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Book review: The Unbroken Thread

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, September 2, 2021

There’s nothing new about the critique of the liberal, individualistic, and materialistic character of Western societies. It’s part of a long tradition that accompanies the development of this particular state of society. Nor is there anything original in pointing to great works and traditional or classical forms of wisdom as a remedy for these wanderings.
That was the frame of mind in which I first encountered Sohrab Ahmari's most recent book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. But I was intrigued because while the theme of the book appeared to be conventional, Ahmari's approach has been praised by leading figures in American Christian intellectual circles, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
An American journalist of Iranian origin, Ahmari has worked for major publications like the Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine and is currently the op-ed editor for the New York Post. In 2016, he published the account of his conversion to Catholicism in the Catholic Herald under the title “My journey from Tehran to Rome” and has further documented his journey of faith in his book From Fire, by Water, which was published in 2019.
While Ahmari has shown a taste for polemics on some occasions, in his most recent work, presented as a kind of reflection for his son Maximilian (named in honour of Saint Maximilian Kolbe), we discover a concerned father and an intellectual capable of a refinement and subtlety that he has not always been known for.
In The Unbroken Thread Ahmari attempts to persuade the modern reader of the value of traditional forms of wisdom. Essentially composed of two sections, each subdivided into chapters, the book is structured around a series of specific questions to which the author proposes to find answers, putting forward figures who are sometimes well known to the Catholic readership but also very often from another world.
In the first part of the book, Ahmari addresses questions that he considers to be “God's business”: topics such as the meaning of life, the rationality of belief in God, and the origins of Sunday rest, for example. He also addresses questions such as the nature and necessity of politics or the possibility of a spirituality that is free of religion per se.
The second part of the book is centred on “human affairs”, as Ahmari puts it. He discusses our relationship to parental authority and autonomy of thought but also, for example, the place of human sexuality in relation to the common good. In my opinion, his reflections on our relationship to the body are the most compelling and convincing of the entire book.
What stands out most is Ahmari’s willingness and ability to make use of a broad cast of characters who have contributed to the mass of human wisdom over the centuries. While he summons to his aid outstanding figures from universal history, such as the famous Chinese sage Confucius, he also makes use of the works of surprising contemporary figures, such as the radical feminist activist Andrea Dworkin, whose polemic writings against pornography he evokes to open a fascinating reflection on the intrinsic fragility of human sexuality.
The project of rediscovering the value of the great works and traditional wisdom, though important, is certainly nothing new, and Ahmari could be criticized for the lack of subtlety in the distinctions he makes between divine and human affairs in his analytical framework. But by rooting his remarks in his experience as a young father, Ahmari gives his reflection on this familiar subject a certain strength, originality, and refinement that can be lacking in other approaches which are colder and more unrefined. Ahmari takes up the proposal here, enriching it with a diversity of actors that make it unique, and he is at his best when addressing issues closest to the dignity of the human body.

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