Tradition: Concept and Claim
By Josef Pieper, Translated from the German by E. Christian Kopff, St. Augustine’s Press, 2010, 95 pp., ISBN: 978-1-58731-879-5, $13.00 (paper).
This is the author's version of a work that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:
Catholic Library World, 81(3): 230 (Mar 2011).
What is tradition? Is it hostile to reason and modern thought? Is it anti-historical? These are some of the questions Josef Pieper seeks to answer in his book, Tradition: Concept and Claim.Josef Pieper(1904-97), a popular German philosopher who has written many great works which have been translated into English: Guide to Thomas Aquinas, The Four Cardinal Virtues, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and many others.
Tradition was originally published in 1970, a revision of lectures he delivered a decade earlier. In this book, Pieper defines tradition as the handing down of a truth or teaching from one generation to the next unchanged. He asks in chapter 1 of the book, “Is Tradition Anti-Historical?” It is difficult to determine Pieper’s answer to the question. On one side, he says that the tradition is passed down to each generation unchanged. Nothing is added to it and nothing is deleted from it. Pieper says, “It is an essential part of the concept of tradition that no experience and no deductive reasoning can assimilate and surpass what is handed down” . On the other hand, Pieper says that the tradition must be translated to changing historical circumstances.
What is the relationship of tradition to authority? Pieper thinks that accepting tradition has the structure of belief. He illustrates this by comparing Socrates and Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias. He compares their different response to the myth of Judgment after death. Callicles treats the myth as a good story. Socrates believes in the message of the myth and orders his life by it. Both Plato and Cicero believe that the sacred tradition comes from the gods, an answer that is similar to the answer given by Christian theology. The important element is that the tradition originates from a divine source.
Is tradition hostile to reason? No. Tradition needs reason and reason needs tradition. Philosophy is different than the handing down of tradition. Philosophy is reflecting on the whole of tradition. Speaking of philosophy, Pieper says that “all of Western philosophy maintains its vitality by nourishing itself on the conversation” or the debate “with the sacred tradition of Christendom that precedes it” .
Pieper’s Tradition is a good book. It will help us wrestle with important questions. Pieper is a perfect example of a scholar who translates the sacred tradition to modern society. This book should be read with many of his other fine works like Leisure, the Basis of Culture.