Liberal Modernity and Its Discontents

REVIEW: 'The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos’

May 9, 2021

About an hour north of New York City lies the tiny village of Kiryas Joel. Its residents are devotees of a particular branch of Hasidic Haredi Judaism (what in less-polite terms is called "ultra-orthodox"). Most people speak Yiddish; more than 60 percent of the population is under 18, reflecting religiously inspired large families. Strict Judaism suffuses every element of life: The town more or less grinds to a halt from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, reflecting the Jewish Sabbath, and much decision-making authority rests with the community's grand rebbe, Aaron Teitelbaum. Kiryas Joel so shuns the outside world that it once went to the Supreme Court over the unconstitutional gerrymandering of its public school district into a de facto Jews-only school system.

The French Revolution and the emergence of liberal modernity offered Jews full secular citizenship, but only if they gave up exclusively Jewish communal life and the separate magisterium of Jewish law. The modern rift between liberal and orthodox Judaism, and within both branches, is in part a dispute over this offer. The most liberal Jews forgo their relation to Judaism-as-communal-law entirely; the residents of Kiryas Joel and sister communities try as hard as possible to keep modernity out and preserve the timeless past in the present; those in between forge a middle path.

I thought a lot about what it means to truly refuse to live a modern life as I read The Unbroken Thread, the new book from New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari. A deft and thoughtful public commentator, Ahmari is part of a circle of conservative Catholic thinkers critical of liberal modernity, particularly in the liberal democratic capitalist West. As Ahmari puts it, "When I soberly examine the West as it really is, I find much wanting in its worldview and way of life," particularly its fixation on unlimited choice, to the exclusion of a structuring moral vision. The Unbroken Thread is his effort to reconstitute such a vision for the modern reader.

The book can be thought of as a spiritual sequel to Why Liberalism Failed, the 2018 tract from Notre Dame political philosopher and Ahmari comrade Patrick Deneen. Deneen's argument, in short, was that modern liberalism made freedom as choice its lodestar, and in so doing precipitated many of the then-current crises: inequality, the erosion of social capital, the emergence of radical politics on left and right, etc. All of these produced the eponymous failure.

Ahmari does not recapitulate Deneen's critique but, rather, offers a more comprehensive vision of the alternative, something Why Liberalism Failed lacked. Told as a series of didactic biographies of people who embody its values, The Unbroken Thread is a sort of layman's brief for traditionalism in the face of ever-changing modernity.

The book is not thick with philosophy—at one point, Ahmari tells the reader to simply look up Thomas Aquinas's five arguments for the existence of God, rather than explaining them—but this is not to its detriment. Although it is structured by a series of rhetorical questions, the book recalls less the Angelic Doctor, more C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, a guide for the skeptical everyman to the traditionalist's position.

That's a sensible project for someone in Ahmari's circles. Highfalutin essays about "integralism" or "Gelasian dyarchy" are not likely to persuade many of the Catholic traditionalist position, and a book slightly more conciliatory toward the modern reader makes a degree of sense.

That said, there is a certain contradiction to this project. The premise of the book's title is that there is indeed such an "unbroken thread," a tradition of the past which has been handed down and which liberal moderns can easily pick up. But, "The past," as author L.P. Hartley put it, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

In the sort of conservative circles I ran in in college, there was a strange creature called the traditionalist. These "trads" took great joy in their denunciations of modernity, in their veneration of the Latin Mass and casual reactionary gestures—sword canes, cloaks, etc. These types liked to bemoan the fact that they had been robbed of the simple, spiritual life of pre-modernity, the joys of serfdom and so-forth.

Ahmari is, of course, more nuanced than these teenaged reactionaries. But both seem to pale in their commitment to the actual value of pre-modernity by comparison to communities which truly embrace it—the Satmar Hasidim of Kiryas Joel, for example.

In Ahmari's case, this is not so much a judgment of his personal life (about which I am ignorant), but that which goes said and unsaid in The Unbroken Thread. Take, for example, the chapter on sex. Asking how, à la Augustine and chapter protagonist/radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, we might imagine sex free from lust, Ahmari insists he draws a blank, alluding only vaguely to Catholic theories of natural law, which he thinks Dworkin ought to have explored further.

But of course as a doctrinaire Catholic, Ahmari can be in no sense vague as to what centuries of church doctrine have said about the proper uses of sex: that it should happen only in the marital union between man and woman, and that it be ordered only toward procreation. Yet same-sex marriage goes unmentioned throughout the book. Hot-button social issues like transgenderism and abortion similarly receive only passing reference.

This is not, obviously, a matter of ignorance or dishonesty on Ahmari's part but a rhetorical choice. His purpose is to persuade an audience of liberal, cosmopolitan elites—the sort of people who actually buy nonfiction books—of the propriety of tradition per se, not of particular reactionary positions.

That's a noble agenda, but by trying to operate on those terms, Ahmari risks giving the game away. Yes, his liberal interlocutor might reply, ritual and tradition sound nice; a break on the sabbath sounds charming; some things are in fact worth dying for. But assenting to those principles does not require him to accept the far more stringent critique of liberal modernity, in which Ahmari and his compatriots are so invested, nor to agree with them on the concrete issues about which they feel strongest.

The past, as it turns out, is far weirder than we imagine, and to recover its way of living a far more grueling proposition—as the residents of Kiryas Joel show—than we might like to believe. Those who wish to "discover the wisdom of tradition," as Ahmari's subtitle puts it, have a far steeper path in front of them; to get there by degrees is to go nowhere at all.

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
by Sohrab Ahmari
Convergent Books, 320 pp., $27

Published under: Book reviews