Tradition and the Internet

You'll have to forgive me my Oakeshottian episodes for a little while, but his concept of tradition strikes me as very instructive about the potential and practice of the Internet. My Times of London column explores this today. In Oakeshottian conservatism, tradition is our complex and ever-changing cultural and political inheritance. It is what makes us human beings among other human beings - in whatever tradition we find ourselves across space and time.

But Oakeshott's is not some reactionary or nostalgic view of tradition. It's not one in which the past is always preferred to the present or future. He was a conservative but not a reactionary, a modernist in Christianity not an arid fundamentalist. The challenge for every person within a tradition is to understand and live it but also improvise and re-energize it. And the tradition itself is not just what it was an hour or a year ago, but a constantly rearranging, multiplying summation of what it is now and everything it has always been. And so parts of our tradition, our way of life, can submerge for a while or be in eclipse, and then return again. And every part of that tradition is always available to us if we can find it and reinvent it. In Eliot's words,

"[T]he pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been."

[My emphasis]. And this surely is what the web does, in ways never before possible. It is both almost terrifyingly now, and yet through its growing and exponential archive of the conversation of mankind, and through its search engines allowing us to instantly excavate anything, it is also "all we have been." History is now and online.