Reason and tradition

I have an intelligent friend who wants to make reason always secondary to tradition or values. I think that this is a kind of relativism or nihilism or perhaps a kind of voluntarism (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but there’s some similar word I’m thinking of – perhaps decisionism? in any case, I’ll just say relativism from here forward but I’m also thinking of the willful choice of first principles).

When I gently accuse him of this sort of relativism, he disagrees with me, but I seem to recall that he disagrees not by showing how my accusation is wrong but basically by just claiming that his view is correct and that anyone who disagrees with him is ultimately doing the same thing and denying it. The logic seems to be that since he is right, and relativism is wrong (or is distasteful, and, since the true answer shouldn’t be distasteful, is by extension wrong), he must not be a relativist. In any case, when he goes to explain why he is not a relativist, he just entrenches himself more deeply in the account that led me to characterize him as one.

Obviously, this is a one-sided account of a long-standing and multifaceted discussion, and I’m summarizing on the basis of my hazy and biased memories, rather than going back and rereading with an eye to fairness. Still, I think that while I’m not describing it as he would, it is fair, and probably, in my view, fairer (less confused) than how he would describe it. In any case, for the sake of this post, let’s treat it as if it’s basically accurate.

This friend of mine is not the sort of unhinged rightwinger that I often take shots at in these posts, but he is definitely right-leaning, in a way that I have a lot of respect and sympathy for. And his relativism, furthermore, is deeply, and manifestly, rooted in that conservatism. Relativistic nihilism is often an accusation levelled against the left by thinkers on the right, but it actually has its origins in the modern reactionary right, and I think the case of my friend shows how this plays out. (He likes to reference Burke and Voegelin, which is no coincidence.)

He dislikes the enlightenment project, or at least some parts of the direction it has taken, and he wishes to have an account of where it went wrong. Enlightenment rationalism paints the societies that preceded it as merely irrational, parochial, religious, traditionalist, authoritative, and mystical, and thinks of itself, on the other hand, as a rationalist and universalizing project. If, then, the people before we’re correct, and the Enlightenment is wrong, then the easiest way to argue that is to bite the bullet, accept that what came before is exactly as the Enlightenment says, and then explain why that is better or truer (or at least more honest or self-aware) than what the Enlightenment alternative would claim as true. Thus, reason can’t do what it claims to, and nothing is really universal, as any number of apparent intellectual and practical disasters since the Enlightenment demonstrate conclusively.

The real issue here, though, is that the Enlightenment’s characterization of pre-enlightenment thought is only partly correct. Hardly any of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment were relativists like my friend. He might want to point at someone like Plato or Aristotle and claim that they are proto-Enlightenment thinkers and that the Enlightenment itself proves them wrong, but that is lazy and incorrect. Thinkers like Plato and Aristotle aren’t just earlier than the thinkers of the Enlightenment. They are different than the thinkers of the Enlightenment, in ways that are obvious and important.

Pre-Enlightenment thought did think differently about tradition, religion, and authority than Enlightenment thinkers, but not in my friend’s relativistic way, not as if there is no thought that can happen beyond the confines of a given social or political or religious tradition, and only one can be right and it has the entire truth, or something like that. They had more in common with one another, across religious/moral/political lines, than they did with their fellow-citizens, and they believed that’s how it should be. Traditional community isn’t bad in the way Enlightenment thought, but it also isn’t everything; to think so is to make the same mistake as the Enlightenment did but in reverse.

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