In our present age of chaos, Sohrab Ahmari argues that tradition is man’s only hope for a fulfilling life, writes Jason Osborne
Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, opens with two epigraphs which, as might be expected of an epigraph, perfectly set the tone of the book. “Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel,” writes G.K. Chesterton, while Charles Dupont-White says, “Continuity is a human right”.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, author, columnist and op-ed editor of the New York Post, Mr Ahmari explained the thinking behind the Chesterton quote, and behind the book more broadly.
“I chose that quote for a reason. Most Chesterton quotes are witticisms, it’s quite sagacious. To me, what the quote gets at and the reason it’s the epigraph of the book is because it encapsulates the whole theme of the book. It’s the idea that to be fully human, to be free, to be happy, means to embrace various limits and to try to live according to your nature,” Mr Ahmari says.
“And if human nature is part of an orderly whole like everything else in nature, it’s bounded by norms. The quest to liberate us from those limits, both the ones imposed by nature and tradition broadly understood, have paradoxically left us less free.”
The good life
If the book sounds lofty, concerned with age-old questions of the good life, meaning and purpose, it is a deeply personal one too. Mr Ahmari wrote the book for his son, who was two as the writing process began and four by the time it concluded and the book went to print. It is not the usual flippant dedication authors ascribe to their books – rather, the book is a heartfelt response to the fears all fathers feel in their heart for their sons as they move forward into an ever-changing world.
“It’s a book I wrote for my son, Maximilian, he’s now four years old – he was two when I started writing the book. Basicallying impetus for writting this book was my anxieties about the kind of man that our civilisation would chisel out of my Max,” Mr Ahmari says.
“He’s named after St Maximilian Kolbe, the great Franciscan friar, who was canonised for laying down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz as you know, and to me, St Maximilian’s sacrifice represents a kind of icon of true Christian freedom, in the sense that in the situation in which his choices are very narrow, at Auschwitz of all places, by doing what looks like an apparent surrender or retreat, he actually proved his freedom over all of the Nazis,” he says.
“I don’t want my son to ever be in that kind of situation where he has to make that kind of a decision, but I want that kind of freedom to be legible to my son. My fear is that our age makes that kind of freedom illegible because it says freedom just means being able to choose from the widest range of options. To be able to define who you are autonomously, on your own.”
Basically, I want to offer the more classical, Christian, pre-modern account of freedom”
All too familiar with the premium placed on “choice” here in Ireland, the book attempts to provide an antidote to this modern viewpoint by contrasting it with a panorama of traditional wisdom, which emphasises responsibility, continuity and order over a chaotic, overwhelming tide of superficial choices.
“How do I poke holes in that worldview?” Mr Ahmari asks, continuing, “I want to offer the more classical, Christian, pre-modern account of freedom, to propose it to my son and hopefully the reader. The way I do that is I pose 12 questions, 12 questions that our contemporary ideology assumes are either no longer relevant or have been cast aside or have been made superfluous by the findings of science and technology or whatever, when in fact the questions are absolutely pertinent to what it means to live a good life.”
The things of God
The book is split into two equal parts, the first concerned with “The things of God” and the second dealing with “The things of humankind”. The twelve chapters seek to answer the twelve questions Mr Ahmari poses, questions such as “How do you justify your life?”, “Is God reasonable?”, “Why would God want you to take a day off?” and “How must you serve your parents?”, “What is freedom for?” and “Is sex a private matter?”
These questions are answered primarily with recourse to the great Judeo- Christian tradition the western world has to offer, but eastern wisdom is drawn upon too in one chapter – Chinese philosopher Confucius on the topic of filiality – as well as more modern thought.
The ideology of choice was used to sell the demolition of sabbath, and sabbath does look like a restriction”
“I posed those questions and I explore each through the life of one great thinker, some of them predictably Catholic for a Catholic writer, so John Henry Newman, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, but others will surprise readers. There’s the feminist Andrea Dworkin in there. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” Mr Ahmari says, continuing “in each of the questions of the book, in each of the chapters, we see the working out of the same Chestertonian paradox, namely that what looks like a limitation, what looks like a restriction imposed by tradition actually ends up serving as a source of liberation, of freedom. And paradoxically, the loss of those limits makes us less free, less than fully human.”
Again, Ireland has had a crash-course in this most painful lesson, and the book may find fertile soil here as a result. The right to life of the most vulnerable was stripped away in the name of choice, a decision which resulted in a dehumanised and dehumanising Ireland.
However, Mr Ahmari goes with a less-obvious example to explain what he means by the corroding effect of limitless choice.
“I’ll just end with a very obvious example, which is the Heschel chapter, it’s about the Sabbath. As you know in Ireland, but certainly in the United States even, with its Protestant tradition, we had what’s called Sabbatarianism (the idea that the law should uphold the sabbath), and the American sabbath at least was pretty strong until well into the 20th Century when essentially chamber of commerce, business types were like, ‘Well, we should have choice’.
“You should be able to work if you want, you should be able to socialise, you should be able to shop. The ideology of choice was used to sell the demolition of sabbath, and sabbath does look like a restriction. Does it mean I have to spend half a day not doing whatever I wanted to do? But in practice, what that’s worked out to is not the freedom of the worker, it’s not the freedom of the family, it’s the freedom of Jeff Bezos and Amazon and the warehouse manager at Amazon and not the freedom, true freedom of the individual, the family, the worker, who’s now more harried, his schedule is completely unpredictable, it’s very difficult to spend time with children. Then we wonder why we have low rates of family formation and such high rates of divorce and so on.”
His assessment will ring true for many people, the encroachment of work upon personal and family time reaching a fever pitch during the pandemic. Many complained about the lack of division between work and home as the kitchen or bedroom became the office. Whereas once the home was a safe haven from the stresses and duress of work, people now complained about the extent of out-of-hours contact via email and text with colleagues and bosses.
The reason that that’s a nightmare to me is precisely because I worry that he won’t actually exercise his freedom in the true sense”
While the trials and tribulations of modern life and its obsessive focuses on work and money may seem like a nuisance to most, they seem positively nightmarish to Mr Ahmari as he considers the world his son is walking into.
“I open the book with this contrast between the two Maximilians, Maximilian one is obviously St Maximilian Kolbe, Maximilian two is my Max, and I lay out what I call a, kind of, nightmare scenario and I think a lot of people reading it at first might be like, ‘Wait, why is this a nightmare?’ Because I describe my Max, I imagine him growing up and, you know, given the way our society is, chances are he’ll inherit his parents’ elite status,” Mr Ahmari explains.
“So in my vision, I imagine him – he’s attended some elite university, he’s come home to stay with his parents for a few weeks before he strikes out on his own as a hedge fund associate, or working for a publisher, or working for an ad agency, whatever the meritocratic colony might be. So externally looking at him, you’re like, ‘Wow, this Max has done well. There’s nothing to be ashamed of’ – ‘He’s a winner’, but as soon as he opens his mouth to speak, I say, all he talks about is money.
“Later on I fast forward a little bit and he’s 47 years old [the age at which St Maximilian Kolbe offered his life for another in Auschwitz] but already able to retire because he’s done well in finance or whatever, but he’s been living with a girlfriend for 10 years with no plans to marry, much less have children.
“The reason that that’s a nightmare to me is precisely because I worry that he won’t actually exercise his freedom in the true sense. So, having kept his options open as our society constantly tells people to do, to use Aristotelian terms, he’s never reduced his potency to act. He’s never committed to something greater than himself. In a way, he’s at the vegetative state, he’s in this life of purposeless decadence,” Mr Ahmari says.
This is bad enough, he says, setting aside all of the other “much grimmer possibilities” of “gender confusion, opioid addiction – which especially strikes working class people in the United States”.
“You’re striving for all this, what’s the purpose of your money, what’s the purpose of your success? Traditionally, again, tradition doesn’t oppose the fact that there are elites, but it says you’re an elite because you have to serve and our meritocrats – what I worry about for my Max – is that they don’t serve. They think because they scored well on X,Y,Z, college entrance exams and they got into elite schools, that’s it. They’ve made themselves, they get to define themselves. They don’t owe anyone anything,” he says.
Mr Ahmari has only really come to appreciate what tradition, or in this case, Tradition, lends to a life through his entry into the Catholic Faith from atheism, which is the subject of his 2019 book From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. Asked what effect Catholicism and the great heritage it offers has had on his life so far, Mr Ahmari answers “Grace and order”.
Catholics are obliged to be hopeful, understanding hope as one of the three great theological virtues to be cultivated in this life, but what about optimism?”
“What I mean by that is, when I was in my 20s… I was secular, in many ways going from strength to strength career-wise… I was married but I hadn’t found the Faith yet to put it simply. You’re constantly searching inside yourself solipsistically, ‘Who am I? What am I supposed to do? What’s permitted and what’s not?’ And that’s so exhausting. Set aside anything else, it’s so exhausting and anxiety producing. In the Church’s moral teaching – and its larger account of what it means to be fully human and ultimately the opportunity of supernatural fulfilment, even divinisation, where we’re called to be alter Christus, another Christ – you have a sense of where you’re headed in life without having to discover it yourself,” he says.
Tradition was once very simply defined for him as “ordered continuity” by the priest who received him into the Church, Mr Ahmari says. “That’s this sense that there’s a path stretching behind you and stretching ahead of you and if you hold onto the firm guidelines of this path, you’re safe in life.”
“And actually, it makes you take better risks and to lunge forward into the future, I think, with a great hope…So yeah, I know where I’m ultimately headed, I know what my natural ends are as a human being and I know where my supernatural ends are, so I’m going to leap forward. Instead of taking stupid risks or not taking any risks at all, you’re just sort of, floating on the flotsam and jetsam of youth culture. I have a sense that this is the direction. I think that’s very relaxing, in a way.”
Catholics are obliged to be hopeful, understanding hope as one of the three great theological virtues to be cultivated in this life, but what about optimism? Is there any short-term solace to be taken in this oft-confused world? Mr Ahmari believes so, taking comfort in two things in particular: the broken state of the world which forces people to cast their eyes heavenwards for help, and young Christians.
“I do have short-term optimism and it lies in two things. One is things are getting so bad again that that exhortation to people to look around you resonates more and more. I sense it in the talks I give, or in my online presence. People who two years ago were like, ‘Sohrab, come on, it’s not that bad’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it is really bad, in every way’. And so, I think that can be useful because if you have a reckoning with reality, then you can begin to say, ‘Ok, what do we do?’ Whereas if you imagine that things are ok, you can lull yourself into complacency, so that’s one.
“Then the other source of optimism are young Christians…in their 20s, young Christians who are very committed to the Faith and they’re committed to the Faith not just as private, their own individual salvation, which is all to the good, but to the social vision of Catholicism.”
A few good people is all it ever takes to change the culture, he notes, and he’s hoping that his book helps those few people to find the golden thread woven throughout the great traditions of the world, the Catholic Tradition first and foremost among them.