Whatever Happened to Tradition?: History, Belonging and the Future of the West
by Tim Stanley
Bloomsbury, £20, 266 pages
In recent years, the “post-liberal” perspective has dominated religious thought and has also gained a foothold in political circles. The American Catholic journalist Sohrab Ahmari has recently brought such thinking to a wider audience. Now the British Catholic historian and journalist Tim Stanley attempts to do the same, although his focus is usually on cultural politics rather than religion itself.
Tradition is the life-blood of human culture, Stanley argues, and we must challenge the modern disdain for it. But tradition is not just there: it must be nurtured, thought about, pruned back and repaired. Traditions “adapt and evolve”: they “develop”, he explains, with reference to St John Henry Newman. And they must be defended from the main force of modern thought: “The primary villain in my story is liberalism, the political inheritance of the Enlightenment, which has created a state of permanent rebellion against the past.”
An initial chapter in praise of tradition dwells on the persecuted Yazidi people, which leads him to distinguish between healthy tradition and the plague of fundamentalism, as typified by Islamic State. Then we learn more about the subtle, elusive enemy. “Liberalism is a tradition, but it is also a tradition that is anti-tradition – so it undermines itself.” As a result, “our society doesn’t have some of the coherence and certainties that other cultures enjoy.” It is hard to define, because it permeates so much of modern thought, but “running through the history of liberalism we find a disposition towards freedom, equality, the individual, the scientific method and that constant emphasis upon growth through reason.” In the mid-20th century, because of totalitarian opposition, liberalism seemed coherent, and was allied with conservatism, but in recent decades it has had freer rein to corrupt culture and politics, and populism has been a necessary reaction.
He then offers some colourful digressions on various traditions, including the emergence of modern Japan, circumcision, monarchy, socialism in America. How these mini-essays support his overall thesis is not always clear, but they are often interesting. On a personal note, he admits to having been a young fogey who found his fellow-teenagers less interesting than older people with their superior historical knowledge. (He is still only 39.) Along the way, he offers many predictable attacks on woke culture and identity politics. Because identity politics always has to speak for alleged victims, it “is as unwilling to concede victory as other movements are to concede defeat.”
In his overview of recent political culture, Stanley emerges as a One Nation Conservative, or perhaps a new, more radical version of that political type. He is critical of economic liberalism, and sympathetic to the traditional British left, for its belief in the dignity of work. Though no fan of Marx, he admires his insight into the endless unsettling revolution of capitalism, reminding us of the key quotation: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”.
There are some good passages on the romantic roots of British socialism; he reminds us that John Ruskin and other neo-medievalists were lauded by the first Labour politicians. Stanley then offers some scathing assessments of neoliberalism, and some interesting asides (did you know that Mrs Thatcher was regularly electrocuted for her health?) Thankfully, he says, the notion that greed is good finds few serious defenders today, and communitarianism is in the ascendant: “Conservatism has begun a tectonic shift away from shrinking the state and towards exploiting it for conservative ends – to promote some vague concept of the ‘common good’.” There is such a thing as society, Stanley insists.
His chapter on religion begins with a discussion of different cultures’ funeral practices: he shows how the secular West fails to face death with honesty and dignity, preferring to play uplifting pop songs at funerals. He then offers a moving account of the death of his own father, a determined atheist who was full of angry incomprehension as his life ebbed away. Of course Christians fear death too, says Stanley, “but at least they have a guide to how to act and a narrative to accompany them … The believer, in theory at least, does not go through these trials alone.” He expands on the notion that religion grounds us in a grand cultural story with reference to the French thinker Chateaubriand: his “1802 book The Genius of Christianity helped revive the reputation of French Catholic culture … not through arcane theological argument but by presenting his religion as both mystical and tangible, as a cure for the psychological malaise of post-revolutionary life.”
Stanley has a good ear for a pithy summary of a complex idea. Citing WH Auden, he says that Christianity is “the one creed that not only persuades or encourages us to love each other but tries to turn love into an obligation”.
Though the reader, or at last this reader, learnt some interesting things, there are many loose ends and half-formed arguments: a lot of pressure is on the conclusion, to tie things up. Instead, it adds new loose ends to the mix. First there is a reflection on Putin’s neo-traditionalism that seems to criticise politicians’ use of religious tradition, but this hardly serves to tidy up his thesis, and then there are some reflections on Gay Pride and fox hunting, the purpose of which is similarly unclear. Even more oddly, he ends with a quotation from the political theorist Larry Siedentop that seems to call for a renewal of liberalism. Stanley had written off liberalism many chapters ago, so why does he end with such a quote? Has he had a sudden a change of heart on the last page? It leaves the reader with a sense that he is not as confident in his thesis as he claims.
Stanley’s decision to cast liberalism as the villain of his story gives the book an aura of bold polemical simplicity, and puts him in the company of a “post-liberal” movement. But it feels too easy. As he admits, liberalism is central to the modern West. So surely we need to think hard about how its alliance with tradition can be renewed, how a socially responsible form of liberalism can be nurtured. We need to remind ourselves of the good in liberalism. Liberalism is not just about arrogant individualism, or anti-religious feeling. It is also about the profound good of the liberal state, and Christianity hugely contributed to this – to the idea that different points of view should co-exist in a nation, and no single orthodoxy should be allowed to rule. It’s an idea that gradually eroded the persecution of the Roman Catholic minority, by the way.
Yes, something went wrong in recent decades. The double triumph of economic and social liberalism has left our culture in disarray. It has failed to rein in the corrosive forces of individualism and identity politics and to promote the notion of the common good. It has failed to uphold decency and modesty. But to claim we can reject liberalism in favour of “tradition” prompts huge questions.
Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis Of Secular Values (SPCK Publishing)
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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