An honorable tradition

By Daniel Stratford


The value of tradition in our nonsensical, sometimes depraved world has always been an item of contention amongst history’s leading philosophical heavyweights. To the average college student, classroom discussions of political traditions are often of no immediate value beyond their use as literary anesthesia. To the ordinary denizen of a college dormitory, the political philosophies of the West’s intellectual ancestors are but recondite musings of long-dead Greeks and Romans. However, the philosophical underpinnings of politics vindicate government itself as a venerable and ancient institution.

Tradition in general affects everything we do in our daily lives; from what type of food we buy, to what type of transportation we utilize, to how we approach schoolwork. By natural extension, political tradition is the wind that fills the mast of our political dispositions. It is the animus that guides our pulling the lever or darkening the circle in the voting booth every November. In order to understand politics, one must understand the historical implications of the governmental traditions that underpin them. To understand the tradition of government is to understand the very nature of man.

It is evident that politics itself is one of humanity’s most venerable traditions. Politics, upon even the most cursory examination, ultimately boils down to reconciling an oftentimes complex confluence of interests. Since the inception of human civilization and settlement, there has been a need for development and the prudent imposition of order and stability in the form of law, lest humanity devolve back into its wretched hunter-gatherer roots; a veritable choir of learned voices echoes this sentiment. The former Democratic House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, for example, asserted at the 2004 Missouri Democratic Convention that “politics is a substitute for violence.” Russell Kirk, that progenitor of the postwar American conservative movement, mused that “Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature.”

This is not to say, however, that the nature of any given political order is ideal or even palatable. Broadly speaking, government and politics exists to directly address troubling quandaries whose consequences concern a given country – quandaries in which most people lack education, judgment and temperament. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “… the great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the politics of their age only by its reflections and refractions.” As such, politics is an art, practiced by artists well-versed in human nature, grounded in the limits imposed by human frailty and mindful of what past travails can reveal about future challenges.

As governments are human in composition, they, out of necessity, must perfect their trusteeship over an imperfect humanity. With this in mind, Francis Fukuyama notes in his most recent work “The Origins of Political Order” that “Political institutions develop, often slowly and painfully, over time, as human societies strive to organize themselves to master their environments.” The theoretical advent of what is colloquially termed “modern liberal democracy” only occurred, after all, in the latter eighteenth century in the wake of the Enlightenment. Even then, it did not prevent Europe from being drawn into the conflagration of the French Revolution, with the destruction of the Monarchy and Church in a fury of populist zeitgeist leading to chaos and then tyranny under Maximilian Robespierre – Robespierre, in turn, sugar-coated the barbarous nature of his rule with the shibboleth of the “will of the people.”

The Enlightenment was most assuredly a watershed moment in European history. The newfound appreciation for rationalism and human reason laid the foundations of the modern world. Virtually every American child is schooled in the glory of the Enlightenment’s achievements, specifically with regards to the influence on our own revolution. Lamentably, though, little to no attention is paid to the Counter-Enlightenment, which, despite its name, was not a reaction to the contemporary renaissance of science and literature, but to the notion that abstract Enlightenment idealism could be used as a manual for governance. It was a necessary and timely reaction to the misconception, popular amongst classical liberals of the Enlightenment and even among certain fringe elements today, that government could be whimsically subordinated to human reason. Led by such visionaries as Edmund Burke and Klemens von Metternich, and stimulated by the carnage of the Reign of Terror in France and the Napoleonic reorganization of Europe respectively, there was widespread recourse to the stability of the past. The post-Napoleonic political reversion effected by the Congress of Vienna was a firm stand against not just romantic nationalism, but against the government by “sophisters and calculators” that Edmund Burke so vehemently decried.

Though we may decry what we may perceive to be the more specious and sordid activities of government on moral grounds, we must remember that the idea of government itself is imbued with moral imagination and replete with a history as rich and varied as that of humanity itself. To negate government is to negate time-tested tradition, and to crassly spit in the face of history.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]