Ritual. What Is It Good For?

Not Absolutely Nothin’, but . . .

Douglas Giles, PhD

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The last Thursday in November means something to some people. Why should it? It’s fine if it does, that’s not my question.

Why do we do what we do when we do it and how we do it? That’s my question. Why perform these rituals of life?

Philosopher David Hume wrote:

Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.

He wrote that in the context of explaining the assumptions of science, observing that science is not a privileged realm but an extension of normal human activity. Basically, he said, science works because human custom expects the future to continue to follow the patterns we have come to expect.

Whether or not Hume is correct about science, he is definitely correct about human nature. Custom is indeed the great guide to human life. We do what we do when we do it and how we do it because we learned those social customs and rituals and have adopted them as personal habits. We engage in daily rituals and holiday rituals. For the most part, we have no conscious awareness of, much less have made conscious decisions about, why we continue in our everyday rituals.

We have free will, of course. We can question what, why, and how we do things. Usually, though, we just go along with custom and habit, continuing to act the way we are used to acting, whether it makes us fell good or not.

Robert Heinlein, author and professional patriarchal cynic, expressed his opinion that tradition is the art of making the same mistake again on purpose. As I say, he was a cynic, though he is not entirely wrong here. We purposefully repeat our customs or traditions whether or not they are mistakes. Usually, we say to ourselves if not others that we continue a tradition “because that’s what one does.”

Back to my original question. Why should people observe the last Thursday in November as a special day? Why perform these rituals? Why do out-of-the-ordinary things and eat out-of-the-ordinary foods on that day? If you can consciously say that you do these actions out of free will choice, then you have good and healthy practices. Your purpose is aligned with your values. If you feel forced to do them, then ask yourself if it is worth it…

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Douglas Giles, PhD

Philosopher by trade & temperament, professor for 21 years, bringing philosophy out of its ivory tower and into everyday life. https://linktr.ee/dgilesphd