strand in a fundamental respect. This, however, is not enough to prove it either pro-history or anti-history. The real proof of anti-history is whether or not tradition is seen to oppress other strands, which it only does if we fail to properly categorize our genres of knowledge. In the example of the Torricellian Vacuum, one strand only oppresses the other if we fail to relegate traditional knowledge to tradition and scientific knowledge to science. As methods, the two are not interchangeable and therefore at bottom do not raise competing statements about the world.

II. What is a working definition of tradition?

Little is available, but our best is etymological. Tradition is a legal term which means “a transfer of possessions accompanied by an intention to transfer ownership.” In other words, it refers to a sort of assembly line requiring at least three people. The first person “hands down” a possession to someone who, as he receives it intends simultaneously to transfer it again to someone else. A family heirloom might be the best example of a traditio.

Let’s unpack this word further, as it is presented etymologically. There is a connotation of totality in the transfer—the word does not mean a possession divided between numerous owners. A man is not giving, in traditio, a third of something, or half. Whatever it is, and whatever its amount, it is given (and presumably received) in full.

I am also interested by the importance of “intention.” This would seem to rule out inheritance, which as a course of law—some might say of nature as well—happens, yes, with the deceased’s consent, but not necessarily by his intent, unless there is a will involved. Intent suggests something brought about that might not have been brought about otherwise; something that in order to be requires a positive will and active work. In sum, a traditio is not passed on via natural course; rather, it is passed down because the one who is doing the passing down actively desires the recipient to possess it. In short, a traditio is a gift.



ag·gior·na·men·tosn. pl.
The process of bringing an institution or organization up to date; modernization [p.3].


“The people we call the ‘Ancients’ are in reality in all things the beginners. They actually represent the youth of mankind. The ‘antiquity’ which we honor in them is really to be found in us, since we have added to their knowledge what the following centuries have learned.”
—Blaise Pascal,

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