By Jonathon Van Maren
Last month, Ben Sixsmith penned an interesting column for The Critic titled “The Trouble with Tradition.” Sixsmith is a thoughtful writer, and he tackled the problem of the Right’s reflexive love of tradition: What does it mean in practice? Are all traditions worth defending? Why are so many online “trads” insufferable? The column includes this perfect little tidbit:
[Trads] often have rhapsodic notions of their future on a little farm with ten children and a wife who somehow keeps her figure, even as they live in London, work in IT and camp out in the direct messages of unattainable women. There is a pervasive sense of unreality, as if an ideological universe is being created that bears no relation to the world in which we live.
That made me laugh out loud. For those of you unfamiliar with “trad discourse” online, it is often chockfull of trolls who spend more time engaging in vaguely misogynistic nostalgia for the pre-Industrial Revolution world and the return of various monarchies than any meaningful discussion of what it means to live a traditional life in a post-modern and post-Christian society. They make great memes featuring quotes superimposed over bucolic paintings, but they’re short on solutions.
Of course, the term “tradition” is itself a useless term unless we get more specific, and that brings me to Sohrab Ahmari’s recent book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Here Ahmari does the work that Sixsmith suggests we must—to hammer out what traditions we’ve lost, and how we might bring them back. Despite Ahmari’s laudable attempt to cast the net wide enough to encompass many traditions (only four of the profiled thinkers are Catholic), he does fall into the typical trap of the new Catholic convert—he takes shots at Protestantism. That, I suppose, is his tradition—but as someone from the Calvinist tradition, I note that critique up front.
The Unbroken Thread is still well worth a read for traditional-minded Protestants. Ahmari eloquently articulates why traditions are useful and particularly relevant in our age of chaos and suggests concrete ways of rediscovering and reclaiming them, framed around twelve questions that make up the book’s chapters. As a non-papist, I found I could skip past the obvious “come home to Rome” undertones and appreciate The Unbroken Thread for what it is: a call to return to ways of life that we have not only abandoned, but, for both many Protestants and Catholics, forgotten entirely.
For example, Ahmari might have gotten on great with my grandfather, a member of the Lord’s Day Association. Ahmari’s chapter on keeping the Sabbath day holy is simply brilliant. Even for most Christians in the 24-7 economy of the materialist West, Sunday has become just another day for making and spending money. Ahmari lays out why the Sabbath is so important to human thriving—perhaps even more so today than in years past. In a world roaring with noise, a day for re-centring, reflection, and worship is desperately needed. Additionally, as I noted in a column on the same subject featuring several of Ahmari’s insights for The Interim, Sunday as a day set apart could be a unique opportunity for political coalition building.
In one of the most interesting chapters, Ahmari profiles radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who famously campaigned against pornography. He points out that some of her work actually manages to get quite close to the truth, despite her hostility to religion and—well-earned considering the abuse she suffered—men. He relates one anecdote about a conversation between Dworkin and Allen Ginsberg, a homosexual Beatnik poet who advocated for the legalization of sex between men and boys. Ginsberg, assuming co-belligerence between the radical feminist agenda and his own, complained to Dworkin that: “The Right wants to put me in jail.”
“Yes,” she replied. “They’re very sentimental. I’d kill you.” He thought she was joking. She responded by making clear that she was not. Her moral hatred of pedophilia, pornography, and sexual abuse was conveyed in her searing prose (she once noted that the Left’s embrace of pornography was a fundamental betrayal: “The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.”) Ahmari’s inclusion of Dworkin aptly conveys the truth of an observation by John Calvin: “In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from the creator.”
Intellectuals of all sorts make an appearance in The Unbroken Thread: Augustine, Aquinas, Confucius, C.S. Lewis, and Seneca among them. He successfully mines their lives and works for age-old wisdom, and despite my disagreements with some of his conclusions, he proves himself to be the most useful sort of thinker—a public intellectual, working through practical ways to engage with the past in genuinely helpful ways. The Unbroken Thread, like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option or Live Not By Lies, is the sort of book thinking Christians may find helpful as they attempt to make their lives in the rubble of our collapsing civilization. I hope to see more from him in this same vein. I’ll be buying whatever he writes.