Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship

Dec 19, 2017 by

by Sir Roger Scruton, Law and Liberty.

The concepts of tradition, culture, and citizenship have this in common – they are summoned to protect our political inheritance against the disintegrative forces to which it is now exposed. They are tenuous, fragile, subject to many interpretations, and bend or break when we place too much weight on them. But they are among the important assets we have, when it comes to opposing the view of society as simply a power struggle between groups, who have no other end than to gain the ascendancy over their rivals. That view of society, as a power struggle, whose aim is domination or the escape from it, has been an intellectual commonplace from Marx to Foucault and beyond. Its falsehood is best displayed by examining the three concepts that form the topic of this article.


When we justify a practice as traditional, what are we doing and when are we justified? We should distinguish trivial from deep traditions. There are traditions like highland dress, the ‘ceremony of lessons and carols’, Christmas itself, which pretend to be immemorial, when in fact they were invented in recent memory. We could dispense with them and not lose a cornerstone of our social life; and they will be blown away without our really noticing the fact (not perhaps Christmas, but what is now displayed as Christmas).

In contrast to those shallow traditions there are the deep traditions, customs, and institutions that define what we are, for others and for our selves. We may not be consciously aware of these traditions, but they determine our primary responses, what we do and how we do it, when reacting to others around us.

First among those traditions for us in the Anglophone community is the Common Law. This is the legal system in which principles are derived from particular judgments, rather than deduced from some higher principle: the principles of common law are a kind of sedimentation left by the resolution of conflicts. Such law offers a paradigm of practical knowledge: not contained in a single head but implicit in the procedures of the court and the feelings of the people. We enter the courtroom with the sense that the law exists already, and remains to be discovered, and that the judge is simply applying to the case before us the rules that we learned as a child. (cf Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty.)

Other examples of deep traditions: political procedures and the dignities of office. Traditions act as constraints on behaviour in which social membership is recognized and given its due. They are ways of acknowledging that the others to whom we belong are present, even in the acts that we perform in private.

More examples: religious liturgies, formalized expressions of loyalty or grief, taking vows, all the ways in which ritual takes over, telling you that what you are doing is not done only by you, and that your choice must be sanctified by the community.

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