In the opening monologue of the much-beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman compares life for the Jewish inhabitants of the village Anatevka to the balancing act required of a fiddler scratching out a tune on a rooftop.

According to Tevya’s famous allegory, the people of Anatevka are able to keep their balance thanks to their traditions. Yet as the story progresses, we see that even with tradition in place, keeping that balance is no easy task—especially when faced with rapid and unprecedented change.

Over the past century, tradition’s imperfections have led to its fade from our collective consciousness. It’s no longer viewed as a useful tool to help keep one’s balance on the roof of life, but rather is seen as a roadblock that must be removed from the path to progress. Thanks to a highly rationalist strain of Enlightenment thought beginning with thinkers such as Hobbes and Descartes, who held that all knowledge should be discovered by conscious reasoning, and culminating with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution, the importance of tradition has been greatly undermined. Thomas Paine summed up the antitraditionalist creed quite nicely when he declared that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Guided by the power of reason, and liberated from the chains of the past, these Enlightenment rationalists promised progress and increased human happiness.



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