The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
by Sohrab Ahmari
The question “What is truth?” could certainly be considered a question of our modern age. Never in human history has information been more readily available, literally at our fingertips, on any topic imaginable. All the collected knowledge of humanity can be held in the palms of our hands, viewed with a swipe of a finger. However, while information can be accessed from any place in the world at any time of day, every day, it is becoming more and more evident that truth is what eludes us, and in fact, we are unable to agree on what truth is.
In his new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (Convergent Books, 2021), Sohrab Ahmari considers truth through the lens of tradition, and he holds it up as a counterpoint to truth as defined and understood in today’s cultural context. Ahmari writes:
In the realm of tradition, truth is something that precedes individual human beings, something we inherit and must hand down, in turn. We can discover truth and reason about it, to be sure, but we can’t change it. In the realm of progress, however, truth is what individuals or groups can articulate or build on their own, through scientific inquiry and their acts in history. Truth thus becomes an ongoing project, a malleable thing. In our realm of progress, tradition is viewed as not only antiquated and inefficient, but as an impediment to achievement. (p. 19)
Ahmari approaches this examination between truth that produces tradition and progress that creates truth as a challenge to the modern world view. “But what if that confidence of the modern world is an illusion?” Ahmari asks. Have the truths that we moderns designed and discerned addressed any of the “fundamental human dilemmas” as he identifies in his book, that humans have encountered through the ages and that we still experience today?
The Unbroken Thread is Ahmari’s effort to examine this question, both broadly and deeply, and he makes a consistently compelling and often extraordinarily moving case in providing his commentary and observations. There are answers that the reader may understand from the stories within the pages, but as Ahmari admits, it is not his intent to provide answers so much as it is to “explore the possibility that our contemporary philosophy might be wrong in crucial respects—that we may have too hastily thrown away the insights of traditional thought and too eagerly encouraged the desire for total human mastery” (p. 21).
It is this exploration that is Ahmari’s gift to the reader, and it does not require getting far into the book to see that the treasures of antiquity are not the artifacts recovered in an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Rather, they are the stories that people pass down from one generation to the next; stories of kindness and compassion so transcendent that they can only have come from a source before us and greater than us. It may be that we can only hope to maintain and replicate the behaviors and actions from these stories through tradition, while the chaos of the modern age obscures and distracts from that realization.
The structural framework of the book provides a narrative of how some of our important traditions originated or came to us. While Ahmari is a practicing Catholic, he doesn’t limit his discussion of traditions to those stemming from Catholicism; he includes the stories from Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, and feminists in order to touch upon the fullness of humanity. The book is divided into two main sections: “Part I: The Things of God” and “Part II: The Things of Humankind.” In each section Ahmari asks six enduring questions (divided as chapters) that he feels modern culture should be able to answer, if its method of building or divining truth is sufficient and effective. The questions are about “the nature and scope of reason; our responsibility to the past and the future; how and what we worship; and how we relate to each other, to our bodies, and to suffering and death” (p. 20). One of the key points that Ahmari makes in his introduction is that philosophers and theologians have examined these questions for hundreds of years, yet the modern culture has thrown away their answers and all of the thinking behind them because we have “outgrown or become too sophisticated” for that kind of thinking, as though the value of the fruits of the mind and spirit are subject to an expiration date.
The questions themselves are thought-provoking, and I realized upon reading the table of contents that I have had both internal and external debates about every one of these questions over the course of my life. Such is the relevance of the content. Some of the questions are, “Is God Reasonable?” “Can You Be Spiritual without Being Religious?” and “What is Freedom For?” One can easily imagine chewing over these topics in a variety of social or academic contexts, and even during times of private meditation. For some people in certain situations deliberating over them can have a profound impact, and that is enough to justify the investment of time in reading.
Every question-as-chapter is structured similarly. Ahmari will begin with a short personal anecdote about his life or current situation, for example talking about his childhood in Iran or an interesting interaction with his son, Max. (Readers, by the way, owe a debt of gratitude to Ahmari’s son, as Max was largely the impetus behind the writing of the book.) Next, Ahmari will tell the deeper story that provides insight into the role of tradition as it pertains to the central question of the chapter. The story itself revolves around a historical figure (ancient or recent), and a significantly defining time in that person’s life. Some of the people whose stories Ahmari recounts are C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, Victor and Edith Turner, Qui Kong (Confucius), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The delight of Ahmari’s prose is that it is both sharply analytical in a way that both reveals underlying foundations and subtly insightful in a way that yields satisfyingly epiphanous moments of clarity. Throughout, Ahmari calls upon Christian scripture or the seminal texts from non-Christian cultures to demonstrate or exemplify the unbroken thread of a modern lesson, practice, or pearl of wisdom that ties back to some long-held yet possibly forgotten, unappreciated, or now-abandoned tradition. Not unexpectedly, Ahmari’s book covers a fair amount of ground from a historical perspective, and that contributes to the understanding of how time and tradition are intertwined, and how modernity does not negate tradition simply on the basis of its chronological position on the timeline. New thinking does not guarantee the best thinking when it comes to the deeper philosophical and theological questions.
In many ways, The Unbroken Thread is a book of paradoxes, with the central paradox being that the traditions of structure and restraint are the very keys to freedom and growth for the human experience in both body and spirit. In his introduction, Ahmari writes of Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest from Poland. In laying the foundation for Kolbe’s story, Ahmari presents some of the paradoxes in accepting tradition:
The message of tradition runs counter to “the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society.” Why? Because, Soloveitchik taught, traditional belief “speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing.” The whole of the Psalms can be summed up as finding joyous liberation in binding oneself to the Mosaic law, which the psalmist treasures as a guide to the inner structure of the cosmos. Jesus’s entire teaching, meanwhile, might be encapsulated in his Gethsemane prayer, recorded in all three of the Synoptics: “Not what I will, but what you will.” (p. 17)
Kolbe’s story illustrates perhaps the most dramatic paradox, and one that clearly lies beyond the realm of human experience and understanding without acknowledging something greater than ourselves. Maximillian Kolbe was alive during World War II, and he was staunchly and outspokenly anti-Nazi—publishing and broadcasting anti-Nazi literature and radio messages. He took further action by sheltering between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews in the monastery until the Gestapo arrested him. They sent him to Auschwitz, where Kolbe was to finish out his life.
However, once in Auschwitz, Kolbe did not cease his life’s work. He continued ministering to the prisoners at the camp, urging them not to give into hatred. He even gave alms to the poor—those poor being the other prisoners and those alms coming from his own rations. Kolbe’s story comes to an end with a prison escape in which he did not participate.
Karl Fritzsch, the deputy commandant at Auschwitz, would carry out the punishment for the prisoner who escaped, which was to select 10 men to die of starvation. When the men were selected, one of the condemned cried out that he had a wife and children. Kolbe volunteered to take the other man’s place, and Fritzsch accepted the exchange.
After two weeks with no food or water, six of the 10 men were dead, three were unconscious, and only Kolbe remained awake and alert. He said a prayer and offered his arm as the camp guard administered the injection to complete the execution.
Here is where Ahmari writes with great awe at the paradox of Kolbe’s sacrifice:
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once Fritzsch had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. 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.
This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health workers in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible. (pp. 7-8)
Refining his thoughts inspired by the story of Kolbe’s sacrifice, Ahmari touches upon a way of thinking that cannot make sense (“renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible”) to a people or a culture that does not accept the existence of a power or authority greater than ourselves, responsible for our existence and inviting us to understand and accept that death is not the greatest thing to be feared and the end of all stories. Ahmari observes, “If sacrificial love and freedom persist today, they do so in spite of, and no thanks to, our reigning worldview. We have abandoned Kolbe’s brand of freedom—freedom rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion—in favor of one that glories in the individual will.”
Admittedly, this is not an easy message to hear and truly comprehend. Modern culture plays lip service to concepts such as sacrifice and freedom, but in discarding tradition so easily (and in some cases so completely), it is difficult to comprehend how a few decades or maybe a century or so of free-spirited self-exploration can supplant millennia of deep thought, supplication, and experience shared over generations.At the end of the book, Ahmari closes with a brief letter to his son, Maximilian. He offers up advice for his son, and he closes with the sentence, “Saint Maximilian will be there for you, too.”
After reading Ahmari’s book, I am able to take comfort in the fact that Saint Maximilian is here for me, too, as I maintain my own unbroken thread to the traditions of those who came before.