Interview with E. Christian Kopff, translator of
There are so many traditions. What did Pieper mean when he wrote about “tradition?”?
For Josef Pieper there are at least three categories of tradition. The first is the sacred tradition revealed in the beginning and shared by all religions (although supplemented by later revelations). The loss of this tradition would lead to what C. S. Lewis called “The Abolition of Man,” the loss of what is distinctively human about human beings. The second category concerns ideas, institutions and activities that have “stood the test of time” for the world’s different cultures for millennia, in the case of the West, the Classical tradition. The loss of these traditions would be devastating to the individual cultures, but not fatal to individuals in them if they still had access the sacred tradition shared by all humanity. The third set of traditions are attitudes, institutions and activities that have worked for a long time and make life easier and more pleasant, but are not essential, although they often seem so because they make up so much of our daily lives.
Isn’t tradition passé in today’s world?
Tradition is not passé; it is more important than ever. Constant changes of the third type of traditions and assaults on the first and second categories have hurt people all over the world. The attempt to establish a world mono-culture on the basis of reason alone, the “Enlightenment Project,” has been devastating to cultures and individuals alike. Global free trade and the Olympics have not and can not provide a satisfactory basis for a fulfilled human life. Re-establishing a vital contact with, commitment to and understanding of tradition is essential for human life to go on. All the world’s great cultures need this contact, commitment and understanding in regards to the sacred tradition and their own long-established traditions.
Why is tradition important for ordinary people?
Sacred tradition provides the basis for humane living, even for people who know only the Ten Commandments. The Classical tradition gives ordinary Americans our form of government and many great works of literature and philosophy. Ordinary people enjoy reading translations of ancient and medieval literature, like Robert Fagles' Homer and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, and watching movies with Greek and Latin themes like the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou!(inspired by Homer’s Odyssey), the Matrix series (Plato’s Cave) and Gladiator (Roman history). Latin is used significantly in the movies Braveheart, Tombstone and The Passion and even the Harry Potter books and movies. The many customs and traditions that allow us to live our lives conveniently without re-thinking every step of every day are essential to the lives of ordinary people.
Isn’t liberating people from the “dead hand of the past,” i.e. tradition, the best thing about the modern world?
Liberating people from the dead hand of the past has produced that distinctively modern figure, the alienated, rootless individual. It is moving to read about such people in great works like “The Stranger” and “Catcher in the Rye.” It is terrible to be such a person.
Isn’t it the right and even the duty of intelligent people to test everything rationally? Why should tradition be exempt from rational analysis and criticism?
Reason is the greatest tool humans possess, but in the hands of people who reject the wisdom of the past and try to reason out life with only the small amount of knowledge possessed by one generation, this great tool becomes a dangerous weapon. George Orwell was thinking of them when he wrote of people “who think in slogans and talk in bullets.”
Is tradition important for science?
Josef Pieper follows Pascal in contrasting fields where tradition is decisive, like theology, and others where it is irrelevant, like physics, but philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues, “All reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition: this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic.” Scientists learn facts, but also a traditional worldview: the world they study is a unity, which is rational and comprehensible. These assumptions are matters of faith that must be accepted before applying critical intelligence to specific problems.
Can a book written more than a generation ago for “Old Europe” matter to Americans?
Europeans did not listen to Josef Pieper and are literally disappearing off the face of the earth. Americans of all people need to listen to Pieper’s ideas. What matters most to most Americans, religion, consensual government, freedom of belief and expression, are all traditions that go back to the ancient Mediterranean world and will wither and die without constant recourse to the historical sources of these traditions.
Didn’t Jesus warn us against the “tradition of men” (Mark 7:8)?
I think that Jesus was warning against a common danger, becoming so involved in and committed to the third category of traditions that surround us on all sides that we forget the ultimate importance of the sacred tradition that gives meaning and vitality to the other two categories.
How does Pieper’s book on Tradition relate to his book Leisure:The Basis of Culture?
There are interesting parallels between Josef Pieper’s books on Tradition and Leisure. The modern world pays lip service to both concepts, but has little use for either. Frank moderns scorn them. Pieper reminds us of the importance that great ancient philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, attached to them, argues that they are essential for a fulfilled human life and then shows that, despite all the secular advantages we derive from them, they rest on a religious basis. When they are separated from religion, or if religion loses its central place in society, both leisure and tradition become deformed and lose their main function and many additional benefits. Either there is no time for real leisure, or what leisure remains is turned into an activity, instead of a time for contemplation and reflection. Either we lose touch with tradition, or it becomes a set of meaningless rituals.