Sohrab Ahmari is undoubtedly right that we live in “an age of chaos” that desperately needs to recover—or, perhaps for the majority of our contemporaries, to “discover” for the first time—what he calls “the wisdom of tradition.” His new book, The Unbroken Thread, is a most welcome invitation to take both wisdom and tradition seriously again, to see in tradition an indispensable vehicle for conveying and sustaining wisdom about the things that truly matter. In that regard, Ahmari’s very fine book is profoundly countercultural.
It is not a flawless book. Sometimes the argument leans too far toward mere traditionalism, thereby risking the subordination of wisdom to a somewhat romanticized account of tradition. Still, its fundamental claim is both unobjectionable and liberating:
the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as antiquated or “limiting” can liberate us, while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits, is, in fact, a prison; . . . the quest to define ourselves on our own is a kind of El Dorado, driving to madness the many who seek after it; . . . for our best, highest selves to soar, other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound.
Ahmari’s book entails, above all, a thoughtful and eloquent plea for humanizing limits. In making his case, he assumes “the role of the critic, the interrogator of modern certainties.” He thus combines an essentially interrogative approach with a deep intuition that “our contemporary philosophy might be wrong in crucial respects—that we may have too hastily thrown away the insights of traditional thought and too eagerly encouraged the desire for total human mastery.” In this respect, despite some missteps along the way, Ahmari’s argument succeeds brilliantly.
A Gift to the Next Generation
Ahmari’s lucid, measured, but passionate prose is driven by a profoundly existential concern: that his infant son Maximilian (“Max”), named for the Catholic saint and martyr Maximilian Kolbe, who freely took the place of a prisoner (and head of a family) in a Nazi death camp in Poland, will grow up in a country and culture with few if any “substantive ideals.” This book is thus a gift to the next generation, in the concrete form of Ahmari’s cherished son. Its purpose is to remind them of the need to cultivate the precious gift that is the human soul.
That task demands openness to “the fundamental dilemmas of what it means to be fully human,” and an accompanying willingness to respond to the call of sacrifice and self-restraint, even to the requirements of authentic heroism and sanctity so nobly represented by the “other” Maximilian, St. Maximilian Kolbe. Instead of the false allure of unlimited “progress,” which “can’t fulfill our soul yearnings or satisfy our urge to put ourselves right with the sacred,” Ahmari recommends a dialectical return to the “wisdom of tradition” through a thoughtful and engaging challenge to the unexamined dogmas at the heart of radically progressivist or modernist thought.
With C. S. Lewis (whose prose and fictional writings Ahmari explores with insight and gusto), Ahmari rejects the “chronological snobbery” that dismisses “good ideas from the past merely because they were from the past.” He demonstrates that we have forgotten many humanizing answers precisely because of a “false sense of superiority” that gets in the way of confronting the truly enduring questions. A “reflexive hostility to tradition” thus leads to an equally reflexive dismissal of the hard-won spiritual and philosophical wisdom passed on by our forebears. The result is a terrible diminution of the human mind and heart.
The questions Ahmari asks are, for the most part, just the right questions, and the thinkers he explores (with one notable exception) are indeed notable and noble purveyors of wisdom and spiritual insight. At the beginning of the book, he tells us, with all due modesty, that he is “neither a philosopher nor a theologian” but rather “a journalist and story teller.” Accordingly, the bulk of the book is “devoted to telling the stories of great ideas and of the men and women who brought them forth, and highlighting the lessons we can take from each of them.” Our author claims no “scholarly originality.” But the stories are splendidly told and are informed by impressive learning. Ahmari is no dilettante. His is a book of “haute vulgarisation” (as the French say) in the very best sense of the phrase.
Essential Questions, Compelling Portraits
In a relatively compact review essay, I can only highlight a few of the questions and portraits that Ahmari deftly draws and that struck this reviewer as worthy of further commentary. To begin with, Ahmari’s treatment of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the fictional or literary version of his critique of scientism and relativism in The Abolition of Man (1946), is simply superb. As Ahmari notes, C. S. Lewis’s writings demonstrate the irrationality of the idea that “sheer accumulation of facts and technique can allow us to take moral shortcuts.” There can be no moral or civilizational clarity if we reject right reason, first principles, or the moral law, for they are the indispensable foundation for everything that follows.
Although Ahmari’s treatment of Thomas Aquinas and the question “Is God Reasonable?” is unoriginal, it helpfully distinguishes the Christian rationalism of St. Thomas from Averroes’s notion of distinct truths available only to philosophers, who have no need of revealed truth. The chapter also demonstrates that even Thomas’s “coldly rationalistic” five proofs for the existence of God provide the warm hope that human beings are indeed “wanted” and “belong.” We human beings do not live in a universe without purpose or meaning, Thomas insists. This assurance is deepened by a more robust faith in the providence of a loving God, and in the sacrifice and saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A very suggestive chapter on Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-Lithuanian rabbi who barely escaped Nazi despotism and the murderous Holocaust, highlights the holiness of the Sabbath. To instrumentalize the sacred day of rest and worship is, according to Heschel, to allow “the realm of space” to win out over the “realm of time,” a realm that ultimately gives us access to Eternity. Already in Heschel’s time (he died in New York in December 1972), Americans were beginning to banish the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, “in the name of ‘choice,’” both consumer and recreational. Heschel’s lesson, as summarized by Ahmari, remains both challenging and vitally true: “a world without the Sabbath is a world without soul.” In its simplicity, this lesson invites us to radically rethink our misplaced spiritual priorities.
An odd, if interesting, chapter, deals with Andrea Dworkin, the American radical feminist, who identified human sexuality with the various “circles of hell.” A radical and astute critic of the identification of sex and pornography with “banal fun,” she eventually identified “intercourse” per se with cruelty, exploitation, and injustice. Ahmari provisionally, and unpersuasively, calls her a “traditionalist,” in no small part because she is an unwavering critic of “lust.” But in the end, Dworkin was a lost soul, a nihilist and misanthrope who rejected “natural law and other regulations as means for promoting the unlimited ‘power of men over women’” as just one more lamentable effort to prop up the patriarchy. She is the only figure in the book who is not a model to follow. But the chapter informs and provokes, and that is all to the good.
Ahmari’s compelling final chapter, provocatively called “What’s Good about Death?” capably harnesses the arguments of the Roman Stoic Seneca against “transhumanists” who want to indefinitely expand human life at the service of this-worldly immortality. In this awful dispensation, nothing would be new. The human soul would lose all sense of purpose and would be overwhelmed by self-disgust. In decisive respects, Seneca was right when he argued “that it’s a great gift of Nature that we must die.” If endless self-preservation becomes the great desideratum, he argued, we might be all too willing to betray a friend to live longer, or hand over our children “for lechery—just to see the next dawn.” We would lose our souls and betray our consciences. As Ahmari reminds us, we must aim to live well, not indefinitely.
Newman, Conscience, and “Liberalism in Religion”
My favorite chapter is dedicated to Cardinal John Henry Newman and his defense and articulation of the true human and Christian meaning of conscience. No one in the great tradition has treated conscience so amply and compellingly as Newman, perhaps because he was obliged to respond to counterfeit claims in the mid-to-late nineteenth century made in the name of conscience.
In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), Newman wrote with exceptional grace and depth about the central role of conscience in the life of the soul: “What is a higher guide for us in speculation and in practice than that conscience of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, those sentiments of what is decorous, consistent, and noble, which our Creator has made part of our original nature?” These soaring words get to the heart of the truth about the moral constitution of human beings. Later, in his superb Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), Newman defended the authentic Catholic teaching of conscience (which is the teaching of natural law, too) against attacks from Prime Minister William Gladstone. Gladstone mistakenly claimed that Catholics, loyal to allegedly illiberal popes, could not honor civil liberties, free inquiry, and moral conscience. With the same blessed powers of articulation, Newman defended “the rule of ethical truth, the standard of right and wrong, a sovereign irreversible, absolute authority in the presence of man and Angels” against that counterfeit substitute for authentic conscience called subjectivism and “the right of self-will.”
Ahmari lays all this out accurately and precisely. But he goes too far when he confuses Newman’s critique of “liberalism in religion” with liberalism tout court. A regime of civil and political liberty, informed by right reason and true conscience, is not subjected to Newman’s censure and ire. This is a distinction Ahmari needs to recognize, and the failure to do so is a weakness of the book.
Where Ahmari Goes Awry
Ahmari’s chapter on the Russian writer and Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn raises the indispensable question, “What Is Freedom For?” The answer Ahmari presents exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book as a whole.
Ahmari helpfully highlights essential themes of Solzhenitsyn’s great and controversial Harvard Address of June 8, 1978: the distinction between the rule of law and soul-numbing legalism; the decline of civic courage in societies engrossed in the frenetic pursuit of material well-being; and most importantly, the inability of atheistic “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy” to sustain the promise of human liberty and dignity.
Unfortunately, like most commentators on the Harvard address, Ahmari misses Solzhenitsyn’s final call for us to move “up from modernity” by finding true balance in the human soul and the human world. Underlying Solzhenitsyn’s alleged jeremiad at Harvard is a truly novel call for moderation and voluntary self-limitation. In his view, we must resist not only the claim that man is the highest thing in the universe but also the tyranny of the spiritual, which tends to forget the centrality of human freedom to a life well lived. Ahmari hardly acknowledges such tyranny as a human possibility.
While Ahmari is wonderfully open to the wisdom of the medieval world, he doesn’t seem to appreciate that the Middle Ages suffered from generally bad governance. Not despotism, to be sure, but an inability to settle the longstanding conflict between pope and emperor, the temporal and spiritual realms. Until relatively recent times, the papal states themselves were among the most poorly governed states in the whole of Europe. On this side of the Atlantic, the founding fathers of the American republic did not advocate a soulless “procedural republic,” as Ahmari claims, even if so many academics of a certain cast insist they did. Our old republic has some moral resources that we would be imprudent and ungrateful to reject. While people of faith and right reason should be unhesitating in opposition to “the poison of subjectivism” (C. S. Lewis) and “the dictatorship of relativism” (Pope Benedict XVI), we cannot make the direct promotion of the “Highest Good,” as Ahmari claims, the explicit goal of the temporal or political realm. That is to succumb to the politics of perfection.
If we are to avoid either religious or secularist fanaticism and fundamentalism, we must live with an unnerving indetermination regarding the relationship between truth and liberty, while firmly resisting the advancing forces of moral nihilism. This excellent book enlightens in so many respects while falling short, in my judgment, before the tribunal of moral and political prudence. Still, it succeeds admirably in making the case for “the wisdom of tradition” as the one thing most needful today.