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Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, belonging and the future of the West by Tim Stanley

19 November 2021

Nick Spencer considers hard questions about the West’s traditions

EVERY generation searches its soul, but some generations have more reason to do so than others. Today, as democracy stumbles before stubbornly resilient authoritarianism, and economic and military power heads east, Westerners find themselves wondering who we are. Moreover, even if we can identify what “the West” stands for — say, “the rules-based international order” — beyond a pragmatic “it works,” we’re not really sure why.

Answering this demands that we wrestle with the slippery question of our past, and how far it should shape present and future. Roger Scruton’s death deprived public discourse of its most intelligent and cogent defender of tradition, but Tim Stanley’s Whatever Happened to Tradition? steps bravely into the breach.

Wisely, Stanley does not try to ape Scruton’s philosophical erudition. Writing as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph, he has rather more current affairs in his book than there is in Scruton’s work. But that is to some extent Stanley’s point. Tradition, he insists, is surprisingly contemporary, not the conserved corpse of liberal nightmares, to which the free spirit its shackled. Tradition lives, and so enables us to live.

The book takes us from the fire of Notre-Dame through Aboriginal scarification of the flesh through to Meiji modernisation of Japan in the 19th-century, exploring how tradition has enabled people to maintain their identity, social order, and a measure of freedom in the face of repeated challenges. By tying the individual to the collective, imparting “social knowledge” that has been refined over the centuries, suppressing the ego, and enabling us to cope with the inevitable passing of time, traditions offer resources by means of which humans can survive and thrive.

His case is lively, engaging, and persuasive, but questions are left hanging in the air. Assuming that it is possible for a tradition to be adopted, adapted, or even invented, at what point does it stop being itself? What level of continuity must there be for something to remain a tradition? And, assuming traditions aren’t good per se, at what point should moral or political authority step in and chastise, or even ban, a tradition (a question that lurks in the background of Stanley’s sometimes eyewatering discussion of traditional forms of genital mutilation)?

It is the inability to answer such questions which has weakened tradition in the past, and the failure to answer them now will prevent tradition from playing the part that we need it to in “the Future of the West”.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.


Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, belonging and the future of the West
Tim Stanley
Bloomsbury £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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