Tradition or Traditionalism?


Too many who think they favour tradition are actually devotees of traditionalism because they do not understand their tradition. Many who are critical of tradition are really criticizing traditionalism.

Iain T. Benson

The term “traditional” has, for many people, become a term of criticism or even derision. For others, it is a banner to march under; as in “traditional family values”. In a book that Northrop Frye said was sure to become a classic, [1] historian Jaroslav Pelikan makes several important observations that are relevant to our understanding and use of the term “tradition”.

First, that we ought to make a distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living” and it is traditionalism that gives tradition a bad name. Joan O’Donovan has described the essence of traditionalism as: ...the allegiance to long-accepted social forms and proprieties without an articulate conception of the moral and spiritual ends they serve. It is the disproportionate love of the authority of human law as distinct from its content, entailing an exaggerated estimation of the accomplishment of the law as such. [2]

The issue here is far larger than a difficulty in articulating the tradition because, in time, people will give up in practical existence those aspects they no longer have any intellectual conviction about. The law, being itself subject to continual challenge, interpretation and development, will develop in ways that are consistent with the spirit and direction of earlier periods or against such a spirit. The issue is whether the changes are within the right spirit of the tradition or not and traditionalism cannot inform us of that. Only tradition, since it knows its own spirit, can develop in time without becoming ossified and untrue to itself. Only an understanding of the moral and spiritual ends of a tradition keep its spirit alive and preserve it from becoming traditionalism. If we do not teach the meaning of a tradition or offer only a cardboard cut-out version of what the tradition actually stood for, we cannot hope to get beyond traditionalism.

Tradition, on the other hand, is “the living faith of the dead” and is characterized by an understanding of development within the tradition as opposed to revolutions which tear at the tradition, uprooting it. Pelikan notes that it is precisely at the point at which a political system begins to free itself from the immediate governance of received traditions “...that formal ideologies tend first to emerge and take hold.” [3]

Pelikan uses music as a metaphor for thought and says that to refuse the melodies of Athens and Jerusalem is “to be tone-deaf to tradition and is, therefore, to be unable to hear the voices of the past or the present or of the future”. [4]

Any leap of progress, in history, says Pelikan, is not a standing broad jump which begins where we are standing, but a running broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight in science, the arts, philosophy, theology, politics and law has not come “... from progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself from a dead past”.

It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation: We do not listen only to the dead, we are not, in Pelikan’s words, simply “...a tape-recording of the tradition — that would be the dead faith of the living, not the living faith of the dead”.

Yet we do acquire insight when we learn to interact with the tradition. And it is here that a serious problem is present in contemporary life in all its aspects. Let us take law for an example. Legal philosophy has not, for some time, been a required course at most Canadian law schools. And even where courses are available, they are frequently taught from a perspective that is critical of the traditions of jurisprudence without evaluating them in any serious way. Over recent years, this lack of sympathy has taken on a more strident dimension and a growing antipathy to any notion of “fundamentality” is increasingly evident. This lack of sympathy with the fullness of tradition (as opposed to traditionalism) is insufficient for those learning law because an understanding of presuppositions and alternatives is essential to an understanding of why law is one thing and not another.

What are we to make of the efforts of those who deny the value of tradition yet seek to rely upon “rights and freedoms” or principles of “dignity” or “equality”? Just where do they think such things arise from? What value would “rights” have if they are merely the whim of the day, outmoded by popular feeling (or the control of elites, or consensus) tomorrow or the day after?

Constitutional law becomes little more than a procedural game unless those involved in the process of argument and those adjudicating between alternative views have a proper grounding in the nature of the “fundamental rights and freedoms” that are recognized (but not created by) the Charter of Rights. Many now doubt whether such a basis has been given to our current crop of judges and lawyers. As G.K. Chesterton has reminded us, if one wishes to have a white post, one needs to keep painting it white or it will not remain so. It is this way with our understanding of all aspects of tradition — including our traditions of law and justice.

In other areas, it is interesting to observe the deconstruction of deconstructionists who seem always to rest upon such foundations as language to argue that there are no foundations. For people who claim to be skeptics, all the while using the language of belief, it might be useful to recall what lies behind this type of skepticism. As the late Christopher Lasch wrote in his final book:

Once knowledge is equated with ideology it is no longer necessary to argue with ones opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter into their point of view. It is enough to dismiss them as eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic — in other words, as politically suspect. [5]

One could add to this list that it is now, in many quarters, politically suspect to be thought “traditional”. Throughout the centuries many of the greatest thinkers have discussed the importance of learning and preserving the central truths which define the society. These truths are not relative or subjective but transcendent, and they lie embedded in the unconscious foundations of practice. In essence, such unconsciousness makes us ripe for traditionalism.

Speaking at a conference on the Charter of Rights shortly after his retirement from the Supreme Court of Canada, former Justice Willard Estey once said, “You are asking the judges to answer questions we have not been trained to deal with”. The late Canadian philosopher George Grant commented upon contemporary judges and legal education:

The more contemporary judges quote philosophy or religious tradition [Grant taught both], the less they appear to understand what they are dealing with. (Another long article would be required to spell out the influences in legal and general education that have led to this jurisprudential shallowness... the question goes to the very roots of modernity).[6]

Yet law cannot be law and avoid morality — otherwise why ought one to obey law? And morality is, in one sense, a tradition. The Law Reform Commission of Canada noted the relationship between justice and morality in their 1976 report, Our Criminal Law:

In truth, the criminal law is fundamentally a moral system. It may be crude, it may have faults, it may be rough and ready, but basically it is a system of applied morality and justice. It serves to underline those values necessary, or else important, to society. When acts occur that seriously transgress essential values, like the sanctity of life, society must speak out and reaffirm those values. This is the true role of criminal law. [7]

Leaving aside the use of that vague and misleading word “values” in the above quotation (which casts doubt on what they mean by “morality”), law and society itself require tradition in order to function coherently. Our growing and, one might even say, collective, loss of the richness of our living traditions does not bode well for law or for society. Too many who think they favour tradition are actually devotees of traditionalism (as defined above) because they do not understand their tradition. Many who are critical of tradition are really criticizing traditionalism. That both groups are all too liable to speak of “values” shows just how widespread is the co-option of the moral ends of the early tradition by inarticulate yet diverse ends of the day. This type of confusion is one more reason why the Centre will necessarily investigate what tradition has to tell us in each area we investigate. Again, as Chesterton once put it, only tradition can keep us from the danger of being slaves to our own time.


  1. Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986). Back to text.
  2. O’Donovan, Joan, “Law, Love and the Common Good”, in Peter C. Emberley ed. By Loving Our Own (Ottawa: Carleton Univ. Press, 1990) pp.135-136, emphasis in original. Back to text.
  3. Pelikan, p.56. Back to text.
  4. Pelikan, p.54. Back to text.
  5. Lasch, Christopher, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Chicago: Norton, 1995) pp. 12-13. Back to text.
  6. Grant, George, “The Triumph of the Will”, in Ian Gentles, A Time To Choose Life: Women, Abortion, and Human Rights (Toronto: Stoddart, 1990) fn. #3, p.213. Back to text.
  7. Our Criminal Law, The Law Reform Commission of Canada (Government of Canada, Ottawa, 1976) p.16. Revised introductory remarks from the Centre’s Vancouver Forum, How are Rights and Freedoms Fundamental?, Simon Fraser University, Harbourside Campus, November 25, 1995.
    Back to text.


Benson, Iain T. “Tradition or traditionalism?” Centre Points 2 no. 1 (The Centre for Cultural Renewal, Spring, 1996): 1-3.

The Centre for Cultural Renewal, a non-partisan, non-denominational think-tank with registered charitable status in Canada and the United States, has been described as “the most credible organization in Canada addressing fundamental questions about politics, culture and faith.” For the past six years the Centre has been making a name for itself by hosting events that seek to articulate the relationship between the techniques and purposes of key areas of culture: law, medicine, politics, education and the arts. Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer, is the Centre’s Executive Director.


Iain T. Benson is Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, an Ottawa-based "think-tank". He travels and lectures widely in North America and overseas on philosophical, theological and legal issues related to "strategic cultural renewal." Iain Benson is a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1996 The Centre for Cultural Renewal

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