• Alexander M. Wegner

Time and Tradition

(C) James Frid

TIME, LIKE DISTANCE, HAS COME TO BE RELATIVE, as human organization has turned ever more rigid. Whereas the world within which man was prior to the Enlightenment appeared as vast and mysterious as the cosmos, the world over which man has presided thereafter, resembles a microcosm. Science, technology and unparalleled material means have veiled the complexity, uncertainty, risk and dynamism that have always-already characterized the world, whether in its cosmic or in its microcosmic appearance.

The transition of man from a world that represented an enigma, to an orderly world, one that man sought to compose and conduct, has come to erode the purpose of time. Time, of course, denotes both onset and end; thereby, it serves to remind man of his mortality, and places him within a wide and vibrant stream of human thought and practice. Thus, those aware of time, conscious of the finite amid the infinite and the continuous amid the evolving, will recognize their insignificance for what is unfolding.

Those who are amid a world that corresponds to the dynamics of market-commerce–typically termed capitalism–are prone to lose sight of time, and forgo a sense for the pivotal function time fulfills–namely, the rendering humble of man, in light of what has been, what will cease to be, and what may come forth. Contrary to academic custom, the discipline of economics cannot and should not be separated from disciplines such as political science or sociology, as market-commerce seems to have subsumed societies.

The life of man is determined by the assumption–whether conscious or sub-conscious, deliberate or compelled–of roles. Whereas, in the aristocratic age, birth translated into the assumption of persistent roles, choice determines alterable roles in the democratic age. Problematically, choice is subject to social-psychology, which in turn is a contextual concept. Phrased differently, even when man is free to choose, his choice may either be predetermined or at least influenced by his field, as Bourdieu described.

At present, the choice of man is predominantly determined by market-commerce. Commercial interchange requires the creation of and participation in conducive entities–corporations, financial institutions, risk-mitigating entities (such as insurance firms) and regulatory bodies–which yields an abundance of alterable roles that man ought to assume. Market-commerce also facilitates adherence to these roles, given the lure of material possessions, which seem to have largely come to be equated with well-being.

Being amid a world that resembles a microcosm and corresponds to the dynamics of market-commerce, man chooses on the basis of the roles he holds–regardless of how he came to assume them–or in pursuit of the roles to which he aspires. As material well-being forms the heart of societal life, the assumption and maintenance of roles requires material endowment, which is in turn intertwined with social custom; hence, man is free to choose his roles, contingent upon his material, cultural, and social capital.

As man constantly and continuously strives to assume or maintain roles, while satisfying the obligations with which these come, time is merely thought of in the context of performance within societies oriented along market-commerce. Indeed, man disregards his mortality, and treats the planet that happens to accommodate him as an infinite resources, employed in his service. Thus, while the present looms large, past and future turn invisible, and fertile tradition vanishes from the mind and heart of man.

Though tradition often tends to be exclusively associated with conservatives, it is no less pivotal for progressive aspirations. In fact, the assumption that progress can unfold in the absence of tradition appears counter-intuitive. Arguably, the thought and practices of previous generations form the soil of both the unfolding and the forthcoming; the Kantian belief in a historical trajectory overstates the capacity of man, declaring him to be the creator of fate, which appears rather dubious as the world of man is an enigma.

Man is but a kernel in a vibrant stream whose source and direction remain unknown. Tradition resembles a map of the road traveled, and can serve as a resource in the quest for further direction, without insuring against the perils of the path ahead. Whereas tradition facilitates moderation–as skepticism informed by insight into the past, rooted in an understanding of the world as it is, coupled with steadfast hope for an unknowable future–its absence likely yields ferociousness, prompting cynicism, fatigue and demise.

Tradition and progress, thus, are not mutually exclusive, but mutually legitimizing. Nonetheless, both presuppose vibrant societies, from the family to the community and the nation. Unless tradition comes to life in the day-to-day practices of the families and communities that comprise the nation, it will be subsumed by anxiety about the durability of comforts and–physical as well as emotional–security. Absent of living traditions, the promises of demagogues and progressives threaten to erode reciprocity.

Amid a world that has been, is and will continue to be in flux, moderation–as informed skepticism, realism and steadfast hope–practiced within the family, community and nation, promises to yield further improvement and progress. Whereas tradition forms the soil of what may come forth, education plants the seeds of the very moderation that communal association is likely to cultivate. Whether tradition, education and communal association will form the intellect of man, may be contingent upon the retrieval of time.

Though the pathways toward such retrieval are manifold, religion is likely to be the most potent. Who, other than God–however conceived–could draw the sight of man beyond day-to-day concerns? Who, other than God, could guide the imagination of man to the onset of the world as man knows it, and could remind him both of its possible end and his mortality? Exposure to the history of political thought may fulfill a similar function; yet impetus and occasions for such exposure are respectively low and rare.

As man resembles the enigma that his world represents, the retrieval of time and tradition appear unlikely, identified pathways toward such retrieval impotent, and further inquiry into possible approaches improbable. Though man may not resolve the mystery that being entails, he may come to accept it, choosing to confront existential mystery through a sentiment as modest as hope. Is it not hope that reminds us of past struggles, that reduces the largess of the here-and-now, that enables us to wander into an unknown future? Perhaps Kant rightly recognized that the luring light of progress fades in the absence of recurrent darkness; or perhaps man is destined to be on an infinite quest amid a finite world, in which content arises through mere modesty and virtue.

If man were wholly ignorant of himself he would have no poetry in him, for one cannot describe what one does not conceive. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain idle and would add nothing to the picture. But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much in impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he forever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself. –Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

©2019 by Alexander M. Wegner