Sohrab Ahmari is a man searching for something bigger than himself to believe in. When he was very young, his family, leery of the Shia fundamentalism of their native Iran, moved to the United States. As a young adult, at first Ahmari celebrated the permissive liberalism of the land of the free, but he soon came to see it as decadent and shallow. His disenchantment led him to first embrace Marxism and then convert to Catholicism, at age of thirty-one, in 2016. He became a prolific, high profile post-liberal commentator, who has criticised contraception and transgenderism and compared Silicon Valley to a militaristic junta. The Unbroken Thread: Discovering The Wisdom of Tradition in An Age of Chaos is his fourth book. It aims to provide a spiritual guide to forms of traditional and religious wisdom that liberal modernity has forgotten.
The Wisdom of Tradition
Ahmari’s book can be viewed as a letter to his young son, Max, in which he chronicles his religious conversion, his philosophical musings and his hopes and anxieties about the world that Max will encounter as an adult. In one section, Ahmari shudders at the idea of a future in which his son, having obtained an Ivy League education, start chumming around with some hipster spiritual but not religious types, cohabiting (without getting married or having children) and spending his evenings at “Michelin-starred restaurants for feasting—followed by nights browsing Tinder (theirs is an open marriage).” While Max might be “happy” in such a context, it will only be “by his own lights,” since Max will “not even know what he has missed”—including, for example:
The thrill of mediating on the Psalms and wondering if they were written just for him; the peace of mind that comes with regularly going to Confession and leaving the accumulated baggage of his guilt behind; the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a new born baby, his own. Having kept his “options open” his whole life, he hasn’t bound himself irrevocably to anything greater than himself and, therefore, hasn’t exercised human freedom as his namesake understood it.
Ahmari hopes to avoid this dystopian scenario by passing on the wisdom of the ancients. The Unbroken Thread is divided into twelve chapters, each of which discusses a contemporary issue through the analytical lens of a different thinker. Ahmari’s chosen heroes aren’t exclusively Catholic, or even Christian. C. S. Lewis and St. Augustine appear, but so does Confucius, civil rights leader Howard Thurman and—most surprisingly—radical anti-sex feminist Andrea Dworkin. Ahmari brings out the humanity—and even the humour—of the thinkers he discusses. And his summaries of their thinking are well designed for a general readership. As a description of the wisdom of the past, Ahmari’s book is fairly good—certainly leagues above similarly themed books by Ben Shapiro and others.
However, the book has many shortcomings. One of them arises because each of the figures Ahmari invokes has a very different vision of the good life. (For example, Augustine’s just Christians look very different from Dworkin’s emancipated women.) For Ahmari, these thinkers are united by a shared conviction that the allegedly liberal pursuit of hedonistic self-interest leads to a hollow, dissatisfying life. He is worried that we’ll wind up more like Jay Gatsby or Pip Pirrip than like Ben Franklin’s thrifty and industrious producers. But because he doesn’t spend much time describing the substantial differences between these thinkers’ visions and philosophical premises, one is left a little bewildered as to whether he thinks we should become Confucian sages, radical feminists or Roman Stoics.
Ahmari does little to settle this question, beyond indicating a personal preference for Roman Catholicism. But his intellectual defence of Roman Catholic positions is razor thin. He makes a few scattered appeals to the hoary arguments of Thomas of Aquinas and Augustine, without any acknowledgement of the centuries of critique those arguments have faced, from everyone from René Descartes to Daniel Dennett. At its core, Ahmari’s appeal is a purely emotional one: we need to commit ourselves to some higher power in order to make sense of life: anything else will leave us shallow and empty. There’s a fundamental problem with this approach: at best it is an argument for the efficacy of the doctrines, rather than for their truth. Maybe we would live more fulfilling lives if we became Roman Catholics (although, having myself apostatised some time ago, I doubt it). But that wouldn’t prove the truth of Roman Catholic doctrine. Nor does the argument that Confucius’ metaphysical and spiritual visions are uplifting prove that they were true, any more than the joy a Marxist may feel at thinking that capitalism will collapse proves that we’ll all wake up tomorrow in a communist society. As right-wing philosopher Leo Strauss opines in his excellent Natural Right and History:
A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.
Liberalism and the Good Life
But my main issue with Ahmari’s book is political. As a post-liberal, Ahmari implies liberal societies are to blame for the crisis of meaning that he believes has engulfed much of the world. Ahmari’s tone is more measured in this book than in some of his previous writings. (For example, in the past, he has described demands that the Church be held to account for its authoritarian history as “intellectual blackmail” and has implied that the creators of PornHub deserve “tar and feathers.” But his denunciations of liberal society throughout The Unbroken Thread remain startlingly lacking in nuance. For example, he complains about Twitter mobs “blurting out whatever [they] wish to Internet strangers,” and the way in which the “mass pornographization” of culture has left us “ceaselessly alien[ated] … from the natural, from nature as an ordered, end-directed reality.” He even takes issue with modern medicine’s efforts to forestall the natural aging process, suggesting that such efforts demonstrate that we wish to indefinitely “defer natural decrepitude and death” and that we’ve forgotten “what, if anything, is good about death.” But what, if anything, is good about an early and painful death? Should we really ignore medical expertise, and just let “nature, as an ordered, end-directed reality” take its course?
Ahmari believes that the problems he describes are caused by liberal philosophy, which he sees as being fundamentally about pursuing individual self-interest and material gratification. To invert J. S. Mill’s famous observation, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” Ahmari seems to be saying that liberals believe it is better to be a satisfied pig than a dissatisfied wise human being. Consequently, he sees liberals as demanding the removal of all traditionalist barriers to the gratification of their desires. At the same time, he argues that liberals seek to implement new forms of despotism and control. Although Ahmari does not explain the connection between these two supposed impulses, his fellow post-liberal, Patrick Deneen does. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen suggests that liberals yearn for freedom from conservative and religious moral norms so that they can pursue unconstrained self-interest. This inevitably leads to demands that the state remove all barriers to self-gratification, which, in turn, leads to the formation of new, more powerful states allied to monopolistic corporate interests. Deneen predicts that these new powers will deliberately fracture our (mostly) religious and conservative moral norms, thus removing all moral constraints on anyone with liberal values.
Deneen’s argument is intriguing but fallacious. It fails as a critique of liberal theory because—contrary to Ahmari’s and Deneen’s assumptions—very few major liberal thinkers have endorsed uninhibited self-interest and material gratification. (At most, Hobbes and Bentham, in some of their more polemical moments, write in a manner that might suggest such an idea.) On the contrary, almost every liberal thinker has argued that most individuals would respond to freedom not by eating fried chicken and watching television, but by pursuing a virtuous life. Consider Kant’s insistence that “free” liberal subjects will choose to obey the rational moral law, J. S. Mill’s endorsement of “experiments in living” and Rawls’ ruminations on the importance of allowing people to pursue differing visions of the good life. Many liberal thinkers have even insisted that the kind of virtuous life demanded by Ahmari is possible only in a liberal society because when people are forced to behave in ways that others deem good, it becomes impossible for them to actually be good. Some liberal thinkers, such as Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, have pointed out that liberalism also enables members of groups that have previously been silenced to express their viewpoints and relate their experiences, which benefits everyone by contributing to the available data on which varieties of the good life lead to the best outcomes.
Ahmari’s and Deneen’s critique of liberalism also fails in practice. Despite the many serious problems liberal democracies have, they are—compared with most illiberal states (including some authoritarian regimes admired by post-liberals)—generally freer, safer and less beset by the arbitrary violence that so concerned St. Augustine in City of God. Ahmari rightly foregrounds many of the problems of liberal society (including the problem of material inequality, which is rarely addressed by thinkers on the American right). Liberal societies have a chequered history when it comes to upholding their own principles. The American founding fathers spoke about freedom, while many of them kept slaves. As late as the 1970s, in some liberal countries, women weren’t allowed to vote. And even today, many people, perhaps especially liberal socialists like myself, have serious concerns about how free we can be in a society that is increasingly defined by extreme disparities of wealth and power. Ahmari is absolutely right to observe that one doesn’t have to have a well worked out alternative to liberalism in order to critique it. But, since he does want to promote an alternative vision, he owes us an explanation as to how a post-liberal society will end up being a city of virtue, instead of an authoritarian kleptocracy like Hungary, Poland or Russia.
Ahmari seems to want religious conservatives to be able to impose their vision of the good life on society as a whole. He could correctly point out that liberal states constrain the freedom of religious conservatives by preventing them from using state power to do that. But this constraint is relatively minor compared to the constraint that post-liberals would place on individual liberty if they required everyone to behave only in ways they consider virtuous. An LGBT couple lose much more from having their lifestyle criminalised than post-liberals lose from being unable to criminalise that lifestyle. Moreover, no one is preventing religious conservatives from personally living the lives they wish. Whether those lives are indeed virtuous is something of which they must convince others, without resorting to coercion. In short, The Unbroken Thread is a decent guide to the wisdom of the past, but a vague and unconvincing argument for his vision of how our lives and politics should look in the future.