What is Tradition?

One question or bundle of questions that often return to me is “What is tradition and how are the different traditions related to one another?” This is particularly relevant when one tries to understand what we as moderns use as a descriptional delimiter when speaking about “traditional” astrology as compared to “modern” astrology. If we look at the elements of astrology as they were in Bonatti’s or Lily’s time we notice that there are elements that we might speak of as being borrowed from Arabic astrology, which in turn may have been borrowed from Indian astrology, and so on. There is the question as to how cultural and religious focus, the traditions us such, contribute to particular insights and interpretation. And of course there is the question how the different traditions influence each other!

But first what is “tradition”? A dictionary will tell you that a tradition is a set of customs and beliefs that have been passed from one generation to the next over a long period of time. So we can include all of the major religions when we speak of tradition. We can also speak of that tradition that has developed since the Renaissance and more particularly since the Enlightenment which we as moderns tend to speak of as “natural science”. In fact just writing about traditions; analysing and comparing them, has its roots in this particular cultural habit of questioning, that has developed since the 17th century. Also the peculiar and necessary habit of trying to stand outside of things in order to better observe and form a complete and unbiased understanding. Erkenntnis, to use the German word. Insight that is within and not under the object of one’s knowledge.

When speaking of tradition the parable of the Ring comes to mind that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) used in his play, “Nathan the Wise”. The Thomas Taylor translation can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3820. In the parable an opal ring of great value is described which has the property of rendering its wearer beloved of God and man. It is passed on to the most beloved son of each generation until one day its wearer has three beloved sons. He has two exact copies made and gives each son a ring…

A tradition is like a ring. It is complete within itself, all-encompassing, self-defining. Because that is so the zealots of any given tradition tend to emphasise an exclusiveness that forgets that there are other rings and their bearers may in fact have similar goals, as well as a blindness towards understanding the basics underlying the striving for truth. On the other hand a tradition must also be protected so that it remains whole, remains itself.

For those who explore the traditions it is important to wear only one ring at a time. It is the essence of a tradition that must be respected and in so doing we also find that which transcends each ring and unites it with its companions.

I have been writing about ibn ‘Arabi and what can be found in his work. That is only possible by slipping on the ring of his tradition and trying to understand it from within. If the essence is understood it is possible to recognise what is comparable when slipping on the rings of the other traditions. It is possible to recognize parallels in the Kabbalah as well as in the mysticism of Meister Eckehart. I think this is where the traps of both eclecticism and intolerance can be avoided.

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8 thoughts on “What is Tradition?

  1. An insightful post (as usual) Thomas. One can work from within (for example) the tradition of Renaissance astrology while also appreciating the contributions made to it by Medieval astrology and the legacies it was heir to. For me the mystical cosmology of Ibn ‘Arabi is the final word on astrological paradigms; but in another sense, it is also the first word, since it is possible to appreciate the contributions of other traditions (to weigh and assess, to compare and contrast) in its light. I especially like the analogy of the ring; complete within itself but able to fit many different hands.

  2. Thank you! Yes, I also think that Ibn ‘Arabi’s astrological insight goes by far the deepest from what I have hitherto encountered in my studies. For me the astrologer must at some level be willing to look at questions about the act of knowing itself. This is uncomfortable (as one has to regularly examine one’s own insights) but necessary. Knowledge alone gathered from books is not enough. There must be a solid base. And with that one should be able to arrive at the same conclusions and insight. That is where it is difficult for me to accept knowledge on authority alone and where I see or have experienced how quickly “authority” pushes itself before the object of study and becomes a goal in itself. As a modern, formed by a scientific schooling ( some might even ask why I even waste time with a “pseudo-science”), I can’t merely reject my cultural base offhand, although I can eye it very critically. Interestingly enough popular science as found in the media presents assumptions that though different in content are in character not unlike those of many a religious zealot, whatever the faith. Even there the word epistemology is answered with “huh?”.

  3. Hello Mase,

    The words ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ may seem to describe the same thing. Given closer scrutiny they describe two different things. In the hierarchy of ideas ‘culture’ plays a super-ordinate role.

    Culture is a continuous process that exists in past, present and future. The verbal form, ‘cultivate’ embodies this quite well. A culture may contain within itself any number of traditions which, when living, reach out from the past into the present. It is possible for a culture to ignore its traditions in favour of completely new ideas, which when established, can form a new ‘tradition’. We speak of ‘traditional’ astrology. But an adjective, such as ‘western’ or ‘islamic’ or ‘vedic’ is required to point to just which of the many traditions we are referring to. We may in fact cultivate one particular tradition but borrow from another in order to fill in any gaps. We see this for example in western astrology, where many ideas from Arabic astrology were absorbed. These may have in turn been adapted from Hellenistic ideas.

    If we use a simile we could say that each tradition is like a being which when alive nurtures itself and grows. When this being dies it may still be kept intact, but in mummified form. A culture is like a city with houses, private and public, parks, cemeteries, etc. in which different traditions may live or, if they are no longer living, are preserved. The traditions themselves may interact with one another; eventually changing each other.


    • Hello Antron,

      “Multicultural” originally was applied to countries in which different languages and cultures harmoniously coexist under one government, Switzerland for example.

      Tradition and culture are not identical. See my answer above:

      The words ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ may seem to describe the same thing…

  4. hey,

    Im creating a debate against the statement ‘transmission is the essence of tradition’..
    Im looking for sources to support arguments against this… Have any in mind?

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