Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Friday, December 5, 2008

In Defense Of Tradition

"We are afraid to put men to live and trade, each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that in each man this stock is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages." --Edmund Burke--

I am watching a History Channel documentary on Einstein, and something struck me. At the same time that arguably the most brilliant physicist of the 20th century (a century of near-miraculous advances in physics) was working on his general theory of relativity, he was also cheating on his wife and making up a list of "rules" she would have to follow in order to be allowed the privilege of remaining married to him. Needless to say, she chose to forgo such a great honor.

Think about that. Einstein was so brilliant, that his general theory of relativity is difficult for trained physicists to understand fully, even now, 90-odd years after it was introduced. He was smart enough to create an entirely new idea so complex that the average smart person cannot even understand it AFTER it's explained to them. And yet he apparently knew less about women and marriage than your average teenage boy.

The point is this. No one knows everything. I'm constantly amazed by all the dumb decisions made by otherwise smart people. If people have big, and obvious blind spots, why not societies? We know, after all, that people have a tendency towards group think. The German populace of the first half of the 20th century was as educated and intelligent a population as any the world had ever seen, and yet they fell under the spell of Nazism. Why then should we not believe that a single generation of people is prone to the same faults as single individuals, no matter how educated or intelligent that generation or person may be? Tradition, societal values, the prejudices of the past, or whatever else you wish to call them, have developed for a reason. They are the painful experiences and lessons of lifetimes beyond measure, accrued painfully in order to give future generations a measure by which to operate.

This tradition is not flawless, as slavery surely shows us. But doesn't tradition deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt? And yet, in the last 50 years, we have rejected tradition and its values more fully than any other generation in history. We respect education more than experience, intelligence over wisdom. Our rewards so far? Higher rates of illegitimacy, crime, and mental illness. Widespread unhappiness, pernicious consumerism, and a disregard for obligations and responsibility. Faith is slowly, but inexorably being sqeezed out of the public arena. How much longer can we stay detached from the wisdom of the past before we go completely over the edge?