What is Good?
Tradition and Change, part two

Tradition and Change

The resistance to change has always come from a desire to hold onto traditions that have value. Yet, in a time of dramatic, disruptive change, holding on to traditions while adapting to changing circumstances provides a way to build continuity over time. The question is how to change without losing the traditions and the historical continuity that is the seedbed of sustainability. That is a question we must all be asking.

I was thinking of this as I watched, again, Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo, in English The Leopard. This film is set in the context of the social and political change taking place in Italy at the time of its unification under Victor Emanuel. It is the story of a Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio Salina, who sees the days of the artistocracy coming to an end, and understands that an accomodation with the rising democractic middle class is necessary in order to preserve his family and place in society.

What I love about this film is the richness of its depiction of social change that comes with the passage of time. In Italy, as in many places in Europe during the 19th century, aristocratic rule was being eclipsed by the modern world. Every character is a picture of the time.

The following transcription of one scene offers the personal view of the Prince of this change. The scene is his conversation with Caviliere Chevalley, an emissary from the Italian government in Turin, sent to invite him to become a Senator in the new democractic legislature.

The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.

What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.

Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?

The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.

Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.

The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.

Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.

The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -

Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.

The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.

May I offer some advice for your superiors?

Chevalley: With pleasure.

The Prince: There is a name I'd like to suggest for the Senate.That of ... Calogeno Sedara. He has far more qualities than I that merit election. His family, I am told is an old one, or soon will be. He has more power than what you call prestige. He has power. In lieu of scientific merits, he has practical ones, and quite outstanding too. His work was most useful during the May crisis. As for illusions, I don't think he has any more than I, but he's clever enough to create them when needed. He's the man for you.

Chevalley: Yes, I have heard talk of Sedara. But if honest men like you withdraw, the way will be open for those with no scruples and no vision, for Sedara and his like, and everything will be as before for centuries to come.  Listen to your conscience and not to proud truths you've spoken. I beg you, try to collaborate.

The Prince: You are a gentleman, Chevalley. I consider it a privilege to have met you. You are right about everything ... except when you say, 'Surely the Sicilians want to improve.'  They never want to improve. They think themselves perfect. Their vanity is greater than their misery.

Sit down. Let me tell you an anecdote.

Shortly before Garibaldi entered Palermo, some British officers from the warship in the harbor asked if they could go up onto the terrace of my house, from where one can see the hills around the city. They were ecstatic about the view, but they confessed they were shocked at the squalor and filth of the street. I didn't explain as I have tried with you, that the one derived from the other. One of the officers asked, 'What are those Garibaldini really coming to do in Sicily?' I replied, 'They are coming to teach us good manners, but they won't succeed, because we are gods.' They laughed, but I don't think they understood.

It's late. Almost time for dinner. We must go change.

Packed into this 15 minute scene are ideas and images of change that were relevant to the aristocracy and rising middle class elite of 19th century Italy. These ideas and images are equally relevant to us today.

Traditions are not the same as "the old ways."

Traditions are values that serve to defined the values and boundaries of a culture or society. They can be stories, myths, that illustrate why we believe in one idea or value or another.

The past two centuries has been an attack on the notion that tradition has value and relevance in the modern world. In Chevalley, you hear the modern world, as this man expresses his confidence that the world's squalor and filth can be cleaned up. This is the perspective of the 19th century Progressive who saw the world as inherently changeable by their own hands.

If Don Fabrizio's Sicilians thought of themselves as gods unreachable and without need for Progressive contributions, the Progressives of that century equally failed to see what they could not see, that in their beneficent arrogance, the 20th century would become an era of World Wars and leadership without scruples and no vision.

We are at another turning point in human history. Just as revolution swept through England to America, through France, Germany, Italy and then Russia, bringing with it radical, disruptive change, so too we are at another turning point. The historic trend of change that brought about the decline of the old aristocracy, replaced by the leadership of the bourgeoisie, now threatens a new aristotcracy, one born in the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

The old ways of the past hundred years are worn and exhausted. What is it that will replace it? Will it come by revolution or evolution?

As I look forward, the themes that emerge are ones related to values and tradition.

Every where I turn I find people interested, concerned, engaged in conversation about trust. It is something we all desire.

In trust, I see a type of innocence that has been missing from our world for a long time.

It was this sort of innocent belief in a person that catapulted Barack Obama into the Presidency. And yet, now, it appears that for many people that innocent trust is gone replaced by disappointment and doubt.

Remember what Don Fabrizio said about himself?

"I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions."

Can we not say for ourselves that we are a people raised in an era tied to the dreams and failures of the ruling class of the modern era, the era of Chevalley, and are tied to it by habit and comfort in those old ways?

Can we not also say that we are people who straddle two worlds, and are ill at ease in both? For the one is dying, and the other emerging, and comfort and security are lacking in both.

Can we not also say that we are people with illusions, and that this is a dilemma of our own creation?

What then to we do?

Begin by riding ourselves of our illusions, and thinking clearly about the time we are in. This means that we each are to take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities.

We, with great intention and discipline, become people who are trustworthy. We can't ask others to be trustworthy if we are not.

Restore traditions in your homes, businesses and communities. If you were to take the Five Actions of Gratitude, and treat them as traditions, you will find strength to deal with change. Consider for a moment adopting for yourself personally the following traditions of gratitude.

Say Thanks by writing notes to people who have done something worth your gratitude.

Give Bank in service as an organization to those in need in your community.

Make Welcome with a program of hospitality to those who are new comers to your community.

Honor Others by recognizing their gifts of service and hospitality.

Create Goodness by being a person who is trustworthy in all your dealings with people.

To creatively practice these actions of gratitude is allow traditions to be born that build trust and the ability to find continuity from one era to the next.

As I watched The Leopard again, I could not help but think that it should be watched along with Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather series. Together they are a picture of the historical continuity that our modern world has experienced.  In ten years, what film will we refer to as representative of this time? I don't know.

Without illusion, let us approach the future by creating trust and traditions that provide people an environment of support for adapting to the changes that are with us.

It's late. ... We must go change.

I continue my comments in part two of Tradition and Change

comments powered by Disqus