For my son’s fourteenth birthday this summer, in addition to giving him a board game we both enjoy, I wanted to give him a book that would help equip him as he begins to come of age: Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. I will have to report back later how well it is received by my son, but as I read through it in advance of gifting it to him, I found that Ahmari’s work will be valuable to anyone seeking to navigate the cultural and political life of America c. 2021.
Ahmari is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in a culturally Muslim but largely secular family and became a successful journalist in the U.S. (currently the op-ed editor at the New York Post) and converted to Catholicism. “I have come to believe the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as antiquated or ‘limiting’ can liberate us,” he writes, “while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison.” The book is written as a kind of antidote for his own son (currently a toddler) against a culture awash in fads, pornography, and selfishness.
Tradition, Ahmari wants to tell his son and the rest of us, is not simply a relic of the past but a guide to the future. As the British writer G.K. Chesterton has put it, tradition “is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record . . . Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
Ahnmari cites St. Maximilian Kolbe, the polish priest executed in a Nazi concentration camp. Kolbe offered up his own life – to die by starvation – in the place of a fellow prisoner. Kolbe’s decision, taken in a matter of minutes, can only be understood – in fact was only possible – given long and deep formation in Catholic piety, moral philosophy, and a concept of freedom that transcends the individual.
“We have abandoned Kolbe’s brand of freedom,” Ahmari writes. “Freedom rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion – in favor of one that glories in the individual will.”
From there, the book moves on to tackle twelve perennial questions of life. Each chapter is titled with a question, starting with “How Do You Justify Your Life?” and “Is God Reasonable?” and ending with “Should You Think for Yourself?”, “What is Freedom For?” and “What’s Good About Death?” (For the chapter on “Is Sex a Private Matter?”, I plan to ask my son to hold off on reading it for now.) The book would be hopelessly ambitious but for Ahmari’s approach. In each chapter, he answers the given question via the life and writing of a single great thinker. For example, in making the case for the compatibility of faith in reason in the chapter on “Is God Reasonable?” he relies on the medieval theologian Thomas Aquianas. In answering the question “Does God Need Politics?” he turns to the fourth-century, North African bishop Augustine.
While names such as Aquinas and Augustine are obvious choices for a Catholic author writing about tradition, one of the strengths of The Unbroken Thread – in the context of American public discourse today – is that it draws on the insights of formidable thinkers outside of the Christian faith and/or people who are not widely known outside of their niche. For example, it’s the writings of the modern-day secular feminist Andrea Dworkin that guide the chapter on “Is Sex a Private Matter?” In addressing “What Do You Owe Your Body?” the book presents the work of the twentieth-century, Jewish scholar Hans Jonas on the philosophy of gnosticism. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca shares equal time with the founder of Confucianism. A chapter based on the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is followed by one focused on the lives of two British anthropologists whose study of African religious rites led them to convert to Christianity.
I suspect that Ahmari’s succinct and rigorous approach will benefit my son. And you.
“The wisdom of tradition cannot possibly be lived out in isolation and so it has implications for our common life. That is to say, our politics.”
For example, in the chapter on “Does God Respect You?” Ahmari turns to the African American theologian Howard Thurman who grew up in the segregated American South and was cared for by a grandmother who had been enslaved as a child. The grandmother would tell the story of a black preacher during the time of slavery who would proclaim, “You are not slaves! You are God’s children!” This message of divinely mandated human dignity – especially among the downtrodden of the world – became central to Thurman’s life and theology. So, yes, God does respect men and women because he has made them in his image.
The conclusion – one at the heart of Christianity, although sometimes obscured – has political implications, beginning with the abolition of slavery. During the Civil Rights movement, Thurman’s teaching was influential among some of the movement’s leaders with Martin Luther King, Jr. carrying around a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. Ahmari extends the implications of Thurman’s theology to present-day politics:
“Where, Thurman would have asked our secularists, does human dignity come from? If men and women don’t share a divine paternity, can they ever truly be brothers and sisters to each other? If there is nothing special about the origin and destiny of the human person, why shouldn’t societies tolerate new forms of domination equally as, if not more, horrible than those that marked Thurman’s century? By the same token, he skewered a brand of religious faith content to offer thoughts and prayers–and nothing more–to those standing ‘with their backs against the wall’: service-industry workers unable to make ends meet on unjust wages; the shut-away and forgotten elderly; disabled lives treated as unworthy of life; the black man struggling to breathe under a sadistic police officer’s knee.”
In this way the book is obliquely political. Ahmari is not writing out policy prescriptions for today’s contentious issues. He is, the book’s subtitle says, presenting the wisdom of tradition, but that wisdom cannot possibly be lived out in isolation and so it has implications for our common life. That is to say, our politics.
One critic of the book suggests that, by extolling traditional virtues, Ahmari is arguing against the quintessentially American ideals of liberty and choice in ways that would put the U.S. on a course to becoming more like Ahmari’s native Iran – “publicly brutal and so privately corrupt.”
I am not sure that critique holds up, though. For one, The Unbroken Thread makes moral claims that have social and cultural implications but stops far short of prescribing certain laws. For example, the chapter on “How Must You Serve Your Parents?” draws this conclusion from the teachings of Confucius: “We mustn’t dare to toss our parents aside in their old age and senescence.” It does not come close to saying the government should abolish rest homes for the elderly and require that adult children have their aging parents live with them.
Secondly, the book is written in a certain context, as indicated by its subtitle: “Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.” As a sympathetic reader, it’s obvious to me that the book is seeking to balance a culture of rampant individualism and supposed self-invention with guidance on how recognizing our inherited limits actually leads to more fulfilling lives for everyone. Ahmari is clear in his introduction that he is grateful for the political system of the country that welcomed him and his family and has no nostalgia for the theocracy of Iran.
It is this ballast against the hyper-individualism of freedom-defined-by-choice that I hope my own son will find in The Unbroken Thread. He has a finite body, and that is good. He is made to work, and also to rest. He is a beloved child of God, and so are all the people he will encounter in his life. He has a bright and curious mind, and so he can learn to recognize proper authority. These are traditions worth passing on.
James Todd lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and children. He has been working in higher education communications for more than twenty years. You can find samples of his work on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter at @JamesToddNC.