This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The modern world is on autopilot. We busy ourselves with frivolous entertainment — chain-dating included — and the fanatical pursuit of material gain. We slog away, neglecting family and friends, and burn ourselves out young. Rarely, if ever, do we stop and ask ourselves the simple question: “why?”
This, Sohrab Ahmari believes, is no coincidence. Modernity, he argues in The Unbroken Thread, is not some triumph of technological progress, but a coping mechanism: a series of shallow tricks to distract ourselves from the big existential questions we no longer know how to answer. The “modern world,” he writes, “is an illusion, the product of a determined resolution not to confront the fundamental dilemmas of what it means to be fully human.” Beneath the fast-paced, everything-on-demand convenience of contemporary life, there “lurks a deep soul-soreness”.
His is a familiar concern. The intellectual historian Richard Weaver called modernity “practice without theory”. The philosopher Leszek Kołakowski described it as “patching up”. The Anglican novelist Dorothy L. Sayers believed we were scraping by on the inherited “moral capital” of our religious past (a point Nietzsche would no doubt have agreed with, albeit from the opposite direction). Ahmari shares with all these thinkers a basic intuition that, at some point, something’s going to have to give.
For him, the only way out is to return to the religious traditions of our past. Born in Iran, at the age of thirteen Ahmari moved to the United States, where today he is one of America’s most pugnacious conservative pundits. Despite having stubbornly resisted the strictures of the Islamic Republic as a child, and having idealised the secular freedoms of the West as a teen, he converted in 2016 to Catholicism, and now writes, among other things, a regular column for the religious journal First Things.
Ahmari draws on a number of traditions for The Unbroken Thread — Catholicism, Judaism, Confucianism, Stoicism, and even radical feminism. The book is arranged around twelve questions posed — almost rhetorically — to the modern era. How must you serve your parents? What is freedom for? Can you be spiritual without being religious? Finding contemporary answers lacking, Ahmari then whizzes us back in time to tell the stories of figures from our past who might shed more light on the matter.
Modernity is not some triumph of technological progress, but a coping mechanism
The effect is striking. One moment we’re with the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner in Zambia, studying the religious rituals of the Ndembu people. The next, we’re walking the dusty roads of the ancient Lu Kingdom with Confucius. The next, we’re studying Gnosticism with the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, under the steely supervision of Martin Heidegger.
It’s an unusual approach, and one that makes for a refreshingly zippy read. Ahmari’s prose is crisp and clear, and the emphasis on personal stories brings a life and colour to discussions that can often otherwise become stodgy. Even those familiar with the subject area will discover one or two tales or protagonists they’d never encountered. If Ahmari’s goal really was, as he modestly puts it in his introduction, simply to get us to “rethink” a few of his twelve questions, he certainly succeeded.
The difficulty with the structure, though, is that by constantly oscillating between past and present, he inevitably leaves gaps. The first is chronological. We get no real sense of how the traditions Ahmari appeals to declined, changed, or morphed into modernity. This seems to me a deficiency in an apologia for traditional forms of wisdom, which — unlike modern, pluck-it-off-the-shelf ideologies — gain at least some of their explanatory power from having stood the test of time, evolving out of the accumulated experiences of millions of people.
The second has to do with truth. We get various snapshots of modernity, usually at its worst, and some sample swatches of tradition, usually at its best. What we don’t really get is any comprehensive philosophical comparison of the two. Yes, the teachings of Confucius seem instinctively more reasonable to us than, say, the idea of billing our parents for assistance in their old age. But visceral displeasure with the uglier aspects of modernity won’t be enough, on its own, to convince us of the philosophical truth of any particular religion. Unless we can tackle that central question, picking a tradition is just another lifestyle choice.
Ahmari would probably argue that a detailed philosophical analysis would go beyond the scope of the book, and he’s understandably reluctant to get into the nitty-gritty of any single faith while making a case for tradition more generally. One way round the problem, though, would have been to include a brief chapter outlining the main contradictions of modernity, and to have shown that any of the traditions he mentions at least avoid these basic pitfalls.
Most religions, for instance, can give a compelling explanation for the existence of human reason, free will, consciousness, and some kind of a moral code. Modernity, on the other hand, claims that reason is merely the untrustworthy by-product of our evolutionary past, and that the other three are illusions — which rather undermines its capacity to make any kind of argument at all.
Ahmari does touch on some of these issues in the chapters on C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, and Solzhenitsyn, but all too briefly. Indeed, one drawback of the structure is that it ends up presenting each of the twelve questions as equals — when they’re not. The fact that modernity cannot justify its own ability to make reasoned arguments is ultimately a far bigger problem than, say, the fact that it’s excessively libertine.
If Ahmari’s goal really was simply to get us to “rethink” a few of his twelve questions, he certainly succeeded
What I most wish Ahmari had explored a little more, though, is modernity as a philosophical tradition of its own. Today, we approach existential questions not from some neutral starting point, but already swimming in a soup of — often contradictory — scientistic and relativistic assumptions. The big questions, we say, have all been answered, and in any case, there were never any answers to be had in the first place.
There are, therefore, a number of deep psychological barriers for most people today even to perceiving the wisdom of tradition. We are, as the philosopher Charles Taylor put it, “buffered selves” — as incapable of sensing the transcendent as a blind person is of seeing a sunset.
Ahmari does hint at a couple of reasons why — touching, in the chapter on Solzhenitsyn, for instance, on the creep of legalism. But others could have had a quick look-in, too. The fact that — as Alasdair MacIntyre says — we blithely continue to use the moral language of our religious forebears, despite having snipped it from its roots, conceals just how ill-equipped modernity is to furnish us with an ethical code of its own.
The fact that we treat the destruction of taboos as a good in itself means, as Kołakowski pointed out, that it’s hard to preserve the “positive” taboos necessary for the proper functioning of society.
Also the fact that, as Richard Weaver said, our intellectual map of the world is becoming fragmented — thanks, in part, to increasing academic specialisation, but also to the spread of the Baconian obsession with particulars into every domain of life — means we instinctively recoil from the very idea of any overriding purpose.
It would be good to see Ahmari explore some of these ideas in a follow-up book — something I’m sure he would do very well. The Unbroken Thread is an engaging and entertaining read — but it feels like a project that’s only just beginning.
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