The standing of tradition at present is low. It is patronised as a theme for tourists; it is the nostalgia of old age, a repudiated symbol of the past, of privilege, of pre-scientific ignorance, inconsistent with the serious business of a competitive economy; an affront to common sense. Not so: tradition is indispensable for a functioning society; it is serious business. It does three vital things:

First, it is the substance of culture. Culture does not necessarily advance in the sense of getting better; it changes slowly as each creative contribution becomes part of it. As T.S. Eliot wrote,

the most interesting parts of [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most rigorously. . . . The conscious present is an awareness of the past.T20

Our culture has a voice because it has been endowed with one by tradition; if we have radical innovations to offer, the things we are being innovative about—the story so far, the language in which it is told, the point from which creativity starts, the culture and the coordinates by which we can work out who we are—are supplied by tradition. The more developed and interesting the tradition, the greater the expressive possibilities. Cultural tradition is the collective product of the people that have worked inside it and each added their bit. All expression is in terms of a tradition: no self, no expression, no distinctive “me”, can exist without the inherited frame of reference provided by, for instance, tradition-derived language, narrative, music, cooking, humour, allusions, tact, manners. Tradition is the voice of the self, the terms on which it is possible to find expression and define an identity.T21

Secondly, tradition makes available to us, for free, rules which have been learned the hard way. It may be difficult to work out, off the cuff, why a festival is a good idea in midwinter, why sex at first meeting may be a bad idea, why family meals are advisable, why celebrations are important, why archaic clothes for ceremony and in law courts may help to protect freedoms, why play is essential to a child’s development, or why a musical and literary education teaches the art of thinking—but there is no need to work it out, for tradition affirms it. It supplies (as Edmund Burke wrote) a way of “knowing exactly and habitually, without the labour of particular and occasional thinking”. A society without tradition is a society without grown-ups.T22

Thirdly, tradition protects the society of the future, and it does this in the paradoxical way of speaking up for the past. It affirms that present concerns are not the only issues at stake: since virtually all the assets of the present have been inherited from the past, it follows that this inheritance in its various forms is the most important source of value that society has. It also follows that the ability of the current generation to guarantee the inheritance of the future is the defining condition for any claim to moral standing by the present.


Tradition, then, has three critical functions—as a source of the self, as the transmitter of prudential rules, and as the medium by which a society is able to locate itself in time. An excessively heavy responsibility, perhaps, to be entrusted to song? Yet this is characteristic of systems; they often seem to be not quite serious: what you observe is not the busy chemistry beneath the surface, but the finished result: it could be a poem about the rain . . . But traditions are the rules on which the complex system of society depends.



     I hear leaves drinking rain;
I hear rich leaves on top
Giving the poor beneath
Drop after drop;
’Tis a sweet noise to hear
These green leaves drinking near.

And when the Sun comes out,
After this Rain shall stop,
A wondrous Light will fill
Each dark, round drop;
I hope the Sun shines bright;
’Twill be a lovely sight.

~ W.H. Davies, 1908.T23


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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