Critics often forget that the theorists at the core of American liberty balance liberty and tradition rather than extol pure reason.
Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos is the most recent entry into a genre that seeks to resolve contemporary problems by unearthing eternal truths from the Western canon. Notable prior efforts include David Brooks’ The Road to Character and William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. I am not sure if this genre has a name, but I’ll give it one: “McGuffey.” I use this title because the genre is something of a reinvention of McGuffey Readers but for adults rather than 19th century American Protestant schoolchildren.
In the McGuffey genre, the author arranges a cast of canonical figures as spokespeople for certain noble ideas, using them to take the reader on a tour of the tradition. McGuffeys vary a bit in content and composition. Where Bennett offers readers short interpretive prefaces in a collection of primary sources, Brooks provides his readers an overview of the sources, with short quotations. Ahmari adopts Brooks’ style.
At its best, the McGuffey “spokesman” approach provides an anchor for authors and readers. To discuss a noble idea in the abstract can become rather dry. To demonstrate how a notable historical figure lived out an idea, however, makes for engaging reading. Yet these casts of canonical figures often do not make sense together. They can have conflicting worldviews, concepts of virtue, or notions of the good regime. For example, in Brooks’ McGuffey, he introduces two figures to discuss ideas of love, but these two figures are St. Augustine and George Elliot, who held almost antithetical worldviews. If there is no order within the McGuffey’s proposed tradition, as with Brooks’, then how can one believe it can bring order to “an age of chaos”?
Does Ahmari fare better than prior entries into the genre? Yes and no.
Broadening the Canon
The Unbroken Thread features some of the “greatest hits” one finds in other McGuffeys. Figures like Seneca, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. John Henry Newman are perfectly suited to a standard McGuffey. Some curveballs include Hans Jonas on Gnosticism and technology and Rabbi Abraham Heschel on the Sabbath.
The chapter on Jonas is bracing and dramatic, as Ahmari successfully links Jonas’s scholarship on Gnosticism to the working out of Gnostic ideas in his erstwhile mentor, Martin Heidegger, and in the Nazi regime Jonas volunteered to fight. Ahmari draws out the surprising continuity of those ideas from the Third Reich to the assumptions made by transhumanists quite thoroughly.
The chapter on Heschel is deeply ironic. Ahmari draws from Heschel’s book The Sabbath, a defense of the Jewish Sabbath, to defend the Christian Sabbath, as well as laws enforcing business closures on Sundays. Ahmari chalks up the decline of Sabbath laws to corporate interests wanting 24/7 spending, but this is only part of the story. More important historically has been the disagreement over which day is the Sabbath—Saturdays for Jews and Sundays for Christians—and whether Christian majorities could impose the Sunday Sabbath on Jews. The local politics of this issue dates back to the immigration of large populations of Jews to America. Sunday closure laws impose greater burdens on observant Jews than Christians. When observing the Jewish Sabbath, they incur opportunity costs by staying closed. On Sundays, they lose a day’s income out of observance of a Sabbath they do not recognize.
As a result, during the late 1890s, Jewish immigrants tended to violate the Sunday closures to earn extra money, usually from fellow Jews who did not observe the Sunday Sabbath either. The result was predictable. In the Lower East Side of New York City, for example, there was little enforcement of the Sabbath laws until Jews began to arrive in large numbers. After their arrival, enforcement resumed, with some police using it as an opportunity to solicit bribes from Jewish ragpickers and cigar sellers. Meanwhile, Sabbath defenders demanded, as Rev. Harry L. Bowlby did in 1928, “The Jew must respect the American Sunday” because “This is a Christian Country.” The issue quickly became a matter for the courts. To avoid invoking this kind of discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled in Soon Hing v. Crowley (1885) and Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market (1961) that local governments could close or not close on Sunday depending on how public officials sought to use their police powers, thereby avoiding the religious issue altogether. In 1958, New York State tried passing a “fair sabbath” bill to protect Jews, but Catholic and Protestant legislators shot it down. Eventually, during the 1960s, fair sabbath laws became a consensus compromise in most states, and only after these issues were resolved did states begin slowly repealing the laws altogether in response to public pressure and business interests. In short, for a long time the issue was not over the value of the Sabbath but over whose Sabbath was more valuable. If Ahmari wishes to bring back the Sunday closure laws, then, he might find himself opposed by Heschel’s co-religionists.
So far, these spokespeople fall within a rather conventional assortment of Jewish, Christian, and pagan philosophical sources within the traditional Western canon. Ahmari moves outside of the West with a chapter on Confucius and familial devotion. He also looks outside of the canon to examine the subject of sex by way of the dissident feminist Andrea Dworkin—treating her as an accidental traditionalist. Husband and wife Victor and Edith Turner serve as spokespeople for the significance of ritual. These British sociologists discovered parallels between Roman Catholicism and a central African pagan religion of the Ndembu. After their Ndembu subjects denied them entry into this African faith, they crossed the Tiber.
The chapter on Confucius is excellent—the best in the book. As Ahmari presents it, the Confucian emphasis on family formation and proper protocol is a uniquely Chinese expression of a universal human need. Ahmari explains Confucius’s wisdom about how families fall far short of their ideal roles. Confucius believed proper etiquette could ensure—at least in our personal capacity—that we might know how to fulfill our duty, even in the face of grave moral failures in the family. The “essential and impenetrable mystery of the parent-child bond” imposes duties regardless of a parent’s failure to serve them, and the only way to ensure that others in the future do their duty is to set the example in contrast to those who do not.
The Dworkin and Turner chapters are less successful. Ahmari attempts to align the Augustinian opposition to lust with Dworkin’s campaign against patriarchal sexual exploitation. In his mind, both would agree on a public policy that would ban pornography, prostitution, and such. Ahmari recognizes Dworkin’s limitations. She cannot quite reach the same conclusions as Augustine because she lacked a spiritual understanding of the human person. The early part of the chapter provides the reason why: Dworkin survived years of sexual violence and exploitation but could not find spiritual relief in the Christian faith.
The trouble is that shared opposition to sexual license does not necessitate compatible worldviews. Indeed, Ahmari treats Dworkin and Augustine as similar, when in fact, their views remain incommensurable. Augustine’s criticism of sexual immorality can only be understood through the lens of the Fall. Our sin distorts our relationship with all of reality, drawing the person away from God and toward a disordered relationship with lesser goods. The existence of this sin is unavoidable, and states had to legislate according to what was best in a fallen world. Hence, Augustine actually supported limited toleration of prostitutes, “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts.” By contrast, Dworkin’s understanding of sex flows from her anthropology rooted in the Marxist relationship between capital and labor, in which men are like capitalists abusing the laboring—both productively and reproductively speaking—bodies of women for their own gain. She was much more emphatic on ending all forms of female exploitation.
To make matters worse for Ahmari’s use of Dworkin, the concept of sin is for her one of the chief ideological instruments of patriarchy to preserve its control over women. In her 1983 Right Wing Women, Dworkin characterized the white evangelical Protestant women she met at a Houston event as unwitting tools of patriarchal oppression: “[t]he tragedy is that women so committed to survival cannot recognize they are committing suicide. The danger is that self-sacrificing women are perfect foot soldiers who obey orders, no matter how criminal those orders are.” In other words, the Christianity of these women was a false consciousness imposed by the patriarchy. Ahmari seems so attracted to the idea of poaching Dworkin for the Right that he ignores Dworkin’s real commitments. The irony would not have been lost on her.
Ahmari’s chapter on the Turners presents their story in a manner that subtly contradicts his own interpretation of them. Like the Turners, he is fascinated by the idea that an Ndembu ritual might bear a resemblance to the Catholic Mass. So concerned is he to illustrate the inevitability and centrality of ritual in human life that he does not look too critically at the behavior of the Turners themselves. At first, the couple wanted to convert to the Ndembu religion but could not because outsiders were forbidden. That the Turners only then opted for Catholicism should have given him pause.
Based only on the events depicted in this chapter, the Turners come off as social scientists surrendering proper research methods in favor of pursuing a patronizing, bourgeois adventure. They act like British tourists trying to “go native” but failing. Upon their return from the Ndembu tribes, admits Edith, “with the drums still echoing in our heads and making us long for Africa, both of us suddenly joined the Catholic Church, a religion filled with ritual.” Sohrab has her husband add that in a working class church in which an Irish priest celebrated Mass, there was “‘in the texture’ of the priest’s ‘performance something of the same deep contact with the human condition tinged with the transcendence that I had experienced in Central Africa.’” Catholicism is something of a silver medal for them. In their view, if the most primitive peoples in Africa will not take them, then perhaps the faith of the of most primitive people in the UK, the Irish, will.
Edith wanted the ritual more than anything, and Victor finds value in Catholicism because it most resembled Ndembu paganism. That they seemed to have developed a genuine Catholic faith is something of a felix culpa, although, as Ahmari describes, Edith later fused her faith with shamanism that turned her funeral into a syncretic affair. Indeed, Ahmari’s description of her funeral bears a resemblance to 2019 Pachamama fracas at the Vatican. I see what Ahmari wants to do here, but he could have found a better example than these two.
Pietas, not Tradition
Despite mixed results, Ahmari’s move out from the standard Western canon is laudable but lacks coherence. Any McGuffey needs a single tradition, or very strong animating theme, to unite these spokespeople in a way that makes sense. Ahmari claims that he wants to demonstrate how a coherent tradition, though now neglected, can serve as a guide, but he presents an incoherent tradition. Dworkin has no place next to Aquinas. Confucius may share some interesting conceptual overlaps with Jonas or the Stoics, but he established his own grand tradition, one quite separate from the Western canon.
Yet, beneath the surface, the spokespeople have a coherence, although not perhaps the one Ahmari intended. Despite the title and his occasional reference to tradition, Ahmari emphasizes the relationships of parents to children, children to parents, citizens to fatherlands, and the faithful to their faith. This is more personal than intellectual: Ahmari opens the book by reviewing his disillusionment with Iran, his embrace of America, and his subsequent despair at the purported liberalism of his adopted country, which occurred soon after his conversion to Catholicism. His most fundamental concerns are not really focused on tradition—they are about pietas.
In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas defines pietas as the debt that individual men and women owe to others. These debts are, in ascending order of importance, to family, country, and God. In his own words, “…man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.” One thing families and countries do is pass on traditions, from one generation of relatives and citizens to the next. Ahmari, however, treats tradition and truth as the same, saying, “In the realm of tradition, truth is something that precedes individual human beings, something we inherit and must hand down, in turn. We can discover truth and reason about it, to be sure, but we can’t change it.”
This is wrong. Tradition is ancestral, and the truth is eternal. One must judge tradition by the truth. At best, a tradition can offer an individual expression of the eternal law or some deep mystery of the faith. In the medieval legal context, Aquinas calls this “custom” saying of it “something can be brought into being which obtains the force of law when the inward movement of the will and the thoughts of reason are effectively expressed by repeated outward actions; for when something is done again and again, it seems to proceed from the deliberate judgment of reason.” Traditions can also be incomplete or simply wrong. For example, some in the Church once recommended that secular government was an instrument for the Church to wield to settle matters of true religion, but the development of doctrine has illustrated that such coercion is not only ineffective but immoral. Hence, the Church today teaches the development of, in the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a “healthy secularism.”
The traditionalist, though, is averse to such change even when it is good. Ahmari says, “In the realm of progress, however, truth is what individuals or groups can articulate or build on their own, through scientific inquiry and their acts in history. Truth becomes an ongoing project, a malleable thing.” In response to the same claim ninety years ago, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen remarked a traditionalist “believes that change in the present order is revolution,” but in truth “the Catholic knows that if you leave things alone you will not leave them as they are.”
A true act of pietas sometimes requires the refusal to pass on traditions not because of an embrace of progressive liberalism or out of ingratitude to our fathers but out of our recognition that those traditions are false. For example, American Catholic seminaries no longer prohibit African Americans. This tradition was a naked violation of the moral truth that God applies no racial test when calling men to the priesthood. It is pietas to end these traditions, especially for our children, who we hope will not make the same mistakes their parents did.
What Ahmari appears to want is something he can cling to. But his experience with the proper objects of pietas has proved too uncertain; hence, he looks for something else. In the Introduction, he identifies himself as a member of the “global creative class” yet also one who, in the terms of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik “lives through a particularly difficult and agonizing crisis” with modernity. In keeping with his class, Ahmari resolves the tension by inventing his own personal understanding of tradition and putting it on the global market. What could be more modern?
Yet, the decision makes some sense. The failures of Ahmari’s fatherland and adopted home weigh heavily on him. Ahmari’s chapters all convey a strong personal element; he situates himself in each chapter in relation to pietas. Here are some examples:
Ahmari as errant son:
Once I immigrated to the United States, I reveled in the chance to remake myself anew each day. My moral opinions were as interchangeable as my clothing styles and musical tastes. I could pick up and drop this ideology or that. I could be a high-school ‘goth,’ a college socialist, a law-school neoconservative. I could dabble in drugs and build an identity around my dabbling. I could get a girlfriend, cheat on her, dump her willy-nilly, and build a pseudo-identity around that, too.
Ahmari’s disappointment with his fatherland:
Then there were the indignities that bore the name of God. The Islamist regime that sailed to power on the waves of a popular uprising in 1970 empowered a new vanguard. Its members formed a distinct class of professional ideologues, security apparatchiks, and vice inspectors, and the rest of us were made to understand that the country now belonged to them, to these fanatical partisans of Allah and the supreme leader.
Ahmari’s disappointment in his adopted fatherland:
American liberty—the liberty to work as much as you want (the more the better), to socialize when, where, and how you want, to shop till you drop—couldn’t be put on pause for an ancient ritual.
Ahmari’s posture as a prophet to his adopted fatherland:
In the decades since Alexander [sic] Solzhenitsyn issued his jeremiad (in the true prophetic sense) at Harvard, the conditions he diagnosed have only worsened. We have demolished many barriers in the name of freedom, and the demolition job has paradoxically left us less free.
These relationships converge. Iran was filled with hypocrisy and repressive inspectors, and America is obsessed with consumption and vice. Ahmari reflects on his personal failings as a young man and sees them bound up in the failure of the two fatherlands to adopt a rightly ordered worldview.
The issue of fatherland raises that of Ahmari’s father and filial piety: Ahmari shows us who his father Parvis was in his previous book, From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. There, he proves his pietas toward Parvis. Ahmari tries to speak well of him despite his father’s benders, nights away from home, divorce of Sohrab’s mother, and genuine but often faulty efforts to raise him. Parvis thought his “critics were boobs and imbeciles, trapped by backward mentalities that he . . . had long ago transcended” and considered himself “Bighayrat, Persian for ‘without honor.’” Even so, Ahmari says of him, “In his own crapulous way, my father planted in my mind the seeds of a dangerous idea—namely, that I could, and maybe should, question the things held sacred or untouchable by others. Even honor was fair game.”
One reason why Ahmari’s chapter on Confucius is so good is that this subtext of pietas nearly becomes the text. In his summary of Confucian teaching on loving one’s parents, Ahmari says, “We wouldn’t exist without them, and this natural mystery imposes certain obligations on us—even if our mothers and fathers fail to meet their obligations as parents.” The passage reads almost like he is reminding himself of this, as must so many sons and daughters from difficult circumstances. Even if he owes his father pietas, he cannot rely on his father, so taking Parvis’s place is Ahmari’s personal version of tradition handed down from authors for his McGuffey.
Ahmari, the American Success Story
One cannot exist without parents, but Aquinas argues that the same is true of one’s country. Yet the anger Ahmari spares his father he does not spare his adopted fatherland. Ahmari is angry with America and casts himself into the prophetic role of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn upbraiding the country for its sins. It is true that Americans could use a great deal of prophetic witness these days, but it is worth remembering the words of another prophet, Jeremiah:
And seek the peace of the city, to which I have caused you to be carried away captives; and pray to the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall be your peace. For thus saith the Lord of hosts the God of Israel: Let not your prophets that are in the midst of you, and your diviners deceive you: and give no heed to your dreams which you dream: For they prophesy falsely to you in my name: and I have not sent them, saith the Lord.
And why not seek the peace of America? Americans have been good to Ahmari, taking him in and allowing him to thrive before thrusting him to the pinnacle of influence in the conservative world. It is simply true that Ahmari of today would not exist without America, and this natural mystery imposes certain obligations on him—even if America fails to meet its obligations as a country.
The Unbroken Thread is Ahmari’s effort to build for himself a tradition that will never fail him. However, he does this not only for himself but for his son, to whom he writes at the end of the book. Perhaps Ahmari believes he must write this personal tradition, his McGuffey, because Parvis, Iran, and America have not given him the things he wants to pass on. I finished the closing letter to his son with tears in my eyes. But the desire to break from the past and start anew with a confident, clear-eyed vision of what is right and wrong—what could be more American? I hope Ahmari someday sees that—and gives thanks for the blessings of such liberty.