The Fellowship of the Dead

A review of Sohrab Ahmari's "The Unbroken Thread"

                                                   The Unbroken Thread
                                                         Sohrab Ahmari
                                       Convergent Books, 320 pages, 2021

“An adopted ancestor is more than a hero whom one aspires to emulate, more than a forerunner whom one has read, studied, admired or been influenced by,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison. “He or she is someone who fosters the becoming of who one already is, someone whom one ‘makes one’s own’ through elective affiliation and unconditional allegiance.” The claims of kith and kin are all but unavoidable: “We are always—whoever we are—thrown into our biocultural ancestry.” But the adoption of non-biological ancestors, the discovery that one has not only inherited but also belongs to a legacy, arises from and deepens the self’s authenticity. 

In The Dominion of the Dead, an excavation of the cultural meaning of burial, Harrison argues that it is the dead who give us language, culture, civilization. The self, of necessity, grows within the bounds of the language it inherits; without language, without form-giving constraints, the self would not exist at all. Modernity conditions the “individual” to distrust any constraint it has not chosen for itself, willfully oblivious to the fact that “choice” itself is only intelligible within the unchosen limits of inherited language. Just as the writing of great poetry is impossible without prior mastery of grammar and vocabulary, the exercise of true freedom—the freedom for excellence—presupposes prior discipline. As any jazz pianist knows, no one who is unwilling to endure finger exercises, memorizing chord structures, and practicing scales and modes will ever play the fuzz off a peach.

There is joy and freedom in discovering one’s place in the fellowship of the dead, in learning before a cloud of witness that one’s life is directed towards meaningful ends. True freedom lies in one’s unfettered pursuit of those ends, ends which are given not chosen, and in taking one’s place in a great chain of memory. 

If Thelonious Monk had exercised his freedom by beating the keyboard with his fists, and nothing more, would anyone remember his name?

Sohrab Ahmari, like Robert Pogue Harrison, understands that it is a beautiful thing to be haunted. His latest book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, chronicles the ghosts who have taken up residence with him and examines how their presence not only gives intelligible shape to his life, but frees him to author his own flourishes in a legacy that is alive precisely because it includes the dead.

Many readers will know Ahmari as a lightning rod in the culture wars, instigating much-needed (and much-resisted) debate about the future of conservatism in his roles as the New York Post’s opinion editor and as a columnist for First Things. But the legacy that matters most to Ahmari is that which he will bequeath to his young son, Maximilian. 

Here, then, is the dilemma of a young father: How do I transmit to my son the value of permanent ideals against a culture that will tell him that whatever is newest is also best, that everything is negotiable and subject to contract and consent, that there is no purpose to our common life but to fulfill his desires? How do I reinforce that fragile thread linking my son to a life of humane obligations and responsibility? To a life anchored in stable and unchangeable ideals? To a life, in other words, filled with the goods secured by tradition?

The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari’s answer to those questions, is persuasive because it is a father’s working-out of a vision worth imparting to his child. The particularity of Ahmari’s love for his son is a gateway to the book’s universal concerns and guides their presentation. Even when wrestling with the most abstract problems, Ahmari keeps the reader grounded in narrative and concrete historical circumstances. For example, the martyrdom of Maximilian Kolbe, his son’s namesake, condenses into one virtuous symbol the answers to all the questions that structure the book. It is Kolbe, the Franciscan scholar-priest who willingly exchanged places with a young father condemned to die by starvation at Auschwitz, whose ghost Ahmari is most keen to see haunt his son.

Other adopted ancestors emerge in each chapter as champions against particular historical and ideological forces of unraveling, all of which contribute to the our present “age of chaos.” A sampling: C.S. Lewis battles the will-to-power of scientism and “chronological snobbery”; Thomas Aquinas demonstrates the complementary nature of faith and reason; Abraham Joshua Heschel shows the way to “inner liberty” through Sabbath observance; Howard Thurman challenges white Christian complacency prior to the civil rights era by showing that faith in Christ demands social action on behalf of the other’s dignity; Augustine navigates between the cities of God and man to define the Church’s just comportment towards the fallen temporal order; John Henry Newman defends Catholic faith against liberalism’s “anarchic vision of the ‘conscience’”; Aleksander Solzhenitsyn admonishes America’s elites by exposing the hollowness of her concept of freedom. 

While Christian believers naturally take center-stage in his adopted ancestry, Ahmari takes seriously Aquinas’s exhortation to accept what is true and good from among those outside the Church. This is most apparent in his affection for figures as dissimilar as Confucius, Rabbi Heschel, and the thoroughly secular Andrea Dworkin, all of whom understood how what we do with our bodies determines the quality of our interior lives, which in turn affects social order. 

“It is rare for a person who is filial to his parents and respectful to his elders to be inclined to transgress against his superiors,” taught Confucius. “And it has never happened that a person not inclined to transgress against his superiors is inclined to create chaos.” Honoring one’s parents and observing one’s ancestral rites gave one an “interior” and trained one in virtue. Ahmari distills the teaching succinctly: “The empathy learned from, and reciprocated to, parental love ripples out into the political community.”

This wisdom is recapitulated, and meaningfully transformed, in Heschel’s diligent sacrifice of time in observance of the Sabbath. Ordering life according to the character of the God of peace makes inner liberty possible. “To set apart one day a week for freedom,” wrote Heschel, “a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”

Whereas Heschel taught that participation in the life of God was “the only sure guarantee of human dignity and social justice,” Dworkin emphasized the power of dehumanizing ritual to order the self, and thus society, towards injustice. Despite her rejection of God, Ahmari discerns echoes of Augustine in Dworkin’s broadsides against pornography and the sexual subjugation of women. “For Augustine,” writes Ahmari, “the earthly city’s libido dominandi, its lust for domination, has its first image in the libido dominandi of the bedroom. Or as Dworkin put it, sex ‘is not a private act at all’. … Lustful domination is ‘a building block of society as a whole.’”

The thread connecting Confucius, Heschel, and Dworkin to the rest of Ahmari’s chosen ancestors is their intuitive understanding of the Aristotelian concept of habitus. In Book II of Ethics, Aristotle argues that “acts done in conformity with the virtues are not done justly or temperately if they themselves are of a certain sort, but only if the agent also is in a certain state of mind when he does them: first he must act with knowledge; secondly he must deliberately choose the act, and choose it for its own sake; and thirdly the act must spring from a fixed and permanent disposition of character.” Virtue is not a static quality. It is a dynamic process of conscious habituation that frees one from obedience to unreflective impulse to participate ever more fully in the Good. A habitus is the set of practices, institutions, and environmental factors that drive this process and form one’s character. Although he never employs the term explicitly, it is clear that Ahmari’s purpose in The Unbroken Thread is to model, and thereby deepen through repetition, the intellectual habitus he has inherited. 

It bears mentioning, of course, that not every habitus is created equal. The habitus thrust on our nation by the Sexual Revolution, for example, has reduced the human body to a commodity. Accompanying the commodification of sexuality is the sexualization of the commodity. As Dworkin observed, “The internal landscape [of modern sex] is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable.” Is it any wonder that our pornographic culture, which tutors young men in self-degradation and hatred and objectification of women, condemning their imaginations to fester in a landscape shorn of ontological distinctions—is awash in political violence?

While Dworkin was a gifted diagnostician of America’s sexual pathologies, her own habitus yielded an equally pathological repudiation of the givenness of sexual being. Indeed, her hatred of sex was at heart a hatred of embodiment, of the hierarchy intrinsic to biological difference. That is to say, Dworkin’s asceticism was essentially gnostic.

Traditional wisdom—grounded in transcendent meaning and transmitted immanently by allegiances spanning generations—is the “thread” Ahmari hopes to preserve unbroken. But there is another thread, an anti-thread, woven through human history, animating those forces which make for chaos. Gnosticism, which abominates the material cosmos and its creator, emerges again and again as the antagonist of Ahmari’s book, and even serves rather elegantly as thematic scaffolding. It isn’t given full treatment until the penultimate chapter (“What Do You Owe Your Body?”), when Ahmari presents the life and work of Hans Jonas, but that treatment echoes backward through the text, clarifying the gnostic impulse in everything from young Augustine’s Manichaeism to the scientistic worldview of Westin, the villain of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet

Ancient Gnosticism was animated by an all-too-human longing which survives in religion and political movements to this day. Ahmari summarizes the eminent 20th-century scholar Hans Jonas’s explication of quintessentially “gnostic” longing:

It was a desire to go beyond the world and thus to overcome the “absolute rift between man and that in which he finds himself lodged,” as Jonas explained. He called this longing “acosmism”: the sense that self and world are radically at odds, that humans aren’t at home in creation but must go beyond it altogether. All the other main features of gnostic religions served this one, acosmic impulse: to “revolt against the world and its god in the name of an absolute spiritual freedom.”

In a splendid irony, Jonas’s dissertation, which would evolve into an indictment of the gnostic impulse, was overseen by Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann, two of the most consequential gnostics of the 20th century. While the scholarship of both men was suffused with a gnostic spirit, it was Heidegger’s existentialist phenomenology that would spread moral nihilism like a plague through academe. In his own life, it bore fruit in the form of unflagging allegiance to the Nazi Party. Today it enjoys an afterlife in critical theory’s despoiling of the humanities.

“What Do You Owe Your Body?” is among the strongest chapters of The Unbroken Thread and demonstrates Ahmari’s gift for making complex ideas comprehensible and narratively compelling to non-specialist readers. However, its argument merits extension. Although Ahmari devotes a section to “Gnostic Liberalism” and identifies many examples of progressivism’s desire “to overcome, to replace, to forget embodied relationships and their moral demands,” he misses an opportunity to buttress the political project that occupies so much of his public life. For certainly no social order built on a gnostic swamp can survive long before being submerged by its own anti-human aspirations. As a private spiritual matter, Gnosticism is tragic. But its incognito presence in the Democratic Party amounts to a kind of self-discrediting “gnostic integralism” that, apart from violating the establishment clause, declares its own exercise of power to be unjust. (One would think the wardens averse to sporting t-shirts promoting prison abolition, and yet here we are.) Moreover, to the extent that procedural liberalism is itself infected by gnostic ontology, it must be replaced by a regime more respectful of the boundaries of the real. Naturally, such a regime should have no truck with dreampolitik

Eric Voegelin, the other great German interpreter of Gnosticism’s political import, understood that the danger of “parousiastic Gnosticism”—the gnostic impulse as disclosed in Marxism, fascism, and much of progressivism—lay in its commitment to overturning the order of being.

The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to “alter” its nature destroys the thing. Man cannot transform himself into a superman; the attempt to create a superman is an attempt to murder man. Historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man; the deicide of the gnostic theoreticians is followed by the homicide of the revolutionary practitioners.

The surest means of resisting parousiastic Gnosticism is to embrace openly and joyfully the order of being as it is given to us—by God, by the dead. Sohrab Ahmari has done us a service in The Unbroken Thread by modeling just such an embrace. It is now left to us to choose our ancestors and discover the beauty of being haunted.