The harshest truth to accept with age: In order for society to progress forward, the same traditions that define our lives today, our children will have to let die tomorrow.
With the first month of the new year coming to a close, I’m left sensing the same old aroma of destitute oozing from the pores of my generation. For the longest time I could not trace, or deduce its origin, but its stench rose up with the passing of each year nonetheless. It’s particularly evident in the restlessness we exhibit towards our relations with the rest of the world. Our attention span is gradually eroding away, as we become unable to focus on one thing long enough to satisfactory digest any of it. In turn, we try to substitute this defect by focusing on several things at once, but never registering enough of anything to feel fully content with ourselves, making us dependent on a continuous supply of novel information and content to keep us entertained (often confused erroneously with being happy). We have by necessity become accustomed to multitasking everything, not as a result of a higher functionality, but out of a never ending search for higher stimuli. We want to be part of something grand, and we are sure that ours is the era of unparalleled social transformation, but as we look around our search is left unfulfilled by the unimpressive characters that bumble before us to signal the beginning of the new epoch.
There is a banner that hangs above our heads, and it depressingly reads: “No heroes here to be seen, no glory left for me.” We desperately want relevance (just check out the wide array of YouTube videos; or even easier, look at the large number of blogs written by individuals eager to share their personality with an audience–including this one), but we have lost interest in the form this relevance can take. We have given up on the notion of heroes who affirm life, what we desire now are a continuous supply of cynics. We do not believe that, as a person, as a generation, as a species, glory can be achieved anymore in our social interactions, so we dare not try to even attempt it. The revolutionary spirit has come to a screeching halt, and the occasional sparks of it seen across the world could very well be nothing more but the reflexive cry of an amnesia afflicted body.
Like our predecessors, we are eager to achieve, to innovate, to create, to socially progress, but we are constantly being told that our ambitions are misplaced; how we ought to look to the past for guidance rather than compose our own future. Yes, we are being told that the generation that has brought about one of the largest gaps of global socioeconomic inequality in modern history, that has (and continues) to produce one economic blunder after another, whose self-appointed wisdom has left half the globe starved or reeling in anguish, is the generation we need to model ourselves after. These are the individuals we are expected to emulate as a generation? The “wise elders” we are to turn to for guidance? We’d be better off seeking advise from recycled fortune cookies, then this group of chronic failures! But they keep that banner solidly pinned over our heads, and condition us to believe that we are dependent on their leadership to endure the problems they have created. And we go along with it, because tradition says we have to respect ancient wisdom, and we cannot violate traditions–can we? Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell can. Because I choose to stand under a very different banner, one I have willingly nailed over my own head, and ask no one else to adopt, unless they so choose. My banner holds no cynicism about the future, in fact it welcomes the coming of new eras, new innovations, new ideas and ideals. It reads: “For progress to occur, traditions must die.”
The concept of ancient wisdom is imaginary. Had humanity always been concerned with being governed by the values of the dead, we’d still be stuck with our ancestors’ superstitious explanations of where the sun disappears to after it sets every night. We cannot afford to conserve values that hold no relevance to us; we must adapt to a changing scenery, or (literally) die trying.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands as a unique figure in modern intellectual thought. A polymath in the true sense of the word, it is difficult to ascribe to him one conclusive description without leaving out an array of equally apt titles. His was an artist, a poet, a politician, an amateur scientist, and (by proxy of the collective legacy of all of the above) a philosopher. Equally remarkable is the man’s place in history as a thinker heralded by both the materialist strands of the Enlightenment tradition, and the counter-Enlightenment Romantics of the 19th Century. By all accounts, the fact that Goethe personally embodied the various opposing ideals of his times probably went a long way in fostering such a bemusing repute amongst his admirers.
He was (by 18th Century standards) a religious heretic, meandering between pantheism, Abrahamic estoricism, and a great deal of what would now be called classic humanism. Yet, although his spiritual beliefs were heterodox, his politically leanings rested largely within the conservative tradition, always viewing the revolutionary efforts of his days with a high degree of suspicion, and a consistent aloofness. Regardless of where the man’s personal leanings stood on an issue, it is undeniable that Goethe’s widespread appeal to such varying audiences stems from his foresight in capturing the mood of the era he was living in for the sake of aesthetic posterity, and the intellectual benefit of the generations molded by the developments of said era.
As mentioned, Goethe himself held to rather undefinable religious positions throughout his active life. Nevertheless, he had no difficulty in identifying the ideological struggle between traditional religious structure and the emergence of various heretical ideals that have come to symbolize the Enlightenment for many modern observers. Published in 1789 (just as the Bastille was about to fall in France), “Prometheus” stands as a poetic allegory to the spiritual transition/tension sweeping through religious and politically revolutionary circles throughout Europe.
Conspicuously composed as a diatribe by the rebellious deity Prometheus against an uncharacteristically impotent Zeus (i.e. God), the work begins by declaring the sky Creator’s feebleness in comparison to the earth-dwelling Prometheus.
Now you must leave alone
My Earth for Me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
The glowing whereof
You envy me.
The divergence from Greek mythology here is of no small significance. Goethe’s Prometheus is not the tortured deity of antiquity, but a stand-in for the Enlightened spirit of mankind. During this era the intellectual and technological advances were often seen as either moving away from Divine interpretations, or standing in outright opposition to religious orthodoxy (though it should be noted that many of the figures of the time did draw on their firm religious convictions as inspiration for their work, albeit usually more from a spiritually individualistic, rather than a strictly traditionalist perspective). Like Enlightened man, Prometheus reclaims the title of Creator away from Zeus (“Now you must leave alone My Earth for Me”–note the capitalization of Me, apropos to the Western custom of using He when referencing the Almighty), and affirms his position as the keeper of his house (“my hut, which you did not build…”). Furthermore, he accuses the God of envy against the dominance he–Prometheus (i.e. mankind)–has secured for himself on Earth, in direct contrast to the traditional Abrahamic position that man is granted dominion on Earth by God.
I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, you Gods!
Is barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations,
And should starve
Were children and beggars not
Fools full of Hope.
Goethe is illustrating the popular sentiment amongst the irreligious sects of his days, comparing the growing turn away from the Divine as a starvation of the gods, except for “children and beggars” still foolish enough to turn to prayer in time of need. The allusion here is twofold; firstly, it draws on the growing Enlightenment critique that supernatural matters are too childish and superstitious for those with intellectual depth to concern themselves with. Secondly, it implies how Gods, exhibiting a constant demand for worship and sacrifice from on above, are therefore the more dependent entities in comparison to Prometheus (i.e. man), since their relevance rests on recognition from the earth-dwelling mortals.
Should I honour you? Why?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And eternal Fate,
My masters and thine?
The misotheistic aspersions at the start of the quote are a rhetorical framing of the fatalistic powerlessness endemic to existence; in which the concept of omnipotence is rendered incoherent, as gods and men are left equally susceptible to the entropy of time and fate (referred to as masters of both the Divine and the mortal). However, despite the recognition of cosmic fatalism, the tone of Goethe’s poem elicits a staunch resolve to stand high in defiance to the harsh realities of life:
Do you somehow imagine
That I should hate Life,
Flee to the desert,
Because not every
Flowering dream should bloom?
With these lines, the prose is drawing on the mindset that harsh reality is preferable to wishful thinking, and that one’s life is better spent creating order out of the inevitable destitute amongst us. This is a reflection of the optimism that surrounded the mood of the Enlightenment, where the leading belief among prominent thinkers was how man had reached the time to cast off the restrictive practices of old, that he can revere himself through investigation of the natural world, and use his knowledge to create a better world in life, rather than praying for one to come hereafter (whether or not in hindsight the terrors of the later French Revolution serve as a testament against this Enlightenment era notion is another matter altogether).
Prometheus finishes his monologue by affirming the greater spirit of man, to not deny his greater and (one would presume) earthly faculties, but above all else to not look towards the heavens on which to bestow one’s reverence. In short, it proclaims man as the heir to the counter-Divine legacy of Prometheus:
Here I sit, I form humans
After my own image;
A race, to be like me,
To sorrow, to weep,
To enjoy and delight itself,
And to heed you not at all –
It ought to be remembered that Goethe is simply putting into prose a dramatized sentiment that captures one facet of the era he lived in, and it would be a mistake to conflate the poet’s personal convictions with those found throughout “Prometheus.” The Enlightenment was a time of great progress in human understanding, but it also stood as a transitional phase where revolutionary ideals threatened to collide (and, indeed, did collide) with traditional austerity. Goethe’s role as both a participant, detractor, and historian of the era survives as an invaluable transcription of an intellectual tradition all of us in the modern world have inherited (for better or worse).
There is a story of a 16 year old girl, who sat down by the kitchen counter and observed her mother prepare lunch for the family. The meal is meatloaf, with rice and mashed potatoes on the side, something the girl had seen her mother prepare a hundred times in the past. And like always, prior to putting the meatloaf in the oven, the mother cuts off roughly one-third from one end of the dish, and then proceeds to bake it, while throwing the cutoff chunk of meat into the trash. To the girl, this always seemed strangely wasteful. What’s the point of cutting off one end of the meatloaf? Does it enhance the taste somehow? Is it easier, faster to bake when you only have two-thirds worth of a dish? Finally, she asked the mother for an explanation to this mystery.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the mother, “it’s the way my mother always made it. I just figured she must have had a good reason. She has been cooking much longer than I have.”
Unsatisfied with such a non-answer, the girl set out towards her grandmother’s house the next day to get to the bottom of this whole castrating meatloaf ritual.
After arriving at her grandmother’s house, the girl posed the same question she asked her mother: What’s the reason for cutting off one-third of the meatloaf before baking it?
“Well, I guess you can say it’s somewhat of a family tradition,” said the grandmother, “cooking tradition, that is. All I really know is that it’s the way my mother always did it. And I assume the same goes for her mother, my grandmother.”
Fortunately, for the inquisitive 16 year old (with no apparent social life), the 96 year old great-grandmother was still alive, and within reaching distance–the mystery of Meatloafgate could still be solved. So, she biked down a few miles to great-grandma’s, to once again ask the same question a third time: What’s the deal with our family’s meatloaf cutting tradition?
“Tradition?” repeated the great-grandmother bemused, “Ha! I’ll show you your tradition. Gimme a sec.” She lifted herself, balancing on her hickory cane, and wobbled to her tiny kitchen. She looked through a couple of cabinets, before exclaiming a resound, “Aha, here’s your tradition, right here!” Then she brought forward to the girl, a tiny baking tray, big enough to hold only two-thirds of a meatloaf dish.
The mystery was over, and from that moment on, so was the family tradition.
In the past, I have used this story a number of times to illustrate the mistaken value we might unknowingly be attributing to the various traditions we hold dear in our lives. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that traditions are nothing more but arbitrary customs that individuals are indoctrinated into by the community, stating, “How the tradition originated is indifferent; in any case it was without any regard for good and evil or any immanent categorical imperative, but above all in order to preserve the community, a people” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 96). It is certainly true that many, if not most, people perform and take part in social customs for reasons that might elude them, other than a vague, “it’s just what we’ve always done.”
A good example would be the institution of marriage. The exact origin of when, and why, marriage began as a common practice is unknown, leaving us mostly with various myths and legends of ancient cultures. However, despite this murky genealogy, the notion that marriage is a sacred act is still a common sentiment in the general public. In America, divorce is as prevalent as marriage, but no one ever says that divorce is a sacred act (even though, the origin of divorce is probably as ancient as the origin of marriage). We take it as a given that getting married is a tradition that we, as a healthy society, ought to value. Thus, because we are taught to value marriage as an important aspect of our cultural tradition, we see no reason to develop a rationality for its exists. And the ones we have come up with are bound to spiral into circular reasoning and tautologies (it’s a valued tradition, because we traditionally value it). For instance, take the following exchange:
“Marriage is a sacred tradition, because it enjoys a long history within civilized society.”
“But so did slavery.”
“But marriage serves a social function for the community, it has utility.”
“So did slavery.”
“Yeah, o.k., but marriage is a legal union entered into voluntary by consenting partners.”
“Historically, there actually have been legally binding forms of slavery, entered into by consenting parties, usually to pay off a dept or loan.”
“But now you’re talking about the exception, not the rule.”
“So are you. Much of the history of marriage has seen the tradition as a form of coercion, in which one partner’s consent was neither needed nor sought to make the act legally binding.”
“We can’t just start throwing traditions out the window, we would lose our cultural integrity.”
“But we have done away with, or at least stopped socially valuing, a large number of traditions in the past (slavery, segregation, male/female gender roles), and often for the sake of cultural progression.”
“Your playing semantics with me.”
“I can’t help it. Scrutinizing ideas and ideals may very well be part of my cultural tradition.”
Now, before anyone misinterprets what I’m trying to say, this post is not in any way about equating marriage to slavery, or a call for the dissolution of marriages. What I am doing is asking why we feel the need to attribute value to traditions, for no other reason than that it is considered a tradition? Why is it so hard for us to say that, yes, much of what we deem to be part of our cultural tradition is arbitrary, and in the scope of history, will probably prove to be provisional to our particular social era. Does this undermine the value of our traditions? I don’t know. If we had a time machine, and were able to discover the exact origins of all of our traditional customs, would we still bother performing those whose history we now knew to differ from our original conception of them? Again, I don’t know.
Perhaps, it would be best for us to simply start reevaluating out customs now. Defend them as if they are on trial, awaiting due judgment. After all, if the traditions we hold dear are as valuable as we perceive them, no amount of self-scrutiny and rational argument should be strong enough to even cause a dent.