Many a book has touted the importance of tradition in the pursuit of the good life. To my mind, the measure of such a work’s success is the likelihood that it will persuade someone who comes in unconvinced.
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, by the New York Post firebrand and Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari, initially offers high hopes on this front. Ahmari is an excellent writer, and his first few chapters are able examples of the genre. To support the notion that there’s more to knowledge than scientific fact or that a belief in God is logical, he employs the sorts of arguments and examples you might expect to find in, say, Bishop Robert Barron’s well-regarded Catholicism documentary series. But the project is ultimately hampered by bizarre storytelling choices and sneaking signs that the author hasn’t been entirely honest about his agenda.
Ahmari opens his chapter on filial obligations by deriding a real-life modern woman for the sin of accepting payment from her wealthy in-laws for professional services performed while helping them expand their charitable foundation. “Understanding what a huge amount of time and energy this would take,” the woman explained, her parents-in-law had insisted on compensating her and her husband for their work. Ahmari, aghast, mockingly speculates that the couple might soon start “using Excel to track billable hours for time spent” on everyday family activities—and then uses his imagined scenario as evidence that we’ve collectively forgotten what we owe our parents. But it’s not clear most readers would share Ahmari’s horror at the idea of compensating family members for their labor, and that lack of shared intuition puts the whole section on shaky footing.
Likewise, it’s hard to think of a poorer way to introduce the thought of St. John Henry Newman, a brilliant but by no means infallible 19th century theologian, than by presenting his life as a foil to the idea that you should “think for yourself.” Newman was a prominent opponent of “liberalism in religion,” which he defined as “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” Yet rejecting moral relativism doesn’t mean forfeiting the right to exercise reason, question authority, and “test everything; retain what is good” (as St. Paul puts it in the Bible).
Still, Ahmari is on mostly solid ground while discussing lessons that might guide an individual in his or her pursuit of the good life. Things take a darker turn when government power enters the picture. This is epitomized by a chapter that draws on the life of St. Augustine to suggest that God wishes us to use “Caesar’s sword” for religious ends.
It’s worth acknowledging that some in the West today believe there should be an impermeable wall between faith and politics. Not merely between church and state: They don’t just insist that the civil government refrain from picking winners and losers among the multiplicity of belief systems; they insist that individual members of society rely on secular ideas alone when engaging in political activities. As if, in a liberal democratic order, people’s deeply held convictions could be scrubbed from the culture or the culture kept from bearing on political outcomes.
At first, this seems like the chapter’s target. But the reader soon finds that Ahmari is casting doubt on church-state separation itself.
Augustine’s masterwork, The City of God, was a response to the anti-Christian backlash that followed the Visigoth sack of Rome. Pagans “gathered in salons to wax nostalgic about the polytheist past, with its ‘dear, old religion,’ captured in the epic poetry of Virgil,” Ahmari writes. “Before the rise of Christianity, they argued, Rome had gathered great wealth and vast dominions….And hadn’t the Christian conversion now sunk that commonwealth into chaos?”
To combat these sentiments, Ahmari tells us, Augustine first demonstrated that the pre-Christian era at a practical level “was no golden age of peace, the neo-pagans’ sweet nostalgia notwithstanding.” But the bishop’s “deeper project” was to argue that pre-Christian Rome was also an unjust society in principle: “Simply put, Rome didn’t give God his due, and therefore its justice wasn’t true justice.”
Ahmari returns more than once to this Ur-sin, accusing modern Western societies as well as ancient Rome. But he’s vague about what it would take to clear that bar. To fill out the picture, we have to turn to Edmund Waldstein, the Catholic monk whose ideas Ahmari is borrowing.
In his article “The City of God: An Introduction,” Waldstein says the part Ahmari leaves out: “Justice consists in giving what is truly due to each, especially in giving the one, true God what is His due, by promoting Christian worship and suppressing pagan idolatry.” The key problem with pagan Rome, as far as Waldstein is concerned, was not that it persecuted Christians when it should have let them alone; he thinks a just state can’t adopt a neutral stance toward different forms of religious belief and practice. To the contrary, he says, it is obliged to support the true faith (i.e., the Catholic Church), ideally through a formal profession and certainly via the coercive powers available to it.
This interpretation of Augustine is far from a consensus view. It would be nearer the truth to say Waldstein represents one pole in a lively debate over how The City of God should be read, with those at the other end portraying the bishop as something of a proto-liberal.
But Waldstein has experience articulating fringe positions. The young monk is an intellectual leader of the “integralist” movement, which he says wants a “confessional state” or even an arrangement in which “it makes no sense to distinguish Church and state as separate spheres at all.” In short, he has explained, integralism “sees the need of integrating [coercive political] power into the Church.” Thus, when Ahmari repeats Waldstein’s claim that, historically, “religion had to be fully integrated into politics,” he’s using loaded language.
This realization throws a different light on the rest of the book.
Consider Ahmari’s moving reflection on the importance of taking time each week for “divinely ordered rest.” It’s one thing to exhort people to appreciate the spiritual benefits of “ritual leisure,” of “meditating on old books, praying with friends and family members, and breaking bread with them” rather than working or shopping. It’s something else to call on government to forcibly close businesses on the Sabbath (and, for that matter, to choose which day to recognize as the Sabbath). The chapter elides mention of a role for the state. But elsewhere, Ahmari has been forthright about his goals: “It’s time to restore Sabbath blue laws,” he recently tweeted.
A chapter on sex is disturbing enough on its own. By spotlighting the late feminist Andrea Dworkin’s view that intercourse “as such” is degrading to women, Ahmari manages to elevate a perspective that is as alien to Catholic theology as it is to modern secular norms. His penchant for state coercion renders the further assertion that “what men and women do in the privacy of the bedroom is in fact inherently public” all the more alarming in its implications.
The case for using government power “to enforce our order and our orthodoxy,” as Ahmari put it in a much-discussed 2019 article for First Things magazine, is made only obliquely in this book, via that messy gloss of Waldstein’s take on Augustine. Yet the life of the great African bishop, bracketed from disputes over how his theological works should be understood, points to a different conclusion.
In St. Augustine, we have the story of a young man, miserably torn between a yearning to seek wisdom in higher things and the temptation to lose himself in bodily pleasures, whose restless heart finally finds peace in the Gospel message. It’s a tale about long years of tearful prayer by his mother, St. Monica, and patient accompaniment by his mentor, St. Ambrose—a tale of conversion, not coercion, about the power of the truth, not Caesar’s sword.
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, by Sohrab Ahmari, Convergent Books, 320 pages, $27