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On the Nature of Tradition
The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.
My theme is tradition in general, tradition in the general cultural meaning. Naturally, in the church, this theme acquires a special intensity — and, I would say, a special fullness. But generally speaking, tradition is a thing that pertains to a human being as such, to the pre-New Testament and even pre-Old Testament human being. Where there is a person, there is tradition. No matter what tradition we speak of — mythological, folkloristic, cultural — it possesses certain common qualities. For example, the almost essential vagueness of its source or the explication of its precepts. The more alive and the stronger the tradition is, the less desire and ability its carrier has to answer questions such as what is the source of doing things and thinking in this way or why, in what way is it justified, where can we find out about it? The first question he will answer most likely this way: well it was always done this way. The second — you will find out for yourself, if it is necessary, "life will prompt you." This is why Moliere's Messier Jourdin does not know that he speaks in prose, and until he is informed, he is completely immersed in the tradition to speak in prose. The reflexive, explicated, ordered norms seemingly represent the buttresses for the tradition; they are additional mechanisms designed to preserve what tradition carries, already outside of it (that is, outside immediate living transference). They appear in view of the risk of losing tradition as a quasi-natural process or in order to prevent interference during this transmission and to guarantee its precision. In reality, the precision, guaranteed in such a way, transmits slightly different, slightly remote knowledge (traditional knowledge is intimate). In this respect, a child's learning of his or her native language (in which she gets used to observing grammatical rules without knowing how to distill them from speech) is traditional, and the study of a foreign language is post-traditional. Naturally, I offer a description of a tradition within its limits: I doubt that actually existing traditions can get by without "external," explicitly expressed and calculated norms.

Our theme — secularism and fundamentalism — is connected to the general theme of modernity: with the theme of the destruction of a tradition and traditions and of the appearance of some kind of post-traditional civilization. I often discussed this theme with Sergei Averintsev. A strange violation of the transmission takes place in the most varied areas, and it is clearly a sign of our time. The transference does not work, something is not transferred from parents to children, from teachers to pupils, something has been broken in our civilization.

The notion of tradition and the notion of culture are so close that it is quite difficult to distinguish between them. In many respects culture is the tradition, and the tradition — the culture, the "non-biological heritage," as Yury Lotman called it.

Speaking in the most general way, tradition is the domain of non-individual decisions. It is something that supersedes individual experience. It exists before the birth of an individual person (she is being born into a tradition), it survives him or her and continues after his or her death. The tradition "extends" private life in both directions, it also changes the time of human life ("minimizes for us the experiences of fast flowing life"). The idea of tradition contains a disproportionate amount of the personal, individual life of a person and some age of mankind, of the human race. It also contains the pathos of a relative overcoming of mortality, of individual death. When poets say: "No, not all of me will die," they — both Horace and Pushkin — usually mean not the immortality in the other world but the immortality in a tradition, a transition of their own experience into the experience of other generations, "from generation to generation." This is a continuation of a short personal life into a direction beyond death — and in the direction before one's birth. From this comes man's possibility to converse with those who no longer are, such as in the young Pushkin's poetry: "The dead are my friends."

A completely extra-traditional person is, of course, a utopia. More precisely, it is not already a person but Mawgli: after all, language itself enters the tradition, the language itself is a tradition. Outside transference, without human communication that introduces it to a tradition, a person alone cannot invent a tongue, she remains tongueless. That is why to many generic and species definitions of man (like homo sapiens, a rational man; zoon politikon, a social animal), we can add another one: homo haeres, a being inheriting and transferring inheritance.

The relationship between a singular, unique personality and a super-personal set of values, prescriptions, prohibitions, permissions, and encouragements — of everything that is included in a tradition — is undoubtedly dramatic. On the one hand, tradition gives a person such richness and such freedom! After all, a person comes into a world that is completely unknown to him or her, and if there are no paths laid out for him or her, she simply does not know how to move. His or her biological nature will not lead him or her to the path of human life, and in this sense I am speaking about the freedom that tradition provides and that exceeds individual capabilities. "To all of us tradition used to appear to all it promised to give a face," Pasternak once wrote.

Translated by Slava I. Yastremski
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Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The Light of Life. Some Remarks On the Russian Orthodox Perception
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The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
Once again about Childhood, Poetry, and Courage. Answers for Elena Stepanian
Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
A Discourse on Method
Poetry and Anthropology
 On the Nature of Tradition
Freedom as Eschatological Reality
Waiting for a Response
Totus Tuus
In Memory of John Paul II
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