The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari ( Hodder & Stoughton, €20.95/£17.95)
I used to tell my students at the institution where I then taught that the purpose of their education was to equip them to engage in conversations. My role was to introduce them to the conversation on Public Administration.
My mission, I declared, was to elevate conversations in Irish pubs. Out would go pointless tittle-tattle, the banalities of weather, the inanities of sport, the dangers of gossip, in would come important, exciting, challenging, questions on the role of the civil service in our design for democracy, the constraints hindering our civil servants and how these might be overcome.
The underlying point was serious, inspired by the English political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who wrote of the “Conversation of Mankind”. He discussed how we came to understand and orientate ourselves in the world through conversations.
It was in conversation that we found what the discoveries of the scientists, the conclusions of philosophers, the illuminations of poets and artists meant for us, how they positioned us, as we sought to make a world in common. A culture can be judged for the resources it provides for the conversations that draw us, and it, onwards.
On the evidence of the media, these resources are slim and shouting matches far more common than conversation. Maybe it was always so, and I am in the grip of an unwarranted nostalgia, when I remember a time when matters were better.
Remember when Fergal O’Connor OP was a regular guest on the Late, Late Show? Remember Andy O’Mahony’s book programs and interviews? Remember when the book reviews in The Irish Times were worth a glance? Remember when the commentariat were not only opinionated, but also educated? Remember when pluralism was valued, and demanded, before calls for diversity came, paradoxically, with demands that we must all think alike? Remember when arguments were not short-circuited by adjectives masquerading as analysis? I do.
This book reminds us of important questions with which we should be engaged and that the resources to address them are abundant. The author Sohrab Ahmari is an author and commentator; well-known in the United States where he arrived, aged 13, in 1998 when his family escaped the oppressions of Iran.
While he relished the freedoms of a liberal society, he discovered the limitations of the ideology that underpinned it. He converted from atheism to Catholicism in 2016 and has since made a name for himself as a combative interlocutor in the cultural wars. He is editor of the recently established radical online journal Compact.
The book ranges widely. In each of its 12 chapters we are introduced to a thinker, the question they explored, and the solutions they propose. So, for example, we are introduced to CS Lewis, who questioned the limitations of science as we seek to justify our lives.
We learn of Thomas Aquinas, the supreme reasoner who demonstrated that faith and reason worked together, each enhancing the task of the other, in their shared search for truth.
We find how Augustine answers the question ‘does God need politics?’ in the interplay between the City of God and the City of Man.
St John Henry Newman is summoned to help us understand what it is to be free with his exploration of the nature of conscience. Not all the thinkers are philosophers or theologians. The anthropologists Victor Turner and his wife Edith teach us that without symbols and shared rituals, ‘spirituality’ is a thin deceiving gruel, while the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin provides a powerful indictment of modern takes on sexuality.
Not all the thinkers are Christian; the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas’ life-time study of Gnosticism instructs us in the dangers of ignoring our nature as embodied spirits while the pagan stoic Seneca leads a discussion on death.
The topics cover a wide range. All the thinkers presented have made substantial contributions. Bringing them together in 12 shortish chapters faces two dangers: either the presentations are trite or they are compressed into the dry abstractions of an encyclopaedia article. Ahmari escapes both traps. Thanks to his considerable skill, the book has the qualities of a good conversation.
Ahmari engages the readers’ interest, extending their horizons. On finishing each chapter, I wished the conversation to continue, to delve deeper into the question, to know more of the thinker.
There is, I suppose, no hope that the media’s slide deeper into tabloidisation can be stopped. I expect that readers of this book will be stimulated by its reminders of the resources that our tradition provides for examination of the questions posed by the human condition.
Could I hope that now pubs and cafes have reopened, with the help of this book……?