The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
by Sohrab Ahmari.
Convergent Books, 2021.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $27.
Reviewed by Dan Whitehead
“Civilization has no longer to be discovered, nor the new city to be built in the clouds. It has existed and it exists; it is the Christian civilization—the Catholic city. It is only necessary to keep on founding and rebuilding it on its natural and divine foundations.” —St. Pius X
Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread, draws the modern reader’s attention, possibly for the first time, to twelve perennial questions that concern the meaning of life. He explores what he calls the traditional approach to those questions and challenges liberal ideology’s answers. In a world where most Americans’ moral education is derived from inspirational posters featuring kittens and platitudes (“Believe in Yourself”), this is a welcome reprieve. Although Ahmari is gentle with the reader, his aim is daring. He seeks nothing less than to build a city of heroes.
This much is clear from the outset. In the introduction, Ahmari says the book came out of his meditations on the life and, most importantly, death of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest who was martyred in Auschwitz in exchange for the life of a fellow prisoner who had a family. Reflecting on the luminous beauty of this saint’s heroic sacrifice, Ahmari asks what kind of polity and mindset shapes men and women of this caliber and questions whether liberal society does so. These are no idle investigations—he tells the reader he’s asking these questions for the sake of his son, also named Maximilian.
At the get-go, Ahmari contrasts St. Maximilian Kolbe’s “strange yet perfect form of freedom” and “intense spiritual resolve” with liberal society’s enervating voluntarism and pathological fear of loving-sacrifice. Beset by various “blessings of liberty,” like escalating suicide rates, hardcore pornography, drug addiction, material excess or penury, and ersatz “do-it-yourself spiritualities,” Ahmari describes modern man as vainly seeking substitutes for the meaning-giving institutions, social practices, and ordered metaphysical worldview that our happier ancestors took for granted.
The book is arranged in two sets of six questions, one set devoted to “The Things of God” and the other to “The Things of Man.” Ahmari presents each question alongside a thinker who grappled with it and explains how liberal ideology provides an inadequate answer. Ahmari chose an eclectic group of men and women from different eras and religious traditions, ranging from Confucius to Andrea Dworkin, likely to drive home the point that the issues he’s dealing with are timeless and universal. Reading the book as a whole, certain key features of the traditional and liberal worldview stand out.
Ahmari describes the traditional mind as having a marked respect for the beauty and harmony present in the world and seeing the cosmos as an ordered whole. In his telling, men and women could contemplate the orderliness of this cosmic arrangement and find their place in it. In other words, the traditional mind was teleological, good- and end-oriented, and accepted the mystery and givenness of reality. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the chapter asking whether God is reasonable, taught that faith and reason could “penetrate into the most fundamental structures of reality” and allow men and women to discern their specifically human vocation—to know and love God. This understanding provided sure footing for a joyful and meaningful life, as another chapter exploring the life and thought of C. S. Lewis illustrates.
In another chapter, Ahmari shows through the life of Howard Thurman, a Christian civil rights activist and major influence on Martin Luther King Jr., that a theocentric worldview protects men and women from arbitrary societal and legal exclusion. Born in the era of Jim Crow laws, Thurman suffered under a political regime designed to dehumanize and degrade black men and women. But he found an “uncommon freedom” in the boundaries of moral absolutes provided by the Christian tradition. If he was subhuman, as the legal regime attempted to beat into him under the irrational will of unjust men, then his “actions would carry no moral weight.” Reflecting on this matter and identifying with Christ’s courageous stand against unjust, manmade social hierarchies, Thurman found confidence in the knowledge that what he did mattered to God, even if it did not matter to an immoral society. Liberal ideology, respecting no such absolutes and obsessed with the exaltation of human power, simply cannot form the basis of social reforms that secure justice among peoples, or ward off objectively corrupting and heretical doctrines, such as racism. After all, it was not liberal ideology that secured the civil rights of black Americans, but appeals to the Christian worldview and natural law. Readers would do well to recognize the lessons in this chapter as they think on how our liberal society today dehumanizes and degrades certain classes of people, and sets up unjust social hierarchies.
The traditional mind also saw men and women as essentially associative. It understood the attainment of harmony in a theocentric universe as a communal project, not an aggregate of individual endeavors. So, as a chapter featuring St. Augustine elaborates, the Abrahamic religious traditions had no problem identifying God as the highest good of the polity and organizing political and social life around him. To act justly and harmoniously within the cosmic order, religious and civil authorities coordinated a polity’s efforts to attain the highest good. Subjects respected these authorities’ judgments because they arose from man’s social nature or were revealed through divine revelation, and were necessary for ensuring that men and women exercised their freedom and reason in fruitful ways. Deviations from this order and the conscious rejection of recognizable truths constituted abuses of freedom and conscience.
And this point is critical. Traditional thinkers viewed acts as free and exercises of conscience as authentic insofar as they contributed to the attainment of ennobling, honorable, and common goods (which are likewise personal goods), as discerned through natural reason and credible divine testimony. Civil and ecclesiastical administrators in conjunction with the people coordinated a polity’s efforts to attain these goods through laws, customs, and public rituals. A shared framework of values and beliefs made such coordination possible on a complex and communal scale. Rich social practices and symbolic rituals organically derived from a view of reality and politics ordered in this way. As Victor and Edith Turner documented from their studies of Ndembu tribal society and traditional Catholicism, public rituals were aimed at giving incarnate form to thoughts and beliefs and to form deep bonds of solidarity, communitas, between participants and the cosmos. They also gave men and women a sense of place and stability in the world (contrast this with our society’s pervasive anxiety and alienation).
An example of public rituals meant to secure the common good were the Abrahamic festal days, in particular the Sabbath. In another chapter, Ahmari tells us that Rabbi Abraham Heschel believed that the Sabbath dignified man by orienting him toward the eternal, the things that really matter, instead of the world of effort and work. To the traditional mind, the world of work was for the Sabbath—not the other way around. This practical theocentrism, or cultural absolute, not only reminded man that he was a passing thing, but also that he was created for divine communion. The Sabbath warded off the very modern, and delusional, idea that “all ethical systems” are “equally valid” and protected man from a wearying, frenetic existence mired in work for work’s sake, a metaphysical abomination. The Abrahamic religions set apart days for leisure so that men and women as a community “might find rest and refresh themselves in the image of God’s own celebration of creation” and affirm their inalienable “dignity and worth apart from whatever they produce[d] through work.”
And, more than this, religious and cosmic significance attended various human institutions, especially marriage. This served to protect men and women from the destructiveness of unbridled lust, and to promote meaningful relationships centered on spousal commitment and the care of children. In the Catholic tradition, marriage was instituted as a sacrament and sacred duty, a participation in the love of the Triune God. Parents, too, were accorded grave and sacred honors in traditional societies, past and present. Confucius taught his disciples that virtue consisted in filial devotion to one’s parents—tending to the roots, regardless of the difficulty since parents had cared for them when they were most vulnerable. To satisfy this duty was to respect the “natural mystery” of the parent-child bond.
Ahmari tells us that the liberal order discarded this worldview. Translating the Protestant theory of private interpretation to all areas of human life, liberal ideologues posited that the highest aim of social organization was the exaltation of autonomy, and the state now existed to moderate the new war of all against all in the pursuit of purely private and arbitrarily chosen ends. Political life no longer sought to attain the highest and most ennobling goods, but to coercively prevent men and women from seeking them in political community.
Liberalism instead enshrined a new secular political “theology” aimed at liberating the individual from all restraints—religious, moral, and even biological (in the chapter featuring Hans Jonas, Ahmari describes liberalism as a species of gnosticism). Pretending at neutrality, liberal societies made the “unbound self” its new god and used various means to compel obedience, especially addiction and attachment to the basest vices (not to mention violent revolutions and global warfare). Of course, this view required a metaphysical, even theological claim—namely, that the political order could not legislate about substantive goods, like a coherent account of God’s nature and man’s obligations toward him. And this meant de facto that liberal apparatchiks had to substitute other ends in lieu of God as man’s highest end. (According to this idolatrous and totalitarian sense, even liberal regimes are “theocratic.”) In this way liberalism frustrated men and women’s political nature and closed them off from the transcendent.
In the chapters detailing the lives and thought of St. John Henry Newman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ahmari tell us that liberal regimes redefined “freedom” as the right to commit any act, no matter how socially harmful or degrading, and “conscience” as the right to reject any truth, no matter how venerable or demonstrable, for the sake of autonomy. Instead of building a polity dedicated to the pursuit of ennobling goods, liberals engineered social systems to ensure that even the most devious and debauched thoughts and actions were, at minimum, legal and, at worst, celebrated and promoted.
No wonder then that significant swaths of the population do not trust their governments. Liberal society, endorsing rank hedonism as the highest good so that all can be “free,” ends up enslaving its men and women to their most craven desires, rendering them nigh incapable of doing good, even if they wanted to. In a society like this, those who actually want to live a virtuous, meaningful life regularly find themselves alone or without adequate intellectual resources or institutional supports for doing so.
And no wonder that modern societies’ pursuits devolve into aimless consumerism and the accumulation of capital. Modernity traded the Sabbath, a day to allow men and women to rest in God’s joy and leisure, for the “freedom” of insanely high divorce rates, alienation and drug abuse, frenzied schedules, breakless shifts, crushing student-loan debt, wage slavery, and missed human connections—all wrought by corporate overlords, gods far less forgiving than the Lord of the Sabbath.
And again, it’s no wonder that relations between the sexes have never been worse. In the chapter on Andrea Dworkin, Ahmari shows us that sex is not a private matter, but an act with significant public consequences. This should be obvious, given that the human species quite literally requires it for its continued existence, but of course, it’s not in our time. Instead of the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, liberalism provides mass pornography, sex trafficking, sex for rent schemes, adultery, hostility to marriage, and anti-natalism.
Liberal regimes boast sickening suicide rates. Go figure. Moderns can’t figure out anything to live for, so they choose to die. Contrast this with the life and death of Seneca, the sage to whom Ahmari dedicates his last chapter. Meditating on the meaning of death, Ahmari shows us that the traditional mind, at best, faced it with seriousness and courage. Seneca taught that death was not something to fear, and that men and women could, through philosophical meditation and discipline, forgo life with honor intact. This final chapter naturally leads the reader back to St. Maximilian Kolbe and the purpose of the book. Does our modern society produce men and women who live lives of heroic virtue? Men and women who live for truth and good instead of for material gain and hedonistic pursuits? Men and women who would freely die before doing something dishonorable or evil, or men and women who would do anything to avoid dying (or who hate life so much they would rather die)?
Ahmari does a great job tackling these issues and tracing out the consequences of getting God, freedom, the purpose of politics, and related issues, wrong. He ably illustrates that liberal societies offer little to nothing worth sacrificing oneself for, and instead points the reader in a direction that, although arduous, leads to a meaningful life. The classically disciplined reader might not find anything groundbreaking here, and the book might have been better if the connections between the chapters were made clearer so as to reveal a coherent metaphysical worldview. But as it is, the book is an engaging read. Ahmari’s verve and punchy style will make any educated reader rethink or think more about our society’s shaky political foundations and legitimating narratives. Better yet, it might even make a saint or two.
Dan Whitehead is an attorney in the DC area interested in political theology.