Significance and Value of True Tradition

July 29, 2013

Respect for tradition is a very rare virtue in our day. On the one hand, the Revolution (1) turned the craving for novelties and the disdain for the past into common attitudes. On the other hand, the defenders of tradition sometimes understand it in an entirely false manner. Tradition is not merely a historic value, nor is it simply a theme for romantic yearnings for bygone days. It must be understood as an indispensable factor for contemporary life, and not in an exclusively archaeological way. The word tradition, says the Pontiff,

Painting by George Goodwin Kilburne

Painting by George Goodwin Kilburne

resounds disagreeably in many ears, and it is justifiably unpleasant when pronounced by certain lips. Some misunderstand it, others make it the mendacious label of their inactive egotism. Amid this dramatic dissent and confusion, more than a few envious voices, often hostile and in bad faith, more often ignorant or deluded, ask you bluntly: What are you good for? To answer them, you must first come to understand the true meaning and value of this tradition, of which you must of necessity be the principal representatives.


Many minds, even sincere ones, imagine and believe that tradition is nothing more than memory, the pale vestige of a past that no longer exists, that can never return, and that at most is relegated to museums, therein preserved with veneration, perhaps with gratitude, and visited by a few enthusiasts and friends. If tradition consisted only of this, if it were reduced to this, and if it entailed rejection or disdain for the road to the future, then one would be right to deny it respect and honor, and one would have to look with compassion on those who dream over the past and those left behind in face of the present and future, and with greater severity on those who, spurred by less pure and respectable motives, are nothing but derelict in the duties of the now so very mournful hour.

Visit of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria 1830-1916 to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1891, 1893. Painting by Raschka

Visit of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria 1830-1916 to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1891, 1893. Painting by Raschka

But tradition is something very different from a simple attachment to a vanished past; it is the very opposite of a reaction mistrustful of all healthy progress. The word itself is etymologically synonymous with advancement and forward movement—synonymous, but not identical. Whereas, in fact, progress means only a forward march, step by step, in search of an uncertain future, tradition also signifies a forward march, but a continuous march as well, a movement equally brisk and tranquil, in accordance with life’s laws, eluding the distressing dilemma: “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait!” [If youth knew, if the aged could]; like that Lord of Turenne of whom it was said: “Il a eu dans sa jeunesse toute la prudence d’un âge avancé, et dans un âge avancé toute la vigueur de la jeunesse” [In his youth he had all the prudence of advanced age and in his advanced age all the vigor of youth].By virtue of tradition, youth, enlightened and guided by the experience of elders, moves forward with a surer step, and old age can confidently pass on the plow to stronger hands, to continue the furrow already begun. As the word itself implies, tradition is a gift handed down from generation to generation, the torch that at each relay one runner places in and entrusts to the hand of the next, without the race slowing down or coming to a halt. Tradition and progress complement each other so harmoniously that, just as tradition without progress would be a contradiction in terms, so progress without tradition would be a foolhardy proposition, a leap into darkness.

A walk with Grandpa

The point, then, is not to go against the stream, to backstep toward lifestyles and forms of activity already eclipsed, but rather to take and follow the best of the past and go out to meet the future with the vigor of unfailing youth.” (1944 allocution to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility.)


(1)  The term Revolution is used on this website in the sense attributed it in the study Revolution and Counter-Revolution, by Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira. It designates a movement initiated in the fifteenth century which aimed to destroy Christian civilization and to implant a state of things diametrically opposed to it. The Pseudo-Reformation, the French Revolution, and Communism—in its many variations and in its current subtle metamorphosis—are the stages of this process.


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), 52-53.


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