As Tim Stanley recalls it in his new book, Tevye says “You may ask, how did this tradition get started. I’ll tell you. I don’t know.” And another, unsettling question: without tradition, will there be anything left?
In 1993, The Heritage Foundation hosted a conversation “What Is Conservative Philanthropy?,” with Michael Joyce, then president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and Heather Richardson Higgins, a trustee of the Randolph Foundation.
In his contributions, Joyce focused on the real and substantive values and principles shared by all those who identify as conservatives, as well as those which served to divide the various groups within it. He also got some critiques of establishment progressive philanthropy in there—of course, to those of us who worked for him. He drew sharp distinctions, and typically sharply, between the liberal and conservative conceptions of man’s very nature and the ways in which those different conceptions influences man’s choices, including in the philanthropic context.
Borrowing heavily from Thomas Sowell’s influential 1987 book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Joyce said the “unconstrained” vision, generally associated with liberals, relies heavily on the conviction that human nature is essentially good. They believe there is an ideal solution to every problem, and that compromise is never acceptable. Any collateral damage in pursuit of the ideal is merely the price of moving forward to perfection. Social progress is simply a question of assembling the relevant facts and choosing among them to achieve the desired result.
As for the “constrained” vision, generally relied upon by conservatives, its foundation rests on a firm trust in the belief that human nature is essentially unchanging. Man is naturally self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those of “constrained” vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and the experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only prudent trade-offs.
Those of the “constrained” vision favor solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience. It required checks and balances, refusing to accept that all people could put aside their innate self-interest.
Understanding man’s nature
The new book Whatever Happened to Tradition?: History, Belonging and the Future of the West, by historian and Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley, should be influential, too. It is a great contribution to our understanding of man’s nature, its centrality to ever-persistent causes of social, political, and cultural disorder, and the foundational canons of thought that inform both liberal and conservative approaches to living, problem-solving, and grantmaking.
Stanley argues forcefully the West feels lost, lacking in definition. The future is dim at best, unless we have a proper sense of our political, social, and religious tradition. But in the West, he believes, we have been seriously at war with our traditions since the dawn of the Enlightenment. This battle was started by those who believe emancipating ourselves from our history sets us free.
Accordingly, liberalism, in contrast to tradition, prioritizes the individual over institutions. It rejects inherited assumptions in favor of self-exploration and debate. And finally, it favors science over tradition and rationality over the spirit.
But, the “constrained” vision informing Stanley’s narrative allows for some rays of hope in the face of this dimness. Stanley believes we are in a place where we are beginning to miss what is gone.
Early in the evening of April 15, 2019, for example, a mysterious calamity engulfed a powerful symbol of European religious and artistic tradition in a dramatic ball of fire. Within the space of one hour, as Stanley recounts, the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris was an inferno. People watched in silence, stunned into reflection and prayer.
That night, at the site, French president Emmanuel Macron said to his nation, and the world, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, our collective imagination … Her story is our story, and she is burning.”
Vivid. Will there be anything left? How? Her story, our story.
The brink of great change
Later in the book, Stanley reveals a personal incident that also powerfully illustrates the vision that Sowell did not misname, but perhaps understated. Stanley recalls a well-known and much-loved Broadway musical adapted to an Oscar-winning film.
When I told my friends I was writing a book about tradition, several of them threw their arms up in the air and sang ‘traditionnn!’ They were referring to the musical Fiddler on the Roof whose main character, Tevye, is obsessed with the subject. A Jewish milkman in tsarist Russia, he has five daughters he loves very much, and his greatest desire is to see them married off to five good Jewish boys. Life in his village is precarious. The threat of an anti-Semitic pogrom hangs over them, and Tevye compares their situation to a fiddler balanced on the roof of a house: an impossible thing, but he keeps his balance thanks to the ancient rules of the Jewish people. ‘We have traditions for everything,’ Tevye tells the audience in the opening number, for what to eat, how to work, how to dress. ‘We always wear a little prayer shawl,’ he says. ‘This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started. I’ll tell you. I don’t know.’ But so long as you know what you’re supposed to do, you’ll keep your balance. …
Poetic. Stanley continues,
That’s how it’s supposed to work, but Fiddler on the Roof is set in a world on the brink of great change and Tevye struggles to keep his footing. One daughter turns down an arranged marriage infamous of a childhood sweetheart; Tevye is offended, but he gives in. Another daughter wants to marry a revolutionary in Kiev; Tevye is furious, but at least they ask for his blessing, so he allows it.
A “constrained” vision, in which compromise is essential, because the ideal is unattainable. Stanley goes on,
Finally, his third daughter says she wants to marry a non-Jew, a Russian Christian—and it’s too much. ‘If I bend that far,’ says the milkman, ‘I’ll break.’ His prejudice against non-Jews is irrational and the audience is minded to sympathize with the love-struck couple, but when, in the second act, the Russians turn on the Jewish population and drive them out of their village, his conservatism is contextualized. If the Jews give too much of themselves away, will there be anything left?
Will there be any constraints? By which vision described by Sowell will we, and philanthropy, be guided in the future? Is there a prudent trade-off in all contextualizations, as essentially asked by Stanley’s depiction of Tevye?
For answers, and for givers like Joyce, looking amidst the sometimes-fiery turmoil of great change to “our history, our literature, and our collective imagination,” as Macron put it, may help.