Morality and Tradition–a half-baked post

021“I reckon that there is no notion, however mad, which can occur to the imagination of men of which we do not meet an example in some public practice or other, and which, as a consequence, is not propped up on its foundations by our discursive reason…

The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom; since man inwardly venerates the opinions and the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.”

Montaigne, On Custom

“Custom is the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted.  This is the mystical basis of its authority.  Whoever tries to bring it back to its first principle destroys it.”

Pascal, The Need for Justice

These are found in the first third of Roger Martin du Gard’s novel, Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, and touch on, among other things, the role of tradition in how one thinks of “morality.” What is “immoral”  could simply be defined as that which defies “tradition.”  Beethoven’s music was seen as an affront.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot at its premiere. And that the craziest notions often, if not invariably, have basis in custom.  It brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem beginning with “Much madness is divinest sense…”

To a great extent, this shows the fear people have with letting go of tradition, or at least examining aspects of tradition impartially. Arranged marriages. Duels to right a wounded sense of honor. Showing one’s ankles in public.  If one lets this slide, then all else will follow!

One of the characters in the novel works toward the claim that “duties toward others have an obvious tendency to increase, to multiply, with the evolution of moral consciousness, and […] in the progress of moral ideas with time.” Beethoven’s bluster is recognized as genius.  Marriage now, at least at its onset, is seen as less of a business transaction than it ever was. Is traditionalism, Nationalism, Fundamentalism, etc., good? The important thing, the most important  skill necessary for modern progress–and by this is meant progress in the best sense, not simply “moving forward”–is to be able to look at custom carefully, without its “mystical basis of its authority,” and to discard what holds us back.

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~ by dblomenb on June 16, 2009.

One Response to “Morality and Tradition–a half-baked post”

  1. I know it’s a little annoying to do the deconstructive thing — but isn’t it more interesting to try to understand on what basis we decide what we’re aiming at in “moving forward?” I’ve always been a bit bothered by how “easy” reading history has seemed in our era: we look at a decision like Dred Scot(t?) and recognize it as unjust, and we applaud Brown v. Board… we discuss things as though the direction of progress has always been self-evident, and that those who decided the Dred case simply decided “against progress.” Of course, though, it’s likely that the decision didn’t feel like that at the time.

    So custom leads us to where we find ourselves, yes… but how (or better: “by what authority–“) does one like Beethoven resist the pressures of custom? Certainly it’s not so simple as saying, “morality consists in resisting custom wherever custom is manifest,” right? i.e., there’s some value in some customs?

    In other words (my thesis): isn’t all custom born in a “mystical basis,” in the mouths of prophets and law-givers, etc.?

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