One More Lifeless Idol

‘The Unbroken Thread’
Sohrab Ahmari (Brian Zak)

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.”

 

It is communities that generate meaningful traditions, not the other way around.

I am quite sympathetic to Ahmari’s desire for thick community, and I’m not the only one on the political Left who feels that way. Many of us came to our politics precisely because we do sense that we have unchosen obligations to the people around us, and some people may have childhood memories of strong neighborhood or community bonds that made it easy for them to wander around safely, or of large family gatherings that included people who were not blood relatives but might as well have been. People should be able to let their children wander freely around safe neighborhoods; they should be able to form strong relationships with their neighbors and fellow local citizens, go to silly productions at the community theater, and shop for the things they need at stores owned and run by people who live alongside them. And if the community where they live doesn’t provide what they need to be happy, they should be able to find one that does. I am sure that such communities, were people able to live in them, would develop local traditions and institutions that would help cement people’s connection to one another, and I view it as the role of the state to underwrite the basic necessities of life for every person precisely so that we will be free to form the sorts of communities that will nourish us and let us form the loving relationships that sustain human life.

 Because I share this sympathy, I was disappointed to see that Ahmari’s book has very little to do with the kinds of social and economic structures that are necessary to sustain tightly-knit communities, and, instead, dwells on the thoughts and conduct of individuals. This is true even of his chapter—by far the best in the book—on observing the Sabbath. Drawing on the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the philosopher and rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ahmari takes up the question, “Why would God want you to take a day off?” For observant Jews like Rabbi Heschel, the prohibitions of the Sabbath are famously broad, and yet many of them describe it as the culmination of their weeks, when they are freed from the demands of work or lengthy travel and forced to enjoy the company of friends and family or elemental pleasures like walking and reading. But this emphasis already begins to undermine Ahmari’s project, because although many premodern societies had cycles of work and rest built into the calendar, the Jewish observance of the Sabbath is extremely specific, rooted in the religious development of a particular people. “Disconnecting” and taking a day off are beneficial practices, but to observe the Sabbath according to rabbinic Judaism marks a person as a member of a community in ways that are readily visible both to other Jews and to gentiles. It reaffirms the connection of Jews to other Jews both historically and geographically; indeed, the specific observance of the Sabbath was so important to some Jewish families, like that of Nuyorican activist Benjamin Melendez, that they continued to do so in secret even into the 1970s, nearly five hundred years after their families had supposedly converted to Christianity under the threat of expulsion or death.

 This illustrates one of the major errors of Ahamri’s book, one it shares with many other conservative appeals to tradition: it is communities that generate meaningful traditions, not the other way around. Instituting a mandatory national day off from most work—really, reinstating blue laws—might very well be helpful to many people’s well-being, but it will not create the kind of thick communal bonds that Ahmari admires. It was the communities to which they belonged that gave meaning to Heschel’s and Melendez’s observance of the Sabbath, although one was public and the other secret. Outside Jewish communities, lighting candles and saying a blessing before the sun sets on Friday evening seems like a pleasant way to mark the beginning of a weekend; within those communities, it communicates an entry into sacred time, a last fire at the threshold of the day on which no fire will be lit. Ahmari would like the observance of a day of rest to mean something more than just taking a break, and because he is an observant Catholic, I have no doubt that in his family or in his parish it does mean more. The context of those communities allows taking a particular day off from work to convey something extra, something that affirms what it means to be a member of this family, of this parish, of this church. We do not so much make this kind of meaning as allow it to grow over us, and this growth requires both time and the right soil. We can no more impose a national Sabbath than we can grow lilies in the desert.

 Ahmari sometimes seems to grasp such a living view of tradition, but more often he seems to view tradition as a fence or wall around human life—whether this wall is intended to keep us within certain bounds or keep something out is impossible to say. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his chapter that asks, “Should you think for yourself?” He spends much of its pages relaying a potted biography of St. John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Catholicism caused an enormous scandal in the Church of England. One of the points that led to this conversion, and one that Ahmari wants to amplify, was Newman’s becoming convinced that the ongoing development of Christian doctrine—its ability to take in new ideas and new circumstances while remaining distinctively Christian—required an authority capable of pronouncing final judgment when a doctrinal dispute had played out; he found this authority in the Catholic Church. It is salutary, Ahmari argues, for the human conscience to have such an authority, as when parents help form the moral faculties of their children. But this authority, he thinks, functions properly only when it is absolute. “To protect the free conscience, we must ring it with true and tested guardians.... We must treat those guardians as absolute—lest our defensive barrier give way to the battering ram of external powers (tyrants, advertisers, demagogues, etc.), or lest the counterfeit conscience subvert the true one.”

What Ahmari seems to want—a kind of safe haven for the human conscience—is simply not available.

This is really the ultimate function of the nebulous “tradition” to which Ahmari’s entire book appeals: to provide such a ring around human judgment and prevent it from coming to conclusions that he finds unpalatable. Now, I don’t at all think that having moral authorities is a bad thing; I would hardly be a Catholic if I did. I do think everyone needs ways to test and criticize their judgments, and regular recourse to respected authorities whose judgment we trust, even and especially when they disagree with us, is vital for honing our own ability to judge and act. But what Ahmari seems to want—a kind of safe haven for the human conscience, a way to protect it from making foolish or wicked choices—is simply not available. In this respect he is too inattentive to the doctrine of original sin: the human conscience has no unfailing bulwark against evil, because our desires themselves are already corrupt. In desiring to follow the instructions even of an infallible Church, we can continue to neglect our duties to friends and family, to deny the poor their due, and to delight in the sheer exercise of power over our fellow persons. Whether you guard your conscience with the writings of great spiritual masters or with the canon of Marxism-Leninism, you will not rid yourself of wishing evil for yourself and for your fellow people: you will never be free of self-destructive impulses, or of the desire to treat persons as things, or of the temptation to secure your safety by violence against other people rather than take the risks of friendship and love. That kind of freedom requires a much more radical transformation, one that Christians profess is only possible by the grace of God that, in any case, manifests itself not in shutting ourselves off from the world but in a love so all-embracing that it can lead us to die for the sake of people who will curse our names through the centuries. There is not and can never be safety in learning to be fully human.

We should not forget that securing his own sense of physical and moral safety—by violence, his writing seems to suggest—is one of Sohrab Ahmari’s professed goals. His infamous declaration of war against more libertarian and individualist strains of conservatism published at First Things, “Against David French-ism,” was prompted by seeing an advertisement for a public-library program in which drag performers read storybooks to children. If you think that using state violence to ban performers from reading to children while wearing amusing costumes and make-up seems ludicrous, you probably have a healthy sense of proportion and are unlikely to be given a job writing for certain sorts of magazines. As it happens, most people have this sense of proportion, which is why, in The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari couches his politics in the most abstract possible terms. This is most obvious in his chapter on the question “Does God need politics?” in which he addresses whether politics ought to be subordinate to religion. Using Aristotelian terms, he contends that a political community must be ordered toward the common good and that this necessarily means being ordered toward (some kind of) worship of God. Once again, he is silent about which kind of worship, adjudicated by whom—no doubt he imagines that this coy refusal to let slip the seventh veil is artful prudence. Unfortunately both for Ahmari and for readers, he turns out to be a cellophane Salome, and his secrets are on full display. It is obvious to any attentive reader that when Ahmari talks about ordering a state toward God, what he means is subordinating politics to the Catholic Church. And even by this, he does not mean letting the Pope set or veto policy—for all his faults, I have very little doubt that if Pope Francis were actually setting public policy, it would be an upheaval in the global economic order that even socialists can scarcely dream of. No, what he and his allies seem to pine for is a kind of fantasy Catholicism, a dreamlike amalgamation of the Holy Roman and Eastern Roman Empires in which all rulers bow to Rome, the Spanish Inquisition is fondly remembered, and nobody would dare suggest that abducting a secretly baptized Jewish child from his parents might be wrong. This is a dream of unchecked imperial might as a substitute for politics, of bypassing the work of democracy and the unruly world of actual human beings via blunt use of the police and the army.

The term for this that St. Augustine coined is libido dominandi, the lust for ruling. It’s a deeply unpopular fault to admit to in a democratic culture, but this doesn’t mean it has disappeared; we just have more innovative ways of disavowing it. One of our most effective tricks is to convince ourselves that we’re simply holding firm to a principle: it is the principle, we say—the principle of piety, for example, or of party discipline—that everyone should honor. We abstract our desires and make little idols of them, because if we dress them in sufficiently regal and impersonal costumes, they will not look so much like us. Such tutelary spirits keep us comfortable, but idolatry is the first prohibition of the Decalogue for a reason: to fashion images and ideals for veneration is both to domesticate and tame the God who gives us our every breath and to reject the image of God already given to us in other people, to whom we owe all the care and attention that the most dazzling icon would command. Such attention and care for others is, in the end, the only possible ground on which tradition can be founded. Absent this human connection, realized in specific and regular acts of care that bind us to one another, tradition is one more lifeless idol set among the boundary-stones of conscience, a monster facing outward that warns any who might approach with hurt or need against the monstrosity within.

The Unbroken Thread
Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

Sohrab Ahmari
Convergent Books
$27 | 320 pp.

Published in the March 2022 issue: 

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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