History: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was in 1380 that the word “tradition” first appeared in written form in English, though it was used orally much earlier than that. Interestingly enough, John Wycliffe, a theologian and lay preacher, is credited with its debut on the printed page. For Wycliffe and his contemporaries, the term meant the “delivery, surrender, or handing down of doctrine,” and they employed it in exclusive reference to religious dogma and the field of law. Of course, it didn’t take long for “tradition” to come to refer to the bequeathing of family and cultural customs as well. This secular usage would culminate in the Victorian era of Western history (1837–1901), when nobles and other powerful personages throughout Europe and North America took much of what was good about tradition and reduced it to an assortment of manners and behaviors that reified class distinctions and justified economic and racial oppression. It was in opposition to this trend that early social activists began railing at the very concept of tradition. For example, British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that “the despotism of tradition is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.” As society moved into the twentieth century, the notion that tradition was inherently oppressive entered the public imagination, where it is still very much in play today.
Etymology: “Tradition” is derived from the Latin word traditionem, the accusative case of traditio, which means “handing over” or “passing on.” Thus, an element of “giving” inheres in the term. Tradition is something given from one generation to the next, not imposed upon it. It should be viewed as a boon rather than as a curse, which is precisely how it was regarded prior to the nineteenth century. People in those times cherished the knowledge and experience of their forebears as knowledge and experience that they themselves would not have to obtain through trial and error. Tradition afforded them a base on which to build additional wisdom, which they then imparted to succeeding generations. By 1818, however, the word had acquired a new static dimension. Tradition no longer just denoted something passed down from one generation to another; it also denoted something that was dead and inert. In other words, the term was used to refer both to knowledge that was applicable to the current era and to ideas that needed to be abandoned as relics of a bygone age. Once the Victorians came along, some twenty years later, their critics seized on the latter definition as a way of delegitimizing inherited status and authority. This new understanding of the word would stick, leading to the widespread belief that tradition necessarily inhibited social progress.
Effect: G. K. Chesterton had it right. No doubt in response to such social progressives as Mill, he wrote in 1908 that “tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Note that he doesn’t insist that tradition is always correct (an admittedly dangerous assumption), but rather that it should share the same standing as popular opinion when it comes to making decisions. Unfortunately, Chesterton’s advice continues to fall on deaf ears, evidencing even further how we fail to accede to the wisdom of the past. Indeed, today we reinvent the wheel with each succeeding generation—occasionally more often than that—and this is especially true with regard to values. Longstanding moral standards, time-tested and ancestor-approved, are ignored simply because they are such, leaving us with a culture that is moored to nothing but our whims. As exemplified by the most recent presidential election, “change” is now our creed and rallying cry—a stance that should ensure an unstable and morally reprehensible republic for many years to come.
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