The Invention of Tradition
Reflections on a Funeral
This past Saturday, the funeral of Prince Philip- Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen of England’s husband (for those unaware)- displayed the sacrosanct traditions of the British monarchy to millions of viewers around the world. From the music to the stylized Range Rover that carried his coffin, the event celebrated a man symbolic of the Greatest Generation. He served during WWII when the values of service, humility and nationalism sustained the nation. All the symbols- flags, swords, songs, bagpipes, soldiers, Anglican priests, women in stylish chignons- walking coats-stilettos-hats and the oh-so-English curricle that carried the Prince’s hat and gloves- reflected deep traditions that seem quite out of step in the modern world of sweat clothes as fashion, feel-good religion and compartmentalized ethics. It brought to mind a book, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition.
As a southerner who clings to tradition, for decades I celebrated my Scottish roots by attending the regional Highland Games, buying a Clan Donald flag to carry at festivals and wearing a kilt and Scottish boiled wool sweater to honor the heritage of my great-great-great-grandfather Donald Macdonald.
From the village of Scolpaig on the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, he came to the USA in 1841 and lived the American dream, climbing from a rural highlander to a railroad executive in Savannah, GA where he served as the Treasurer of the Atlantic-Gulf line during the Civil War. He married the daughter of French emigres from Saint-Domingue who fled to Charleston in 1791, one of the few families to receive reparations from the Catholic diocese there. A wedding band is a symbol of their story, engraved with the motto of Clan Donald of Sleat Per Mare Per Terras, by land and by sea. This history is embedded in the names of my children, one named after Donald MacDonald, the other his wife, Marie Augustine Maxime Rossignol de La Chicotte (Lachicotte in southern dialect).
Tradition is expressed through symbols, and in the case of my grandfather, kilts, a wedding band and my name demonstrate how these carry a history across time. Swiss scholar Carl Jung famously wrote about this in Man and His Symbols. A symbol, Jung explains, is a word, picture, photograph, statue or some visible object that always signifies something much larger than what it is immediately known to mean, and this stems from the unconscious. The meaning of symbols is culturally constructed and changes over time. When historians grapple with the meaning of nation, often national symbols end up defining it.
Hobsbawm presents the concept of nation as an ‘invented tradition,’ a set of practices governed by “overtly or tacitly accepted rules” of ritual that seek to “inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition” to imply continuity with the past. To Hobsbawm, tradition is a response “to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition.”
Tradition is invariant. Invented traditions attempt to establish continuity with the past and to stabilize a group in a changing world. My kilt-wearing and Scottish society membership can be viewed as examples of Hobsbawm’s argument. He considers invented traditions central to the creation of “nationalism, the nation-state, national symbols, histories and the rest.” Invented traditions are products of deliberate social engineering that include linguistic and subjective assertions about a nation’s link to antiquity as opposed to its novelty. The nation is defined by invented ideas and practices. “All invented traditions use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion,” writes Hobsbawm. The nation is more than boundaries (the physical dimensions of the country) if it is recognized prospectively through its symbols. As historians narrate and perpetuate national histories, they must consider how the concept of nation is an invented idea defined by empty, ambiguous terms that mean only what they represent.
Hobsbawm’s view of the nation as invented extends the notion of history as constructed, calling into question historical absolutes. Invented traditions emerge in times of “rapid social transformation,” and although genuine traditions do exist “where the old ways are alive,” invented traditions emerge because the old ways “are deliberately not used or adapted.” The nation, in Hobsbawm’s view, exists only in its representations.
As the meaning of American nationalism constantly changes, consider the meaning of tradition. Albert Einstein said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” As the funeral this past Saturday revealed, tradition can serve as both a bond and a salve to a nation in the throes of change.