A notable new book: Sohrab Ahmari’s “The Unbroken Thread”

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.

A little more on law, happiness, and reason

It is no trick to review Thomas Aquinas’s famous definition of law from the Quaestio de Essentia Legis (ST I-II q.90). One can go through the various attributes of law before coming to Aquinas’s summation: “nihil est aliud quam quaedam rationis ordinatio ad bonum commune, ab eo qui curam communitatis habet, promulgata”—“it is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (ST I-II q.90 a.4 co.). However, if one hastens toward that definition, one may well miss important aspects of Aquinas’s argument in support of it. In particular, one overlook what it means for a law to be an ordinance of reason.

Aquinas begins by saying that law is a rule and measure of human actions (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.). Here he follows earlier writers like Isidore of Seville (cf. Etym. 5.10, 5.19–20). But the rule and measure of human actions is reason, the first principle of human actions (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.). Indeed, one may say that actions are properly human only insofar as they are rational (ST I-II q.1 a.1). Aquinas tells us that “In unoquoque autem genere id quod est principium, est mensura et regula illius generis”—“Now that which is the principle in any genus, is the rule and measure of that genus” (ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.).

Here one must attend carefully to definitions (cf. In I Post. An. L.5). Henri Grenier, author of the influential manual, Thomistic Philosophy, tells us that “[a] principle is that from which a thing in any way proceeds” (Vol. 1, no. 217). Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle’s Physics, tells us that, when Aristotle talks about “principles”: “per principia videtur intelligere causas moventes et agentes, in quibus maxime attenditur ordo processus cuiusdam”—“by principle he seems to mean moving causes and agents in which, more than in others, there is found an order of some progression” (In I Phys. L.1). Elsewhere he says “Tria videntur de ratione principiorum esse: primum quod non sint ex aliis; secundum quod non sint ex alterutris; tertium quod omnia alia sint ex eis”—“Three things seem to belong to the very nature of principles. First, they are not from other things. Secondly, they are not from each other. Thirdly, all other things are from them” (In I Phys. L.10).

Aquinas goes on to tell us that “Sicut autem ratio est principium humanorum actuum, ita etiam in ipsa ratione est aliquid quod est principium respectu omnium aliorum”—“Now as reason is a principle of human acts, so in reason itself there is something which is the principle in respect of all the rest: wherefore to this principle chiefly and mainly law must needs be referred” (ST I-II q.90 a.2 co.). Aquinas shows that the first principle is the last end, which for human life is happiness (ibid.). Indeed, Aquinas, following Augustine, argues that happiness is the last end proper to man as a rational creature (ST I-II q.1 a.8 s.c. & co.; e.g., Augustine, De Trinitate lib. XIII, c.5). Aquinas demonstrates at length that perfect happiness cannot consist in wealth, honor, glory, power, or any other bodily good (ST I-II q.2 a.1–5). Neither can happiness consist of delight, even delight in the supreme good (ST I-II q.2 a.6). Happiness must be therefore a good of the soul (but not in the soul) and indeed the universal good, the object of all men’s desires—God (ST I-II q.2 a.7–8).

We understand better, therefore, Aristotle when he says that just laws are those that produce and preserve happiness for the political community (NE 5.1, 1129b19; In V Ethic. L.2). One can draw all manner of other conclusions from this. For example, “cum beatitudo consistat in consecutione ultimi finis, ea quae requiruntur ad beatitudinem sunt consideranda ex ipso ordine hominis ad finem”—“Since happiness consists in gaining the last end, those things that are required for happiness must be gathered from the way in which man is ordered to an end” (ST I-II q.4 a.3 co.). And we know that in this life only imperfect happiness, which requires all sorts of external goods, is possible (ST I-II q.4 a.7 co.).

But we do not need to get too far into those weeds. The important thing is to recognize the connections between happiness, reason, and law. More than this, as before, one must recognize that these connections are not merely accidental. Law is an ordinance of reason, which means that it is necessarily ordered to happiness. And happiness itself is not a meaningless concept, dissolved for the most part into relativism—each person defines it for him- or herself. We know what the most perfect happiness is (cf. ST I-II q.3 a.8 co.). We know, too, that “Quod autem dicitur maxime tale in aliquo genere, est causa omnium quae sunt illius generis”—“Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus” (ST I q.2 a.3 co.). And so on and so forth.

Law and the concept of happiness

There is a tendency, especially when discussing questions of law and politics in the classical, Catholic tradition, to overlook the meaning of the terms and concepts used by Aquinas and others in their expressions of that tradition. But Aquinas reminds us: “parvus error in principio magnus est in fine”—“a little error in the beginning is a big one in the end” (De ente et essentia, Prooemium). It is therefore necessary to keep these definitions in mind. An exploration of the consequences of a couple of central concepts—happiness and the common good—will suffice for a demonstration.

We know that in practical matters the first principle is the last end (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). The last end of human life is bliss or happiness (ST IaIIae q.2 a.7 co.). Aquinas tells us that law, therefore, must regard happiness and indeed, because man is a political animal, not just the happiness of an individual man but the happiness of the community (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). Aristotle tells us much the same thing when he treats justice in the Nicomachean Ethics: a just law produces and preserves happiness for the community (NE 5.1, 1129b12-27). And this happiness is the common good (In V Ethic. L.2, nos. 902–903),

So far, there is nothing too controversial in saying that laws must be framed to produce and preserve happiness for the community, which is the common good. A problem inevitably arises when the terms are used without any understanding of their meaning. It is all too common to hear the common good—or happiness—used mostly to mystify discussions or to smuggle in specific ideas, which have very little to do with the concepts as they are used. Insistence upon clear understandings of the concepts involved leads to clear understandings of the consequences of the claims made.

Let us follow its trail for a while and see where we wind up. Happiness, which is the same thing as the common good, has a concrete meaning. If the political community—if, for example, the state—is to secure and preserve happiness, then it is necessary to understand happiness. The first principle in practical matters is the last end (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). It may be suggested that happiness consists, for example, in a particular arrangement of political and economic conditions that allow for citizens to do or not do this or that thing. Indeed, even in Catholic discourse, one might hear temporal happiness described in such terms, with the suggestion that eternal happiness is added to that in some way.

Yet this is a serious error. For one thing, when one makes political prudence or science the highest wisdom, one necessarily supposes that man is the best thing in the universe, as Aristotle tells us (NE 6.7, 1141a20). Man is however not the most excellent thing in the world (In VI Ethic. L.6, no. 1186). Another consequence, if one holds that man is the most excellent thing in the universe—and, therefore, that political science is the most excellent—would be to make actually practical rule impossible. Charles de Koninck, in his Principle of the New Order, demonstrates that practical reason directs to an end in accordance with right reason. This requires one to know the end. To reject the primacy of the speculative is to knock the legs out from underneath this process: without speculative reason one cannot know the final end—which is the first principle. Practical rule dissolves into mere will and chance.

The speculative intellect is important not merely for making practical rule possible. In the classical account, it is the proper end of law and the essence common good. Aristotle tells us that the most excellent virtue—complete happiness—is contemplative (NE 10.7, 1177a12). That is to say, for Aristotle, to contemplate what is true is the best part of man. And the contemplative life is the perfectly happy life. Aquinas explains that the contemplation of truth consists both in discovering the truth and in reflecting on truth already discovered (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2092). However, reflecting on truth already discovered is more perfect than the investigations leading to the discovery of truth. The perfectly happy life, therefore, comes from contemplation by reason perfected by the intellectual virtue of truth.

Aristotle and Aquinas alike extol the superiority of the contemplative life. Aquinas tells us that “vita contemplativa non est proprie humana, sed superhumana”—“the contemplative life is not properly human, but superhuman” (QD de virt. card. a.1 co.). However, “vita […] voluptuosa, quae inhaeret sensibilibus bonis, non est humana, sed bestialis”—the life of pleasure […] by which one adheres to sensible goods, is not human but bestial” (ibid.). Human life is the active life according to the moral virtues (ibid.). But it must be remembered that “vita activa, in qua perficiuntur morales, est ut ostium ad contemplativam”—“the active life, which is perfected by the moral virtues, is as a door to the contemplative life” (QD de virt. in communi a.13 ad 24). In other words, the contemplative is the best part of man, toward which the active life is ordered (cf. Metaphysics A, c.2, 982b5; In I De Anima c.1). Aquinas goes so far as to hold that to take pleasure in created things, as opposed to the permanent things that offer pleasure in the contemplative life, is to incur an impurity of affection (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2091).

However, the centrality of the contemplative life goes well beyond being superhuman and the true end of the active life, perfected by the moral virtues. Aquinas teaches us that the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus (ST Ia q.2 a.3 co.). He gives the example of heat: fire, the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. This principle returns in an unexpected place. In the so-called treatise on law, Aquinas tells us that in every genus, that which belongs to it chiefly is the principle of the others and the other things in that genus are subordinated to that thing (ST IaIIae q.90 a.2 co.). Once again, Aquinas uses the example of heat: fire is chief among hot things is the cause of heat in mixed bodies, which may be said to be hot insofar as they have a share in fire. It may therefore be said that the happiness of the contemplative life is the cause and principle of the happiness of the active life.

Therefore, the most just laws, which secure the greatest happiness for the political community, which have the greatest share of the common good, are laws producing and preserving the contemplative life. The law must lead the citizens of the political community to virtue (ST IaIIae q.95 a.1 co.). But the highest virtue is the virtue of the contemplative life. To the extent that the law fosters and promotes the virtues of the active life, it must be remembered that the active life is as a door to the contemplative life (QD de virt. in communi a.13 ad 24). The lawgiver must therefore have first and foremost in mind the virtues of the contemplative life: in practical matters the first principle is the last end. And the lawgiver must have in mind the fact the happiness of the contemplative life is the cause and principle of the happiness of the active life, even if the happiness of the active life involves some impurity of affection (In X Ethic. L.10, no. 2091).

One could go follow this trail a while longer and come to still more interesting and surprising sights, but the point is clear enough. Concepts like “happiness” and “the common good” have meanings in the classical tradition, and these meanings have consequences. When one attempts to define these terms in a wholly materialistic sense or, worse, to pretend that they have no fixed meanings, one reaches toward the formlessness of modernity. This is a terrible thing to do, reducing practical reason itself to chance, and it is still more terrible to do so unwittingly.