With The Unbroken Thread, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari has given us a beautifully written book that makes classical and Christian thought intelligible, relevant, and attractive to contemporary readers. He begins the book with a nightmarish vision of his now-young son returning home as an adult to visit Ahmari and his wife. In the nightmare, his son has been formed by the culture of America’s managerial elite. The ambient cultural mores are not obviously hedonistic or destructive. His son is successful by most contemporary cultural measures. At the same time, his life’s ambitions and the modes of his thought are completely contained by the horizons of philosophic and political liberalism. He is suspicious of any way of thinking that might impinge on his autonomy and finds it difficult to make commitments.
Ahmari suggests that contemporary cultural norms, in breaking down traditional limits on autonomy, have counterintuitively circumscribed our ambitions to endeavors like moneymaking that cannot bring human beings enduring satisfaction. Although most parents would probably shudder at the prospect of their children aiming at little more than satisfying their transitory desires or ensuring their own comfortable self-preservation, dominant cultural attitudes will likely point us and our families toward these unworthy goals. According to Ahmari, this contemporary philosophy is not typically adopted through deep reflection, but rather because, in his words, it “just works.”
While avoiding polemics and didacticism, the book is built around 12 important questions that human beings have asked across numerous time periods and cultures. They are divided in the manner of the two tablets of the decalogue: between those questions pertaining to God and those pertaining to humankind. In each chapter, the timeless question is paired with a biographical sketch of an important thinker. Ahmari’s goal is not so much to provide definitive answers as it is to illuminate the fact that the questions themselves should be just as pressing to twenty-first-century Americans as they were to the greatest minds of the past. The endurance of the questions helps counter the smug attitude that we have nothing to learn from those who have come before us. With each question, Ahmari shows how modern responses (when we allow ourselves to ponder the questions at all) tend to be superficial. The modern responses might also not work quite as well as we might have assumed. The array of thinkers he has assembled demonstrates that real wisdom can be found outside of our own time and cultural milieu. Ahmari blends an accessible narrative style with profound insight, making this book an effective introduction to the classical and Christian tradition for readers who might be intimidated by the original sources.
In recent years, Ahmari has become known for encouraging conservatives to orient our politics toward the common good rather than merely striving for a political life that aims at nothing more than rights protection, proceduralism, and commercial development. A common contemporary objection to Ahmari worries that a politics oriented toward the common good would be necessarily subjective (who gets to decide what the common good requires?) and even tyrannical. While Ahmari is careful in this book to avoid getting too tangled up in contemporary controversies, he nevertheless offers a quiet rejoinder to some of these critiques by showing us the soft side of a politics of the common good. He emphasizes how only a politics of the common good can buttress the humane institutions and methods that are commonly (if mistakenly) associated with modernity.
In one of the book’s central chapters, Ahmari poses the question, “Does God Need Politics?” He addresses this question through the biography and writings of St. Augustine, who teaches that a ruler’s understanding of the final end of human life necessarily bears on political life and that religion and politics are deeply intertwined. The pagan Romans worshiped their gods with unspeakable rites of ferocity, and without the worship of the true God, their politics tended to inculcate the desire for domination. Ahmari argues that philosophic liberalism’s attempt to tame religion by lowering the aim of political life to the protection of private goods and rights does not actually succeed in its goal of reducing coercion. In a world in which public actors protect only these private interests, in which the only god requiring worship is the “unbound self,” private actors turn out to be quite coercive. Ahmari’s examples of privately applied coercion in our time include payday lending, a minor’s addiction to pornography, and the exploitation of workers. A politics that aims only at preserving private interests in a culture that worships the autonomous self will tend to preserve the private domination of the weak by the strong. In this same vein, Ahmari presents the story of Protestant theologian Howard Thurman, a grandson of enslaved persons, to suggest that biblical revelation rather than philosophic liberalism provides the most persuasive ground for the dignity of the human person and the most promising avenue for a civic project of healing longstanding racial divisions.
A chapter on Thomas Aquinas suggests how Aquinas’s thought can point practitioners of common good politics in more democratic and egalitarian directions than one might have imagined. As opposed to certain philosophies that posit a stark contrast between measurable and quantifiable “facts” and hopelessly subjective and irrational “values,” Aquinas shows us that even ordinary citizens can be “rationally persuaded of at least some moral and spiritual truths.” In addition, by recognizing the limits of rational argument—especially about the final supernatural end of human life—Aquinas levels the great and the many. The elite do not have politically relevant special insights into humankind’s purpose and final end to which non-elites have no access.
Moreover, the potential of philosophic reason to carry us further than identifying measurable “facts” opens up noncoercive persuasion as a genuine political possibility. If all arguments about politics and morality are in fact purely subjective assertions of our own idiosyncratic wills over the equally subjective assertions of other people, politics is reduced to domination. If, on the other hand, people can be rationally persuaded of certain moral truths, deliberation is not simply a tool of the strong to dominate the weak but a means of orienting a political community toward the common good.
To some readers, discussion of the political relevance of some of these insights from thinkers in the tradition of Christian revelation might seem politically irresponsible or even downright un-American as they do not celebrate human autonomy as an end in itself. To the contrary, Ahmari devotes an important chapter to the enduring value of filial piety through the biography of Confucius. At several points, he implies a political connection between piety toward one’s parents and the effects of this virtue on the political community. Ahmari says that political rulers develop a sense of gratitude from the unearned love of their parents that they can then turn outward to their political communities. Although he is not as explicit about the inverse duty that citizens have to love their country, warts and all, Ahmari would surely extend the same lessons toward this relationship. Ahmari does not explore the implications of piety for the traditional religious believer’s relationship to the United States. Nevertheless, one possible takeaway is that for the American religious believer, part of our filial duty must be to sustain the memory of those founding fathers who distinguished between liberty and license and who themselves practiced a version of common good politics. We must also show gratitude by pointing toward the virtues of other great Americans, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., who have helped shape our civic education by insisting that assertions of true freedom cannot be invoked against the natural law.
Although the author’s Catholic faith is clear throughout the book, only four of the book’s twelve chapters are devoted to Catholic thinkers. Ahmari has written a book to enlighten and persuade believers of all the great faith traditions as well as unbelievers. Ahmari’s position is that “in our current situation, thoughtful followers of different traditions can find more in common with each other than any of them might with secular-liberal-technocratic modernity.” Moreover, the coherence of faith and reason opens up the possibility of common ground between religions since God is “not beyond the grasp of human rationality.” The chapters dealing with politics therefore point not to a narrow Catholic political project but to a great ecumenical one that upholds human dignity, promotes genuine political deliberation, and honors God in the public square. One potential starting point might be reversing the American political right’s allergy to Sunday closing laws in order to ensure that American families in every social class have leisure for contemplation, divine worship, and spending time together.
The Unbroken Thread shows us that our human capacities and loves are not and cannot be strictly contained within the horizons of philosophic liberalism. Moreover, the book illustrates how liberalism stripped of traditional sources of wisdom cannot even sustain some of liberalism’s alleged achievements, such as toleration, dialogue, and non-coercion. Instead, we see how limits and wisdom that can be found in other times and cultures can point us toward the purpose of true freedom: human happiness and, ultimately, sanctity.