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Tradition: Good or Bad? How Francis Bacon Approached Communal Customs

Tradition: Good or Bad? How Francis Bacon Approached Communal Customs

Almost single-handedly, Sir Francis Bacon popularized the scientific method. He’s credited, too, with inspiring “the modern world as we currently know it.”

In his remarkable works (such as his famous Essays), Bacon drew heavily on ancient literature and proverbs: He looked to the past as well as toward the future. In our fast-changing times, we can learn a lot from this man about how to balance innovation with tradition.

In his Essays, Bacon takes a nuanced view of tradition. He warns that “over-great reverence of traditions” is among the main sources of “superstition.” But elsewhere, he emphasizes the importance of establishing “good customs” and praises religion’s unifying power. So where would this great polymath draw the line between important heritage and fuddy-duddy customs?

First, let’s examine why Bacon thinks tradition is valuable. A major reason comes in his conception of human psychology. As explained in “Of Custom and Education,” people’s behavior is inescapably governed by habit or, as Bacon calls it, custom. However, group customs are much more powerful than merely individual habits. Thus, the right group customs can be immensely beneficial, as “societies well ordained and disciplined” cultivate virtue in their members.

Bacon also finds value in the unifying power of tradition—specifically, religious traditions. He emphasizes that religion is “the chief band of human society” and that “unity” in religious belief is therefore desirable.

Additionally, Bacon stresses the importance of specific traditions. For instance, courage and manliness must be preserved for a country’s survival; the quantity of soldiers in a military “importeth not much, where the people is of weak courage.” Thus, traditions emphasizing masculine virtues have to be socially reinforced.

Alongside this, the Essays underscore the value of tradition more subtly. Bacon often refers to vastly different time periods when discussing basic aspects of the human experience. Across a few pages in “Of Friendship,” for instance, the great polymath cites Aristotle’s Politics (fourth century B.C.), Cicero’s Philippic Orations (44–43 B.C.), Erasmus’s Adages (A.D. 1500), and the writings of Philippe de Commines (circa A.D. 1447–1511).

In this way, Bacon’s writings remind us that the best wisdom of earlier ages never becomes outdated—because human nature is fixed.

Still, Bacon recognizes that clinging to tradition can go too far. In his mind, there’s a difference between “unity and uniformity.” Within a tradition, consensus is needed on basic questions (unity), but disagreement over minor matters is perfectly tolerable (uniformity).

We can illustrate this distinction with current trends of American life. Americans have long adhered to various Christian denominations (lack of uniformity), but they have never before belonged, in large numbers, to a theological movement as un-Christian as today’s “woke Christanity” (lack of unity). Likewise, there has always been passionate disagreement about politics (lack of uniformity), but not about the nature nature of truth (which would result in a lack of unity).

Bacon also cautions against becoming so blinkered by traditionalism that one falls prey to “superstition.” His essay “Of Superstition” begins provocatively: “It were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of him.” Thus, in Bacon’s view, even atheism is better than faith in an immoral God. Moreover, blind commitment to doctrines brings dishonor to a religion.

Bacon’s essay “Of Custom and Education” cautions against the “tyranny of custom.” Bacon cites several excesses of tradition, including Indian widows who volunteer to be burned alongside their deceased husbands and Russian monks who sit in cold water until it freezes over “for penance.” By “tyranny,” Bacon evidently means dedication to practices which cause serious damage.

To sum up, though Bacon honors the traditions of his past, he identifies at least three pitfalls with blind traditionalism: (1) It can be overly uptight about insignificant details; (2) it can blind itself to truth; and (3) it can promote severely harmful practices. Yet for Bacon these are aberrations—overall, tradition is indispensable.

Bacon’s ideas remain relevant to 21st-century man, and his views on tradition are no exception. With our current culture completely abandoning all tradition, perhaps we moderns can appreciate him even better than his contemporaries could.

Image credit: Public domain

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Simon Maass
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