Many generations ago, when our country was very new in the political sense but very old still in respect of its general culture, many educated men and women kept what were in those days called commonplace books, mainly a compendium of quotations gleaned from their quotidian reading.  The practice lapsed a century and a half before the invention of the personal computer and must be as good as dead today, when actual date and appointment books are increasingly hard to find, as a columnist for The Spectator of London discovered recently.

Robert Beum’s Tradition: Authority and Freedom may be described as one man’s commonplace book intended for the benefit of other, like-minded people as well for his own personal one.  It is, however, quite obviously more than the product of leisured reading, though it is that as well: an energetic ransacking of source material in search of truth pithily and cogently expressed.  Mr. Beum has arranged his takings in categorical sections (Continuity, Belonging, Courtesy, Virtue, Limitation, Will, Love, and so forth) that amount, almost, to a series of staccato notes intended to outline a contemplated work—pensées written by scores of people and preceded by an Introduction that has more to say about the meaning of tradition in a brief compass of 2,500 words or so than any other essay I can recall.  The range of Robert Beum’s readings is enormous.  A quick glance through the A and B sections of the Index, for example, reveals references to Henry Adams, Aeschylus, Bagehot, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Kingsley Amis, Antis­thenes the Cynic, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Atherton, Letitia Baldridge, Balzac, Barrès, Clive Bell, Hilaire Belloc, Aphra Ben, Saul Bellow, Ambrose Bierce, Louis de Bonald, William Buckley, Robert Bork, Bossuet, Ted Bundy, Jacob Burckhardt, Edmund Burke, and James Burnham.  There are 1,420 entries in all.

Beum argues that “a culture—a traditional society—exists when a people living in a felt unity are able to extend that unity little changed from one generation to the next.”  And cultural unity, he says, “derives from pride of race (self-prejudice, the people’s belief in itself); from homogeneity in religion and ethic; from a shared or dominant language; and from hand labor and hand crafting rather than from machinisme.”  The opposite of traditionalism is, of course, modernity.

In a true culture the primacy of the religious, moral, and protective life means that values are perceived (not necessarily conceptualized) socially and hierarchically. . . . In a culture that has remained vigorous, art and appetite take care of themselves, they need not be cultivated and are never to take precedence over necessary or even distinctly helpful tasks.  Entertainment, diversion, exists but is not sanctioned as a way of life or what gives life meaning.

For modern people, the traditional society means the static, empty, dull, monotonous, repressive, confined, claustrophobic, and above all boring society.  To Beum, the history of modernity is the history of a limitedly useful anachronism.  Modernity, he perceives, works

only during those intervals where conditions permit the luxury of mindless, trivial, narcissistic living. . . . [M]odernity in and of itself is incapable of dealing with the serious, let alone the tragic, and has evolved historically as an alternative to moral, spiritual, and intellectual awareness and responsibility.

If modernity presents a “problem” for the future of humanity, then it is a problem we may expect will resolve itself in time—perhaps, even, in the not so distant future.

Tradition is an invaluable reference work for people who have a concern for both the serious and the tragic.  It is also a book that makes for rich intellectual browsing, though probably for limited sessions only.  Its nutritive content must be at least 20,000 calories per hour of reading.


[Tradition: Authority and Freedom, by Robert Beum (Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company) 374 pp.]