Book Review: “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos”
In a right-of-center journalistic landscape that seems, all too often, to have collapsed into a mass of indistinguishable pundits all saying roughly the same thing, Sohrab Ahmari has long been a more interesting presence. The first book of his that I came across, The New Philistines, was a lacerating indictment of modern art reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. And in the wake of his conversion to Catholicism—a shift chronicled in his engaging memoir From Fire By Water—Ahmari has carved out a fairly unique niche as an unsparing critic of American-style classical liberalism.
As far as the contemporary political spectrum is concerned, this places Ahmari in uncharted territory. Unlike most self-identified conservatives, he is no defender of the Enlightenment-influenced ideals that underpinned the American Founding. On the other hand, he directs his harshest criticisms against those progressives who would throw off the past entirely in search of liberation. Unlike Catholic thinkers of the past such as John Courtney Murray, Ahmari feels no need to square the circle and baptize the American classical-liberal intellectual tradition; for him a more radical rethinking may, in the end, be necessary.
And yet Ahmari’s latest, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (out May 11 from Convergent Books) is less of a manifesto than an invitation—an appeal to the curious to reconsider whether some of their assumed philosophical premises really do withstand scrutiny. When all’s said and done, has more “freedom” and “autonomy” really made us happier—or more human?
As it happens, there may be plenty of reasons to think otherwise. The Unbroken Thread memorably begins with a description of Ahmari’s worst fear for his young son Max—a scene set twenty years in the future:
[T]he moment he and his friends open their mouths to speak, they talk mostly about money. They boast about entry-level salaries at their dream firms, how long it will take them to make partner, the Fifth Avenue apartments owned by senior associates not much older than they are, and so on. They might be well-read, but to the extent they discuss ideas at all, they concern themselves with the latest TED Talk about the power of making eye contact in meetings or the power of genetically personalized steroids to push your workout to the next level. . . . Career ambition and relentless competition punctuated by chances to blow off steam: Max and his buddies may not admit that this is what they take to be the meaning of life. Yet the choices they make, and will continue to make as they grow older, attest that it is, indeed, the meaning they hold most dear.
From my perspective, this is a withering description because it’s a profoundly familiar one. I spent some time at a white-shoe professional firm after graduating from law school, and one of the most disheartening parts of the job was witnessing the relentless transformation of people who were once brilliant, lively, and intellectually curious. At happy hours, these sorts of people tended to stand around quietly with dull eyes, inevitably gravitating to one of two conversational topics: the latest cases on which they’d been billing hours, or the latest form of conspicuous consumption they’d adopted. It didn’t matter how much they’d once treasured Augustine or Melville or Kierkegaard or Vivaldi; there was no longer space in their life for that sort of love. Instead, there was work, and Uber Eats, and expensive trips to the Bahamas or Alps, and HBO. (Needless to say, churchgoing was never a priority—and I too did my fair share of sleeping in on Sunday mornings.) All that to say: I relate deeply to Ahmari’s overriding concern, and would find the scenario he depicts to be a profoundly nightmarish outcome for my own son.
Is there a better way of life? That, of course, is the question The Unbroken Thread hopes to answer—in nonsectarian fashion. Ahmari’s own Catholicism is never far from view, but the volume never feels theologically parochial; as far as the central theme is concerned, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist readers alike can benefit from thinking outside the conceptual box provided by contemporary neoliberalism.
From this relatively ecumenical foundation, Ahmari launches into a sprawling, episodic exposition of the ancient insights the world loses when it thinks only in terms of individual prosperity and pleasure. Interestingly, The Unbroken Thread is structured quite similarly to Helen Andrews’s recent Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, which interpreted the pathologies of contemporary culture through the stories of baby boomer-age figures who epitomized those vices. Ahmari’s book takes the opposite tack, exploring the lives of individual thinkers who exemplify certain of the tradition-oriented themes he stresses: To that end, Thomas Aquinas tells of the integration of reason and faith, Confucius explains the importance of filial piety, Andrea Dworkin argues for the necessarily public implications of ostensibly private sexual behavior, and so on.
This narrative technique reaches its high point in Ahmari’s account of Hans Jonas, a Jewish student of both Martin Heidegger and Rudolph Bultmann who set out to interpret the ancient Gnostic tradition in light of then-contemporary existentialist philosophy. While I might disagree with certain elements of Ahmari’s interpretation of Heidegger—reasonable enough, given that thinker’s notorious opacity—there’s a propulsive force to Ahmari’s approach to intellectual history that makes The Unbroken Thread read like an engaging novel.
As wide-ranging as the volume is, though, one absence in particular stands out. Perhaps there are good reasons for this, but I found it curious—even surprising—that Alasdair MacIntyre’s name appears nowhere in a book laying out a Catholic argument for the centrality of tradition in the modern age. After all, few philosophers have done more than MacIntyre to rehabilitate the concept of tradition as a reliable source of knowledge in the contemporary world.
Across his various writings, MacIntyre outlines perhaps a more evolutive concept of tradition than that stressed in The Unbroken Thread. This is significant because, following Leo Strauss (and, more recently, Patrick Deneen) Ahmari is keen to drive a sharp wedge between the ancient world and modernity. And he is similarly keen to frame the great struggle of our time as a conflict between poisonous freedom and healthy submission, as evidenced by his sharp criticisms of “liberalism” (in the sense condemned by Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors). But as far as the book’s intended audience is concerned, I don’t know that this phrasing of submission strikes quite the right note. Much more compelling, to my mind, is the older Platonic language of participation—of inhabiting one’s proper place in a created order reflecting the divine Logos, or Wisdom. In turn, to participate in a tradition of philosophical inquiry is to belong to a community of discussants stretching backwards into the past and (hopefully) forward into the distant future.
As Eastern Orthodox church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once put it, while traditionalism may be the “dead faith of the living,” tradition is the “living faith of the dead.” Of course an element of submission is involved in such participation, but this is submission in the sense of realizing that one needs to place oneself under the authority of a more knowledgeable authority in order to become what one ought to be, rather than simply deferring to the inscrutable diktats of a superior. I trust Ahmari would agree with this construal—he and I are certainly in agreement that faith and reason ought to be seen as complementary rather than rivalrous—but in that case, the language of “submission” seems to do more harm than good: do students submit to their teachers, or are they discipled by their teachers?
Ergo, MacIntyre’s crucial insight that a living tradition, one handed on from generation to generation, is not a stagnant thing. John Henry Newman takes central stage in a chapter arguing that claims asserted in the name of “conscience” ought to take account of authorities beyond the private self (a point about which I happen to agree), but Newman’s famous account of the development of doctrine is noted only in passing. Newman’s central theme was that “doctrine” as such never develops sua sponte: it develops and progresses within a tradition rooted in certain foundational beliefs, as the implications of those commitments are more fully worked out by human beings.
No Christian, Catholic or otherwise, is bound to absolute obedience to any human authority—Pope Honorius I was, after all, declared a heretic. And Ahmari correctly notes, in his chapter on the subject, that “we can securely follow our consciences. Indeed, we must follow our consciences”—insofar as we do not without reason “start with a spirit of skepticism or presume that there is a conflict where there may be none.” But what doesn’t really emerge in The Unbroken Thread is an affirmative account of how one reasons “outward,” within a tradition, to apply ancient insights to novel situations or trace “latent” doctrinal insights forward.
Perhaps all this is beyond the scope of a volume that primarily sets out to make an introductory case for the perennial philosophical-moral tradition against its cultured despisers—and as far as I’m concerned, a volume that broadly succeeds in doing so. It does seem to me, though, that focusing on “tradition” as principally a matter of deference to a higher authority, rather than as a pattern of practical reasoning from shared axioms, risks downplaying an important element of what makes tradition intellectually attractive in the first place. In the end, a great advantage of tradition is that it’s far more interesting—and constructive—to engage with issues in the company of individuals who share a common philosophical backdrop, rather than spending time constantly relitigating the foundations (a significant problem in the contemporary academy).
Indeed, maybe I’m the outlier. Maybe at this cultural juncture, most of Ahmari’s readers don’t really need to get fired up over the idea of joining a contemplative conversation that spans the centuries, or working out the moral contours of fiendishly complex issues. Given the moment we inhabit, maybe those who pick up The Unbroken Thread simply need to be persuasively told what they may already feel instinctually—that infinite choice and perpetually “keeping one’s options open” really never leads to happiness.
If that’s you—or if you happen to know someone starting to think along these lines—The Unbroken Thread is a book well worth picking up.
(I received an advance copy of this book from the author. I was not required to write a positive review.)