The most popular art throughout history all share a common thread: they reveal the fundamental human condition to us. Whether paintings, literature, or movies, the human creations that withstand the test of time convey secrets hidden in plain sight into what we’re actually like, how we ought to live, and what we value at the fundamental level.
We’ll use one of my favorite works of art as an example: the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Watching Lord of the Rings is like seeing your reflection in a mirror. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, you’ll recognize the themes quickly!)
Through the Lord of the Rings saga, we’ll see:
Through examining the behavior and actions of the Lord of the Rings heroes, we start to see universal principles and social traditions at work; these transcend time and cultural boundaries, and aid our heroes in helping inform our fundamental values.
Let’s look first at Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s doggedly loyal companion on his quest to destroy the Ring. The audience loves Sam because of his incredible dedication and loyalty, even at his own expense. Sam plays the hero when he returns to save Frodo from a giant spider, or when he carries an exhausted Frodo through Mordor. Frodo shot down Sam’s concerns and advice throughout their entire journey. And yet, Sam remained steadfast.
Sam becomes one of the most cherished characters because he embodies this value of loyalty.
Loyalty is one of the most important outputs of social traditions. It promotes group cohesion, and enables you to shape your future through sacrifice to that group (or an individual) today.
My favorite example of this in a modern tradition: pledging at fraternities. I joined a fraternity in college and went through the timeless tradition of pledging, an extended period of performing crazy challenges with your pledge brothers (the other guys who join at the same time as you). One time during pledging, we had to complete hours of push ups. One of my pledge brothers couldn’t keep up. The rest of us were given an option: we could go home (after an intense prior 3 days), or do the pushups our struggling pledge brother needed to finish. It was an easy decision: we all helped him get over the finish line. This tradition promotes intense loyalty to your pledge brothers to perpetuate the social cohesion of the entire fraternity. I never thought about it at the time, but pledging taught me the importance of loyalty in every aspect of life.
Back to Lord of the Rings, and on to our next hero, Thorin Oakenshield.
Thorin Oakenshield, the hero of The Hobbit, shows us another universal principle that informs what we value.
Thorin embarks on an improbable quest to reclaim his ancestral home at Erebor (the Dwarf city under the Lonely Mountain, filled with unimaginable amounts of gold).
He leads his kin there against all odds, only to fall into the depths of greed, just like his grandfather before him. He can’t think straight. He transforms into a different person under the spell of the gold. He becomes unrecognizable to his kin who worshiped him as their King. Thorin forsakes the people he promised to help, brings shame to his legions, and stands idle as his cousin and fellow Dwarves fight in his war.
But Thorin emerges from his trance; he rallies his troops, turns the tide of the battle, and fulfills his destiny, slaying his sworn enemy the White Orc and securing his ancestral home. Thorin is redeemed and dies a hero.
Thorin’s initial mistakes contains a warning from what our principles and traditions teach us: to minimize the greed that always lurks around the corner. We still have strong taboos around money. It’s considered rude to talk about how much people earn; heavy social pressure pushes cheapskates and bad tippers to change their ways. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church and even the Roman Empire cautioned against Usury (lending money with interest), viewing it as unjust.
But more importantly, we cheer for Thorin and view him as a hero because we value the arc of redemption. Thorin embodies this arc. He sets out to fulfil a destiny, falls down, overcomes odds, and ultimately triumphs over an enemy in a battle of good vs. evil.
You’ve heard this story elsewhere. We find these underlying principles and values that Thorin epitomizes everywhere we look: in our traditions, our art, our relationships.
For example, these values help explain why we love an underdog in any situation.
We root for David in the battle against Goliath. It’s why we root for the teams that haven’t won a championship in 108 years, or love to relive the Miracle on Ice, or why we celebrate the 4th of July.
The Jewish holiday of Passover celebrates the Children of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, escaping slavery and returning to their home.
We see these values acted out today through the observance of Veteran’s Day, celebrating those who faced unfathomable hardships in order to defeat a common enemy and preserve our traditions.
We find it in our legal system that offers second chances; we see it when we house a struggling friend and help them find a new job; we see it in our tradition of charitable giving, offering help to others in the quest to overcome their own situations and live a good life.
Putting our Lord of the Rings heroes aside, think of your own heroes. They probably embody some of these values and ideals. That’s why they’re your hero! This is no accident. Our culture has taught us to place people embodying these ideals in high esteem.
But the million dollar questions you’re probably asking: what created these principles and values? How do we pass them on? And how did we decide on what the archetypal human looks like?
It’s traditions that have helped shape our fundamental values and beliefs over thousands of years. These traditions have transcended time, creating the vehicles that convey what we ought to want and how we ought to act.
It’s tradition that creates the thread that binds together our favorite timeless works of art.
Through tradition, our ancestors share hard-won, incredible ideas with us.
Let’s see if we can make sense of these traditions and see why they might be so important.
As a kid, I always hated Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the most important holiday in Judaism. My family followed the standard Jewish tradition of going to synagogue on Yom Kippur.
I thought this tradition sucked.
You had to put on a tight suit, walk around in shoes that pinched your feet, sit around listening to adults chant nonsense for 8 hours in a language you didn’t understand, and you couldn’t even eat anything!
I always wondered: why is everyone brainwashed, still following these outdated traditions? Why do families and societies stick to the same traditions year after year?
I think I might now have my answer. As we saw from our Lord of the Rings analysis, our heroes embody these archetypal, universal principles that have roots somewhere - I’ll argue that this “somewhere” is from tradition (like my cherished tradition of Yom Kippur).
We’ll take a broad view of tradition, defining it as:
shared rituals or practices, and the foundational beliefs and values these practices both enforce and promote.
In his podcast with Rabbi Josh Wolpe, Eric Weinstein quips that “The dead vote for tradition. We are not an isolated creation.” We’re deeply connected to our ancestors and, whether we realize it or not,they have a lot to teach us.
With this background in mind, we’re going to explore:
Humans evolved to sing and dance in groups. Kevin Simler, in his excellent essay, Music in Human Evolution, argues for this wild twist in our evolutionary history.
As we all know, most predators can rip us to shreds. We stand no chance in an encounter with a tiger or jaguar or bobcat, let alone a pack of angry dogs. Simler explores this question: how did our early ancestors dissuade these powerful predators from killing them?
In short: we confused them! Singing and dancing rituals, like the Haka, turn weak individuals into one powerful, unified organism. These loud rituals confused and scared away our predators.
Singing and dancing as a group was a defense mechanism that enabled our ancestors to survive.
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that we love karaoke, dancing at bars, and going to concerts.
While just one example, there’s a broader point: our biology helps guide our behavior. The most ancient parts of us help inform what we do, what we like, and how we do it.
Imagine having to recreate all of your desires, what you value, and how to act in the world from scratch. An impossible task. That’s why we rely on culture.
Culture passes down much of the knowledge we need to thrive in the world. It has been honed through trial and error over hundreds of thousands of years; it implicitly teaches us secrets about the world that would be too difficult to figure out on our own.
How does culture teach us? Through traditions.
Writer and speaker Jordan Peterson explains this in his book, 12 Rules for Life:
“Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you.”
If we turn towards the field of cultural evolution (which explores how cultures have evolved over millennia), further clarity starts to emerge on the importance of tradition.
The core idea: cultural evolution is much smarter than we are.
Sachin Maini, in his essay How Culture Drives Human Evolution, helped drive this point home for me, writing:
“Cultural adaptations themselves take various forms — everything from physical technologies like how to light a fire or build a bow and arrow, to social technologies like ritual dances or sacral rites that increase social cohesion within a tribe, to mental tools like terms for “left” and “right”. These adaptations are selected for because of their capacity to improve the survival and reproduction odds of human groups who hold them.”
These cultural adaptations oftentimes took the form of traditions that enabled humans to better survive, like taboos against eating certain dangerous foods, or in the case of the Incas, leveraging llamas to manufacture valuable textiles. From an evolution perspective, these developed cultural traditions hold just as much importance as our better known evolved physical traits, like our large brains or our bipedalism.
Tradition, over millennia and through cultural adaptation, has provided us with foundational frameworks on how to survive and thrive in an uncertain world. It helps us decide what to want, and how to act, both within groups and as individuals.
The research of cultural evolution helped me realize: these traditions have persisted for thousands, if not millions, of years for a reason.
I could give you an elaborate example of how cultural transmission of traditions enabled Inuits to hunt seals in harsh environments or Native Americans to thrive while growing corn, but instead, here’s something simple:
Cooperation with others.
I wrote more about the evolutionary strategy of Tit-for-Tat here, but in essence, this cultural strategy teaches us how to cooperate with others in order to survive. Share your food, your home, your tools with your neighbors; you never know when you’ll be fighting for survival and need to call in a favor.
We find this strategy embedded across traditions: the legendary tradition of hospitality in Islam, Americans’ enormous charitable giving, or the Sikh tradition of offering around the clock free food to all who come to Gurdwara.
These traditions around cooperation have enabled us to deal with complexity in the world without thinking too hard about it - they provide the mechanisms that transmit this crucial survival information through time.
In the essay Tradition is Smarter Than You Think, writer Tanner Greer stresses the point that what makes some societies successful is the fact that they have lots of implicit, traditional values adhered to without an understanding of exactly why.
The importance of this idea cannot be understated.
We never stop to think WHY we deeply enjoy the activities that we do (when was the last time you thought about why you actually love karaoke?).
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson sums this idea up succinctly:
"It takes careful observation, and education, and reflection, and communication with others, just to scratch the surface of your beliefs. Everything you value is a product of unimaginably lengthy developmental processes, personal, cultural and biological. You don’t understand how what you want—and, therefore, what you see—is conditioned by the immense, abysmal, profound past."
Peterson continues the argument that we have no idea why we want what we want: we remain a product of our ancestors and evolution. Tradition remains the primary medium we implicitly learn this crucial information through.
Peterson (and Greer) both acknowledge that while our traditions help transmit signal on how to act and what to value, to this day, we have no idea how the traditions themselves work.
Because of this, we should err on the side of protecting these traditions we don’t understand. Here’s why.
Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and writer, beautifully encapsulates this idea about protecting traditions.
He argues: there are wonderful things we’ve inherited that we should protect (sound familiar?).
He approaches this idea from the political perspective of Conservatism. Conservatism focuses on gradual improvement. Western political and judicial institutions have been stable for hundreds of years, and America has created the strongest and most affluent society in history. Scruton argues that we should cherish this stability and value.
This idea of gradual improvement is exactly how evolution works too! Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes that “a key feature of evolution is its gradulness.” It works through stealth, over long periods of time, and through trial and error. Evolution continuously improves upon successful attributes, and deprecates less useful ones after prolonged evaluation.
Scruton’s ideas, and this theme from evolution, apply to tradition: we may not fully understand how, but our values, rituals, and beliefs have been gradually refined. It would be a mistake to throw them out without serious thought.
Scruton argues that this isn't to say that we shouldn't make progress; rather, we should be wary of burning things to the ground and making the same mistakes our ancestors made.
English writer and philosopher GK Chesterton sums up this lesson, writing:
“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
If we want to amend our traditions, we better be absolutely sure we understand what we’re removing and why what we’re proposing is better. But as we’ve seen, grasping the mechanics of our existing traditions is non-trivial.
As a kid, I would have dismantled Yom Kippur and started a new tradition of playing Pokemon for eight hours a day. My distaste for this tradition was semi-valid: I never understood the ideals and archetypes the celebration and rules implied. I didn’t explicitly see any heroes or action.
But now, since we’ve explored how our heroes (like from Lord of the Rings) embody our most fundamental ideals, how our traditions started to inform these ideals, and why they’re worth protecting, I have a stronger appreciation for this ancient tradition that brings people together, celebrates redemption, promotes loyalty to the group, and reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
In the part two of this essay, we’ll dive into how we’ve eroded and abandoned the fundamental teachings of our traditions in our modern society, and what we can do to reclaim the values our traditions promote to improve and propel our society into the future.
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