Below we present a commentary on Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in the Age of Chaos, delivered by Expert Contributor Mary Eberstadt at a Notre Dame University panel discussion May 6, 2021. Her statement begins in the video above at 23:01.
The Posterity Gap
First, congratulations to Sohrab on this new book. It’s wise, full of inspirational stories, powerfully argued, and entertaining to read. That’s a rare combination of literary virtues. The Unbroken Thread is also a fine example of apologetics without apology, and of serious learning handled lightly. The book’s tone and sweep reminded me of the classic works of Will and Ariel Durant, two of the twentieth century’s best popular-izers and defenders of Western civ. Especially since Western civ has come under overt, if increasingly ill-informed, attack, we’ve needed more writers like them. The Unbroken Thread is a spirited addition to the club.
For openers, I’d like to offer three brief reflections on the book’s argument.
First, in addition to its sure success in ruffling feathers in all the best places, its thesis has the benefit of being right. Right – and elemental. As the author says, putting into words the fears of many parents today, “What kind of man will contemporary Western culture chisel out of my son?”
That is a question before every parent and every person who cares about the United States to come. Once upon a time and not that long ago, many people would have answered that creating a better America meant simply: more and more freedom. By 2021, that answer has become far from self-evident.
More freedom and less regulation helped to fuel, not ameliorate, the opioid and heroin and fentanyl crisis. As Sohrab shows, more freedom and less regulation also do not diminish the pornography that poisons kids and wrecks romances. As he also notes, it is liberalism’s unthinking promise of “more freedom” – meaning, in practice, its reckless undermining of all authority – that laid the groundwork for today’s cancel culture. To the extent that we do need “more freedom” today – such as more genuine free speech – it is to correct what license, not the absence of license, created in the first place.
Second, the world needs this book in another sense: because it is an act of posterity. It’s a handing down of distilled truths, pursued and thrashed out at personal cost, for the benefit of someone who cannot yet understand them. In that sense, this book is profoundly conservative. In a moment when many Americans fret over what conservatism means, we can say with certainty that one thing it means is this: conservatives care about posterity, we care about our magnificent albeit sometimes troubled national heritage, and we care about the human beings, born and unborn, who will someday take the place of those of us leaving carbon footprints today.
Third, it also seems to me that in devising this act of posterity, Sohrab hits — as he so often does — on one of deepest fault lines of our time. Let’s call it the posterity gap.
The haves and have-nots of our time are not those of yesterday’s material-minded world. Today’s gap isn’t over bling. At the rate of exciting people who might fruitlessly try to DM me on Twitter, today’s divide is not only about race or gender, either. Rather, Americans appear split between those who believe that our past abounds with civilizational treasures, heroes, and traditions that we should pass on – and those who disdain and would trample underfoot in rage every last one of those things.
The idea that the religious, philosophical, artistic, literary, and other traditions of the West are not treasures is one of the most lethal of our age. That idea has been contaminating the humanities for over half a century now, and it has now brought forth a spectacle inimical to humanity itself: legions of people, most of them young, who believe that everything predating them is a mere and useless social construct.
Those people, more than any others, need the knowledge and wisdom of the past, including as The Unbroken Thread distills them. Confucius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas et al. are far better companions for the young than the self-dealing hucksters and wounded psyches who govern so much of our conversational agenda today. Young people are being fed lies for one reason above all: because the authorities around them don’t care if they find a way to a good and fulfilled life or not.
So let’s hope they find their way to this book, and to other works that aspire to put out positive truths, rather than negative lies. And if those who argue on behalf of tradition take flak for it, as all do, so be it. Cowardice and self-censorship are getting old. The emboldened counterculture is just getting started, and The Unbroken Thread helps to pick up the pace.