Nostalgia for Tradition

Artwork By John Henry

Conservatives are fond of invoking the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ as the source of Australia’s liberal democratic principles, but it’s important to bear in mind that this can be somewhat misleading. Although it may not be intentional all the time, this appeal to tradition tends to credit Christianity and Judaism too much by implying great originality and downplaying the secular sources of modern values, particularly from antiquity and the Enlightenment.

It’s important to bear in mind that ideas are common property, and that we don’t need to constantly refer to a certain historical tradition, religion, or philosophical creed for normative guidance in public discourse. We can choose and ignore what we like from a diversity of sources. We don’t need to slavishly imitate a certain tradition, as every idealised historical period contains its own idiosyncrasies and defects that bear little relation to contemporary needs. I remember a recent episode of Q&A where a panellist suggested that we should uphold the principles of Athenian democracy in public discussions. I question whether this nostalgia is helpful or constructive. stripped of its romanticism, there are many unappealing facets of Athenian democracy: its exclusivity to adult freemen, its propensity for attracting demagogues, and its key role in the death of Socrates. It would be far clearer to simply advocate more generic ideals like ‘rationality’ or ‘free public discourse’, rather than obscuring discussions with a selective nostalgia. Using historical examples can be fun, and it can possess great illustrative value, but it can also unnecessarily complicate a discussion as much as it can clarify.

Invoking a  tradition can also obfuscate the fact that other systems of thought can independently come to similar conclusions. It credits too much towards a specific creed, and too little to the power of others to come up with their own thoughts in different circumstances. For example, it’s reasonable to suggest that Christianity was not radically innovative in many of its moral tenets; celebrating the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ can disguise this fact. The ancient world that preceded and coexisted with the Christian tradition was a remarkably fertile epoch of different opinions, and like today, the public and written discourses did not consist of a simple monolithic consensus. We can therefore find Stoic sentiments that resemble Christian ones, despite the lack of historical connection between the two creeds.

The impressive divergence of ideas in antiquity is well expressed in the classicist Runar Thorsteinssen’s book, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality. Delving into classical texts from the first and second centuries. Thorsteinssen’s findings suggest that a minority of pagan philosophers were already grappling with some of the ideas typically imputed to the Christian tradition only. The later Stoics specifically make some striking anticipations. For them, humans were equal by nature, as they all played a part in the spiritual principle that structured the natural world. Philosophers such as Epictetus (50-125 A.D.) prescribed universal philanthropy, even towards those that have caused injury to you. Stoics like Musonius Rufus (25-100 A.D.) criticised the idea of vengeful payback, in favour of forgiveness; he also advocated virtue as entailing ‘love, goodness, justice and benevolence, and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbour’.

These strictly pagan perspectives sound pretty familiar, despite the fact that they were arrived at independently from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although there were enormous differences between the two creeds — compared to Christianity, Stoicism was more optimistic about human nature, pessimistic about life after death — there still remain some eerie resemblances. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should become followers of the Stoic tradition. That would be absurd, and it would require some incredibly selective reading, as the philosophies of Stoicism can frequently appear sour, puritanical, self-righteous, and unreasonably demanding. We have the luxury of choosing and rejecting what principles are best for our society, and we can therefore pick and choose what we like without idealising one tradition or another.


John Henry

The author John Henry

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