The opposition of tradition to progress, in moderate or radical terms, continues to be seen, rhetorically, as a characteristic feature of Western modernity. Until yesterday, the mere fact of adjudging this opposition a mere intellectually rough and ideological prejudiced schema was sufficient to be officially placed within the cultural (and political) field of traditionalism. ‘Traditionalism’ defined a polarisation of attachment to tradition which the dominant culture likened to an authoritarian orientation that was hostile to freedom and resistant to the idea of progress (at least at an ethical-political level). Whatever the case, the idea that the progress of civilisation, of knowledge and of freedom coincided with the overcoming of tradition was broadly established, beginning with modernity, as an a priori of common understanding. Today such is not the case. This is not necessarily good news if we take into account the fact that the evolution of this schema of opposition, which is undoubtedly simplistic, has at least two variables, which in their turn are not without problems. Certainly, however, the diminishment of that opposition, and the revision of the prejudice that led it (which was abstract compared to the reason and the history of the human), has taken many steps forward.
First of all, we should focus in on the retrieval of the irreducible plurality of cultures. The impulse of the historical, anthropological and social sciences developed a special sensitivity towards the differences of traditions in the plural. Attention was first developed in relation to non-Western cultures, significantly changing the meaning of the concept of ‘civilisation’. This shift, as is known, provided topics for a broad critical reflection on the ‘Eurocentric’ perspective of our (indeed) traditional conception of culture. There sprang from this, however, a curious effect which is rather paradoxical. The absoluteness of the notion of ‘progress’, connected with the Western scale of values, was subjected to criticism. Its claim to place itself at the summit of the criteria of civilisation, and of the forms of actuation of the humanistic ideal, appeared ideological and dogmatic. That is to say, in the current jargon, unfounded. But at the same time, the hierarchical prejudice in favour of Western culture was represented as a characteristic feature of this critical approach. The relativisation of one’s own Western (and Christian) culture was produced within the context of the recognition of the equal dignity and respectability of other cultural (and religious) traditions in their specific diversity. But this approach was always the effect of an internal evolution within Western (and Christian) culture. It is this culture, in fact, which sees such a recognition, the roots of which lie in the terrain of Enlightenment rationality and Christian universalism (even thought the exact contribution of these two derivations is still a matter of discussion), as a general principle of the progress of human civilisation. The development of this incontestably ethical model, which recognises that the various traditions have an equal dignity of meaning, was applied, so to speak, to itself. A significant plurality of cultures was, indeed, perceived within the synchronic horizon of the same historical world. This fact today is macroscopically evident, not least because the bestowal of value on cultural pluralism has increased this recognition, multiplying the application of the totalising concept of ‘culture’ (and in an equivalent way of ‘tradition’) to diversities at the level of politics, regions, social class, and opinion. Whatever the case – according to this interpretation – an analogous differentiation can also be seen in the most ancient epochs of our history.
A second paradox followed which was equally unforeseen. The radical critique of tradition, which sees tradition as the dogmatic inheritance of despotic and one-way knowledge, affected the tradition itself of Enlightenment thinking. Its claimed infallibility in terms of the approach to meaning, indeed, demonstrated with an abundance of proof its tragic ingenuousness (Horkheimer and Adorno). The elaboration of this critique ended up by producing a rehabilitation of traditions of meaning against the univocal character of a logos separated from transmission and initiation into the human, which is thought to be rational and progressive, specifically because of this abstractness. Contemporary reason has in this way addressed itself to developing its function of recognising and appreciating (albeit in a purely critical way) of traditions which in a historical sense articulate its possible meaning.
Trasmission and Sharing
The irreplaceable role of tradition, understood as availability of the direction of meaning, cannot be substituted by the self-foundation of reason. Indeed, in this transmission of truth and justice of the human which ethically motivates the elaboration of reason, a tradition of meaning has a fundamental role in offering the conditions that make the use of reason humanly trustworthy. The question of a tradition of meaning – how it is formed and with what authenticity, what form of authoritativeness it employs and what maturation of freedom it makes available, in which ways it contributes to the formation of a human identity, and which resources it offers for the circulation and sharing of inter-human identity – becomes, in this way, objectively fundamental. Its abstractness exposes reason to separation from concrete subjectivity. And its accentuation of rational subjectivity, as an a priori of the ascertainment of truth and justice founded on itself, exposes its concrete realisation to its separation from the concreteness of the shared human: with the tendency to see it as an obstacle to be surmounted (or removed). In the worst cases, as violent totalitarianism. In the less evident cases, as bureaucracy that forces an an-affective and aesthetic logos.
The evidence and the proof of the articulations of meaning are to be found, indeed, by this specific path: in the testimonial (affective, reliable and evaluative) concreteness of the transmission of sharable meaning. The ratio is an instrument for the critical elaboration of their human access, of its personal appropriation and its inter-human sharing. A tradition must in itself be prepared for argument, just as the rational logos must be receptive to testimony. In this way, the human is constructed; and in this way it conserves what, in its transmission, can be received solely as a gift.
There thus emerges a perspective on the transmission and sharing of the quality of being human – its stewardship and its development – where tradition and reason are not enemies but allies. Naturally, this alliance should be constantly implemented and kept alive. It watches over tradition which believes that it conserves its own authenticity by simply expelling human reason from its own domain. But this alliance also involves a commitment to containing the purported absoluteness of an abstract and separate reason that is indifferent to any tradition of meaning in which the human is constructed. The question raised by the sharing of this dual critical attention, in favour of the shared human, strives to be resolved theoretically, it seems to me, in two prevalent directions. The first is that of the hermeneutic elaboration of languages. In substance one is dealing with an unceasing experiencing of the translation of the claim to truth and justice, articulated in the various languages of traditions, in order to make appreciable the recognition of a ‘shared horizon’ of meaning. The second is that of the dialectical deconstruction of every claimed absoluteness of the concepts of the same reason in order to illuminate the character of choice and decision between many possibilities of meaning, from which spring the meanings that are taken on as being definitive.
This dual perspective certainly represents a step forward as regards the prejudice of the incommunicability of traditions and the abstract absoluteness of reason. In both cases there remains open, however, a space for an infinite oscillation: not only of the truth and the justice of meanings but also of human meaning as such, which can and must be sharable. It is specifically, indeed, to this that the transmission of the human as such is addressed. And it is this, lastly, that is the source of the human legitimation of every exercise of critical reason. Intelligence is critical, by definition, only in view of the reliability of thought, exchanged and experienced words. This subject reopens (Seligman) the question of the nexus between tradition, reason and the authoritativeness of meanings. This provocation may appear, in turn, a paradox. And yet if one wants to walk down to the utmost the path of criticism of the self-referential closure of tradition and reason, it is necessary to recognise the radical limit of the idea of the ‘self-foundation’ of the human Self, understood as the absolute origin and criterion of the words and actions that transmit the truth and justice of meaning in relation to which humans makes their choices and direct their lives.
Monotheism of the Self
Religion, for everyone, bears within it the mystery of this sacredness of origins and destinations: which is corrupted, for everyone, at the very moment at which it is resolved in self-construction. At that point there is no longer tradition, that is to say the generation and growth of the living, but only a replication of the identical, in its immanent sterility. And there is no longer a reason that makes truth and justice accessible to thought that is grateful for the testimony that anticipates its promise and trust, which are otherwise inaccessible, with generation itself, but only prevarication of the Self, which conserves itself solely by eliminating the other. The affective, ethical and rational implications of this conservation should certainly be unceasingly explored and investigated within the horizon of a productive alliance between the traditions of religion and the reason of humans. To censor them, to remove them or even to try to dissolve them is certainly not – with every proven historical verisimilitude – the way by which to assure dialogue and avoid prevarication. Tradition should be understood as testimony to revelation not as its replacement: in this lie – together – its authoritativeness and its limit. And therefore, its rational dignity as well: in the reference to the principle of a truth for everyone, not simply a truth of one person. Reason, in its turn, should be understood as intelligence of truth, which transcends it, and not as a master of truth that disposes of it. In listening and in recognition lies its justice, and not in its coherence with itself and in the experiments of its dominion.
Monotheism of the Self is certainly the worst that we have known. God, in fact, is agape: the original generation of the Logos and life according to the Spirit. The Logos does not derive authoritativeness from self-construction but specifically from the disposition of God to the exercise and redemption of agape. In religion, first of all. And thus in every form of exercise of intelligence and transmission of the human, which generates life and makes it live.