The curious image with which Shakespeare described the working of the spirit of the past in the present achieved affirmation in subsequent centuries with Hegel and Marx. But the great question remains: does contemporary man manage to truly value what he has received?

This article was published in Oasis 9. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:03

‘Well said, old mole! Canst work i’th’earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!’[1]. Thus spoke Hamlet to the ghost of his father. ‘You have worked well, good mole’. This is the translation of Hegel in his Lessons on the History of Philosophy, pointing to the work of the spirit in the ‘subsoil’ of history and its capacity to shake the ‘earth’s crust’ in our present. Marx would say something similar in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, attributing to revolution the ability of the Shakespearian miner: ‘Well dug, old mole!’.

Variations on the theme of tradition

The idea is clear: our past is not in the least dead and buried, as people often say, but, rather, it is something spiritual that works internally, even though we do not realise this fact. Without upsetting Freud, Hegel had already been convinced that tradition is not a mere sequence of events that have taken place (the ‘hard facts’ as Edward Shils called them [2]), nor something that is purely fictitious, that is to say invented from nothing (as it is, for example, in the Marxist approach of Hobsbawm) [3]. ‘Tradition’, explains Hegel, ‘is not only a housewife who devotedly takes care of what she has received as though she was dealing with stone statuettes to be kept intact and to be handed down to subsequent generations’. Tradition is a living organism. This is why, Hegel goes on, it ‘swells like an impetuous river and gets larger the more it is distant from its origins’.

Not, therefore, a collection of museum pieces, which, however well sorted, are placed simply in a series, one next to the other; tradition should be seen, rather, as a link, a ‘sacred chain’ (‘eine heilige Kette’, Hegel says) that knots together everything that is past, generating a meaning that calls on the present with a view to the future. This, however, places us immediately face to face with a problem. Indeed, it is one thing to say that the past ‘knotted together’ by tradition is necessarily influential and to a certain extent conditional in relation to the lives of people; it is quite another to assert that the ‘chain’ of tradition not only has meaning but is, indeed, ‘sacred’, that is to say it has the value of an incontrovertible divine law. This claim of a historicist nature, which, as we will see below, is a premise for traditionalism, involves in Hegel a consequence of no little import: tradition is indeed an impetuous river that grows larger the further away it is from its origins, but this river is already contained in its origins [4]. Expressed with the use of a metaphor, in history nothing is new because the meaning of tradition has the value of being an objective criterion of truth that is fixed once and for all to which all historical experience must correspond.

Here, therefore, is the delicate point: the meaning of tradition, as Rosmini notes in opposing Hegel, is not sic et simpliciter the truth. For that matter, who can deny that error as well has its tradition which is handed down from generation to generation? Three ways of thinking about tradition are thus opened up:

  1. Revolutionism, or more in general, the rejection ‘en bloc’ of the meaning of tradition.
  2. Traditionalism, that is to say an acritical identification of the meaning of tradition with truth.
  3. A critique of the meaning of tradition.



In the common meaning of the contemporary epoch, tradition is experienced for the most part as a burden, a yoke from which one should free oneself as soon as possible. The principal reason for this rebellion against the past seems to be connected to what Heidegger calls ‘mechanisation’ (Machenschaft), that is to say the dominance of technology as the horizon of meaning of experience. Although technology is pure will to power, that is to say unconditional self-determination, it is clear that technology does not tolerate constrictions of any kind, to the point of requiring, as Heidegger says, ‘a humanity that destroys every tradition’. This subversive aspect is typical of every revolutionary ideology, whether technological in character or otherwise: the creation of a totally new man, whose primary requisite is to have no memory. This can be seen well in the French Revolution. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique, Voltaire placed the concept of tradition under the heading préjugés, meaning by this the ‘opinions without a judgement’ that are inculcated in us in early childhood onwards. To this category belongs above all religious traditions, which Voltaire sees indiscriminately as being superstitions. One can thus understand why those who cannot manage, or do not want, to use reason to free themselves from the presumed authority of our past should be seen as ‘miserable’.


Often the resentment of revolutionism towards the past generates traditionalism which, at least in this sense, can be understood as a counter-revolutionary measure. Les soirées de Saint Pétersburg of De Maistre, for example, is an explicit (equal and symmetrical) opposition to the cynicism of Voltaire. For De Maistre, traditions ‘are all true’ and superstition ‘is valuable and often necessary’. Against reason, which leads to scepticism, one should base experience on the objective authority of tradition, whose incontestability, above all in religious traditionalism, is guaranteed directly by God. It is certainly the case that not all forms of traditionalism have the same matrix: the position of De Maistre is certainly not matched by that, which is also of a traditionalist character, of a Guénon or an Evola. But there is a common logic that we could define – with Marcuse – as an irrational absolutisation of authority. Rosmini was already aware of this: it is of little importance whether the criterion of truth is attributed to divine authority or to human authority. The point is that reason is – as he expresses himself – totally ‘debased’, that is to say delegitimised. This is when the traditionalist rejection of reason and the revolutionary rejection of authority reinforce each other.

A critique of the meaning of tradition

How can we escape the impasse of the revolutionism/traditionalism circuit? By trying to express what remains between the meaning of tradition and truth. This does not mean to diminish the experiential importance of tradition. On this point the critical observations advanced by both Hanna Arendt and Simon Weil are valid. Deracination, that is to say the denial of tradition, is by far and away the most dangerous malady of human societies because it leaves no alternatives: whether an inertia similar to death or the wish to deracinate those who are not yet in this condition. This, in basic terms, is what Nietzsche calls nihilism, that is to say detachment, a separation from one’s ‘land of birth’ that begins with a feeling of being lost and ends up with anxiety. This, in analogous fashion, was the lament of Pasolini about the ‘unfortunate generation’ of 1968 who ingenuously supported those who ‘laughed at tradition’.

Thus the point is not, as one reads in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘having oneself turned off all the lands of our fathers’, even though this invitation to rebellion is not completely foolish, at least if we see it as a symptom of intolerance of a suffocating traditionalism; the point, as is suggested, for example by Ricouer, is to understand tradition so as not to oppose it to reason. What does this mean? An interesting proposal is to think in terms of inheritance: it is clear, indeed, that an inheritance is not a closed packet that is passed from one set of hands to another without being opened, but, rather, a treasure that is fully drawn upon. The act of drawing upon, for Ricoeur, is a rational act of interpretation, whose space of action is precisely given by what remains left over between (inherited) meaning and truth. Thus, without reason, which with its interpretation thoroughly examines the meaning of tradition in order to ‘dig out’ the truth that is there, we would have traditionalism. Vice versa, without the meaning of tradition, reason would run – so to speak – free, or it would be identified, as occurs in certain revolutionary utopias, with truth.

There is one aspect, however, that seems to be still in shadow and which, instead, has to be explained: on what conditions can a tradition really be valuable as an inheritance? This is expressed in an effective, albeit negative, way by René Char: ‘Our heritage is not preceded by a testament’ [‘Notre héritage n’est précedé d’aucune testament’ - R. Char, Feuillets d’Hypnos, Paris, 1946]. To make a testament – explains Arendt, taking up the aphorism of Char – means to engage in a choice, to assign a name, to establish an alliance. Thus it is only by way of an explicit act of will that it is possible to transform a generic past into an inheritance. It is then interesting to observe that in the case of a testament the will is not, as is the case with revolutionism, a pure will to power but, Arendt continues, a will to ‘point out where the treasures are and what their value is’, that is to say a will to ties. We are thus faced with a past that is sent, addressed to someone.

In this sending, tradition acquires meaning as a historical inheritance; it becomes, that is to say, ready to allow itself to be questioned ‘backwards’, specifically beginning with that sending. It is certainly the case that what the heir tries to understand is how to go forward, what future should be built. But he cannot do this without going backwards, towards the original intention, the truth, of what he has inherited. This appears to be the meaning of the Rückfrage that Husserl speaks about in The Origin of Geometry and what Derrida happily translates with the phrase ‘question en retour’ [5]. The same approach can be found in Péguy where it is said that there is no opposition between revolution and tradition, given that authentic progress is always, after a certain fashion, a ‘ressource’, a resource in the literal sense of a ‘re-sourcing’, of bringing back into the present of a heir the presence of a truth that was in the past. In this direction, perhaps, moves Hofmannsthal as well, when he introduces the paradoxical concept of ‘conservative revolution’.

Now this idea of ‘ressource’ should not be misunderstood: one is not dealing with a sterile repetition, nor with a simple use of a whole closed up in a given origin, as in the case of the Hegelian image of the impetuous river. In short, truth is not deduced from the origins (a point that remains immediately ungraspable), but testified to, that is to say made present once again, beginning with the inheritance that has been sent. This is something which, once again, justifies the need for interpretation: between testament and testimony there is invention, in the dual sense of rediscovery and creation. Differently, one enters into the two forms of impasse that we know about. If the sending does not take place, the past seeks to have the same worth as atemporal truth, that is to say because of the absolute authority of a myth and not by means of interpretation/testimony. Such is traditionalism. If, instead, the sending is deliberately ignored, the past simply loses meaning. Such is revolutionism.

We can thus rewrite our three ways of thinking about tradition:

  1. Revolutionism-will to power-nihilism.
  2. Traditionalism-absolute authority-myth.
  3. Tradition-testament-historical inheritance.

At this point, what is the significant domain of philosophical inquiry where the third model has been thought about? Without doubt, as it is easy to intuit, the domain of hermeneutics. Beyond the differences, which are at times profound, there is an element that characterises the basic insight of hermeneutic thought: we could say, once again with Ricoeur, that one is dealing with recognising the historical conditions to which all human understanding within the regime of finitude is subjected. It is specifically this recognition that legitimises the epistemological function of tradition. This is explicitly argued by Habermas where he states that hermeneutic understanding is addressed to a ‘handed-down context of meanings’, that is to say a complex of inherited traditions.

The Hermeneutic Circle

This is an initial hermeneutic situation, as Habermas calls it, which cannot be simply climbed over, given that it constitutes the very horizon of understanding. Naturally enough, this does not mean being condemned to a vicious circle, by which we know only what is already contained in our past, with the further aggravating circumstance that we cannot even communicate anymore, given that everyone, at the level of principle, would be closed up in their solitary context of handed-down meanings. The idea of Habermas, but before him of Heidegger, is that of the ‘hermeneutic circle’, which is not vicious because it manages to distinguish between the level of the implicit pre-knowing of tradition, which remains an ineluctable condition of understanding, and the level of thematic knowing, that is to say the level of the critical taking on and (always partial) interpretation of traditional pre-knowing. In this sense, one also understands why Gadamer rehabilitates the prejudices that were hated so much by Voltaire: certainly not because of sympathy for traditionalism, but because he believes that human reason is always determined by the prejudgements (Voreingenommenheiten) of our openness to the world. Everything lies in becoming aware of them at the moment of the interpretive act.

Were it not that this lucid awareness of the structural nexus between reason and tradition/authority is not followed, at least in Gadamer, by a concern to define the criteria by which to decide on the validity of the interpretations that are offered. But if one does not manage to establish the difference between authentic understanding and misunderstanding (both the result of an interpretation), then there is a dual risk:

  • The risk of an ingenuous and idealised vision of human understanding by which the relationship between what is past (tradition) and what is present is conceived as an always open and necessarily transparent dialogue, as though, that is, possible misunderstandings were not possible.
  • The risk of reducing the interpretation of tradition to a self-referential game that is totally incapable of keeping the hermeneutic circle in tension with the question of truth; such, for example, is the disseminative incline taken by Vattimo, according to whom we should surrender to the idea that tradition is like the library in Babel described by Borges, totally similar to the hyper-textual functioning of Internet: here there is no longer sending out but an infinite sending back and forth of truth within a network of references that never ends with meaning.

We thus return to the initial observation of Rosmini: it is one thing to say that tradition has meaning, it is quite another to establish on what conditions it is true. This is why some authors such as Apel and Habermas have tried to propose – and this is no accident – critical hermeneutics in an attempt to take into account the phenomena of the distortion of the meaning of tradition, which encumber the interpretative exercise of the past that we inherit. All of this in the awareness that there cannot be authentic understanding without holding up a pathway towards truth; nor can one go down that pathway without looking behind one, that is to say without a memory. On the condition, however, that this is not merely ‘archaeological’ but as Habermas says ‘directed towards the future’. Something which, in essential terms, St. Augustine had very clear in his mind: ‘ut prevideamus, non providentia nos instruit sed memoria’ [6].


[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, sc. 5.

[2] Cf. Edward Shils, Tradition (Faber and Faber, London/Boston 1981), chap. IV.

[3] Cf. Eric J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992).

[4] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introduzione alla storia della filosofia (translated into Italian by A. Plebe, Laterza, Rome/Bari 1982), pp. 36-37 [English edition: Lectures on the History of Philosophy (The Humanities Press, 1974)].

[5] Cf. Jacques Derrida, ‘Introduction’ to Edmund Husserl, L’origine de la géométrie (French translation edited by J. Derrida, PUF, Paris, 1962), p. 99.

[6] Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, XV, 7, 13, in PL 42, 1067.