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Philosophical Essay

TRADITION: The Critical Core


Anthony Steyning

Unedited January 2006, draft


Every Man's a Sovereign Nation


Listen to what dear Billy Joel proposed, even though we’re not here to speak about Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray persé.  Not even Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev. Or Starkwether, Homicide and Children of Thalidomide.  Like the lyrics of his terrific song suggest it’s true that by and large We didn’t start the Fire, but did we really fight it? The verdict is: not quite.


You have the right to remain silent but isn’t it better to engage in earnest discourse about the core of prime time-warp items like Canterbury and the Throne? From Horses and Stupid Hats, to Public Schools, Jeeves, Sandhurst, The Fox Hunt and the remaining Jewels in the Crown? Or do you prefer the Académie, the Corrida, the Oktober Fest, the Biennale, the Superbowl, and the oldest New Year known? Or better still, archaic impotencies, defunct idols and obstinate commemorations plus what could only be described as collective obsessive behaviour to do with ‘sacred’ duties like Ablation, Lapidation, recovery of Dowry, Honour and Paradise lost or the studied Revenge, always Revenge, in dealing with real or imagined loss?


Even when tradition equates useful structure T.S. Eliot told us that it is hard work, but tradition has to be disinherited then reconquered to hold any value at all, not only be that mere, that simple, that awful fruit of extreme pig-headedness. For tradition and concocted national or ethnic history can be treacherous, stunting attitudinal development, killing not only moral evolution, but, by definition discriminating, in extreme cases simply exterminating outsiders. Obstinate tradition obsolete tradition, transforming a certain strength into damnable pride. And why it takes centuries for sense to become common, delaying development, preventing morality from becoming wider, deeper, higher, inclusive. To wit Imperial Japan's  disastrously going on the attack in order to stave off modernity and Westernization and seeing the evolved struggle for universal human rights as nothing but a devilish, adversarial and hegemonic ploy by the outside. Some ancient attitudes, or better put irrelevant old habits, therefore not to be taken lightly. Habits pre-dating ‘modern’ belief and legislative systems, but quite evidently finding their way into these and hailing from days when human existence differed radically. Times when the only sport was mere survival but once mastered man swiftly moving on to warfare and other forms of organised death in order not to lose his martial skills. In other words it concerns behavioural patterns that took thousands of years to evolve and don’t dissolve in a handful of centuries even though happily in some corners more modern interpretation has already alleviated much gravitas in the celebration and employment of them. It having become evident to clear-minded souls in many areas that what represents simulation, a custom at one stage designed for survival and protection, as mere ritual has evolved into into something fundamentally meaningless and by itself dangerous. This because ceremony is only a stand-in for something, symbolic of that something, a visual metaphor that in too many instances started leading an unearned, even cruel life of its own.


Worse, more often than not some customs are primitive taboos in perpetuation. Tribal disciplines ensuring obedience, or be damned. At the other end of the spectrum the equally great taboo of squandered ‘authority’, a 'failure' resulting in ‘shame’ and the forfeiture of ‘esteem’ and ‘rank’ as punishment. In other words the loss of station and respect, a place in the pecking order, something that once acquired, usually gets dressed up in symbols by their holders in an obvious attempt to render them exclusive and permanent. Quickly called 'sacred tradition', turned unassailable and then held over others as many generations as possible. But like so many other age-old gems of distinction, demarcation and defence making a dangerous load and soon forming the incendiary cause of too many of our fires. Like that ‘loss’ of authority, considered a ‘shameful insult’ in some quarters, but not as much as, sadly, a resulting, cruel killing or any sort of coercion leading up to it. We’re talking here about submission of almost military precision, the unspoken conviction that ‘authority’, thus ‘obedience’ supersedes individual right to life in favour of group and hierarchy. Intra-family ‘authority’ parallel to its place in the collective, and again, while once needed for survival, having become an often mortally binding abstraction, even forming part and parcel of some religions. In this way, many ‘nations’ having conquered their environment to a degree and at one point, remaining incapable of freeing themselves of their now obsolete, enabling methods and weaponry. Incongruously pointing this same weaponry the wrong way, pulling guns at themselves in front of a large mirror, loath to break the spell of their erstwhile, their only, their real battles and victories.    


So that given the hardship and suffocation some of these customs cause in modern context, it’s hard to understand why some peoples keep subjecting themselves to internal regimes of this nature. Which leads to another observation--- clearly we’re animals of habit, including some very bad ones plus apart from food and drink we do need some social structures and a bit of space to move around in, yet put together and harvested to excess even those ‘good’ habits spelling big trouble. For are we really in need of super stylized identity and greed? Identity, that obsession with 'belonging', the imagined loss of which has lead to so much suffering to others in instinctive efforts to preserve one's own security within the herd. Isn’t that exactly what high tradition is all about, turning itself into a dangerous weapon sometimes? What has it given most down the years, except uncalled for misery? Yes, pagan pageantry, robes and flags again, including all those rattling sabers and frontiers, walls, gates, chains, locks, plus incense and convenient parchment licenses to hold, grab and execute or kill: the bitter take of insecurity combined with man’s mostly male, rapacious appetite.


Indeed, our foremost human tragedy isn't it that man cannot abide change, when without change there cannot be life? That vicissitudes do not become him? In fact a double tragedy in that every day this refusal gets perpetuated by constant organised tradition and ceremonial rite? An illusion this, more than anything? And contrary to common opinion, exaggerated attachment to metaphysical or physical being probably concealing inherent emptiness and a pronounced lack of individual courage? What may seem to represent a rich display of traditional values and permanency, in fact the expression of an extremely impoverished spirit and lack of self-worth? Particularly when it comes to an entirely invented abstract universe: something having become beautifully dressed-up dependency, backed up as always by ‘ancient’ testimony? For ‘sacred’ edicts are always ‘ancient’, aren’t they? Far, as far away as possible so they’re no longer questioned! In addition nearly always holding out the promise that something even better is on its way so best not rock the boat of providence. Only to end up creating a feeling of entrapment, worse than all the existing evil found in the physical world. The cause of real, immediate life often getting unforgivably squandered and all noble joy killed in the process.


Q: Why do traps name themselves Liberty?

A: Because they are traps.


But then, who put that smoke and all those mirrors in life’s halls, but us?


On another level it has been suggested that acquired traditions sooner or later produce a clash of civilizations, thought surely this is a contradiction-in-terms as it would suggest that at least one of them…isn’t!  We’re not speaking of innocent aesthetics here either, of purely artistic cultural expression. Yes, traditions just like lighter-fluid can be dangerously inflammable, especially near a spark. Already in the fifteenth century Prince Machiavelli writing that in their totality traditions are an illusion and a fraud, implying it is justice and respect for the other that matter, not false pride in what we are or what we have, not selfish immaturity. So the point taken here is far from new, but an attempt may surely be made in updating the old man. Let’s face it, tradition seems to be a human addiction, one we have taught ourselves to live with and so might have to be faked for desired effect.  For instance, their refereeing role apart one closely binding tradition is the State, another the Church, both of whom by definition having their own mostly invisible borders, but in the XXI century there luckily existing a huge no-man’s land between these two overlapping boundaries in which normal people like you and me can live peacefully only paying lip-service to both. Faking it, as the vernacular goes.  Long ago this vacuum not existing, one incapable of faking anything, making life a form of unbearable drudgery, in our world this very change now representing the part of modernity rightly referred to as progress, when we escape all control, are master of our universe, are in charge of our own lives, our own enigma as someone wrote, hour by hour, day by day, years on end.


Tradition then being an expression of nostalgia and in the end nostalgia an expression of inadequacy in that it involves something that we recognise, but we can no longer produce. To the degree that the nation is closely linked to tradition and both can be harmful to one’s health, they should be dealt with simultaneously. In this context nationalism appearing to be a form of defence, but who’s really under threat? Militant nationalists are rampant, quadruple territorialists and as such often a danger to us all. They not only ‘defend’ a slice of land but usually enforce the faith, the ethnicity and the culture they’ve attached to it to the exclusion of anyone else. This structure of high purpose turned into private property by which they feel not only protected but superior and relevant.  But this is a fool’s paradise as their philosophically redundant and always violent struggle makes it inevitable that at a certain point these people become the contrary of what they set out to be, namely forgotten because irrelevant. Yes, not quite their stated aim, but then again who ever said these primitives are in the possession of even a soupçon of worthy grey mass, addicted to hatred, death and destruction as they are, over the centuries remembered mainly for putting up huge portraits of themselves.


History most unkind to over-zealous patriots so many of who seem to be of amoral character, loveless, humourless criminals at heart. For in the way that paedophiles gyrate towards minding kindergartens and boy-scout troops, sport murderers and thieves are hunters lying in wait wrapping themselves in several layers of nationhood. Second  from the top of this ladder of shame the great number of clearly crypto-fascist clergy having no business providing safe haven for these chaps and using other people’s innocence and good faith to further their own very bad faith, the way they did and do in The Basque Country, in Serbia and Greece. In sum, in an enlightened world the clamouring for sovereignty highly anachronistic and for poor bastards suffering from lack of self-esteem using a phoney struggle as a meal ticket or in order to deal with some other primal urge. Like having a nasty, angry inferiority complex and being parasitic by nature, yet expect to dominate. Either way people thriving on the kindling of long evaporated slights, attacking out of despairing sense of selfishness, instead needing to try charity once: Brahmins not in need of republics, only felons without vision and real courage. Nationalists have nothing to offer: no ideas, no self-confidence, living in the past, afraid of the future, able to strike but not to think, with claws as nails, tainted, bloodstained.


Brecht wrote poor is a land that is in need of heroes, to which could be added:  unwise is a land tolerating self-appointed heroes, especially when they’re nothing of the kind.  As when they indulge in a related form of dissolute self-assertion: racism, or better put sub-species-ism since we’re all part of the human race, all of it keep-out-ism just like the very use of language sometimes.


So what then are distinction and tradition but demarcation of a sort? Skin, flag, dress or words sending out a warning saying this-is-me, but even more this-is-mine. As a consequence deep tradition really best made to fade away, gradually, first turning faint and quaint, then laughable or carried on ... behind closed doors. After all, dogs urinate to mark their empire but urine evaporates quickly and eventually loses its scent, so that happily canine territories mutate all the time, without calculated naked or passive aggression on the part of this animal. In human political terms much looser civil administration the inevitable future but only materializing once a large degree of natural harmony and agreement prevail. Romantics, traditionalists, conservatives, loyalists, political classicists whatever one wishes to call them perhaps shuddering at the notion, but a few short centuries from now people laughing at the crazy old convention of armies and statehood, approved culture, ancestral immunities and sanctified lineage. Suitable demographic homogenization has not occurred yet. Mature, enlightened political fragmentation is still far, far off, but global conditions will make it a compelling objective one day. Peaceful fragmentation is beautiful and means we have arrived in the promised land at last and got there… all by ourselves.


We’ve all sought a degree of permanency in the face of being snuffed out without notice, like some poor insect. But resorting to an approved class system to protect that arse represents a very primitive option, indeed. Too often deep conservative thought has evolved into deep conformist thought, heavily promoting the status quo instead of authentic progressive conservative thinking that only sets out to separate the good from the bad on the basis of generations of learning. Creating a type of Conservative hanging on for dear life to what they have and far removed from the original notion of united preservation. Folks who frequently arrive at the cavalier but unspoken ‘I’m all right, Jack!’, turning this quickly into ‘And if we have it all, this can only mean something’s the matter with you’, immediately followed by ‘Sorry, but evidently that’s the way things were meant to be’ and finally triumphantly: ‘Sacred tradition proves it!’


All of these lines of course worthy of falling under the ‘Established yet Preposterous Truth’ umbrella of ironed-over human thoughtlessness and having to be eliminated as in every sense very little is truly ‘sacred’. Things like Honesty and Compassion, perhaps. Still, let there be no doubt we do need protection, but only from ourselves. We do need care and therefore taxes have to be levied and services provided, but should exalted collectors, keepers, minders, carers, holders, just like undertakers, while needed, not be discreetly kept away instead of colonising us with their savage borders, rites, rules, and heavy handed tools?


Tradition usually means subtle or not so subtle discrimination, icy snobbery only its most stupid expression. So back to the evening out of the general social landscape, decentralising through rough homogenisation, allowing differences to flow over into each other like a liquid, not re-enforcing or idealizing them. Groupings of people not borders, the return to smaller components and loosely run in-between lands, a Kantian federation of old-styled city-states perhaps. All right, in a century or so when political thinking has matured let Quebec go, as long as Quebec City goes too. And so on, all the way down the slopes of the rest of our political power pyramids, with only poverty, sickness and crime as our common enemy. The same for longstanding conflicts involving Tamils, Papuans, those Basques, Corsicans, Catalans, Kashmiris and so many, many other groups: huge, complex, acrimonious problems ultimately best solved by first reducing them, like atoms split releasing loads of positive energy.


Well-defined territory (or terrain) was meant to provide security but defending it creates a constant sense of agitation and insecurity in us, making our neighbours quite nervous and as long as they remain thus we shall never be truly secure. A real catch-22, therefore we must first fight for the other’s security, not our own as strange as they may sound. For example current American doctrine is rightly moving from confronting belligerence with overwhelming belligerence of its own, to stating that “our security is not merely founded in spheres of influence or some balance of power, the security of our world is found in advancing the rights of mankind!” Which is entirely accurate but for two incidental weaknesses, namely that this credo today is known to a handful of experts and analysts but not properly explained to Joe Pizza and the other kids on the block, and that this astute vision will take thirty like-minded Presidents to be achieved, not one. On the other hand what isn’t started shall never see the light of day and horrible inequalities the product of utterly dishonourable local governance will have to be addressed by the world community for reasons of universal not partisan security.


What all this really amounts to is the need to strive towards “flattening” the world’s private and public cultural waters, not venerating destructive habits. Water at its best when sweet and relatively placid, exposing gravity at its most sublime. H2O having to be pure not overly deep, well oxygenated, moved by modest flow. Rivers and lakes of ideas, attitudes, do’s and don’t’s flowing back and forth into each other across the full spectrum of what is. And this means many, many “steep” traditions having to be “flattened”, too. They’re not amusing and as said here, in the end potentially murderous. Plumage only to be displayed beguilingly, as the peacock well knows.


From an individual point of view lacking in self-belief one always ending up believing in something or someone else to excess… So again, the key here the self: character where real sovereignty and identity start. Not with stale, artificial values but through the only system likely to survive this millennium. One recognising that while man is a world onto himself, no man is an island and every man a nation without borders representing the only kind of superiority and identity worth striving for, the only distinction acceptable. But only as long as Man-the-Nation administrates himself properly, conducting himself with consummate skill to combat among many other dangers the treachery of tradition. Michel de Montaigne already saying as much 400 years ago, but not hurting to repeat it. He said Since I can't govern the world, I can at least govern myself. And so the only, the real Body Politic is me, is you. And in this context it sometimes far healthier to shoot roots than to inherit them. Better be a new shoot than an off-shoot afflicted with slow rot, better be a courageous orphan than a corrupt heir, and so a good idea to exise that horribly ambivalent triumvirate: tradition coupled with privilege and birth-right. And creeds  aiming for true justice, best adding these commandments:

                              Thou Shalt Not Identify Thyself


                                Thou Shalt Not Differentiate


There’s very little new under the sun, this not a new tenet, oriental religion in particular relying heavily on private inner growth and harmony, at the same time promoting discipline and collectivity, though we can do without the collective part as it leads us back to centralisation and likely abdication of individual responsibility. And anyway, none of it prevented essentially Buddhist nations like Japan, Cambodia, China, Korea, Vietnam etc of going on killing rampages lasting years involving territorially inspired doctrinaire and militaristic adventures of the most abject kind. The concept of individual sovereignty having nothing to do with anarchy either and as an idea not invalid because of what happened in so many cultures ostensibly believing in just such harmony and inner strength, but failing tragically as soon as the concept of ‘borders’ loomed. The idea simply never having been applied to its universal, political end-conclusion whereby state, border, law, and partisan tradition have as minimal an impact as possible in a grown-up, a mature and self-confident world where everything is a two-way street.


Terra Patria’s biggest problem then of course that there are still too many ‘worlds’. A by-product of current globalisation that not only good but also massive evil and misfortune can suddenly become omnipresent again. A place where not only disease and disaster thought long fought off now rear their head and where twelfth century minds and dispositions must compete with more technically and morally advanced twenty-first century ones and apt to come up with primitive, unreasoned rebuttals and quick but mindless (read violent) solutions for at least another couple of centuries. (Aristotle, where were you when needed most, spreading your teachings of inexorable conclusion and consequence?). At the same time nature dictating that opposites must merge and these differences one day getting overcome because merger is change and every biologist knows that without change, life does strangle itself. However, the excess of it by definition and as already alluded to, upsetting the applecart: unbridled, unbalanced migration doesn’t work for anyone and certainly when one habitat becomes more attractive than another should there be some sort of universal social key prescribed, referring to norms of respect and common sense as far as the migrant is concerned, a binding sworn statement to be demanded of him/her specifying something like this, protecting other habitats:


                                             Earn, Learn, Return!

  • get invited, don’t walk or break in: intruders don’t get far
  • after having been asked in, don’t take: only contribute                  
  • you’re not in a position to find fault with the nation you entered; don't insist on bringing and hanging on to your 'values',as these got you where you are today. If you can’t integrate, stay home! So again, be loyal to and accept unconditionally the mores of the society that embraced you. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. And whatever you do, don’t overstay your welcome, visitors are like fish, after x amount of time they smell, five years a turn in this case
  • do understand where the highest virtues of your new world came from, take these home and start forging your nation by applying them. Work at it, it took others centuries to forge what you found
  • educate yours accordingly
  • Yes, you have certain democratic rights, but these come with rule of law and obligations and do not allow you to  conduct yourself undemocratically in your personal or community life
  • if you say you accept but don’t live up to these points, you and yours’ll automatically be removed: for utter lack of respect and tolerance i.e. still not having learned what this means

So that natural migration doesn't mean that millions can swarm a land like locusts, destroying everything in its path, including themselves, but as in so many professions, take the form of an internship. In democracy, in self-education and self-disciplne, ultimately producing real wealth and health back home, eliminating denigrating hand-outs. Or, as the political economist Peter Bauer classified it, the (mostly unproductive) giving of money by poor people in rich countries, to rich people in poor countries.

8/8/15 Update: XXI Century’s Massive, Bitter Irony

What is now known as the West used the last thousand years by becoming pragmatically smarter, even with certain notable and cruel pitfalls, while others used that time to solidify backwardness, subsequently producing millions of emigrants fleeing self-fulfilling misery, those looking for a 'new' life yet insist on maintaining the ‘values’ which nearly killed them, and who claim their new found 'right'... to remain intolerant.

Finally, many contentions facing mankind start at the family level. A lot of good comes from there but also a lot of cruel ignorance. Obstinate ancestral tradition is in fact often a ruthless and relentless intrusion upon privacy and an on-going not to say perverse test of loyalty. Swift, easy, and ancient mainly because brutal family justice only signifies nothing was learnt, no wisdom was ever added, and tolerance never sanctioned as an indicator of strength rather than one of weakness. The happiest families free and supportive while extremely loose-knit, just like nations ought to be. It’s why ultimately we must face ourselves and follow the dictates of our own heart, not artificial custom. And living in a community much like driving a car, with lots of fatal mishaps taking place due to plain stupidity. For instance, testing a driver’s IQ before allowing him behind the wheel would almost certainly reduce fatal traffic accidents by 90%, though what to do about inherent differences in IQ? Well, firstly don’t let people who don’t or won’t understand drive the family car no matter what, in the same way that they shouldn’t be allowed to run society. Secondly, do expose them to precise training with emphasis on identifying the end-end-result when certain ways are ill-conceived. Such as driving fast and stupidly passing other cars in a blind curve, though building slower (cleaner) cars and eliminating blind, two-way-traffic curves also proof of good intelligence. All of this only a metaphor, but you get the point.


So that a reasonable degree of developed IQ will reveal that often even apparently harmless traditions are acts of confirmation and constant confirmation by definition representing a need to overcome a deeply misplaced sense of insecurity. Therefore it boils down to this: if we’re in strong need of tradition, going as far as speaking of the defence of ‘our’ way of life, there’s every chance we’re stepping over the boundaries of what’s reasonable to others, creating pronounced turbulence, in the long run exchanging what’s traded as comfort and respect, for trouble and hate. So that perhaps we ought to grasp through specific education that our colourful ‘rightful tradition’ can come close to being an ugly act of (passive) aggression and as such best simulated, somewhere private, out of harm’s way, on a given day when we can’t think of anything better to do with ourselves. Hypnotic self-pleasuring best done behind closed doors, in a hot tub or behind a hay-stack.

Nonetheless, if desires of this nature persist there’s a measure of juvenility ‘at play’, remaining terribly worrisome.

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Unedited April,2006 draft                                 



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