There is no patrimony, and hasn’t been for generations. We’ve been making it up as we go for the last 250 years or so, each of us cobbling together on his own the lineaments of a coherent way of life from the jetsam that is the only remnant of what was once the ship that bore our forefathers up together from infancy, piloted by their fathers and kept by their mothers.
That ship is gone, wrecked, taken apart piece by piece and thrown into the sea by improvident sailors, unofficered, free, and drunk.
There’s lots of jetsam, to be sure. Indeed it covers the waters still, thanks be to God; for she was a great and commodious caravel. There is Bach, the Tridentine Mass, a king here and there, the Book of Common Prayer, table manners, the wilderness and its rigors, Durham Cathedral, sportsmanship, Shakespeare, good old Plato and Augustine, and the disciplines of the various trades, occupations, vocations, professions and arts. And, too, there is the wisdom of the body, insisting that we so live as to enable human flourishing, and punishing us when we fail thereat with poverty, incapacity and weakness, exhaustion or enervated ennui, with depression, madness, rage, or disease. Richly supplied by the former and relentlessly urged by the latter, the most competent among us can cadge together a decent raft, if we work at it diligently enough.
But nothing is handed on to us whole from our forefathers. At best, our own parents have taught us to swim, and to knot and splice, and given us some good bits of the jetsam they themselves have gathered. All of us are at sea. None of us have a boat.
The really amazing thing, the hopeful thing, is that any of us have managed to stay afloat at all. What does this tell us? It says that it is indeed possible to build a boat while afloat. The timbers of the old ship were not destroyed, just taken apart and thrown overboard. All we have to do is fit them back together, in something like a proper order. That order is implicit in their forms, as the order of the finished jigsaw puzzle is implicit in the shapes of its pieces.
So, there’s no reason to panic, or despair. After all, we’ve managed so far. We just have to keep at it, as we have been.