What is Appeal to tradition?

Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.


This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

(It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)


There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

While the age of a belief attests to experience, it does not attest to its truth. To equate older with better is to venture into the territory of the fallacy. After all, human progress is made by replacing the older with the better. Sometimes men do things in a particular way, or hold particular beliefs, for thousands of years. This does not make it right, any more than it makes it wrong.


You are not having a car. I never had a car, my father never had one, and nor did his father before him.

(Which is probably why none of them got anywhere.)


The Conservative Party is the home of the ad antiquitam. They raised it and by golly they are going to keep it. The old values must be the right ones. Patriotism, national greatness, discipline – you name it. If it’s old, it must be good.

The commercial world is sensitive to the prevalence of the fallacy, and modifies its actions accordingly. A cigarette brand called Woodbine, with a large market share, feared its image was becoming dated, but did not wish to shatter the instinctive preference for the traditional. A science fiction magazine called Astounding feared that its name reflected an earlier era and might hold back its development. In both cases the decision was made to effect gradual change, with the cigarette-packet design and the magazine name both changing imperceptibly over the weeks. Astounding made it into Analog, but Woodbines seem to have disappeared without trace. Perhaps cigarette customers are more conservative than science-fiction readers?

Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.


We make our furniture in the best way; the old way. 

(And it’s every bit as uncomfortable as it always was.)


The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!