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New Is Not Always Better: Why There’s Wisdom in Tradition

New Is Not Always Better: Why There’s Wisdom in Tradition

Imagine a scientist who decided to reject every scientific experiment or study that had come before him and would trust only scientific principles that he demonstrated with his own experiments.

Naturally, he would completely handicap himself. In his arrogance, he’d accomplish very little with his science, since he’d be hard at work re-demonstrating every scientific discovery ever made, many of which build on each other. He could never hope to repeat what generations of scientists (many of them much smarter than he) had accomplished over hundreds of years. But if he wasn’t willing to accept their testimony, writings, and conclusions, he’d have no other choice.

Here’s another example. Imagine a carpenter who decided to reject everything his father had taught him about woodworking. He’d show the old man that he could figure things out for himself.

So, he refused to use tape measures, nails, hammers, geometry, physics, or the principles of framing—since all this had been taught to him by other people. This stuff was old, and therefore not relevant, he decided. Then, after laboring much longer and harder than was necessary, reinventing the wheel (maybe literally), he finally built a house. But it leaked rain, and one day collapsed completely.

If we met a scientist or a carpenter like this, we would view him as a as lunatic.

Yet this rejection of received wisdom is precisely what modern society has done with regard to philosophy, politics, morality, and religion.

We act as if past conclusions have no meaning when it comes to these issues, even though we wouldn’t dream of such an approach in the natural sciences or engineering. The assumption is that what is old is defunct. Because humanity is continually evolving and improving, whatever is current must be, by definition, the best version ever to have existed. What need have we of the old? To which I answer, well, houses that don’t leak, for one thing.

Mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) is often called “The Father of Modern Philosophy,” and he played a decisive role in this modern rejection of tradition. Ironically, Descartes set out to lay a firm foundation for belief in objective truth by starting from scratch, dumping out all previous philosophy and using only his own experience and reflections as a foundation for a “new method” of philosophy. But rather than healing the growing doubt about religion and philosophy during his time, Descartes’ project only widened and deepened that wound of skepticism.

In order to try to settle the doubts and confusion in his own mind, Descartes decided to reject everything he had been taught, everything he had received from the past. In his Discourse on the Method, he wrote:

All this led me to conclude that I could judge others by myself, and to decide that there was no such wisdom in the world as I had previously hoped to find. … As far as the opinions which I had been receiving since my birth were concerned, I could not do better than to reject them completely.

In other words, Descartes abandoned traditional Western philosophy, which dated all the way back to Plato and had always been a philosophy built on common sense and the defense of an objective, knowable reality.

In addition to rejecting any knowledge we might gain from what others tell us, Descartes also rejected the knowledge we gain by our senses. “Thus, as our senses deceive us at times, I was ready to suppose that nothing was at all the way our senses represented them to be,” he wrote. It’s not hard to see how Descartes philosophy exponentially increased the doubts and uncertainty of his age. They multiplied like bacteria. Descartes had effectively undercut the basis of all knowledge: the senses and the testimony of other people, including the testimony of tradition.

Common sense tells us that we ought to trust, at least in some cases, the things others tell us. As St. Augustine said in The City of God, “regarding objects remote from our own senses, we need others to bring their testimony, since we cannot know them by our own.” In fact, we could not even live and function without this trust.

Imagine, for example, if everyone refused to believe anything that someone else told them. Imagine a society where citizens rejected anything they had not seen with their own eyes. You couldn’t use maps, or websites, or books. Grocery stores couldn’t be stocked because their suppliers wouldn’t believe the store was empty. Policemen couldn’t respond to 911 calls because of their Cartesian doubt, their refusal to believe the words of someone else. Everyone would have a different idea of what the date was. In short, society would fall to pieces.

Descartes didn’t trust the other voices of the Western tradition and insisted on figuring everything out for himself. And so, having rejected both tradition and the five senses as valid means of knowing truth, Descartes was left only with himself, his own mind. Famously, the foundation for his entire philosophical system is “I think, therefore I am.”

This is a radically subjective way to approach truth. As Dr. John Senior put it, “Descartes argues that we know nothing but what is in our minds, all sense experience being merely an extension of mentality.” While Descartes did accept the necessity of an external, objective reality, he did not believe that its existence could be empirically known. He maintained a mind/body dualism which gave primacy to the individual mind. For Descartes, philosophy begans in me, the individual, not in an objective reality outside myself. It’s “my” truth. Sound familiar?

The Enlightenment philosophers took up Descartes’ refrain of rejecting tradition and questioning objective truth. In his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” philosopher Immanuel Kant proclaimed that it is immature to accept instruction or guidance from anyone outside yourself. He rings the bell of a so-called freedom—freedom from any authority outside the self. While appealing on its surface, we have now seen where such an attitude leads. Eventually, the individual proclaims his freedom from reality itself. This school of thought has led to the notion that each human being creates his own truth and owes nothing to a real, existing order outside the self.

We can see in Descartes’ rejection of tradition the seed of relativism, which has developed into a full, thorny tree in our day, bearing bitter fruit. Had Descartes accepted the philosophical heritage of his time, a tradition founded on the common-sense idea that the reality which exists outside the mind can be reliably known, our society might not be in the sorry state it is today. The old, tried-and-true ideas turned out to be more reliable.

One robust definition of tradition is this: It is the cumulative experience of thousands upon thousands of years of human lives. Just like in carpentry or physics, we can learn from what the past has bequeathed to us, what has worked well, what has led to true human flourishing. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Naturally, our ancestors made mistakes as well. But perhaps we ought to swallow a dose of humility and consider that we, with our limited perspective—a paltry 20, 50, or even 100 years of experience—might have something to learn from the voice of tradition, which is but the voice of many millennia of human living and learning. Why would we dismiss out of hand such a treasure trove of wisdom, won at a great cost by our ancestors?

Image credit: Public domain

Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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