Thursday, 9 August 2012

Tradition as an exogenous source of normativity

Seeing my nieces in a production of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of weeks after a day trip to London to take in Antigone at the National Theatre prompted some initial thoughts on tradition.

First, Fiddler... is just such an oddly toned piece for a musical. Beginning with ‘Tradition’ whose lyrics start:

Who day and night
Must scramble for a living
Feed the wife and children
Say his daily prayers
And who has the right
As master of the house
To have the final word at home?
The papa, the papas... tradition
The papa, the papas... tradition

Who must know the way to make a proper home
A quiet home, a kosher home
Who must raise a family and run the home
So papa's free to read the holy book?
The mama, the mama... tradition
The mama, the mama... tradition

At three I started Hebrew school
At ten I learned a trade
I hear they picked a bride for me
I hope... she's pretty
The sons, the sons... tradition
The sons, the sons... tradition

And who does mama teach
To mend and tend and fix
Preparing me to marry
Whoever papa picks?
The daughters, the daughters... tradition...

You get the picture.

This sets up the plot which involves Tevye’s negotiation between the demands of the traditions in which he is enmeshed and his daughters’ successive bids for freedom. Up to the final daughter/challenge too far, we witness a gradual progressive (and Progressive) move towards liberalisation. Much hilarity ensues.

OK, much hilarity does indeed ensue. But at the same time, there is a recognisable relation between tradition and rationality. Tevye is pushed by his daughters. He reasons against his will. But his reasoning is based only on reasons that tradition provides him. For example, he reasons thus in an aside:

He's beginning to talk like a man.
On the other hand,
what kind of a match would that be
with a poor tailor?
On the other hand,
he is an honest, hard worker.
But on the other hand,
he has absolutely nothing.
On the other hand,
things could never get worse for him, only better.

This is the view of the relation of reason and tradition which is expressed at the very end of John McDowell’s Mind and World and which, unfairly, has been cited as a justification of the accusation of his conservatism.

A natural language, the sort of language into which human beings are first initiated, serves as a repository of tradition, a store of historically accumulated wisdom about what is a reason for what. The tradition is subject to reflective modification that inherits it. Indeed, a standing obligation to engage in critical reflection is itself part of the inheritance. But if an individual human being is to realize her potential of taking her place in that succession, which is the same thing as acquiring a mind, the capacity to think and act intentionally, at all, the first thing that needs to happen is for her to be initiated into a tradition as it stands. [McDowell 1994: 126]

What makes Fiddler... seem tonally so strange is that after this familiar form of comedy – a comedy which reflects non-revoltuionary but progressive politics – is that at the end of the play, tradition takes a back seat. Suddenly, in the final scene, everyone is evicted from the village because of the start of an anti-Jewish pogrom. The rational negotiation of a change within a  tradition is rendered irrelevant by broader historical change. Force trumps reasons. And it is not that we are unaware that worse is to come. 

Now there’s something obviously strange about comparing Fiddler... with the National’s current production of Antigone but one has to work with what one has.* Naturally enough as a Greek tragedy, there is a sense in which tradition provides fixed ground rules for the action. And we know the ground rules to be immutable whatever little degree of freedom there is within them. But there’s an even more stark idea. It turns out that even the gods are bound by traditions. Teiresias accuses Creon, who has left his nephew Polyneices – killed leading an invasion of Thebes – to rot unburied, saying:

Such matters are not for you to judge. You usurp ancient rights which even the gods themselves don’t dare to question, powers which are not in the prerogative of kings.

This is to sit firmly on one side of the Euthyphro paradox: the gods themselves are bound by tradition. No one has any freedom of movement, not even the gods. Creon’s fault was to think that state-power not only required but also mandated actions which might be seen in their own light. But that is not the view of the play. Nor is it that Creon’s thoughts seem absurd. He speaks no sort of nonsense. And yet he is not even contingently wrong. He damns himself and those around him because of the timeless necessities to which even the gods are mere servants.

Now that’s a breathtaking view of tradition. That is real platonism.

* Antigone was utterly superb, by the way. As good as anything I've seen recently including Jacobi's Lear or, come to think of it, Don Carlos in 2005 for simple authority.