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Tradition & free will: on the little things we can transform

In our instinctive attempt to give meaning to events around us, our species has developed an ability to make stories that simplify and accommodate a vision of the world that is not identical to the physical events that conform to reality.

Some of the words and expressions we learn are related to the things we see, the events that take place, and our relationship with the people around us.

Language, often aided by songs, is a powerful tool we have perfected to make sense of the world and all languages share three markers, argues French philosopher Francis Wolff: nouns designate things, verbs allow us to explain action and events, and pronouns designate who is involved in what around us.

Nietzsche confessed that the idea of Zarathustra came on the shores of lake Silvaplana, Switzerland, as he passed next to a “pyramidal block of stone.”

By framing the world through a nuanced perception, we learn from people around us since we are born; we inherit a language (or several languages), a taste for stories accompanied by music, and a way of looking into the world. Tradition is part of the human experience.

Yet being aware of the place, the time, the culture, and the family we are born into, should not imply that there is nothing left for us to shape according to our inner dispositions and will.

When the classical philologist went rogue

The taciturn son of a Lutheran priest, Friedrich Nietzsche was aware of the force in human thought of old stories, genealogies, parables, and beliefs. As a classic philologist, Nietzsche learned about the prison of language since we struggle to designate our thoughts while our readers or interlocutors must interpret what we are trying to express.

Health issues and a profound contempt for academic custom and bureaucracy made him abandon his professor position at the University of Basel in Switzerland and ended up focusing on philosophy as an independent scholar, an activity he nurtured taking long walks in nature.

In his critique of cultural inertia and the risks of relying on inherited thought, custom, and institutions, Nietzsche often used the same old formulas and expressions, allowing multiple interpretations of texts. That’s why the parables conforming Thus Spoke Zarathustra (full-text) carry the familiarity of old psalms and sacred books thanks to the use of paradoxes, metaphors, aphorisms, and the musicality of orally transmitted works, including the repetitive formula of Thus spake Zarathustra.

In the book, explanations come with analogies and figurative language. In criticizing what he saw as Christian thought’s prolonged inertia, withered by endogamic and narrow-minded intellectual legacy, Nietzsche resorted to the structure of the gospels to bring a renovated interpretation to tradition. He will attempt to do so by describing the return to society of Zarathustra, a wise hermit spending years of solitude in a cave on the mountains amid stars, animals, trees, dreams, and boulders.

Art of explaining complex things in simple parables

Zarathustra has surpassed the constraints of tradition and embarks on an almost evangelical quest to explain his new frame of mind, one that goes “beyond good and evil,” free from the inherited prejudices and assumptions we are given as a cultural burden. To do so, Nietzsche resorts at the beginning of the book to a parable of three metamorphoses any human (as individuals born in a “tradition”) to pursue the freedom that connects to one’s potentials and self-perceived purpose in life.

We learn about the heavy luggage of the camel, the preposterous strength of the lion, and, finally, the innocence of a child (both a pre-traditional and wise state since it shows pure potential):

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: now the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

The camel is strong and can travel across the desert carrying heavy loads, happy to take on any burden since that is its nature:

“What is the heaviest of things, ye heroes? asketh the load-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.”

The camel wants to experience carrying heavy loads others signal as essential and valuable. All things we relate in life to what’s meaningful, significant. Humans behave like camels since they grow their sense of individuality and the need to learn social conventions, values, and the knowledge of school and trades.

An excerpt from Zarathustra was engraved by lake Sils, Switzerland, in 1900, in commemoration of Nietzsche’s death

We seek to know and understand as much as possible: we are young and feel strong, and we feel ready to carry a good load on our back, no matter how vast the desert facing us might be. Soon, though, much of the inherited knowledge feels contradictory, redundant, worthless, or against our nature or inner compass.

From a camel to a lion: understanding tradition to overcome it

This is why Zarathustra brings along the second metamorphose: a lion will feel free and able to rule around him as far as he can see, but only once he fights the Leviathan of tradition: a metaphorical dragon that we are wired to recognize and appears on old religious legends and tales, or shows up in the hardest part of videogames.

“But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness.

“Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon.

“What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? ‘Thou-shalt,’ is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, ‘I will.'”

Zarathustra’s lion represents Nietzsche’s effort parting ways with one of his decisive influences, Arthur Schopenhauer and his nihilism around the human spirit, which he finds incapable of surpassing the markers of biological instinct (and thus, mankind is condemned to the senseless pursue of a mere “will to live”). On the contrary, Nietzsche wants to affirm life since existence can have the meaning we create ex novo for it through our recognition of fate (“amor fati“) and the self-reinforcing activity of purposeful creation.

In Will to Power, Nietzsche will summarize life’s affirmation despite the scars of suffering:

“For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”

The dragon defeated (the “Thou shalt” do this and that of tradition), the lion has freed itself from the constraints we inherit and internalize as a part of “reality” we cannot transform: institutionalized religion and government, the family (nature and nurture), and any established body of knowledge telling us what to think and how to act.

When, in your game, you reach and fight the dragon

The burden of learned knowledge the camel suffers vanishes when the camel’s spirit becomes that of a lion. After its confrontation with the dragon, the lion is ready to attest: “I will.” But there is a vertigo anybody willing to break up with tradition must face:

“The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things—glitter on me.

“All values have already been created, and all created values—do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more.” Thus speaketh the dragon.”

The dragon explains that “reality” is undistinguishable from tradition since centuries of governance by the same values have ingrained what is expected from us in our potential “will”: even what we consider a matter of choice and serendipity carries the markers of old institutions. Choice and free will are, ultimately, a mirage.

Picasso in Vallauris, southern France; photographed by Edward Quinn, 1953

But the lion won’t end up giving up to fatalism and fate (which would mean no less than abiding by Schopenhauer’s pessimism). The lion’s “No” to the dragon expresses a complex, chimeric and never-ending process of rebuilding, a new beginning, a permanent “becoming”.

“To create new values—that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating—that can the might of the lion do.

“To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is no need of the lion.”

Four years to paint like Raphael

The lion chooses his will over tradition and metamorphoses one last time. The ultimate state is not an old, white-bearded sage but a child: life-affirmation against Schopenhauer’s nihilism. Why is it necessary to metaphorically revert to the age of innocence?

“Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, and a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.”

In order to create from scratch, one must liberate oneself from learned rules and conventions, playing with inner creativity:

“Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: its own will, willeth now the spirit; his own world winneth the world’s outcast.”

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion, at last, a child.—”

I recently discussed the circumstances that propelled young Pablo Ruiz Picasso to stick to his intuitions during the times of hardship when he barely sold enough works to bear a life of subsistence in Paris.

In 1905, the 24-year-old painter visited a village in the Pyrenees and, mesmerized by Romanesque primitive art, envisioned a painting that would depart from any known reference in art: Picasso was conscious that, after Les demoiselles d’Avignon, detractors would mock him, stating he had decided to paint like a kid. He made their point easy by putting it this way himself:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Maybe Picasso had endured Zarathustra’s three metamorphoses.

The unbearable heaviness of generational baggage

Sometimes, we have the feeling that what we call “tradition” is built upon common sense and some rules we often associate with goodness, beauty, proportionality, and basic utility.

When considering everyday objects, we don’t feel the need for “improving” upon a traditional design for terracotta plant pots, roof tiles, and a multitude of things we integrate into the realm of things and aesthetics we have inherited across generations. They just work and are beautiful, convenient, inexpensive.

Likewise, clothing or furnishing complements such as handkerchiefs and carpets complement us, transforming something uninviting into something warmer, more familiar, or perhaps more “elegant,” hence an a priori superficial item becomes much more than a byproduct of convention. Such is the power of perceived custom, which we have come to consider a part of reality, often neglecting causal underlying decisions or processes that foster an enduring “culture.”

Young G.K. Chesterton with his then fiancée Frances Blogg

But tradition is rarely innocuous. French sociologist Pierre Bordieu devoted his career to show how tradition and class not only survived the implosion of the Ancien Regime, but adapted and consolidated mechanisms of perpetuation with the ascent of the new urban classes, and later on with social markers such as access to culture and education, and the fetishization of meritocracy.

If in the past a peasant remained a peasant by birth, contemporary society uses less coercive markers and conventions to perpetuate class and customary distinction across generations, argues Bordieu.

Specters of modernity and of tradition

Bordieu was not the first nor the last one dedicating his career to the intricacies of social hierarchy and its influence upon us all mortals. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx embraces history as an incremental struggle towards material, purposeful freedom and against passive alienation. On the other hand, other self-proclaimed socialists, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (and, later on, British guild socialists) defended “tradition” as a way to restore dignity in alienated factory workers by recreating old guilds of craftsmen and skilled workers with agency, autonomy, and co-responsibility upon their own work.

The perception of “tradition” has been thus contradictory, to say the least. It’s easy to idealize the mysterious innocence of old buildings and ruins, of magnificent natural landscapes or small rustic cabins hinting at an old, primitive connection of our species with nature. Yet such evocations sometimes serve as an aspiration to return to a world of Arcadian beauty, equilibrium, a Garden of Eden of sorts before the original sin. An institutional codification of what is good and what is evil.

Abrahamic religions ponder worldly sins as hurtful actions that prevent anybody from doing good, hence condemning impurity as something inhuman, pitiless, instinctive, animal-like, while relating the spirit (free of bodily impurities) to perfection, elevation, transcendence, human. In their critique of dualism, Friedrich Nietzsche went as far as considering Christian values as a “slave mentality”. But is it?

The elevation of the so-called traditional values or authenticity propelled the reactionary side of Romanticism and no other factor has been more associated with the malaises faced by contemporary civilization as the demise of old values and codes (social, cultural, aesthetic, metaphysical.)

Militant Romanticism shows that inspired in German idealism, authors and statesmen hurried in the second half of the nineteenth century to catch up with tradition and find the so-called essence of nations, peoples, and their tradition. English historian E.J. Hobsbawm reminds us of “invented traditions“: Scottish poet James MacPherson invented the epic poems of Ossian, though he claimed they were old Scottish Gaelic folk stories collected in rural areas. And when in 1834, a fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, the two Houses of the British Parliament were reconstructed in Gothic style.

Who fixed our opinion on Greek sophists (and why?)

The late birth (known as “unification”) of German and Italian States inspired a national revival and vindication across cultural regions fighting for their recognition. Two specters haunted Europe and its colonial dominions at this moment: the shadow of Napoleon; and the promise of social emancipation through new ideologies of class (The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, opens with “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism”).

Philosophers such as Nietzsche warned against the gregarious forces of nationalism and its equivalent of class struggle, also issued from idealism. To him, the identity of every man is complex and ever-changing, inspired by experiences and encounters, and ultimately believing in a European-rooted cosmopolitan perspective.

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (1615), by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Mauritshuis art museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Now we can see, as at the beginning of the twentieth century, how commentators became popular by vindicating “tradition” to the point of idealizing a past that never flourished spotlessly as they claim and condemning the idea of progress as the advance party of ugly modernity and globalization.

What if we “invented” tradition by processes of coercion and consensus in every era? In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, American philosopher argues that what we know about the great sophists comes from the account of them by philosophers, the rival educators across the flourishing Greek cities. Sophists lost their influence in favor of philosophers, and from them, we assume sophists were charlatans teaching disciples just for money.

Hence some contemporary philosophers, such as the aforementioned Francis Wolff, have dedicated their careers to disentangle customary opinions in topics such as our canonic perception of Greek sophists. It’s not an easy task to read in between lines of centuries of ruminating interpretations of Socrates and his disciples.

The burden of tradition, according to Chesterton

Sociology was born as a discipline when philosophers such as Auguste Comte noted that the aspirations of liberal democracy required the substitution of old rules of class and respect to avoid social unrest (Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan) by the elevation of individual rights and modern bureaucracy (Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of liberal “social contract,”) a process of “normativization” that early twentieth-century German sociologist Max Weber would define as an “iron cage” for the human spirit:

“Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers, but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief.”

Max Weber’s argued that the process of “rationalization” of individuals within modern societies restrained human autonomy. Decades later, Michel Foucault argued that the so-called advances in the rational architecture of institutions, from Jeremy Bentham’s carceral panopticon to schools, hospitals, and social housing developments, perpetuate control.

Foucault calls this process “governmentality“, or governmental rationality, perceived inertia of modern societies toward a context of nominal individual freedom that in practice gets more and more restrained due to the limited, planned outcomes of modern life.

Not only detractors of (what they perceived as) “Christian” values, such as Platonic dualism (the sharp distinction between impure body and purity-prone soul), identified tradition as an excuse to perpetuate injustice. A Catholic by choice (not through family determinism,) English writer and literary critic G.K. Chesterton warned about the reactionary side of custom:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

Beyond self-blame

Romanticism (with its glorification of a mythical past and innocent nature, of medieval custom over classical aesthetics and rationality) demonstrated, according to Nietzsche, the decadence of idealized nostalgia, as well as a lack of trust in personal action and the regenerative power of life’s affirmation.

Years after Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote that Eastern thought doesn’t struggle with the constant struggle with sin but focuses on the human “struggle with suffering:”

“The ‘one thing needful,’ the question ‘how can you be delivered from suffering,’ regulates and determines the whole spiritual diet. (—Perhaps one will here recall that Athenian who also declared war upon pure ‘scientificality,’ to wit, Socrates, who also elevated egoism to the estate of a morality).”

Tradition, when it’s no less than “the law has stood unchanged from time immemorial, and that it is impious and a crime against one’s forefathers to bring it into question,” conditions personal experience to the point of blocking its potential, assured Nietzsche in 1895.

One of the paradoxes of Nietzsche’s critique of Western dualism is what he hints as to our unavoidable dependence upon it. In the past, we were told what our place within a community and a moment in history was. Still, the new expectations after the rise of Enlightenment and individualism contradicted the old cosmogony.

From Edmond Dantès to Jean Valjean

Yet, in order to find our own purpose in our own terms, we first may become educated in a society that institutionalizes values and education. It’s only by becoming camels that we can shed the worn-out values we need to interiorize to demonstrate our worth to others in a measurable way. The lion will be ready to start over again by rejecting such interiorized tradition.

In literature, there is no possibility for Edmond Dantès of becoming the Count of Monte Cristo without the pain of being framed for a crime he did not commit, which propelled him to end up getting a well-rounded education from an old Renaissance man, fellow prisoner Abbé Faria, in the dungeons of the Chateau they are jailed.

In real life, Picasso needed to show first his canonical painting skills to reject tradition and fully embrace his own style.

Sisiphus (1548-49), by Titian, Prado museum

As classic and Eastern thought remind us, there is no easy way to experience the symbolic metamorphoses Nietzsche imagines. Trading depth for speed does not work as a shortcut. Even if we want to overcome what we interpret as “tradition,” first there is a struggle of careful study.

Sometimes, “tradition” is not the enemy. It is certainly not Jean Valjean’s (the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables) hurdle. If anything, Valjean will draw near to the essential principles of primitive Christianism, and the graciousness he finds at the end of his life will become the achievement that has inspired generations of readers.

Maybe “tradition” is not the burden that constrains our potential but our interpretation of it.