edited by Danilo Breschi (special issue dedicated to Tradition(s) of Il pensiero storico, an international journal of the history of ideas)
In your opinion, what should be understood in general and in the abstract by “tradition”?
In general, tradition is a sense of continuity, a legacy handed down and to be handed down. It therefore involves a fruitful relationship not only with the past but also with the future. Tradition is not the cult of the past but the sense of continuity; and with respect to the past it selects what is dead from what is alive. It is implicit in the tradition with the idea of transmission, the passing of the baton from generation to generation, from father to son, from master to pupil, and so on. Writing a praise of tradition years ago, I entitled it precisely From father to son (Laterza, 2001). Historically, tradition is the nobility of experience, the enduring joy of things, fidelity, reassuring customs and return.
On the level of principles, Tradition is the becoming of Being, or the movement towards a center and an origin. It is not pure becoming, because in its changing there is a principle of immutability; and it’s not just being, because it always involves a trade, a flow and not just a persistence. Tradition feeds on rituals and myths, symbols and liturgies.
In both cases, tradition can be defined as a vertical connection, in the historical sense with past and future generations, in the metahistorical sense with transcendence; tradition is the link between the natural and the supernatural.
In your opinion, it is more correct to speak of “traditions” in the plural, and, if so, what would be the discriminating criterion: religion? Nationality, i.e. belonging to a geographical area and historical era in which a group of human beings is born, grows and develops? As many traditions as there are religions? As many traditions as there are still present and persistent nationalities? Or are there other criteria?
No, traditions are the many historical, religious and civil forms in which it manifests itself, it is the calendar of the different configurations. Traditions that last, but are also born and die, are invented and decay: what does not decay is the very idea of Tradition, which is a metahistorical principle. Beyond the different traditions there is in fact the idea of Tradition, the principle, which for
distinguish from traditions I prefer to write in capital letters, to distinguish the archetype from the multiple representations. Traditions can be civil and religious, national, local and supranational but can also concern minor, collateral, marginal areas. From gastronomic traditions to sporting ones, in a very vast arc. There are folk traditions and cultural traditions. Tradition in many ways coincides with Culture and Civilization, where culture is a meeting point between worship and cultivation, the two activities that connect us to heaven and earth, feed us with meaning and food. All the rivulets of traditions finally flow into the great river of Tradition. The multiplicity of its forms and its manifestations, as well as its spheres and its different expectations, are phenomena, while Tradition is, so to speak, in Kantian terms, the noumenon.
Is it still possible today to speak of “tradition” in Europe after at least five centuries, if not more, of the deployment of that process of questioning, if not authentic radical contestation, of tradition that is usually called “modernity”? And, if so, to what extent, in which areas?
With modernity the primacy of duration with respect to that of novelty has been reversed, and the value relationship between the old and the new has also been reversed. Modernity is the primacy of what comes after, ultimately; but it is also the primacy of change over persistence. However, the process was accelerated by secularization and therefore the primacy of history over eternity; there are no further or higher floors, everything is played out over time, within history, without the intervention of metaphysical entities such as Destiny or Providence. Modernity understood not as a fact but assumed as a value is clearly antithetical to tradition.
Progress, on the other hand, is not the antithesis of tradition, because true and healthy progress rests on a tradition, or, as Gioberti would say, “springs” from a tradition; and even the ability of the moderns to see further than the ancients rests on the idea that we are “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”, as Bernard of Chartres said. Progress can therefore be conceived as an emancipation from tradition, as it has prevailed in modernity and even more since the Enlightenment; but progress can be understood as the son of tradition, as could be deduced, for example, from Vico’s historicism. But uprooting and the absence of horizons, nihilism and the cynical drift of our time induce us to rethink the other way, that is to actively rethink the idea of Tradition as a guide, an orientation, an ability to tie the past to the future through the present and the horizontal view of life to a vertical view.
Looking outside Europe, what reasoning do you feel able to develop on the subject of “tradition”? Has globalization, understood here as an extension of Western-style modernization to the entire planet, erased, or is it erasing, the traditions of non-European peoples? Or, in his opinion, is it necessary to make clear distinctions between the different regions of the world?
Globalization, understood as the worldwide expansion of technology and finance, at the expense of politics and culture (i.e. of cultural and natural, civil and religious differences) presents itself as a grandiose process of uprooting and removal, I would almost say of cancel culture worldwide, which is a prelude to planetary uniformity; there are no more limits and borders, other times and other places but everything is resolved in a sort of infinite global present. Faced with this trend which is corrupting and then destroying even the traditions of non-European peoples, or triggering reactive processes that lead to fanaticism and fundamentalism, it is necessary to rethink Tradition and traditions. But not as a principle of denial of globalization, or only as a brake; but as a principle of compensation and therefore of balance. We need to balance the radical push towards planetary uniformity and universal disorientation through tradition and its religious, civil, territorial and family references. The first barrier to oppose to globalization is the beneficial and indispensable function of differences, both geopolitical between areas and peoples, and at a social and interpersonal level. The variety of reality opposed to the variability of men and things, reduced to mutants destined for uniformity, under one Cooker hood that oppresses, watches over, and conforms. The principle of difference as the salt of the world combined with the value of tradition as a principle of compensation can constitute the vital and spiritual barrier with respect to the desperate vitalism, nourished by the death drive, which pervades contemporary society.
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