In the speech I tried to explain what is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar concept:
The lessons of the past are not worth following merely because they have long been held, but the wisdom of their guidance can be manifest in that practice. The phrase “tried and true” is apt. Through long experience, generations have been able to observe that some results recur, that some mistakes need not be repeated, that some things have been learned by experience. It would be vain to ignore these lessons just because we did not discover them on our own. Learning from the book of the past can prevent a lot of fruitless and dangerous casting about for answers.
Those who lived before us studied, learned from experience, received inspiration and sometimes divine revelation, they reasoned and experimented, wrote and imagined. The record of all of this effort and learning is contained in practices or books or institutions we can consult to find “the latent wisdom which prevails in them” [Edmund Burke]. These resources constitute the accumulated wisdom of tradition. Tradition, in this sense, is the manifestation of truth and reality gained from long practice.
Tradition is not a fixed canon or comprehensive system with “one simple answer” to every question. It develops and is organic. Its principles, as opposed to its applications, can apply to a wide range of circumstances. Precedent is not inherently infallible but it would be rash to the point of madness to refuse to consult it. It doesn’t necessarily get us all the way to the mailbox but usually get us close enough to drop the letter in.
In keeping with the theme of the ethics, I noted: “The repudiation of our inheritance or failure to pass it down to future generations is an ethical lapse of almost unimaginable magnitude. It will have consequences.”
After explaining what we learn from tradition about marriage and what we stand to lose if we repudiate it, I concluded:
We have received a rich tradition of marriage. It protects the rightful expectation of children and of society. Its loss, particularly if it is replaced with a state-centered institution focused on facilitating adult desires, would be tragic. We must face the reality that this momentous loss looms in our debates over the future of marriage. And, “As sure as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn” (Rudyard Kipling), there will be consequences.
Roger Scruton has explained that our task now “consists in what Plato called anamnesis — the defeat of forgetting.” We must defy forgetfulness. We must remember and properly value the tradition of marriage we have inherited. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we have already lost much in a nation where marriages fail at staggering rates, where increasing numbers of children wake up each morning in a home without a mother or a father, where more and more adults choose to forego marriage altogether. To take the next step and cut another crucial link to the wisdom of the past is not an option if we are to be true to the trust laid on us.
For it is our duty to hand down a “sacred deposit” to our posterity, untarnished and undiminished.