Even though, in fact, contemporary thinkers of the calibre of Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer have explicitly valorised it as an authentic resource of philosophical reflection, in common interpretation tradition is widely understood as a supposed value claimed by a few nostalgic individuals whose backward looking attitude would stop society from progressing and from looking towards the future with freedom of spirit and action. Its misinterpretation has conditioned the very understanding within Christianity and, in the sensitivity developed by many in the post-Council, following what is often seen – and wrongly so – as an experience of ‘breaking’ with the past, prevents us from looking at the history of the Church with the serenity to recognise in it a continuous linear pathway, in the maturing of the Christian conscience and ecclesial practice. To the point of feeling oneself obliged, every time even just the term tradition is evoked and wanting to propose its positive nature, to produce a series of explanations and justifications to guarantee a right understanding or, rather, to free it of the prejudicial encrustations of commonplaces. Besides, it is understandable that, in a cultural climate influenced by subjectivisms and relativisms of various types, a concept like that of tradition, which always involves the idea of a patrimony of contents that is not fully available to the malleability on the part of the individual conscience, may represent something awkward, if not embarrassing or even such as to cause a certain intolerance. Thus, in order to look beyond the barrier of prejudice and make it the subject of reflection that highlights its greatness and value, it needs someone with a lively interest and a special love for the classics, like Josef Pieper (1904-1997), who was in fact spurred on for the whole length of his speculative and academic experience, unceasingly enriched by the comparison with the works of Plato, Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The essay by the German thinker, Le concept de tradition, which reproduces the proceedings of a conference held in 1957 and published a year later with the title Über den Begriff der Tradition, is a brief but at the same time detailed reflection on a notion which, setting aside all the misunderstandings, is of vital importance – and vital in the broadest sense of its theoretical-practical existential reach – for the man of any time and any culture, to the extent of representing an assumption that cannot be renounced, not deducible from other sums of experiences, but rather the condition of the entire sum of human experience. Not being demonstrable, its reality presents itself as the reflection of the existence of a transhuman source of knowledge, the content of which is transmitted from generation to generation.
After a premise in which an important page of Blaise Pascal is used as illuminating the authentic sense of the tradition even in relation to the possible discoveries by experimental science, in the firm objective of the truth – ‘whatever the force of these ancient times, the truth must always have the upper hand, even though of recent discovery, since it is always more ancient than all the opinions there have been of it [...]’, - Pieper carefully considers and describes the different constitutive elements of tradition, which Kenneth Schmitz, in his extensive and useful introduction lists as being eight: 1) the involvement of at least two personal subjects, one that transmits and one that receives; 2) the fact that the content transmitted – traditum or tradendum – represents, at least basically, some actuality or other that claims to have true value; 3) the realisation of oneself in an asymmetrical relationship, acting in a hierarchical relationship where someone that listens corresponds to someone that speaks; 4) the assuming of a conception of time such that for what is transmitted is taken in, in a present contact, like what comes from the generations of the past to be transmitted to the future ones; 5) the involving of a symbolic perception of space correlative to that of time, with “another” place whence comes the knowledge transmitted “towards” a where, in relation to whom it is communicated; 6) the not being able to conceive the content transmitted as property, just as much by who transmits it as by who receives it – which implies that transhuman factor observed by Pieper as defining the heart of tradition itself – and, directly depending on it; 7) the unavailability of the content transmitted to possible alterations, for which reason it is the constant concern of a tradition to keep its integrity, considered binding in relation to the transcendence of its source; and lastly 8) the implying of participation by the receiver and authority by he who actively becomes bearer of the content transmitted.
Once the essential characteristics of what can be called “tradition” have been recognised, the German philosopher identifies three loci or experiential forms in which it appears. These are in the first place the Judaic-Christian Revelation, then the pre-Christian and extra-Christian myths and lastly the transmission of the ‘unconscious certainties’ fostered by fundamental existential facts, which are theorised in Carl Gustav Jung’s psychology. He then hints at the possibility of adding the experience of language, and centres his attention on Christianity as the maximum expression of the notion of tradition, bringing together, thanks to the notion of memory of which he traces the line of continuity from Plato to Augustine, the mythical pre-Christian and extra-Christian complex in its essential details, up to recovery of the conceivability of a ‘homogeneousness of all human tradition’.
There derives the discovery of the experience of the realisation of truth on reality as a gift, independent of a patrimonial acceptation of knowledge as it is unavailable to subjectivist deformation since, in reality, mainly available in the universality of its character of shared patrimony and above – that is, transcendent – the horizon of the space-time singularity of individual experience. From this point of view, as Pieper himself observes, ‘the modern refusal of the theological foundation of being represents a loss of tradition in the full sense of the term’.
The reciprocal is of course valid, which shows the danger implicit in any superficial treatment of the patrimony of what authentically represents a ‘tradition’, as long as some fleeting and transient forms are not exchanged as such, which it assumes in its expressive modalities, over the centuries, since, rather, ‘an authentic conscience of tradition makes us free and independent with respect to the conservatism of those claiming to be the custodians of it’. The experience of tradition brings us back, in this sense, to the essential which transcends men and centuries and for this reason generates unity, to a maximum degree, securing the present to the sources. Pieper thus concludes his own reflection by confirming that ‘the unity of the human species has its last roots in the community of tradition in a strict sense, that is to say in the common participation in holy tradition which goes back to the Word of God’.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal