Opinion. Tradition vs Modernity by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Tradition vs Modernity by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Tradition vs Modernity by Hal O’Leary. Today, in the weekly section of American author Hal O’Leary in Yareah Magazine.


Charlie Chaplin. Modern Times

The centerpiece of the great musical, Fiddler On The Roof, is the song, Tradition. It is performed by the male lead Tevya, a father of seven daughters who adamantly refuses permission for one of them to marry a young man not of the Jewish faith. His reasoning is, TRADITION. While there is probably a general consensus that Tevya is being cruel to his daughter, I would contend otherwise. Tevya is not being cruel, for in his mind the only happiness his daughter can ever have will be found in adherence to the Jewish tradition that one must marry only within the faith. In his mind, all the happiness he has ever known has come from his faith-sharing wife Golde. His reasoning insists that the same must hold true for his daughter. How could it be considered cruel for him to want only for his daughter’s happiness?  Of course, in the end he relents and we have a happy ending making it a comedy rather than a tragedy it might have been had Tevya stubbornly adhered to an outworn tradition.  And therein lays the real problem, TRADITION.  When in conflicts with modernity, something has to give.

As with any concept that has both positive and negative consequences, the idea of tradition as a guide for human behavior, can lead to a disturbing confusion in the minds of those seeking that ever illusive happiness; illusive for the most part because it defies definition when the attempt to understand it is nothing more than a search for what causes one to be happy. Unless and until individual self-fulfillment is understood to be what constitutes happiness, it is most difficult to find the cause.  Therefore, when, as Tevya believed, tradition is viewed as a cause of happiness, with no consideration for other circumstances that same tradition can lead to unhappiness. 

The question then becomes one of deciding when the adherence to tradition is positive or when it is negative.  For Tevya, adherence had been a positive, primarily because it brought him the only happiness he had ever known. He had been trapped in a tradition that allowed for no other possibility for the happiness he sought. In the absence of an alternative, he had little choice. However, for his daughter who had discovered an alternative, denial of that potential was most negative, even tragic. Thus it can be said that while each was justified in their beliefs, Tevya’s refusal to recognize an alternative for his daughter was in conflict with a modernity that was overtaking is tradition.

There is no question that the retention of proven practices and behaviors of the past can be thought of as positive when they provide pleasure, comfort or wisdom with no adverse consequences.  Who can deny the pleasure provided by traditional art forms or the observance of rituals and celebrations that have stood the test of time?  Who can deny the comfort found in time honored repetitive practices and behaviors that provide the stability of psychological homeostasis.  Who can deny the necessity for resorting to the collective wisdom handed down from centuries past to arrive at a better understanding of the present or of the prospects for the future? These are benefits that cannot be denied both for the individual and for the society whose psychological stability is paramount to any happiness they can hope for. Indeed, tradition can be seen as the metaphorical glue that bonds the individual to his society.                               

So much for the positive. . .but what of the negative? To be brief, the greatest danger in adhering to tradition is the inhibition of progress leading to stagnation, for both the individual and for a society. Progress can be inhibited, but it cannot be halted. Those who, in adherence to an out dated tradition, stubbornly refuse to change will eventually find themselves out of touch with a modernity that simply ignores them, or at best will maintain them as museum pieces. Yes, traditions do become out dated.  Slavery was a tradition, and I dare say there are still those who would welcome its return. Women viewed as property remains a tradition in many parts of the world. While, in ages past, cultural traditions could be maintained in relative seclusion from other cultures, it is no longer true in a shrinking world. In today’s world, conflicting religious and political traditions foster an intolerance that threatens not just the stability but even the survival of the entire planet.

As the old song reminds us, “You’ve got to accent the positive and eliminate the negative.” But, this is easier said than done. Traditions are ingrained beliefs that in some cases the believer finds impossible to desert. There are many religions in the world, each claiming to represent the absolute truth. With the obvious fact that with their differences many of their claims cannot be sustained with reason, the believers will, none the less, adhere. And when we think that historically much of the world’s violence and misery can be traced directly to the intolerance   obstinate adherence fosters, we become aware of the difficulties traditions can present. By all means, we should cling to those benign traditions that do not inhibit intelligent and necessary progress in the conduct of human relations, while, at the same time, we make every effort to disavow traditions that are unacceptable because of the negative consequences they present for an enlightened modern society.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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