Several all-too-simple contrasts readily present themselves whenever we try to make sense of what is going on today: Liberal–Conservative, Secular–Religious, Relativist–Realist, Globalist–Nationalist, etc. You’ve probably heard by now that all of these are simplistic, but we need simple categories if we are ever to come to grips with a complex reality. As a starting point, they aren’t so bad.
Again and again in recent conversations, I’ve found the pair Modernist–Traditionalist especially helpful for understanding people’s basic orientations to a host of issues. I want to notice, however, a worse way and a better way of understanding this contrast, and make a plug for metaphysical realism along the way.
The worse way to understand the contrast views Modernism and Traditionalism as equal and opposite prejudices that have to do with time. Modernism begins from the idea that something is better because it is newer, and views with scorn all things that are out-dated or unprogressive. The Traditionalist, by contrast, tends to view new ideas or practices with a default stance of skepticism, sometimes eccentrically reverting to very old things just to register his disgust with the new-fangled. Hence we have a fight between the New Ways and the Old Ways, and the battlefield is the timeline of history.
Unfortunately, this way of characterizing the disagreement is typical of modernists (or better: post-modernists). It leaves out an essential third element that rises above the timeline and really cannot be understood in terms of Old and New. I mean, of course, the Truth.
Traditionally, nearly all schools of philosophy have agreed that the world objectively operates in a particular way, that this way is intelligible—in part—by us, and that the aim of our thinking should be to understand this intelligible way of things. Classically, philosophers have given the name λόγος to this intelligible-way-that-the-world-objectively-operates. Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian philosophers have been saying for millennia that this λόγος is timeless and that it is discovered rather than invented by man.
Modernism tends to accept this way of thinking when it comes to the physical sciences. Indeed, the very practice of science would not make any sense without some confidence that the scientist is discovering a real, intelligible pattern which characterized the physical world before he started his investigation and will continue to characterize it after he moves on. Everything that cannot be approached through the physical sciences, however, becomes relegated to some other mode of thought, whether that is relativistic or reductionistic. In this way, modernism becomes schizophrenic, torn between a realist and an anti-realist disposition and tearing its conception of the world along the line between physical and non-physical.
Post-modernism comes along and attempts to heal this schizophrenia by asserting with renewed force the anti-realist side of the modernist soul and absorbing into it everything that remained of its realism. Hence, even physical science itself becomes nothing but an expression of culture and power.
The better way to understand the contrast views Modernism and Traditionalism, therefore, as two different epistemic orientations toward the Truth above both of them. (This is, admittedly, a traditionalist’s way of putting the situation, and in part, begs the question.)
According to this understanding, the Modernist orientation approaches truth through the judgment of the individual based primarily on that individual’s own experiences. Old Ways, even if true, are seen as hampering the ability of the individual to make up his own mind and “think for himself.”
The Traditionalist, however, sees this approach as profoundly open to the dangers of self-deception whereby an idea comes to look true because it is pleasing to oneself. Hence we are prone to adopt ethical ideas that tell us to do what we want to do, metaphysical ideas that grant us a flattering place in the world, or logical ideas that tell us that we aren’t so stupid after all.
The modernist orientation is also highly subject to fads because it preaches against the social element in human thinking without ever actually diminishing it. When the teacher tells the student to “think for himself” this ends up meaning in practice “don’t think like your parents or your pastor, but instead think like your friends.” The student has simply traded one community of thought for another, without noticing that the latter still has all the faults of humans thinking in groups with little of the benefits. Repeat this process a billion times and we end up with an ideological age.
Instead, the Traditionalist orientation approaches truth through bodies of wisdom that have been build up over ages and therefore have withstood the test of time. The Traditionalist, however, should not be interested in ideas that are merely old. As a scholar of classical antiquity I could share many, many very old tidbits that have almost no merit whatsoever. These tidbits, however, are not what gets passed down from age to age as the precious pearls of wisdom. What matters is that some very old ideas have not only survived the test of time but thrived over the course of ages. People who have received their wisdom and lived according to their counsels have gone some small way toward flourishing as beings in a world characterized by λόγος.
Further, actual traditions such as the Platonic tradition or the Scholastic tradition, have a way of correcting errors and excesses over the course of generations while preserving the core of truth. Misleading ways of putting things are clarified, simplistic ideas are made more sophisticated, exceptions to the rule are dealt with by a new treatise etc.
Traditions, therefore, are like living organisms that slowly grow by incorporating new material, but only in such a way that it does not upset the integrity of the body’s existing systems. When this doesn’t happen, the tradition dies, and so does not survive the test of time.
This test, however, is not infallible. Indeed, the best kind of Traditionalist will take it merely as one among several methods of getting at the timeless λόγος. Nearly all of the world’s great traditions will tell you that what matters is not tradition as such but the truth. They will, of course, usually go on to tell you that their own tradition is the most reliable guide to the truth, and they don’t all give quite the same answers (although there is far more agreement than you might have learned in a modernist school).
We need, therefore, some other tools beyond merely looking at traditions in order to evaluate these claims to truth. Fortunately, these traditions are in agreement that we do have such tools. We are rational beings (λογικοί) because we are capable, at least partially, of discerning the λόγος in things. We do, therefore, each need to think at some level for ourselves, but this should not imply any antipathy to what people have thought before, especially if they were wise.
In fact, we should each take our individual rationality and the first thing we should do with it is (i) identify those schools of thought that seem to have the best claim to wisdom and truth, and (ii) in humility start to read those texts which proponents of that school put forward as their absolute best. Over the course of this process you will inevitably gain real conviction about some aspects of the world’s objective, intelligible structure without ever thinking that you have discovered everything. You will also be led to think—through the exercise of your own mental faculties—that some traditions have a greater claim to wisdom than others, and that there are still more books that you need to read. Rinse and repeat until the day you die.