Belloc on Time and Tradition

Men who regret the past (that is, nearly all men who know what the past was), will perpetually strive in spirit if not in action to restore the lost thing even as it was, even in its particular ornaments and adjuncts. Therefore it is hopeless as we all know though not futile, for it it were not made the surrender would mean the spirit of man had accepted the challenge of time, and if the spirit of man were to accept the challenge of time it would have abdicated: it would have lost its sovereignty (Places, 1941).

As we move into the Christmas season, we tend to think once again about the importance of things that endure. Belloc tells us that “we do not restore the past because we cannot; but by a desperate effort to restore it we maintain the continuity of life.” Although man lives in time and his creations are transitory, there is also a part of him which rises above the ephemeral. “See how abject, how despicable,” says Belloc, “are all things which boast that they are wholly new; that they owe nothing to tradition…. How tasteless and often how insane.” Tradition is a spiritual quality, yet even the mere fact of physical continuity (whether things of the ancient past or our own past) has an important place in normal human experience. As Belloc puts it, venerable monuments are a symbol of our striving for immortality: “works of this mighty sort are like dents inflicted on the armour of time and proving in our struggle against the all-devouring enemy that we shall ultimately be his masters. But not here.”

Many thinkers have speculated on the evils that lead to “alienation” of the individual, like economic deprivation or political oppression. Oddly enough this sense of anomie is often found among individuals who are prosperous or who enjoy the extremes of personal freedom. They are rootless and bewildered. Of course, to be afraid of any change, even for the better, is as morally timid as living only for perpetual novelty. In a sense there can be no tradition without change. You would have mere stagnation. But there can also be no healthy change without continuity.

It is not hard to notice that the pace of contemporary life has accelerated rapidly and even recklessly. We are seldom given time to adjust to one set of changes before another social or technological revolution occurs. Is this the unavoidable determinism of material development? Or is it that (beginning with the Enlightenment) people began to live on empty dreams of unattainable futures, thus pushing change at a more frantic and chaotic pace? Therein seems to lie the real problem of modern alienation. Rapid transformation, even for the better, gets out of control because it lacks the checks and balances of ancient customs.

As the Roman writer Pliny said of a respected friend: “His opinions carry weight and his wisdom is gained from experience, so that he can judge the future from the past.”

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