The Great Revolution: Reason and Tradition, Part B
If a tradition goes back far enough, it is generally because it corresponds, however roughly, to some reality, while by contrast bright ideas spawned by pure reason are all too often no more grounded in reality than phrenology or the literary speculations of Dr. Freud. Steve Goldberg once wrote a good essay, arguing that ethnic stereotypes were statistically accurate approximations. Speaking of his own background, he said many gentiles regard Jews as pushy, while Jews tend to think of themselves more as merely enterprising, but whichever word we prefer, the phenomenon is the same. Of course, not all Jews are enterprising—some are as lazy and unambitious as I am—but the stereotype, which was arrived at after centuries, even millennia of experience, is a good basis for predicting future behavior.
Some traditions that we accept without reflection, though they are taught as revealed wisdom in school, are not only of fairly recent region, but not traditions at all, merely an earlier generation's reckless speculations. This is, more or less, the whole body of liberal thought: Human beings are basically good; men are all the same everywhere and racial and ethnic differences are trivial, though (paradoxically) there are many cultures where marriage does not exist and female chastity is not admired much less enforced; religion encourages ignorance, bigotry, and violence; the Western traditions of male dominance, free enterprise, and personal responsibility are inherently and uniquely evil.
Where it turns out such “traditional” lessons are wrong or immoral, as is the case of much of what we have been taught in school, we can, of course, correct the mistakes by turning both to higher authorities (the Bible, the great classics of our literature) and to our own observation of human life. No matter how many times Marxists might try to convince us that private property, monogamy, and the family are evil inventions of patriarchal males, we can look around the world and see that they are wrong. No matter how many times that Libertarians tell us we are all free individuals, we can look at real human beings and conclude they are more likely to be servile dependents on family affections and communal prejudices.
No single human being can find out everything important on his own. Even in matters of science, we take most of what we think we know on faith. We think, for example, that we know that the spheroid earth goes around the sun, but, prisoners of older traditions, we continue, doggedly, to say that the sun rises in the East, and we often refer to the four corners of the world. This is harmless enough, because as valuable as the advances in science and mathematics have been, they affect our lives only indirectly through science and technology.
When I was headmaster of a private school, I used to ask the teachers questions like this: If one and a half bottles of wine contain 38 ounces, how many ounces are in a bottle of wine? Left with pencil and paper for 10 minutes, they could gradually figure it out, but they had forgotten the simple formula they had been taught in sixth grade: If 3/2= 38, then 1=2/3 of 38. An Alexandrian shopkeeper 200 years ago could do the math more rapidly than most educated Americans. In fact, only scientists--and sometimes only those with the appropriate specialty--have any grasp of such subjects as genetics, evolutionary theory, particle physics, or organic chemistry.
A few generations ago, someone with four years of science in high school and a required course or two in college might be able to follow newspaper stories on recent break-throughs, but then those were the days when a man could work on his own car. Today, the body of scientific knowledge is more like my new Subara Forester. I don't dare even change the oil--the voice on the computer would probably scold me. If we go back still further, there was a time when educated people believed they knew something of the way the world works, because what science existed was accessible, but not today.
We are forever saying things like, “according to scientist” or "trust the science," because in fact, rather few of us would know how to go about proving that our world is a globular planet of roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, though we are taught to laugh at the churchmen who told Columbus that he could never reach China before running out of food and water, because the earth is too big. Churchmen had to be wrong because they accepted an ancient scientific tradition (going back to Eratosthenes) as true, while Columbus had to be right because in the liberal legend, he was a bold individualist who challenged authority. When one of my children repeated what I had said about Eratosthenes, the second grade teacher informed the class that it was nonsense and, besides, there was no such person as Eratosthenes of Cyrene. I am sure she is now explaining the dangers of COVID and the fact of global warming.
We typically take things as Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and the expanding universe, and the structure—or even the existence–of DNA on faith. They are handed down by a tradition that goes back, sometimes only to a generation ago but sometimes all the way back to the ancient world, as in the case of Eratosthenes’ brilliant calculation of the earth’s circumference. According to some scientists, by the way, a majority of the medical studies cited in the press are bogus. It is better not to read anything than to read an AP or WSJ article on a study of the dangers—or benefits—of drinking coffee.
But if science depends on the acceptance of tradition, then how much more do we depend on the traditions of our culture to tell us our moral and social responsibilities. A brilliant man might devote his life to moral philosophy without contributing one sound or irrefutable idea that people can use in their daily lives. The obscure terminology and improbable theories of academic philosophers do not constitute an advance in human wisdom, and if we were tempted to believe they did, we have only to look at the miserable lives led by so many academic philosophers. But even when a brilliant moral philosopher makes a break-through, he is only building on a far greater tradition of wisdom handed down by his predecessors.