CHAPTER II

TRADITION, MODERNIZATION AND CREATIVITY

GEORGE F. McLEAN

 

MODERNIZATION AS APPLICATION OF TRADITION

            It is especially evident that tradition in the sense of what is passed on regarding morality has a permanent depth of meaning and value. This is its synchronic aspect. To this must be added its dia-chronic or particular meaning for each new time ordering the present and constructing the future. This will be our concern in this paper.

            It is a matter, first of all, of taking time seriously, that is, of recognizing that reality includes authentic novelty. This contrasts to the perspective of Plato for whom the real was the ideal forms or ideas transcending matter and time, of which physical things and temporal events are but shadows. It also goes beyond rationalism’s search for clear and distinct knowledge of eternal and simple natures and their relations, and beyond romanticism’s attention to a primordial nature hidden in the dimly sensed past. A fortiori, it goes beyond method alone without content.

            In contrast to all these, the notion of application1 means that tradition, with its inherent authority or normative force, achieves its perfection in the temporal unfolding of reality. Secondly, it shows human persons and peoples, not as detached intellects, but as enabled by, and formative of, their changing physical and social universe. Thirdly, in the area of socio-political values and action it expresses directly the striving of persons to realize their lives, the development of this striving into a fixed attitude (hexis). Hence, as distinct from the physical order, ethos is a situation neither of law nor of lawlessness, but of human and therefore developing institutions and attitudes which regulate, but do not determine.2

            Certain broad guidelines for the area of ethics and politics serve in the application of tradition as a guide for historical practice. The concrete and unique reality of human freedom when lived with others through time constitutes a distinctive and ever-changing pro-cess. This historicity means that responses to the good are made always in concrete and ever changing circumstances. Hence, the general principles of ethics and politics as a philosophic science of action cannot be purely theoretical knowledge or a simple account-ing from the past. Instead, they must help people consciously exer-cise their freedom in concrete historical circumstances which are ever changing and new.

            Here an important distinction must be made from techné where action is governed by an idea as an exemplary cause that is fully determined and known by objective theoretical knowledge (epistéme). Skill consists in knowing how to act according to that idea or plan; and when it cannot be carried out perfectly some parts of it simply are omitted in the execution. In contrast, ethics and politics, though similar in the possession of a practical guide and its application to a particular task, differ in important ways. First, in moral action subjects -- whether persons or peoples -- constitute themselves as they act: agents are differentiated by their action. Hence, moral knowledge as an understanding of the appropriateness of human action cannot be fully determined independently of the subjects in their situation.

            Secondly, adaptation by moral agents in their application of the law does not diminish, but rather corrects and perfects the law. In relation to a world which is less ordered, the law is imperfect, for it cannot contain in any explicit manner the response to the concrete possibilities which arise in history. It is precisely here that freedom and creativity are located. They do not consist in arbitrariness, for Kant is right in saying that without law freedom has no meaning; nor do they consist in an automatic response determined by the historical situation, for then determinism and relativism would compete for the crown in undermining human freedom. Freedom consists rather in shaping the present according to the sense of what is just and good which we have from our cultural tradition, and in a way which manifests and indeed creates for the first time more of what justice and goodness mean.

            Hence, law is perfected by its application in the circums-tances. Epoché and equity do not diminish, but perfect the law; without them the law would be simply a mechanical replication doing the work not of justice, but of injustice. Ethics or politics is not only knowledge of what is right in general, but the search for what is right in the situation; it is also the choice of the right means for this situation. Knowledge about the means is not then a matter of mere expediency; it is the essence of the search for a more perfect application of the law in the given situation. This is the fulfillment of moral knowledge.3

            It is important to note here that this rule of the concrete (of what the situation is asking of us) is not known by sense knowledge, which simply registers a set of concrete facts on the horizontal level. In order to know what is morally required, the situation must be understood in the light of what is right, that is, in the light of what has been discovered vertically about appropriate human action through tradition with its normative character. Only in this light can moral consciousness as the work of intellect (nous), rather than of sen-sation, go about its job of choosing the right means.

            Therefore, to proceed simply in reaction to concrete injustices, rather than in the light of one’s tradition, is ultimately destructive. It inverts the order just mentioned and results in manipulation of our hopes for the good. Destructive or repressive structures would lead us to the use of correspondingly evil means suited only to producing evil results. The true response to evil can be worked out only in terms of the good as discovered by our forebears passed on in tradition and applied by us in our times.

            The importance of application implies a central role for the virtue of prudence (phronesis) or thoughtful reflection which enables one to discover the appropriate means for the circums-tances. This must include also the virtue of sagacity (sunesis), that is, of understanding or concern for the other. For what is required as a guide for the agent is not only technical knowledge of an abstract ideal, but knowledge that takes account of the agent in relation to other persons. One can assess the situation adequately only inas-much as one, in a sense, undergoes the situation with the affected parties. Thus, Aristotle rightly describes as "terrible" the one who can make the most of the situation, but without orientation towards moral ends, that is, without concern for the good of others in their situations.

            In sum, application is not a subsequent or accidental part of understanding, but co-determines this understanding from the beginning. Moral consciousness must seek to understand the good, not as an ideal to be known and then applied, but rather through discerning the good for concrete peoples in their relations with others.

            Cua finds similar notions in the distinctions of Chu Hsi in the neo-Confucian tradition regarding the diachronic sense of tao bet-ween the substantial (t’i) and the operational (yung), the stable basic or latent schemata and the operational in changing circumstances (fei). Hsün Tzu distinguishes the constant (ch’ang) and the chan-ging (pien), the constant rule (ching) and the sliding scale (ch’üuan). Use of the latter as an exercise of moral discretion based on li is essential for moral life due to the imperfections of our knowledge and the urgent complexity of life. In these circumstances even to hold to a static mean would undermine the realization of the wholistic goal of the tao.

            Creativity in the application of the tradition in the concrete circumstances of life thus becomes essential. In this context Cua deftly cites J. Pelican’s aphorism: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."4

TRADITION AND THE ROOTS OF CREATIVITY:

            PERSONAL AND SOCIAL

            The notion of application can help in sorting out the human dilemma between an absolutism insensitive to persons in their con-crete circumstances and a relativism which leaves the person sub-ject to expediency in public and private life. Indeed, the very statement of the dilemma reflects the deleterious aspect of the Platonic view of ideas. He was right to ground changing and histo-rical being in the unchanging and eternal. This had been Parmenides’ first insight in metaphysics and was richly developed in relation to human action through the medievals’ notion of an eternal law in the divine mind.

            But it seems inappropriate to speak directly in these terms regarding human life, for in all things individual human persons and humankind as a whole are subject to time, growth and development. As we become increasingly conscious of this the personal character of even our abstract ideals becomes manifest and their adapted application in time can be seen, not as their rejection, but as their perfection. In this, justice loses none of its force as an absolute requirement of human action. Rather, the concrete modes of its application in particular circumstances add to what could have been articulated in merely abstract and universal terms. A hermeneutic approach directs attention precisely to these unfoldings of the meaning of abstract principles through time. This is not an abandonment of absolutes, but a recognition of the human condition and of the way in which this reflects the ultimate richness of the source and principle of social life.

            For Confucius the aesthetic vision is integrated in drama, of which dance is one moment. In the actual performance of li (ritual or liturgy) there is a combination of poetry, liturgical action and music. It is important to distinguish these as three levels, for Con-fucius said that in the poem our spirit can rise and stand in reality to achieve complete transcendence in the ecstasy of the spirit.

            Confucius, however, may have looked upon aesthetics more as a matter of appreciation and conservation, rather than as original, creative and free expression. This suggests that in the works of Confucius there are important resources for developing a modern vision which were not mined by Confucius himself and his schools.

            If so what should be the attitude of a philosopher in our day to this mode of aesthetics? If it be itself appreciative and conservative, does one who interprets it become limited to the same approach or can interpretation legitimately open up new meaning in old texts. In other words, must ancient texts be read only with an ancient outlook? Indeed, is it even possible today to have an authentically ancient outlook -- to see with eyes long closed -- or does the attempt to do so require so much make-believe as to be in effect impossible? Even if one were to succeed in reconstituting the past, would one be faithful to the text which was written as a vital expression of the process of life, or would one instead be rendering lifeless a living text (not unlike the biologist who makes a slide of once living tissue)?

            It would seem therefore that our goal should be not simply to reiterate ancient times in reading ancient texts, but to recognize that we come to them from new times, with new horizons and new questions; that we should allow them to speak anew to us; and that in so doing the texts and philosophies are living rather than dead--and therefore more true. Texts read in this sense are part of a living tradition in which is situated our struggle to face the problems of life and to build a future worthy of those who follow.

            Some would fear that to give such importance to the horizon of the reader of a text might constitute a relativism and lose the permanent significance of the insights of the author. But this would seem to reflect a material and mechanical model ruled by successive discrete moments of time in which universality is a function only of abstraction. This leaves what is universally applicable relatively vacuous and reduces one to pragmatism. The real issue here is one’s metaphysics: what is the nature of being, what does it mean to be? If the answer, as the Confucian sense of community would be the first to suggest, is not that reality is reductively matter trapped in time but at least the human spirit living through time, then to look for meaning in terms of the reaches of the spirit across time is not to lose but to find meaning. This is the sense of being emerging through the consciousness of Heidegger’s person as dasein. Being is not merely what was, but what blossoms ever fresh in the human heart. In a parallel manner in reading ancient texts philosophy is not archeology but, like every human act, a creative unfolding of being in time. This creative freedom is the essential characteristic of the person.

            What then should we conclude regarding the root of the actuality, the good or the perfection of reality which mankind has discovered, in which we have been raised, which gives us dominion over our actions, and which enables us to be free and creative? Does it come from God or from man, from eternity or from history? Chakravarti Rajagopalachari of Madras answered:

Whether the epics and songs of a nation spring from the faith and ideas of the common folk, or whether a nation’s faith and ideas are produced by its literature is a question which one is free to answer as one likes. . . . Did clouds rise from the sea or was the sea filled by waters from the sky? All such inquiries take us to the feet of God transcending speech and thought5

NOTES

            1. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroads, 1975), pp. 281-286.   

            2. Ibid., pp. 278-279.

            3. Ibid., pp. 281-286.

            4. Jaroslav Pelican, Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 65.

            5. Ramayana (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1976), p. 312.