A Review of Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent Books, May 11th, 2020).
The end of the Cold War was thought to signal an “end of history”: having defeated fascism (Nazism) in the Second World War, free-market liberal democracy had now defeated Communism, its only other modern rival. All nations were now expected to inexorably bend towards the last political form left standing.
‘Against David Frenchism’ strikes back against culturally conservative but politically liberal figures (conservative liberals) on the right…
This expectation was shattered by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the rise of right-wing populism throughout Europe and the world. Parties and politicians on the right found increasing electoral success over the past five years while transgressing long-held liberal norms. Voters worldwide were expressing clear dissatisfaction with what was supposed to be their only option. What they were yearning for, however, was not so clear. Taking a dark view of these developments, establishment conservatives pushed this lack to their advantage and joined progressive liberals in casting these anti-liberal developments on the right as fascistic—after all, these populists weren’t communist, but they were certainly anti-liberal.
A different group of conservative intellectuals, however, were unwilling to throw these voters under the bus. The task then fell on these “postliberal populists” to articulate a positive vision for this emerging political form—a “New Right” to fit the desire expressed by the global wave of right-wing populism.
Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post and recent Catholic convert, has been a leading light in this task. In his widely-circulated 2019 article “Against David Frenchism” (along with its prequel, “Against the Dead Consensus,” and subsequent essays), he’s begun to sharply articulate the differences between conservative liberalism and his vision for the populist New Right.
“Against David Frenchism” strikes back against culturally conservative but politically liberal figures (conservative liberals) on the right, making the case for religious conservatives to support Donald Trump. “With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion,” Ahmari writes. Central to this endorsement, as the New York Times’s Ross Douthat notes, is “a philosophical reconsideration of where the liberal order has ended up.”
This month will see the release of Ahmari’s most recent book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. In it, Ahmari expresses a father’s anxiety about the kind of moral guidance modern western culture will offer his young son. Each of its twelve chapters raises a question that our modern world discourages and has trouble answering. The Unbroken Thread turns to historical figures, drawing on the wisdom of a wide range of traditions to articulate answers to these questions. The book’s “primary purpose,” Ahmari writes, is “to explore the possibility that our contemporary philosophy might be wrong in crucial respects.”
Ahmari doesn’t announce outright that his task is to articulate a postliberal vision for the right. The book is biography; it’s history; it’s a breezy read. It’s no political manifesto. And yet, when we look more closely, we see that the specific questions Ahmari chooses to focus on strike at the core of modernity and its now-default political form (liberalism).
The book’s continuity with Ahmari’s project of the last few years shines through: The Unbroken Thread clears a space for a nonmodern and postliberal political theory.
THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF NATURE
In his opening chapter, “How Do You Justify Your Life?,” Ahamri takes aim at two aligned components implicit in the metaphysics of liberalism: naturalism and moral relativism. The first insists that what’s revealed by the natural sciences exhausts what exists objectively; the second casts moral claims as mere subjective preferences.
Naturalism’s more crucial limitation, however, was the impoverished conceptual resources with which it dealt with moral and aesthetic phenomena.
Ahmari begins by interrogating the “philosophical claim that by no means is beyond doubt: namely, that truth is limited to … what can be observed with our senses, measured with our instruments, and generally expressed in mathematical language.” This naturalism, he continues, leads liberalism to moral relativism: “All other claimants to the name truth, in this view, amount to less-than-trustworthy ‘values,’ opinions, myths, emotions, or superstitions.”
To think through this, Ahamri turns to C.S. Lewis, tracing the arc of Lewis’s intellectual journey. As he began his time at Oxford, Lewis gave up his youthful pagan romanticism for a hard-headed materialist scientism. He later abandoned this, too, when he realized that this scientism “couldn’t justify itself.” The idea that all that exists was “observable by the senses” could not itself be observed by the senses.
Naturalism’s more crucial limitation, however, was the impoverished conceptual resources with which it dealt with moral and aesthetic phenomena. It attempts to explain an intense moral calling or “the subjective experience of beauty” and succeeds only in explaining them away. As Ahmari explains, theories like the behaviorism of Lewis’s time reduced all these phenomena to “patterns of conduct reinforced by reward and punishment.” They could neither do justice to nor, more importantly, justify these experiences: “The ideologues of scientism … invite us to despair (and immorality) by suggesting that the timeless problems of being human don’t have right or wrong, true or false answers—since neither the questions not the potential answers can be kept contained in the world of sensible, measurable facts,” Ahmari writes.
Ahmari recounts how Lewis becomes skeptical of his prior skepticism toward traditional ontology: “The fact that any ancient idea—say, the immortality of the soul—had fallen out of favor … didn’t suffice to discredit it.” He discovers the wisdom of tradition by rejecting modernity’s rejection of it: abandoning what Lewis calls his “chronological snobbery,” he comes to “embrace an older worldview,” and religious truth is redeemed for him. Lewis “would go on to win global fame as a Christian apologist.”
Ahmari continues his attack on liberalism’s moral relativism in Chapter 8, “Should You Think for Yourself?,” when he recounts a historical debate between “the statesman who personified liberalism in the nineteenth century, William Gladstone,” and the English theologian J.H. Newman, who resolutely “opposed the liberal spirit just then sweeping Europe.” For Ahmari, William Gladstone represents the critical Enlightenment skepticism that evolved into what he calls “the defining ethos of our age,” namely: “think for yourself and question authority.” Newman, his counterpart, comes to the defense of (traditional) authority.
In 1870, the First Vatican Council issued Pastor aeternus, a document defining the core doctrines of the Catholic faith. Included was the doctrine of papal infallibility, meaning the pope, when appealing to his highest authority, is preserved from the possibility of error. In a notorious 1874 pamphlet, Gladstone, who had been raised in the Church of England and had just finished his first of four terms as Prime Minister, took offense to the doctrine of papal infallibility. He argued that it amounted to “moral murder” and required Catholics to renounce their “moral and mental freedom.” He argued that the pope’s demand that Catholics submit to his authority contradicted the liberal principle of freedom of conscience.
Liberalism is ‘a worldview in which the conscience is thoroughly subjective,’ and, writes Ahmari, ‘this is why Newman railed against liberalism as false liberty of thought.’
In 1875, Newman, then an ordained priest in the Catholic Church (he was elevated to the rank of cardinal in 1879 and was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Francis), crafted a response. Newman agreed with Gladstone that traditional authority had lost a lot of ground throughout the nineteenth century, but this was not because true freedom of conscience had flourished under liberalism. Instead, “a counterfeit” value had dislodged traditional authority in modern society: “the right of self-will.”
True conscience, Newman taught, was “the interior awareness of an objective moral law.” Traditional authorities like the Church guided the formation of this interior awareness. The counterfeit conscience that rejected this guidance, however, was “privatized and subjectivized.” Liberalism is “a worldview in which the conscience is thoroughly subjective,” and, writes Ahmari, “this is why Newman railed against liberalism as ‘false liberty of thought.’”
Ahmari applies Newman’s insight to the present, where the think-for-yourself liberal norm means that “moral life becomes an endless, solipsistic quest to figure out ‘what my true self stands for.’” When we see, with Newman, that what underlies this “defining ethos of our age” is the self-willful desire to be free from objective morality, and that liberalism’s freedom of conscience “becomes a license” to gratify desires that shouldn’t be gratified, we see the wisdom in rejecting it and submitting to traditional authorities.
Ahmari’s challenge to liberalism’s ontological and ethical assumptions in these two chapters aims to redeem religious truth. Ahmari’s political project requires this critique, for as we’ll now see, that project urges a direct assault on liberalism’s assumption that religious truth isn’t really possible.
INTEGRALISM VS. DAVID FRENCH’S LIBERALISM
“Against David Frenchism” urgest the right to adopt a more expansive vision for the use of state power. French wants state power used only to assert our individual rights; Ahmari wants to replace this with a politics of the common good. He writes:
“French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees ‘protecting individual liberty’ as the main, if not the sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.”
Ahmari argues that adhering to French’s restraint cost the right the culture war—the battle over which moral vision guides our society. If we only assert our “religious liberty,” that is, our right to disagree with the dominant liberal ethos, we cannot impede the fate of religious claims under liberal regimes: their relegation, first to opinion, and from there, to a species of bias.
“If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now. … If traditional moral precepts are ‘purely religious beliefs,’ … they’re rationally indefensible, [and] should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”
Appeals to religious liberty are impotent against attacks on traditional values because they allow secular liberals to keep viewing religious claims in morally relativistic terms.
Ahmari’s political project, therefore, requires challenging liberal metaphysics; stemming the deterioration of tradition in secular liberal democracies requires nothing less than redeeming the possibility of religious truth. It therefore also requires that we rethink the liberal political form itself, along with its core tenants.
The separation of church and state is essential to the liberal political form. Historically, this principle co-emerged with the secular states that were established following the settlement of the wars of religion in the seventeenth century. Europe, by then exhausted by those wars, rallied behind a political sentiment that was elaborated by the twentieth-century liberal theorist John Rawls.
So-called liberal ‘neutrality,’ critics contend, is anything but…
Since citizens in free societies will inevitably disagree with one another, Rawls said, especially over the fundamental questions concerning ethics and the meaning of life, we shouldn’t reason in political matters from what he calls our “comprehensive doctrine”: the religion or secular worldview we take our moral guidance from. According to Rawls, we should insulate our politics from disagreements at this level and instead reason from a more limited “political conception of justice” we can all share in common. Rawls insists that individuals from rival comprehensive doctrines should all endorse this conception, and that it should itself be “neutral” between them.
This is liberalism’s understanding of itself that postliberal religious conservatives, among others, reject. So-called liberal “neutrality,” critics contend, is anything but: it has its own metaphysical worldview and vision of the good life, and it forms its subjects accordingly. Liberal “neutrality” therefore functions as a comprehensive doctrine itself.
In an October 2019 response to critics of “Against David Frenchism,” Ahmari argues that:
“The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.”
David French is a committed Rawlsian: his 2020 book, Divided We Fall, takes its epigram from Rawls. During a 2019 public debate against French, Ahmari rightly takes him to task for it, arguing that “the battleground has shifted, and consensus conservativism hasn’t kept up.” The right, he means, continues to operate politically from the restricted Rawlsian “political conception”—one that the left has long abandoned. “The woke sexual revolutionary left has a substantive vision of the highest good, and they seek to systematically impose it at every level.” To keep up, the religious right must bring its own comprehensive doctrine to the public sphere.
By the time of his July 2020 article, “Christians Have a Duty To Change Society—Yes, Even at the Level of the State” (what Ahmari has called “my integralist statement”), he was advocating we abandon the separation of church and state.
In The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari’s integralist thought surfaces most clearly in Chapter 6, “Does God Need Politics?” Its hero is Saint Augustine of Hippo, who faced a pagan backlash against the Christianization of Rome. Augustine’s response, The City of God, issues a searing indictment of the old Rome integrated with pagan deities.
The chapter’s real purpose, however, is to interrogate liberalism’s separation of church and state. Augustine’s overarching problem was: Does government have a role in promoting faith? His answer, “yes,” contrasts sharply with liberalism’s “no.”
Ahmari begins by setting Rawlsian liberalism as his target:
“We come now to perhaps the biggest question that diverts modernity from the great stream of traditional thought. Moderns … are certain that religion and politics don’t, and shouldn’t, mix. Since we can’t agree on the highest end or the ultimate meaning of human life, their thinking runs, politics must be ‘neutral’ ground. … This position would have been unintelligible to the premodern West.”
Along with the rest of the Roman world, Ahmari describes how Augustine adopts Aristotle’s view that “religion had to be fully integrated into politics.” For them, “The aim of political life wasn’t to protect maximal individual autonomy but to discern and promote the common good.” According to Ahmari, Augustine thus yearns for a ruler “who views sound governance and the welfare of souls as different aspects of the same holistic business.”
Those who take Ahmari for a “would-be theocrat” will find more to concern them in these pages. But the primary task of Ahmari’s integralism is simply to put the myth of liberal ‘neutrality’ to bed and show us that statecraft is inescapably soulcraft. Ahmari writes:
“To liberals, such ordering of human life is bound to yield intolerable ‘coercion’; for conservatives, or ‘classical’ liberals, the common good is often seen as a synonym for statist oppression. … [But] liberal societies do coerce. Even more, the notion that we can’t know, much less legislate, humanity’s highest end is itself a metaphysical, even spiritual claim, and it stands at the heart of the modern project. Its god is the unbound self.”
It was clarity on precisely this point that led Ahmari to call us to abandon liberal strictures on our political activity in “Against David Frenchism” and “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good.”
Ahmari’s economic position is least sympathetic to the economic elites who drive and benefit from the creative destruction of our globalized world. The Unbroken Thread continues his concern for “the suffering of Americans with no more than a high-school education in the new economy.” It’s for the well-being of these same people that this ex-Marxist enacts his culture war. He wages it against the cultural elites who drove and now enjoy the consequences of the 1960s sexual revolution. His sympathy is with communities suffering from those consequences: those that deteriorate rather than flourish under what he describes in the book as our “ceaselessly disruptive culture offering kaleidoscopic lifestyles.” It’s these communities for whom ours is “an age of chaos.” His redemption of tradition seeks to restore some guidance for these disoriented souls.
No doubt seeing his own experience mirrored in Solzhenitsyn’s, Ahmari comes to the latter’s defense: ‘What could a survivor of the gulag teach the West about freedom? What indeed.’
Ahmari’s primary care is for the simple virtue of ordinary souls. He seeks to remove obstacles to their flourishing. He would have us wield state power to “religious” ends, he explains in his integralist statement, because “the thrust of liberal civilization” has yielded “political conditions” unconducive to the practice of ordinary virtue (secure honest work, marriage, children, public worship). It’s Ahmari’s chapter “What Is Freedom For?” on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (in my view, the richest in the book) that most clearly marks Ahmari as a populist intellectual.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) is Solzhenitsyn’s “thinly fictionalized account” of his time in the gulag. Ahmari focuses on “the author’s observations about how different human types navigate the prison-camp experience.” Under intolerable conditions, Shukhov (Solzhenitsyn) preserves his “inner freedom” and dignity by maintaining the simple virtues of generosity, good humor, and taking gratification in well-performed work. By contrast, another prisoner, who Solzhenitsyn calls Fetyukov, “succumbs to the baser side of his nature,” degrading himself as he scrounges desperately for the rare remaining scraps of physical pleasure.
In 1978, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary literary degree. He was expected, Ahmari writes, “to sing his variation on the immigrant’s ode to America.” Instead, “he devoted the bulk of his speech to… what had gone wrong in the West.” For his efforts, Ahmari recounts, “the prestige press framed him as a theocrat and an authoritarian.” No doubt seeing his own experience mirrored in Solzhenitsyn’s, Ahmari comes to the latter’s defense: “What could a survivor of the gulag teach the West about freedom? What indeed.”
Following Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen, Ahmari sees liberalism making its greatest error when it “rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires” and replaces it with the notion that liberty is “the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites” (quoting Deneen). Ahmari sees Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 address teaching the West the same lesson. This chapter thus develops Ahmari’s call in The New American Right to replace a politics of autonomy with “a politics of limits.”
The New Right’s assessment of the modern West is of malformed libertine souls running amuck.
What has caused the liberal West’s blindness to what Ahmari calls “the difference between true and false freedom”? Ahmari explains that Solzhenitsyn held the West’s “dogmatic faith that maximizing individual rights is nearly always and everywhere good” responsible for “free men and women and society as a whole, failing to make any distinction between freedom to do what ought to be done and freedom to do what ought not.” As in the chapters on liberal metaphysics (Lewis), liberty of conscience (Newman), and liberal neutrality (Augustine), the problem with liberal freedom is that its morality is not adequate to the truth about human morality.
What does this critique of liberal freedom have to do with populism? Ahmari explains that for Solzhenitsyn, “an excess of rights had paved the road to a new serfdom, creating a society in which the Fetyukov type thrived.” The New Right’s assessment of the modern West is of malformed libertine souls running amuck. At whose expense? Those ordinary souls whose simple virtue would flourish under the conditions the critique yearns for.
Ahmari sees in Shukhov “a certain Russian type” that “admirers of Russian literature” will recognize from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: characters who “stand for the rootedness and resilience of Russia’s poor, reminding cerebral, restless intellectuals that amid adversity, it suffices to savor one’s daily bread, give glory to God, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Shukhov likewise finds freedom—in a gulag!—by way of a peasant’s goodness and natural religiosity.”
Ahmari’s anxiety for his young son’s future fixates on this “false freedom” embedded deep in our liberal regime. “I tremble over the prospect of my son’s growing up in an order that doesn’t erect any barriers against individual appetites and, if anything, goes out of its way to demolish existing barriers,” he writes. His populism orients his worry. He fears his son’s life will be guided by an elite ethos preaching “career ambition,” a cushy spirituality untroubled by “absolute moral demands,” and noncommittal relationships: an ethos urging him not to marry or have children “if that hampers career mobility.”
‘[S]ome version of Ahmari’s turn is one that the right is making almost everywhere.’ — Ross Douthat, New York Times
“Liberal societies do coerce,” he remarks; they coerce us to choose career over family, freedom over responsibility, sensual pleasure over the requirements of objective morality. He regrets that his son “may not even know what he has missed … the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a newborn baby, his own.”
Ahmari’s guidance for the New Right accords with his advice for his son. He sees the “new politics” that “populist and conservative-nationalist movements on both sides of the Atlantic are testing out” as repelled by the same elite ethos he fears will overwhelm his son. The Unbroken Thread makes clear that, in stark contrast to the punditry’s hyperventilation over postliberalism, Ahmari sees “the desire voters are expressing for a politics of the common good” as fundamentally a desire to win for western civilization some breathing room for the simple virtues.
Ahmari eschews “any pretense to scholarly originality.” The Unbroken Thread is simply tradition issuing a series of reminders to western liberalism. And yet, we’d be remiss if we didn’t attend closely to the conceptual contours traced by Ahmari’s highly readable book. As Douthat noted, “some version of Ahmari’s turn is one that the right is making almost everywhere.”