by Michael Angerer
Modernity is the central tenet of our age, which likes to classify itself as ‘post-modern’, ‘post-colonial’, and ‘post-truth’; we tend to look upon tradition as stuffy, out-dated, and generally irrelevant to what our everyday lives should be. As you might have guessed from the presence of this column, however, there is far more to tradition than is traditionally assumed; its multiplicity of meanings, both good and bad – and both categories do often lie in the eye of the beholder – complicate the question of tradition and traditionalism, the question of how to deal with what we like to believe used to be the past, to no end.
The roots of the word ‘tradition’ are, as you might expect, Latin: it derives from traditio, meaning literally ‘giving up’ or ‘handing over’. The word then entered English through Latin and French influence; by 1384 – if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed – it was used in the Wycliffite Bible to translate the term traditionem, that is transmitted beliefs, customs, or teachings. Even so, however, the word does not necessarily have the rigidity and fixity commonly associated with it today: an important element of tradition, and part of its modern meaning when used by historians or scholars of literature, is that it is transmitted orally. The source of tradition remains unclear, and with each repetition from person to person and generation to generation it is liable to shift and change like an epochal game of Chinese whispers.
This leads us to the secondary, and initially perhaps contradictory, meaning associated with ‘tradition’: in a more literal sense in terms of the word’s Latin origin, it can also designate the act of handing over something, of giving something up. In the early Christian church, ‘tradition’ was the treasonous act of handing over sacred books to Roman persecutors. And yet in a certain way, this meaning, albeit by now rather archaic, still applies: tradition is the handing over of the old to the new, the gift of the dying to the recently-born, to do with as they please. After all, traditions can only exist because we collectively decide to uphold them, and naturally pass away when they have outlived their usefulness or entertainment value.
All of this is again nicely illustrated in the pieces in this issue. We can acknowledge that tradition provides a solid foundation for our lives; indeed, not only are the ornaments and stable constants of everyday life part of tradition, but society itself: our lives are shaped by those who have lived before and those who live with us. At the same time, there is no need to accept tradition uncritically: any form of common practice may be questioned and re-examined, from choir cassocks to our strange habit of obeying laws; and often, such questioning will confirm that tradition does make sense. When it does not, however, when it becomes constricting and oppressive, we are free to turn away, delve our own valley in the mountains of the past, and take tradition into our own hands to reshape it.