"Libertarianism is a convenient escape-hatch by which some conservatives avoid ideas deemed reactionary and unacceptable by the liberal elite, and seek respectability."
The Unbroken Thread. Sohrab Ahmari. Convergent Books, 2021.
Reviewed by Dr. Michael R. Jackson Bonner
"Partita a scacchi" (The Chess Game) by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555.
IF YOU ARE A parent raising young children now, what does success look like? How will you know that you have been a good parent? For many parents success looks something like this. Your son or daughter has been educated at an elite school and has graduated with some or other internationally-recognised diploma. After a few terms in undergrad in something like International Relations or Economics, he or she goes off to work at a hedge fund or a full-service consultancy. Your 20-something young adult makes good money, gets spiritual fulfilment from yoga, and is most likely unmarried without children by middle age. When not working, his or her free time is spent buying gadgets or travelling.
This was not the vision of the good life that my parents raised me with, but I am familiar with it from school. Despite the supposedly flexible, wide-ranging vision of the Liberal Arts curriculum, there was no emphasis on anything other than getting into and out of a university as swiftly as possible and making money thereafter. At university things were worse. Every sort of intellectual failure, moral weakness, or outright depravity could be tolerated, as long as a young person “checks the right resumé boxes and masters the patois of the professional-managerial class.” After much havering, and a brief stint majoring in psychology under Jordan Peterson at the U of T, I myself gave up the idea that whatever I studied must lead to making money. So I retreated into Classics and Oriental languages, where it was also possible to undergo an intellectual formation without contact with the modern elite obsessions which at the time were beginning to leak out of the sociology department.
My undergrad was in the early 2000s, and things are worse now. In my opinion, left-wing bias amongst professors and the contests about free speech and so forth are not so much the problem as the fact that no one has been learning anything for quite some time. Or at least no one is learning anything that would have been thought of in previous ages as humane. And perhaps there is no worse indictment of modern education than the fact that modern elites are, in general, fantastically ignorant and incompetent despite being unusually well credentialled. We need only remind ourselves that George W. Bush had been at Yale and held an MBA.
Now that I am a father, I worry a good deal about raising and educating my own children, and this is why Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The Unbroken Thread, struck a nerve. This book is the origin of the quotation about ticking resumé boxes above. That sentiment is attributed to St. Augustine’s father, Patricius, who did not care what his son believed or how debaucherously he lived, as long as he “remained on the path to a remunerative career as an orator and lawyer.” As St. Augustine eventually realised, Ahmari argues that there is and should be more to life than the freedom to pursue private pleasures. Accordingly the modern liberal vision of successful parenting that I described above, and which Ahmari also invokes, is irretrievably flawed because it fails even to consider the most important questions about human life. Is there a God; and, if so, what is he like and what does he want us to do? How should offspring treat their parents? What should our attitude to sex be? How should we die? The freedom whereby every person is allowed to work out these questions for himself (or to avoid them altogether, as the case may be) has not ushered in a better world. Add to this the voguish postmodernist view of the relativity of truth, and you have the deeply unhappy and dysfunctional society that we now live in.
So, by way of antidote, Ahmari poses and answers twelve important questions in as many essays addressed to his young son Maximilian. The model was perhaps the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius addressed to his son Commodus, who did not heed any of the advice, and possibly the letters of Seneca also. Less likely, perhaps, is the example of Constantine VII’s instruction manual on governing the Byzantine empire addressed to his son Romanus II. But there is, of course, a venerable tradition of Near Eastern wisdom literature (notably in the Shahnameh it takes the form of advice from the reigning king to his son and successor) and this may have inspired Ahmari also. The answer to each question posed by Ahmari is not a scholarly debate or a series of personal reflections, but rather a discussion of the thinkers and their ideas which best addressed the question in the past. Highlights include C. S. Lewis on the limits of scientific knowledge; Thomas Aquinas on the dangers of reason unmoored from faith; and St. Augustine and Howard Thurman (an American civil rights activist and theologian) on the necessity of submission to divine authority.
MANY DIFFERENT IDEAS and thinkers are mentioned. I was delighted to find that Confucius and Al-Ghazali make appearances alongside the emperor Nero and his tutor Seneca. But two main, overarching themes tie the book together and prevent it from being either a postmodernist pastiche or Byzantine encyclopaedism.
First, we have the conflict between a hide-bound, conservative elite and a dissident non-conformist who refutes their errors. St. Augustine vs. the last gasp of Roman paganism, Aquinas vs. the Averroists, John Henry Newman’s divinely-ordained authority vs. William Ewart Gladstone’s unlimited freedom of thought. In every case, what is now considered the mainline conservative position was the one favoured by the non-conformist. This is obviously different from the way both liberals and conservatives think of themselves and one another. Ahmari’s point is not that we should always question everything and try to stand out, but that some questions have actually been settled already and we will not be able to improve the answers.
Second, we find the idea that the natural end of liberalism is a kind of tyranny. This idea is not new. It has been articulated over and over again for the past two centuries, with Alexis de Tocqueville and Francis Fukuyama among its luminaries. But thanks to Patrick J. Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and others, the idea is getting a fresh hearing in the age of Trump and Covid-19, in which the old myth of progress (which conservatives had always rejected) seems more ridiculous than ever, and in which “market solutions” are not always possible or desirable. The idea is that the radical equality promised by liberalism means stifling the natural human desire to surpass others in excellence. It means dissolving the ties that bind individuals to families and other societies, and it demands that individual persons pursue only their own private, petty pleasures. In place of clear answers to questions about the Good Life, and so forth, liberalism offers a kind of relativism since it cannot decide between an endless array of equally free and (ostensibly) equally neutral choices.
In place of liberalism Ahmari posits a different kind of freedom: one that is bounded by natural and reasonable limits, and shaped by what has worked in the past. For Ahmari the highest form of freedom was attained by St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest at Auschwitz who willingly died in place of another prisoner — a heroic example of sacrificial love for a complete stranger in denial of his own instinctive urge to survive. “... In that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.” But this view of human freedom is incomprehensible to an audience of liberals thoroughly irradiated by the Enlightenment.
Sadly, many conservatives wholeheartedly embrace the liberal view of radical freedom; but instead of liberalism, conservatives call it libertarianism. It is a convenient escape-hatch by which to avoid ideas and points of view deemed reactionary or unacceptable by the liberal elite, and to give them an air of respectability before the same audience. This is ultimately self-defeating, though. It makes no sense, for instance, to justify the truth-claims of an exclusive religion like Christianity or Islam by resorting to ideas of freedom of religion. Nor can freedom of expression establish the equal validity of diametrically opposed views on such things as the death penalty or abortion. Sooner or later we have to decide what we actually think about such matters, defend them on their own merits, and (most critically) live our lives accordingly. Something along these lines is beginning to take shape within conservative thought now, and Ahmari’s Unbroken Thread will contribute much to it.
Originally published in the Vol . 11 No. 1, Spring-Summer 2021 print edition of The Dorchester Review (Tenth Anniversary Edition), pp. 100-102. Dr. Michael Bonner has a D.Phil. in Iranian history from Oxford University, and is a policy aide in Toronto and a contributing editor at The Dorchester Review.