Big Tent Ideas

Reject Enlightenment Malaise, Embrace Tradition: Sohrab Ahmari’s ‘Unbroken Thread’ Offers A Solution For A Chaotic Age

(The Unbroken Thread cover courtesy of Convergent Books)

Ben Sixsmith Contributor
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Sometime before the Earth-tilting events of the earlier months of 2020, the psychologist Steven Pinker authored “Enlightenment Now” — a brick-sized tome which made the case that empirical reasoning and liberal humanism had birthed a world of glittering progress, with humans living freer, healthier and safer lives across the world.

There were two lines of dissent from Pinker’s conclusions. One was more materialist: emphasizing the scale of global inequality, or existential risk. But one was more spiritual, dwelling on the scale of family breakdown, drug addiction, loneliness and anomie.

It is in the latter spirit that the eloquent, pugnacious Catholic journalist Sohrab Ahmari has written “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.” Watching his young son, Ahmari worries that the boy will grow up in a world of bland acquisitiveness, unfeeling sexual license, disrespect for the old, and disrespect for what is old. “The Unbroken Thread” is an attempt to offer the child, and Ahmari’s readership, the deeper wisdom of tradition, and particularly Catholic tradition, as illustrated through the lives and work of thinkers who embodied its spirit or critiqued its rivals. (RELATED: On The Precipice: Five Lessons For Avoiding Societal Collapse)

There is a lot to like about this book. Ahmari’s team is well-selected. It would have been easy to assemble a cast of predictable Catholic heroes: G.K. Chesterton, say, and Mother Teresa. It is with no disrespect to that great man or that great woman that I say it would have been too easy. Ahmari surprises us. I had barely known of the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, who converted to Catholicism after witnessing the profound and elaborate rituals of the Ndembu people of Zimbabwe. An unlikely ally appears, meanwhile, in the form of the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. Such surprises keep the book fresh and engaging.

“The Unbroken Thread” is concerned not just with making a negative case against modernity — a task notably taken up by Patrick Deneen in “Why Liberalism Failed” — but making a positive case for tradition. For Ahmari, virtuous living is not a prison for the self but a liberation from anxiety, cowardice and lust. Religious ritual does not exist to subjugate the individual but to enrich communal life (as well as, obviously, for the worship of God). Faith is not the negation but the affirmation of reason. Much of this prose is beautiful and compelling. If Mr. Ahmari’s son ever feels persecuted for being compelled to go to church and attend familial functions, as a certain book reviewer often did as an adolescent, he will have an impressive paternal response.

Ahmari’s main target in his book is the liberal attitude which delegates freedom of choice entirely to the individual. This paradigm, he writes, “doesn’t erect any barriers against individual appetites and, if anything, goes out of its way to demolish existing barriers.” In alliance with a desacralized materialism, this leads to “corporate banality” and “deep soul-soreness”.

Well, the liberal might say, corporate banality and soul-soreness do not sound too good — but how can they be quantified, and how can they be compared to modern progress when it comes to wealth, longevity and sanitation? These are difficult questions to answer, from a secular perspective. Some right-wingers, myself included, have used terms like “loneliness” and “atomisation” too vaguely and too promiscuously. Yet it has to be acknowledged that they have real, empirically verifiable bases in rates of drug addiction, suicide, single parenthood, mental illness and, increasingly, murder. One can debate the causes and implications of such phenomena but not their existence. (RELATED: PRINCETON PROF: When Leftists Get Canceled, They Look Right)

A lot of right-wing objections to modernity, it has to be acknowledged, are at root aesthetic in their nature. Modern architecture, fashion and entertainment — not all of it, of course, but much of it — offend the eye and ear, and give one penetrating sense, even if it cannot be reduced to data points, that ugliness spreads to the soul. It is hard to explain why Boston City Hall is so oppressively ugly. But as Ahmari says, it is hard to explain why “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is so beautiful.

Still, it must also be granted that countless people live happy, stimulating lives, through traditional means or through the development of their talents, interests and desires. Religious conservatives and reactionaries feel a temptation to align spiritual malaise and sin with worldly suffering, thus to construct arguments against secular life in worldly terms. They often are companions, of course, but not always.

Sometimes Ahmari’s target blurs a little. He refers to moderns as “utilitarian” and devotes several paragraphs to exploring the eugenic enthusiasms of Russell, Haldane and other early 20th Century secularists, but the efforts that have been made to shield old and sick people during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the blank slate-ism prevalent in culture and education, is proof that a bastardized, disjointed idea of the sacred nature of human life endures. That is by no means to claim that scientific reduction-ism does not exist as well, and Ahmari calls upon C.S. Lewis’ “The Space Trilogy” for a staunch critique of it, but to observe that different tendencies can jostle for space within an age.

As Ahmari suggests elsewhere, moreover, such as in his comments on modern ideas of personhood, our age is not defined only by a cheerful acceptance of individual choice. It has elevated normative, exclusionary ideas of individual and communal life, related to gender, the family and multicultural relations, and marginalizes and criminalizes dissent through social ostracism, censorship, litigation, mob violence and police intimidation.

Against this, Ahmari — along with others like Professor Adrian Vermeule of the University of Harvard and Dr. Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas — advocates not just more freedom for Catholics and traditionalists, but the rejection of liberalism and the reorientation of society towards heavenly ends. Ahmari fired the loudest shots in a series of skirmishes between traditional and liberal conservatives in his First Things broadside “Against David French-ism,” which accused the former National Review columnist David French of clinging onto a limp fusion of Christian and liberal principles in which the latter doomed the former to irrelevance. “There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war,” Ahmari wrote, “The only way is through.”

The Unbroken Thread is not quite the full-on charge that readers of Ahmari’s earlier essay might have expected. It argues against secularism, and in favor of authority, but with little depth. Well, Ahmari is not preaching to the converted here. He must promote openness to his ideas before acceptance. Besides, he wants to maintain at least some kind of ecumenicism, writing that “thoughtful followers of different traditions can find more in common with each other than any of them might with secular-liberal-technocratic modernity.” This is a perfectly honest goal. You won’t get anywhere in life without cooperation. Still, readers seeking a more blunt and thorough argument for Catholicism to be enshrined in politics could turn to Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister’s “Integralism,” which argues that “temporal power must be held by baptized Catholics and put at the service of the highest good.” It is worth noting that traditions, in this vision, take second place to the Tradition. (RELATED: Pope Francis Decries Plunging Birth Rates: ‘No Future’ Without The Family)

As an agnostic who sympathizes with Christian attitudes towards such matters as abortion and pornography, I let off a few shots in the same intra-right wing battles as Ahmari, but suspect that I am neither good nor wise enough to sit in lofty judgement of many people. Still, with appropriate humility, it seems to me that once one grants the state the power to restrict access to weapons and hard drugs one has accepted that the law must uphold at least some idea of the common good. The question, and it is a very broad and heavy one, becomes its nature and its scale.

A problem for traditionalists are the valid grievances that people feel towards traditional authorities. Ahmari mentions the child abuse scandal that rocked the American clergy but similar scandals have rocked faith in institutional religion from Ireland to Poland. Of course, child abuse is also prevalent in schools, and in the entertainment industry, where people often turn instead for moral guidance, so singling out the clergy is misguided or mischievous, but what authority attempts to prove is not that it deserves as much respect as anyone, but that it deserves more.

What matters most is what is true. Authorities exist, if they deserve to exist, as the most capable representatives of truth, but it is in the light of the latter that the former is judged and not the other way around.

Ahmari tells his readers in his introduction that he will not struggle to convert them. Still, he must, and does, touch on the arguments for the reasonableness of religious belief. He cites Aquinas as a paragon of the intellectual curiosity and rigor of the Catholic Church. Even in the 1200s, it was not held that belief in God was a matter of groping faith but that it could be justified by a priori reasoning. Ahmari recommends that interested readers seek out Edward Feser’s “Aquinas” for an explication and defense of Thomism. This is a good recommendation. Professor Feser is a fascinating and challenging writer, and I also recommend his book “The Last Superstition.” Ahmari knows the West is unlikely to return to God in the absence of “a philosophical sea change on the scale of the Enlightenment.” But so much about tradition, as it applies to individuals and communities, is senseless without Him that it is the most important of the questions in the book.

Yet one cannot answer such a question through the sheer force of one’s individual will. One must turn to our heritage for guidance and advice. As separate intellects, reaching for the stars, it is too easy to forget that we are standing on a platform that our forefathers have built for us.

Meanwhile, we can ask ourselves how far our freedom stretches. As Ahmari writes:

“Does blurting out whatever I wish to Internet strangers truly fulfill me, or am I taking a perverse pleasure in conflict? Is that sixteenth hour in the day spent toiling for a corporate boss an act of freedom and mastery, or is it merely depriving my spouse and children of my presence? Am I truly free to watch digital phantasms having sex, or am I perpetuating the exploitation of real people and digging myself deeper into a degraded hole? Am I free to refuse to carry my cross or commit to any sacrificial responsibility—or in so refusing, do I in fact diminish my moral stature, habituating my nature to the narrow, selfish horizon of a Fetyukov?”

As a book reviewer I have no idea what he means about “taking a perverse pleasure in conflict.” None at all. Rien. Keiner. No.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer who has written for The Spectator, Quillette, First Things and the American Conservative, among other publications.

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos” was written by Sohrab Ahmari and published by Convergent Books.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.