Sohrab Ahmari was born in Tehran and, at 13, immigrated with his family to the United States. After law school, he established himself as a journalist in London and New York, and in 2016 converted to the Catholic faith. He currently serves as opinion editor of the New York Post.
His fourth book, The Unbroken Thread, is an achievement in scholarship, journalism, and entertainment. As befits his impressive résumé, Mr. Ahmari writes here as journalist, historian, and biographer. Somewhat reminiscent of William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Ahmari’s book is a series of illustrative stories each of which answers one of a dozen questions such as: “How do you justify your life?” (the first question); and “What’s good about death?” (appropriately, the last).
In each case, the answer is presented through the life story of someone who lived the answer. Unlike Bennett’s bestseller, this is not a collection of stories from many sources, but a dozen short biographies by Ahmari that send the reader on a journey, as the book’s subtitle puts it, Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
Among those whose lives and wisdom are described are Confucius, Socrates, the Stoics, Tertullian, St. Augustine, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Of special interest to readers of The Catholic Thing are Ahmari’s consideration of the life and example of St. Maximilian Kolbe, after whom the author and his wife have named their son, and St. John Henry Newman. I’ll come to them later.
But let me begin with another luminary: C.S. Lewis, whose life and work are the subject of the opening chapter. Ahmari describes Lewis’s transition from a kind of militant, cynical secularism to, finally and for always, orthodox Christianity. Of Lewis’s many books, Ahmari focuses on the novel, Out of the Silent Planet, in which the villain Weston’s progressive scientism couldn’t be more applicable to our present moment, as when Weston says: “All educated opinion – for I do not call classics and history and such trash education – is entirely on my side.” Ahmari rightly sees this iconoclasm manifest in disparate yet related modern ideologies: from American social Darwinism to German Nazism.
It pained Lewis to recall his own flirtation with atheism and scientism, and the story of his life is a map for others seeking escape from a dangerous, ideological future. Ahmari writes that scientism (and relativism):
invite us to despair (and immorality) by suggesting that the timeless problems of being human don’t have right or wrong, true or false, answers – since neither the questions nor the potential answers can be kept contained in the world of sensible, measurable facts.
Whereas the only thing that truly justifies is God’s truth.
In both the Introduction to The Unbroken Thread and its brief Conclusion (“A Letter to Maximilian”), Ahmari’s son is very much on the author’s mind, because he wants the boy to grow up to be a man of wisdom and virtue. That began with the choice of his name, which – throughout his life – will evoke for him the spiritual presence of St. Kolbe. Obviously, the most important, revealed virtue of Maximilian Kolbe’s life and death is self-sacrifice. Of course, we pray that Maximilian Ahmari will never face what Kolbe did. “As a father-to-be,” Ahmari writes, “I could imagine how it would have felt to be the prisoner Kolbe saved. But to be the man who volunteers to step into the shoes of one condemned – now, that was something else.”
Kolbe’s life story is a testimony to faith and courage but also to freedom. But with the inspiration that comes from the saint’s story there also comes worry. “If sacrificial love and freedom persist today, they do so in spite of, and no thanks to, our reigning worldview.”
Ahmari also knows the allure of modernity’s passion for self-satisfaction.
A radically assimilated immigrant isn’t supposed to complain about his freedom. Yet as I grow into my faith and my role as a father, I tremble over the prospect of my son’s growing up in an order that doesn’t erect any barriers against individual appetites and, if anything, goes out of its way to demolish existing barriers.
Then there’s the example of Newman. Forty years ago, I saw a newly issued edition of John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The cover, among the usual publisher platitudes, proclaimed: “He was a liberal!” Having read the book, I thought I knew better – and did. As Ahmari writes:
“My battle,” [Newman] would insist, “was with liberalism; by liberalism, I mean the anti-dogmatic principle,” the “lawless” notion [Ahmari continues] that every first principle, every dogma, every authority, and every hierarchy was up for questioning. Thus, Newman held in his mind two seemingly contradictory beliefs – first, that the conscience was sacred and inviolable; and second, that unlimited freedom of thought was not a good but rather a wellspring of error and chaos.
Exactly. And this is very much what led Newman out of Anglicanism and into Catholicism: the twin recognitions, as Ahmari writes, that the “individual soul was called to submit to the authority of an apostolic body tracing to Christ’s first followers, and that body’s judgments couldn’t be wrong.”
This also leads to a discussion of how we discern right and wrong, and Newman would be delighted with the way Ahmari transitions into a discussion of natural/Divine law with the example of toddlers disputing possession of a toy: “Each child firmly believes that there is a solemn, unwritten Law of Toddler Land that the other has transgressed. Even as they disagree passionately over who should keep the toy, they are in passionate agreement that there is such a law.”
Ahmari says you can’t be your own pope, yet many “feel they have to reinvent the moral wheel daily, which is the height of arrogance, not to mention utterly exhausting.”
If you’re feeling “exhausted” or just looking for refreshment and renewed energy, read The Unbroken Thread.