Quotations about   tradition

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Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was common sense in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense.

Judith Butler
Judith Butler (b. 1956) American philosopher and gender theorist
“A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back,” The New York Times (20 Mar 1999)
Added on 4-Apr-22 | Last updated 4-Apr-22
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It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational, — a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to their own country.

[Il est bon de savoir quelque chose des moeurs de divers peuples, afin de juger des nôtres plus sainement, et que nous ne pensions pas que tout ce qui est contre nos modes soit ridicule et contre raison, ainsi qu’ont coutume de faire ceux qui n’ont rien vu.]

René Descartes (1596-1650) French philosopher, mathematician
Discourse on Method [Discours de la méthode], Part 1 (1637) [tr. Veitch (1850)]
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(Source (French)). Alternate translations:

It's good to know something of the manners of severall Nations, that we may not think that all things against our Mode are ridiculous or unreasonable, as those are wont to do, who have seen Nothing.
[Newcombe ed. (1649)]

It is good to know something of the customs of different peoples in order to judge more sanely of our own, and not to think that everything of a fashion not ours is absurd and contrary to reason, as do those who have seen nothing.
[tr. Haldane & Ross (1911)]

It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, so that we may judge our own more soundly and not think that everything contrary to our own ways is ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing of the world ordinarily do.
[tr. Cottingham, Stoothoff (1985)]

It is well to know something of the manner of various peoples, in order more sanely to judge our own, and that we do not think that everything against our modes is ridiculous, and against reason, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to think.

Added on 21-Feb-22 | Last updated 21-Feb-22
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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.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) English journalist and writer
Orthodoxy, ch. 4 “The Ethics of Elfland” (1908)
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Added on 21-Dec-21 | Last updated 21-Dec-21
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To many white Americans, President Obama must have been corrupt, because his very occupation of the White House was a kind of corruption of the traditional order. When women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men — or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or “cosmopolitans” profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare — that is perceived as corruption.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, ch. 2 (2018)
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Added on 16-Dec-21 | Last updated 16-Dec-21
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Even in their appeal to “custom” they accomplish nothing. To constrain us to yield to custom would be to treat us most unjustly. Indeed, if men’s judgments were right, custom should have been sought of good men. But it often happens far otherwise: what is seen being done by the many soon obtains the force of custom; while the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority. Therefore, the private vices of the many have often caused public error, or rather a general agreement on vices, which these good men now want to make law.

John Calvin
John Calvin (1509-1564) French theologian and reformer
The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Christianae Religionis Institutio], Preface, sec. 5 (1536) [tr. Battles (1960]
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Alternate translation:

Then, again, it is to no purpose they call us to the bar of custom. To make every thing yield to custom would be to do the greatest injustice. Were the judgments of mankind correct, custom would be regulated by the good. But it is often far otherwise in point of fact; for, whatever the many are seen to do, forthwith obtains the force of custom. But human affairs have scarcely ever been so happily constituted as that the better course pleased the greater number. Hence the private vices of the multitude have generally resulted in public error, or rawther that common consent in vice which these worthy men would have to be law.
[tr. Beveridge (1845)]
Added on 14-Dec-21 | Last updated 14-Dec-21
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Imagination continually frustrates tradition; that is its function.

John Pfeiffer (1914-1999) American anthropologist, author
“Nature, the Radical Conservative,” New York Times (29 Apr 1979)
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Book review of Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature. This quotation is frequently misattributed to Jules Feiffer.
Added on 12-Apr-21 | Last updated 19-Apr-21
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Every now and then, in the course of great events, the elements of tradition and innovation ally themselves and each one’s weakness supplements the other and together they achieve the perfect debacle.

Murray Kempton (1917-1997) American journalist.
“The Genius of Mussolini,” New York Review of Books (7 Oct 1982)
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Reprinted in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (1994).
Added on 29-Apr-20 | Last updated 29-Apr-20
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The rule which should guide us in such cases is simple and obvious enough: that the aggregate testimony of our neighbours is subject to the same conditions as the testimony of any one of them. Namely, we have no right to believe a thing true because everybody says so unless there are good grounds for believing that some one person at least has the means of knowing what is true, and is speaking the truth so far as he knows it. However many nations and generations of men are brought into the witness-box, they cannot testify to anything which they do not know. Every man who has accepted the statement from somebody else, without himself testing and verifying it, is out of court; his word is worth nothing at all. And when we get back at last to the true birth and beginning of the statement, two serious questions must be disposed of in regard to him who first made it: was he mistaken in thinking that he knew about this matter, or was he lying?

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
“The Ethics of Belief,” Part 2 “The Weight of Authority,” Contemporary Review (Jan 1877)
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Added on 24-Jan-20 | Last updated 24-Jan-20
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The security of society lies in custom and unconscious instinct, and the basis of the stability of society, as a healthy organism, is the complete absence of any intelligence amongst its members. The great majority of people being aware of this, rank themselves naturally on the side of that splendid system that elevates them to the dignity of machines, and rage so wildly against the intrusion of the intellectual faculty into any question that concerns life, that one is tempted to define man as a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
“The Critic as Artist,” Intentions (1891)
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Added on 27-May-19 | Last updated 27-May-19
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Tradition: one of those words conservative people use as a shortcut to thinking.

Warren Ellis (b. 1968) English writer
Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum (2000)
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If the world were a logical place, men would ride side-saddle.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Sudden Death (1983)
Added on 16-Oct-17 | Last updated 16-Oct-17
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We are justified in enforcing good morals, for they belong to all mankind; but we are not justified in enforcing good manners, for good manners always mean our own manners.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) English journalist and writer
All Things Considered, “Limericks and Counsels of Perfection” (1908)
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Somehow he has internalized the ur-cultural narrative: you grow up, go to university, get a job, meet Ms. Right, get married, settle down, have kids, grow old together … it’s like some sort of checklist. Or maybe a list of epic quests you’ve got to complete while level-grinding in a game you’re not allowed to quit, with no respawns and no cheat codes.

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Nightmare Stacks, ch. 9 (2016)
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Added on 29-Aug-17 | Last updated 29-Aug-17
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Truth is compar’d in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetuall progression, they sick’n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.

[Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.]

John Milton (1608-1674) English poet
Areopagitica (1644)
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The most absurd customs and the most ridiculous ceremonies are everywhere excused by an appeal to the phrase, but that’s the tradition. This is exactly what the Hottentots say when Europeans ask them why they eat grasshoppers and devour their body lice. That’s the tradition, they explain.

Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794) French writer, epigrammist (b. Nicolas-Sébastien Roch)
Maxims and Thoughts, ch. 3, #249 (1796)
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Added on 14-Aug-17 | Last updated 14-Aug-17
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As has been pointed out so often, it is characteristic of mankind to make as little adjustment as possible in customary ways in the face of new conditions; the process of social change is epitomized in the fact that the first Packard car body delivered to the manufacturers had a whipstock on the dashboard.

Robert Lynd (1892-1970) American sociologist [Robert Slaughton Lynd]
Middletown, ch. 29 (1929) [with Helen Lynd]
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Added on 30-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany: ‘Traditional values are to be debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
The Abolition of Man (1943)
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Added on 2-May-17 | Last updated 2-May-17
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The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany: ‘Traditional values are to be debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
The Abolition of Man (1943)
Added on 29-Mar-17 | Last updated 29-Mar-17
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Nothing is useless. A superstition is a hamper or a basket to carry useful lessons in.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1836)
Added on 8-Aug-16 | Last updated 8-Aug-16
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If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.

Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958) American inventor, engineer, researcher, businessman
(Attributed)
Added on 18-Sep-15 | Last updated 18-Sep-15
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Dead battles, like dead generals, hold the military mind in their dead grip.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
The Guns of August, ch. 2 (1962)
Added on 21-Jul-15 | Last updated 21-Jul-15
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The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) English mathematician and philosopher
The Problems of Philosophy, ch. 15 “The Value of Philosophy” (1912)
Added on 19-Jun-15 | Last updated 19-Jun-15
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Whenever the locals rub blue mud in their navels, I rub blue mud in mine just as solemnly.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Time Enough for Love [Lazarus Long] (1973)
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Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our fathers have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a larger part than what we suspect of what we think.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) American jurist, Supreme Court Justice
“The Path of the Law,” speech, Boston University School of Law on (8 Jan 1897)
Added on 20-May-15 | Last updated 20-May-15
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Religion that seeks to be no more than a time capsule is likely to be claustrophobic.

Abdal Hakim Murad (b. 1960) British Muslim shaykh, researcher, writer, academic [b. Timothy John Winter]
“Contentions 2,” # 8
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Added on 17-Apr-15 | Last updated 17-Apr-15
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It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) American jurist, Supreme Court Justice
“The Path of the Law,” Speech to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (8 Jan 1897)
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The superstition in which we grew up,
Though we may recognize it, does not lose
Its power over us — Not all are free
Who make mock of their chains.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramiturg, writer
Nathan the Wise (1779) [tr. Morgan (1955)]

Alt. trans.: "The superstition in which we were brought up never loses its power over us, even after we understand it." [In J. K. Hoyt & Anna L. Ward (eds.), The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations (1881)]
Added on 23-Jan-15 | Last updated 2-Jun-17
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Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right. … This is commonly true even where the error is a matter of serious concern, provided correction can be had by legislation. But in cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, this court has often overruled its earlier decisions. The court bows to the lessons of experience and the force of better reasoning, recognizing that the process of trial and error, so fruitful in the physical sciences, is appropriate also in the judicial function.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) American lawyer, activist, Supreme Court Justice (1916-39)
Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393 (1932) [dissent]
Added on 11-Nov-14 | Last updated 11-Nov-14
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It is no good reason for a man’s religion that he was born and brought up in it; for then a Turk would have as much reason to be a Turk as a Christian to be a Christian.

William Chillingworth (1602-1644) English churchman and theologian
Religion of Protestants, ch. 2, sec. 113 (1687)
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By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, — religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Speech, Bridgenorth Institute (28 Feb 1877)
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Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, ch. 1 (1852)
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Added on 14-Aug-12 | Last updated 14-Mar-16
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Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
(Spurious)

Anthony Montague-Browne, Churchill's assistant, said that Churchill denied coining this phrase, but wished he had.

Sometimes given as "nothing but rum, buggery, and the lash."
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The slaves of custom are the sport of time.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
De Augmentis Scientiarum [Advancement of Learning], Book 6, ch. 3, “Innovation” (1605)
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Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, ch. 5 (1876)
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The opium of custom, whereof all drink and many go mad.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Education,” Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1883)
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They say the religion of your fathers is good enough. Why should a father object to your inventing a better plow than he had?

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
Speech on Religious Intolerance, Pittsburgh Opera House (14 Oct 1879)
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Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Buddha (c.563-483 BC) Indian mystic, philosopher [b. Siddharta Gautama]
The Kalama Sutta
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Habit with him was all the test of truth,
“It must be right: I’ve done it from my youth.”

George Crabbe (1754-1832) English poet, writer, surgeon, clergyman
The Borough, Letter 3 “The Vicar,” l. 138 (1810)
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Laws are sand, customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
“The Gorky Incident” (1906)
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Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world — and never will.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Paper delivered in Hartford (1884)

First part (to "soul") engraved on Twain's bust in the National Hall of Fame, New York University.
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Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
The Subjection of Women, ch. 1 (1869)
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Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American political philosopher and writer
Common Sense (14 Feb 1776)

Source essay
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