There’s a staple of conservative polemics, from criticism of the French Revolution to the complaints of the National Review, that blames nearly all the ills of modern life on unrestrained individualism—a predicament that can be addressed only by deliberately immersing ourselves in tradition and allowing ourselves to be shaped by the consensus of the past. It was not surprising, then, to find this well-worn thesis in Sohrab Ahmari’s latest book, The Unbroken Thread. A contributing editor to the American Conservative, Ahmari can be regularly found in the pages of various right-wing publications espousing strongly anti-liberal and anti-democratic views. In recent years, he’s undergone a dizzying series of ideological transformations, most recently, and infamously, offering views that often overlap with “Catholic integralism,” the belief that nation-states should be explicitly subject in both political and spiritual matters to the Roman Catholic Church.
Ahmari wrote The Unbroken Thread for his son Max: the book’s chapters cover a series of twelve “questions” that Max and other children will have to grapple with as they grow up, with a letter to Max serving as the book’s epilogue. These questions are, according to Ahmari, some of the fundamental questions to which “liberal modernity” provides inadequate or destructive answers, and for which “tradition” proves to be a more reliable guide. Each chapter deals with a single question and focuses on a single thinker, sometimes in dialogue with an opponent, who can help a young person come to grips with the world and its hazards. All this seems relatively straightforward, but this is the structure of a self-help book, not a guide to the intellectual and moral resources of the past. Indeed, to call this a “traditional” book at all is a misnomer: it is a thoroughly modern book addressing modern problems in a modern style. Nor is it “traditional” in the sense of drawing on the ways of living and thinking from a specific tradition in which the author is especially learned or conversant: the guiding thinkers of each chapter range from Master Kong of the Confucian tradition to St. Augustine of Hippo of the early Christian tradition all the way into the twentieth century with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Andrea Dworkin. Such a disparate cast of sages speaks well of Ahmari’s reading habits, but it can hardly be called any kind of unified tradition. Instead, what these authorities share most in common is not an intellectual lineage but a certain amount of cultural cachet: they signal intellectual seriousness to a middle-class audience insecure enough both to buy a fancified self-help book and to want its true genre concealed beneath a list of familiar names from the spines of the Harvard Classics or the Great Books of the Western World.
This fixation on an inchoate and underdeveloped conception of “tradition” is far from unique to Ahmari: most appeals to tradition ground themselves in a false or facile picture of what “tradition” entails. This is partly a function of viewpoint, for deep immersion in a particular tradition ultimately erases the distinction between “tradition” and “living”—one loses the outsider’s vantage point, succumbing to the same difficulties as the fish who is asked what it means to live in water. The longing for “traditional” ways of living is present only when we lack them, or lack the things that we believe they enabled. “Our conception of freedom,” writes Ahmari, “can’t make good sense of a vast range of ties that bound traditional peoples: folkways and folk wisdom, family loyalty, unchosen religious obligations such as baptism and circumcision, rule-bound forms of worship, and above all, submission to moral and spiritual authorities.”