I was delighted to receive a copy of Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread. I begin with a confession: I knew people liked his conversion memoir, From Fire, By Water, but I did not read it. I am not a convert or a potential convert to the Faith and, to my great shame, have not cultivated much of an interest in proselytizing or evangelizing or whatever the correct term is these days. Luckily I avoided any social settings where I would be expected to know conversion literature generally or Ahmari’s book specifically, so I was spared the consequences for ignoring the book. One of the benefits, I suppose, of living in southern Indiana.
The Unbroken Thread, however, was immediately more compelling for me, not merely because I got a copy in the mail. It is in short Ahmari’s brief for tradition against the modern age. As a Catholic and occasional participant in debates over Catholic political and legal thought, this is a topic about which I am indeed interested. Everyone is interested in tradition these days, either for or against. One has only to check a trusted (or not) source of news to see that tradition is one of the burning topics of the age.
Ahmari tells us that The Unbroken Thread began its life as an idea to do a book of reporting about traditionalism among the young. This is a popular subject. Matthew Schmitz and Tara Isabella Burton, to take two examples, have drawn a lot of water from the well of upwardly mobile young people who like the traditional Latin Mass or anarchocommunists who own copies of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ahmari’s agent kiboshed the idea, suggesting that Ahmari really wanted to write the case for traditionalism, which is precisely what Ahmari has done. Thank goodness for Ahmari’s agent. A book about Ivy Leaguers in New York City who own well-thumbed copies of the Liber Usualis or the Antiphonale Monasticum and Das Kapital would have been too much to bear.
And, really, Ahmari has written a much more interesting book than the one he initially wanted to write. He begins by reproaching his youthful exaltation in self-definition and remaking himself. He has found in the west today the same obsession with autonomy and reinvention. With this, Ahmari has gone straight to the heart of the problem with modernity. The French-Canadian theologian Charles de Koninck explained it in his Principle of the New Order. The project of the so-called enlightenment has been to reject the primacy of the speculative and exalt in man’s practical reason. Man turns away from what is best in himself—indeed what may be called superhuman (cf. Metaphysics A, ch. 2; Nicomachean Ethics 10.7)—and finds emancipation through the organs of practical reason: his hands and his tongue.
De Koninck notes that the exaltation of practical reason results in saying and writing things one cannot think. So long as one follows the rules of grammar, one can write or say anything, even if it is deeply irrational. He finds a connected phenomenon: the disconnection of history from prudence. Historical events can be judged “objectively,” in the light of “cold facts,” without the historian needing to make right judgments about human behavior. In this particularly pointed passage, De Koninck notes that this phenomenon allows “the adulterous man to cry out on the public place: this woman was taken in adultery!”
Of course, all this is nonsense. Our Lord tells us, as De Koninck reminds us, that we shall be accountable for all our idle words on the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36). We must, we are told, take the beam out of our eye before we can hunt specks in our brother’s eye (Luke 6:42). Ahmari understands, like De Koninck, that the project is nonsense. It has promised freedom and endless self-invention, but a quick look at cable news or social media suggests that no one feels particularly free. We have made man the measure of all things only to find that humanity is concept harder and harder to comprehend. Ahmari is right to be dissatisfied. Instead, Ahmari finds in the sacrifice of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who established a monastery in Nagasaki and died in Auschwitz, true freedom and true humanity.
It is against this backdrop—and Ahmari’s understandable anxiety for his young son, Maximilian—that Ahmari sets out to find in tradition the answer to the failed promise of the so-called enlightenment. In tradition, he argues, one finds true freedom and true happiness, as opposed to the shabby substitutes on offer today. To make the case, Ahmari structures his book around twelve questions, such as “Is God Reasonable?” and “How Must You Serve Your Parents?” and “What’s Good About Death?” Each chapter takes a look at the question through the lens of a thinker in the traditions of the world, setting them in their historical context. Ahmari deftly blends history, biography, and philosophy to propose answers to the questions he sets himself. I am reminded of Clive James’s excellent Cultural Amnesia. Both men make serious points about tradition and our culture without becoming pedantic or leaden. In and of itself, this is an accomplishment.
Ahmari is the opinion editor of the New York Post and a regular contributor to First Things among other publications. But The Unbroken Thread suggests that he has a real talent for biography and popular intellectual history. In an age of monumental biographies like Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle, Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, or John Röhl’s Wilhelm II, there is much to be said for Ahmari’s sketches. Not everything needs to be a spiritual heir to Henri-Louis de la Grange’s Gustav Mahler or Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson. It is altogether possible to give a sense of a man and his thought—and his influence on the most important questions of the age—in less than five thousand pages and a forest of footnotes and endnotes and bibliographies. (Though Ahmari does cite his sources.)
It is worth noting as well that Ahmari does not limit himself to any one tradition. The rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in Czarist Poland and working in the United States, sits alongside Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s favorite—for a time. Certainly some of his choices recommend themselves by the sheer extent and force of their influence: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Confucius. But he also draws upon figures who probably are not household names, like the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman and the philosopher Hans Jonas. And he looks across the political spectrum. One does not necessarily expect to see Andrea Dworkin marshaled in a case for traditionalism, but here she is.
This is important, not least in the context of ongoing political debates in the United States and elsewhere. Tradition, Ahmari reminds us, is not the sole property of the west or of Christians or of the right. There are valuable insights in other traditions. One runs a risk, of course, of turning this into the liberal arts ideology. That is, by exploring all these traditions, you get a set of intellectual skills that allows you to solve modern, meaningful problems. That is to say, these traditions serve mostly to produce a neutral technology that has market value. I do not think Ahmari falls into that trap, since he emphasizes the ultimate ends toward which man is ordered. But I think The Unbroken Thread would have benefitted from a direct response to the liberal arts ideology.
The breadth of Ahmari’s book will appeal first and foremost to a general audience—by design, I imagine. However, aspects of the book cannot help but touch upon narrower debates. For example, Ahmari’s chapter “Does God Need Politics?” goes to the very heart of the ongoing debate in the Catholic (and more broadly Christian) right about the common good. Ahmari is himself in some large part responsible for sparking the debate, along with the Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule. In a First Things essay and a series of debates with David French in 2019, Ahmari called for a reorientation of what is broadly called the culture war.
An aside first, though. While Ahmari has certainly done much to reinvigorate a debate about the goals and means of political Catholicism, The Unbroken Thread is not really a polemic in that debate, except secondarily. While Ahmari sets for himself questions about politics, his scope is not narrowly political. A reader who wants a barn-burning political tract—a rehearsal of the arguments against David French, for example—is probably going to be a little disappointed by Ahmari. To put it another way: it is not a Twitter thread against the libertarians expanded into book form. But a book that argues that one finds happiness and freedom through tradition is going to have political dimensions.
Ahmari called for a renewed focus on the common good, even if it requires state power to establish and promote, in opposition to the broadly libertarian approach taken by French. Vermeule put the case in more concrete legal terms in an early 2020 essay in The Atlantic, calling for a common-good constitutionalism to replace the worn-out judicial philosophy of originalism. This debate has consumed Catholic political thought for the last eighteen months or so. A very recent conference arranged by Ryan T. Anderson at the University of Dallas shows that there is still a lot of energy in this debate.
One of the key issues in the debate is the question of the common good. Liberals, for whatever reason, usually begin by mystifying the concept. What is the common good? What is peace? What is happiness? Who decides? So on and so forth. They hope, I think, that by making the common good an impossibly difficult concept, they can take some of the rhetorical force out of the concept and make it as vague as the concepts they rely on, such as freedom and democracy. In “Does God Need Politics?” Ahmari offers a solution to the problems the liberals raise.
The chapter is a reading of St. Augustine’s life and De civitate Dei. Ahmari turns to Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., and his brilliant reading of Augustine several times throughout the chapter. Though, having played some small part in these debates and being familiar with Waldstein’s work on Augustine, I was less struck by that aspect on my first reading. Instead, I was struck by how vivid Ahmari’s portrait of Augustine was. Certainly everyone knows the broad strokes of Augustine’s life, especially if, as most educated people have, they have read the Confessions. But Ahmari, perhaps finding some special kinship with Augustine (though that is mere speculation), draws a remarkably engaging picture of Augustine and the circumstances under which he wrote De civitate Dei.
At any rate, Ahmari presents Augustine’s vision of Christian politics in this chapter. In Augustine’s critique of Roman politics and society, Christians find for themselves an approach to politics in accordance with reason and the divine law. This is especially true for questions like the common good or peace. Book XIX of De civitate Dei has extended treatments of these questions, which have informed the tradition of Christian political thought for fifteen hundred years. As I have insisted on several occasions here (and elsewhere) these concepts have content that we are not altogether free to provide. When we talk about peace, for example, we are not totally free to redefine it for ourselves: we follow, for example, Augustine’s treatment of peace and those who have followed Augustine.
Ahmari does not provide a definitive, scholarly study on this question—or any of the questions he discusses—and I do not have the sense he is especially interested in doing so. Neither, of course, did Clive James in Cultural Amnesia. What he does do, especially if one is not familiar with the figures he discusses, is urge one to seek the figures out for oneself. Someone who might be familiar with the debate over the common good from Twitter or the various web and print articles at various outlets but who might not have read De civitate Dei may well be inspired to seek out a copy and read Augustine for himself. On this basis, The Unbroken Thread succeeds at its task.