When you read conservatives saying that we should preserve “Western Tradition,” they generally refer to 18th-century freemasonry. How can members of a pre-modern institution such as the Catholic Church feel at ease with such a tradition? They have two options: some try to ignore that fact, try to play along, highlight the positive aspects of this tradition, and swim with the tide as most “conservatives” in the West do.
Yet, some make the case to appeal to an even greater tradition. Among these, is the New York Post’s op-ed editor and Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari, who published one of the most thought-provoking conservative books this year: The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
The book is dedicated to his son Maximilian, who is named after St. Maximilian Kolbe (if you do not know his story, I invite you to read it immediately). Both serve as the leitmotiv of the book: he dedicates the book to his son, so he may follow the example of St. Maximilian.
Mr. Ahmari is quite clear with the main argument of the book from the start: “I have come to believe that the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as antiquated or ‘limiting’ can liberate us, while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison; that the quest to define ourselves on our own is a kind of El Dorado, driving to madness the many who seek after it; that for our best, highest selves to soar, other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound.”
The argument might not strike anyone relatively accustomed to the conservative and Catholic traditions as new, but the way Mr. Ahmari presents it in The Unbroken Thread is what makes it innovative and stimulating: he asks 12 questions that liberalism and postmodernity seem to have forgotten or do not provide an answer beyond “do as you wish” through the lens of 12 thinkers.
You would think that as a Catholic convert, these 12 characters would be saints or at least orthodox Catholics, but Mr. Ahmari offers a diverse combination of voices from great saints, such as Saint Augustine, and defenders of Christianity such as C.S. Lewis to voices beyond the West, such as Confucius and even a radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin.
But what do these authors have in common? That they are part of the unbroken thread of a Tradition that believes that order and limits are at the root of true freedom and virtue. The fact that the protagonists of each chapter defy qualification means that this Tradition is more like a series of intertwined threads that are bound with each other and stem from any civilization where man has thought seriously about his own condition.
The thread that unites all the 12 characters Mr. Ahmari explores is actually found in the last chapter of the book:
“With C. S. Lewis, we explored the limits of scientific knowledge. Thomas Aquinas showed us how the arrogance of reason unbound from religion diminishes both. At Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Sabbath table, we tasted the liberating promise of Sabbath restrictions. We followed Victor and Edith Turner into the African bush, to discern how structured ritual undergirds community. We saw how submission to divine authority safeguards human dignity, at the level of the individual (Howard Thurman) and the political community (Saint Augustine).
The Confucian tradition urged us to serve our parents to become more humane. The Newman–Gladstone debate showed how “thinking for yourself,” in the modern, liberal sense, undermines the true conscience. Alexander Solzhenitsyn related his hard-won lessons on how liberty without ends or limits traps us in its own kind of gulag. Andrea Dworkin’s audacious life and thought exposed how our ideology of sexual freedom masks a deeper unfreedom. Hans Jonas warned of the dangers of disdaining the limits imposed by embodied existence.”
The Unbroken Thread: The conservative case for Tradition
Mr. Ahmari is not a typical conservative within American conservatism for the mere reason that he is not a liberal that lacks revolutionary instincts, which is what most American conservatives are. Then, it is not strange that he chose Solzhenitsyn for one of his chapters, and thus says, “An immigrant isn’t supposed to complain about the society that gave him refuge. That is what I am: an immigrant, a radically assimilated one at that—who nevertheless harbors fundamental doubts about the society that assimilated him.”
The liberal instinct is that we are the best judges of our own actions. The classical instinct is quite the opposite; common sense indicates that we are the worst judges of our own actions. Therefore, we must place limits to our reason, to our freedom, to our body. As paradoxical as it may sound -and Ahmari is well aware of the paradox- we are freest when we place ourselves within Tradition and within a cosmic order. Why? Because we are ordered toward something higher than ourselves. Our freedom is not for delighting ourselves with every little pleasure and postmodern novelty; freedom is for giving it away. The essence of freedom is not self-choice but self-sacrifice.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe
That’s why St. Maximilian Kolbe seems like an adequate inspiration for this book. In Ahmari’s words, “Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.”
Thus, The Unbroken Thread is a call to think for ourselves within Tradition instead of against it, which is why I found it so thought-provoking: it is not about surrendering our will to Tradition, which would freeze it, but align ourselves freely and rationally to it, which keeps its flames alive. Although I just said Mr. Ahmari is not a typical American conservative, he does share, at least in the book, the conservative emotion par excellence, gratitude: with the past, with Tradition, and with our forefathers.
Many have criticized this book as aggressive against freedom and as a call to authoritarianism. These are strawmen. The book points out a fundamental anthropological flaw of liberalism: that negative liberty does not necessarily make us freer or more virtuous. Putting criterionless choice in an altar causes quite the opposite, to be honest.
Thus, The Unbroken Thread calls us to remind and embrace that old Tradition of freedom as limited freedom: not freedom that expands when we have no constraints, but a freedom that expands when we live virtuously and accept our brokenness and limitations: freedom for excellence, freedom to choose the Highest Good, which is the only freedom that can escape the endless void of postmodern self-invention.
Does this mean we must take as good anything that happened in the past? I doubt any conservative would say so. But it means, and I think this is what The Unbroken Thread does best, that we must take a step back and think about why our ancestors did what they did, built what they built, and believed what they believed before we decide to topple it and create something anew with ashes for roots.