Chandler, OK. It has long seemed to me that we are overdue for an updated edition of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. Flaubert’s dictionary, published after his death, wittily catalogs those dumb things everybody says and nobody thinks about. In Jacques Barzun’s translation, the entry for Aristocracy reads “Despise and envy it.” For Italy he has “Should be seen immediately after marriage. Is very disappointing—not nearly so beautiful as people say.” His definition of workman is “Always honest—unless he is rioting.” His definition of star pokes fun at a persistent romantic individualism: “Everyone follows his own, like Napoleon.” Alas, his entry for poetry is “Entirely useless; out of date.” That is a received idea with much too much staying power.

Many of Flaubert’s entries are still relevant today, but we nevertheless desperately need an updated edition because many of the stupid things “everybody” thinks but nobody thinks about have changed since Flaubert’s time. The definition of pipe as “Not proper except at the seaside,” for instance, might require substantial updating in the age of anti-tobacco campaigns, vaping, and legalized marijuana. Students, we might still agree, “never study,” but no one could say it is still universally believed that they all “wear red berets and tight trousers,” though I do believe the beret is due for a comeback.

It is not surprising that many of these received ideas have mutated or disappeared to be replaced by new ones since Flaubert’s time. In fact, it is the very nature of these things that they should change. In his book Out of the Ashes, Anthony Esolen provides a very useful rule of thumb: “If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.” One might think of this principle as privileging Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” over the democracy of the mere moment. Applying this rule to each opinion and position before adopting it is a good start on recovering one’s sanity in an age of mass, conventional lunacy.

Flaubert’s dictionary and Esolen’s rule both prompt us to consider the very deep difference between tradition and mere convention. Much of what Flaubert catalogs is mere convention: wide-spread, sometimes persistent, but ultimately temporary rashes on the skin of human life. Tradition, contrastingly, is the skeletal structure that gives permanent and meaningful shape to life. To navigate life with sane prejudices—in the Burkean sense of prejudice as that judgment which we do not need to reinvent anew each time we utilize it—requires the ability to tell the difference between tradition and mere convention. A good education, one that includes the study both of great books and of logic, can go a long way toward developing this skill. A good education, wide reading, and sane conversation prepares one to hear the deep and abiding rhythm beneath the very catchy but ever-changing melody.

A sure sign of tradition, as opposed to mere convention, is the former’s way of revealing a world not created or structured by our own preferences. Tradition tells us that we have responsibilities and obligations beyond those of our own choosing. We are not the authors of ourselves, as Milton’s Satan erroneously claims to be. In a world not of our own making, responsibility and obligation come to us unbid and without our choosing. Tradition tells us that we are born into the rich web of an ordered creation, that we live not only as ourselves but as a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a father or mother, a parishioner, a citizen, a creature, a person living on a particular piece of earth. Through tradition, we discover who we are in relation to those who are around us, those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us. Tradition, though varied in its details and expression from place to place and time to time, thus connects the specificity of our time, place, and circumstance to a deeper current of permanence in all times and places. The idea of a permanent tradition, which we might associate with natural law and that is relevant to all times and places, in no way diminishes the beauty of the varied expressions of tradition in very particular times and places. The deep tradition is the trunk; the local tradition is the branch.

We can glimpse the consequences of losing touch with this deep tradition in Wendell Berry’s short story “Fidelity,” in which a dying man, Burley Coulter, is “kidnapped” by his own family and removed from the sterile and inhuman hospital so that he can die in contact with the particular piece of earth he loved. The authorities take exception to this removal and send Detective Kyle Bode to investigate. When Bode insists that the family had no right to simply remove Burley from the hospital, the family lawyer—a cousin and friend—responds, “Some of us think people belong to each other and to God.” This is a succinct statement of what it means to live by tradition. The detective, by contrast, is a man who seems to belong only to himself, miserably so. Left empty after a failed marriage, Bode knows his life has gone wrong somehow, but he fails to see the remedy in the deep belonging of the people he is investigating:

He knew that she had not left him because she was dissatisfied with him but because she was not able to be satisfied for very long with anything. He disliked and feared this in her at the same time that he recognized it in himself. . . And so perhaps it was out of mutual satisfaction that their divorce had come, and now they were free. Perhaps even their little daughter was free, who was tied down no more than her parent were, for they sent her flying back and forth between them like a shuttlecock, and spoiled her in vying for her allegiance, and gave her more freedom of choice than she could have used well at twice her age. They were all free, he supposed. But finally he had had to ask if they were, any of them, better off than they had been and if they could hope to be better off than they were. For they were not satisfied. And by now he had to suppose, and to fear, that they were not going to be satisfied. He had become almost resigned to revolving for the rest of his life, somewhere beyond gravity, in the modern vortex of infatuation and divorce.

Without the gravity of traditional community with all its unchosen obligation and responsibilities, Kyle Bode is left drifting alone. He is something between Milton’s Satan and David Bowie’s Major Tom.

Our current conventions in the modern Western world assure us that our first responsibility is obviously to our own happiness and that we can never be bound by that which we do not freely choose from among numerous options, the way we choose our shampoo and breakfast cereal. Thus the child who stays on the family farm or the person who sticks out a difficult marriage—though only doing what human beings have done for time out of mind—makes a choice that is nearly incomprehensible to many people today. Why not just do whatever makes you happy? We’ve all become a version of Henry David Thoreau, who in his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” brags of having declared, “Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not joined.” Thoreau’s seemingly rugged individualism has become, by our time, thoroughly conventional.

In the modern world, utterly conventional people rarely recognize themselves as such. Most, in fact, would no doubt describe themselves as “free thinkers.” At this point in modernity, it is conventional to take dissent from long-established patterns of human life as a sure sign of intelligence and independent thought. Yet the point at which such free thought inevitably lands is the same well-worn ground as everyone else at the moment, or at least everyone they consider to be smart or well-educated for the time being. In their “free thinking” the modern “rebels” seem always to travel along certain predetermined channels of thought. Thus, questioning the conventions of the moment will quickly earn one a label of lunatic, idiot, or bigot. If one wants to avoid trouble, it is better simply to repeat the slogans and adorn your Twitter profile fittingly. It is hard not to think of Madeleine L’Engle’s dark planet Camazotz, where all the children play in sync. It is convention, rather than tradition, that speaks in unison.

How much richer, wider, and indeed stranger is tradition. Tradition is almost never what any one of us would invent if left to ourselves. Tradition preserves the great mysteries on which human life is founded, and it invites us into those mysteries by calling us to live in deep relationship to realities not of our own choosing. When our lives are lived within a tradition, we cannot simply take the conventional idea of self-fulfillment or personal happiness as our guide. We must discern the good within a complex—one might even say ornate—system of responsibilities and opportunities. This way of discerning the good is naturally deeper and more satisfying than conventional ideas of happiness. It is also more difficult, but the tradition itself provides the resources for this discernment, in the voice of the ancestors and in the preservation of the “best which has been thought and said,” to borrow Mathew Arnold’s famous phrase. While convention asks us to settle into a shallow rut, tradition calls us up, to shape our life in accordance with something bigger than ourselves and truer than our own preferences and guesses.

Tradition is not just ossified convention; rather it is the outworking in human cultures of an unchanging core at the heart of things. To honor tradition is not to live without change in a frozen state of suspension. It is, rather, to embrace a form of change that stays in orbit around an eternal fixed point, that providence of God which Boethius described as the fixed point of the turning circle. To put that another way, tradition is the unique working out in time and place of the eternal natural law. It is an incarnation of the unchanging. Thus tradition can thrive in a thousand varied expressions in a thousand times and places that all resound in rich harmony with the core music of truth, goodness, and beauty. Next to real tradition, convention is always monotone and boring.

Take for instance our current convention about the brevity of life as compared with the traditional treatment of the same subject. The slogan may have run its course of popular usage, but the convention of our times is still Y.O.L.O: “You only live once.” And what does that mean? It means, apparently, do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. Max out the credit card and spend the week at Disney World. Have fun. Don’t worry about obligations to the past or to the future. An age of consumerism and materialism tells you exactly what you would expect it to tell you about human life.

Much richer, deeper, and truer is the tradition’s call to memento mori, remember your death. If Y.O.L.O is one shrill tone, memento mori is a complex chord on a pipe organ, with overtones, undertones, and harmonies. Sometimes these harmonies are reached only by the slow dissolving of apparent dissonances. The memento mori tradition contains the medieval monk’s hopeful lifting of his eyes toward heaven, and it contains Hamlet’s melancholic sense of despair. It subdues the classical pagan’s carpe diem by means of the biblical injunctions to “redeem the time” and to “store up treasures in Heaven.” Y.O.L.O takes all of three seconds to wrap one’s head around, but to remember your death is a project of a lifetime, a project that requires both reading and stillness. To live within tradition is to spend years laboring to reconcile tensions and balance competing claims.

We can see the same contrast between conventional and traditional concepts of marriage. The conventional view of marriage in our time is that it exists primarily for the happiness of the included parties. This conventional view is enshrined in our movies, television shows, laws, and therapeutic practices. Its acceptance has, predictably, lead to high rates of divorce. Indeed, the then new belief that marriage is primarily about companionship, was one reason Milton, perhaps among the first thoroughly modern thinkers, argued for the legalization of divorce, despite the compelling, deeply moving, and traditional view of marriage he offers in Paradise Lost. Marriage as vehicle for personal happiness is a longstanding convention in the modern world, and that this convention was already being established in Milton’s time and was firmly in place by the nineteenth century explains the recent rapid shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage. How could politicians like Barack Obama change their minds on the question of gay marriage so quickly? Because the conventional view makes all arguments about marriage simple: if it doesn’t make you happy, forget it; if it does make you happy, do it. With that understanding, both no-fault divorce and ever-expanding definitions of marriage are inevitable.

The traditional view, however, is, again, more complex, rich, and beautiful. Traditional marriage includes the happiness of the bride and groom, of course, but also much more. It includes procreation, naturally. As much as conventional thinking about marriage would like to deny that fact, a survey of marriage outside of the modern West will quickly reveal that the getting and raising of children has universally been understood to be at the heart of matrimony, even if not every good marriage is blessed with children. For we must avoid the logical fallacy of assuming that any and all exceptions must negate a rule. Traditionally, marriage includes also the bonding of previously distinct families, “in-laws,” into a web of social support. This bonding of separate family bodies is another way marriage forms the foundation of a stable society, as Cicero notes in his De Officiis. Moreover, marriage has been, and to some still is, a sacrament of the church, and even when it is not seen in sacramental terms, it is still seen as an event at the heart of the communal life of the congregation. Throughout the New Testament and the Christian tradition, marriage is an image of Christ and his church. Marriage is famously the culmination of Shakespeare’s comedies, and these great plays tend to end with marriage because it is the personal and local embodiment of the concordia discors that holds the world together, an affirmation that there is, indeed, a binary at work in the fabric of reality. Traditionally, marriage is a deep mystery at the heart of the mundane world.

My purpose here is not to defend, or even fully define, the traditional view of marriage. It is only to point out that the tradition is something that requires more thoughtful engagement than does current convention. The convention is always near at hand: in the pop culture we breathe in throughout our waking hours, in the slogans we mindlessly repeat as conversation, and in our dominant forms of education. This is, in fact, the biggest challenge faced by defenders of tradition: all the arguments against tradition come out of convention and are thus glib, superficial, and easy to both express and to grasp, while all the arguments for tradition take patience, reflection, and effort. It is easy to articulate why tearing down the cathedral to build a super highway will relieve traffic congestion and thus improve commerce, and convention tells us that the practical economic good must come before “merely aesthetic” considerations. Traffic statistics and studies of “economic impact” can be produced to tell us all what we already know: that the old must always give way to the new. Understanding why the cathedral should stand even if very few ever enter it for either worship or even for tourism asks a lot more of us, both in time and effort, as it asks us to think about the value of the past as well as the relationship between beauty and value. When arguments are to be mustered, convention springs to service unbidden; tradition must be worked for.

A sense of tradition is built either through a long commitment to a place and a people or through a true liberal arts education. It is built best through both. Conventional thinking is a lot like a beanbag chair: it is easy to get into, but getting out of it requires a helping hand. One of the primary purposes of education today must be that helping hand. A liberal arts education should equip students to discern tradition from mere convention. It can do this by immersing the students in the great books and in study of the human condition across time. In reading widely, the students will not encounter simple agreement on big questions. They will encounter much disagreement and diverse views of life. But in the midst of the great conversation, there emerges a broad consensus about the nature of human life as well as certain threads of truth to be traced through the writings of the past. Students can learn a lot about what sets mere convention apart from real tradition simply by learning what are the truly worthwhile questions to ask about human life. They can also benefit greatly simply from encountering with sympathy and open-mindedness wise voices from the past that contradict current convention. They at the very least can see across the centuries of the human record a clear picture of what to reasonably expect from human life, and this is often enough to clear away the smog of conventional thinking.

Convention is not limited, of course, to leftist or progressive ways of thinking. There is much conventional thinking among the American right, often on economic issues, for instance. This has been especially true as American conservativism has become entangled with classical liberalism and its postmodern offspring, libertarianism. But a true conservativism in the Burkean sense is about peeling away convention to get to the solid rock of tradition. With all due respect to William F. Buckley, the conservative must do more than stand athwart history yelling “stop.” Freezing things at any particular point in time would only fossilize the conventions of the moment. We should aim to conserve what is deepest and true, not just what happens to have immediately preceded the present. It should be the conservative’s task to reconnect the manner of our lives and the institutions of our civilization—schools, colleges, churches, governments—to the solid truths beneath the surface, peeling away the layers of mere convention to find the “permanent things.” It is our task to hear, and to point the ears of others toward, the deep and abiding rhythm beneath the constantly changing melody.

Image Credit: Jan Lievens, “Still Life with Books” (circa 1630).

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  1. Thanks, Benjamin for outlining and developing a superb polarity. One problem with respecting tradition is that it *is* a kind of quiet background, like the trees referred to by Joni Mitchell: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

    I had never heard of Flaubert’s dictionary, but I’d like to mention the one by Ambrose Bierce, which is available free in several versions online:

    unabridged (click a word entry in the column at right):

    book-like format of entire text (but some entries missing):

    However, I think your alignment of sensuality with convention is also outmoded. The burning issue of the past 20 years has been safety, not freedom to consume. Thus, we have airport rituals, university scolds who stop discussion by calling out “trigger” words, and an endless emergency that ratcheted up a notch during the great pandemic. All of these have restricted freedom with ever-new conventions.

    • Sensuality and safety have arisen together over the past couple decades. The cry of the sexual progressive was “Keep the government out of my bedroom!” Funny, but we are getting to a point where the bedroom might be the only place where the government isn’t — something like a culture of total personal freedom + total surveillance. Which of course isn’t really freedom at all, in the same way that progressive tolerance isn’t really tolerance.

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