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Is This What You Mean by Liberty?

Sohrab Ahmari's latest book presents compelling critiques of the modern understanding of human freedom.
Is This What You Mean by Liberty?

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, by Sohrab Ahmari, (Convergent Books: 2021), 320 pages.

When the Revolution began its sweep through France in 1789, François-René de Chateaubriand was not yet 21. The young aristocrat, then a lieutenant in the French Royal Army, found himself torn: between the world into which he was born and the world now at its birth; between his sympathies for progress and the prestige afforded him by the ancien régime; between, in short, the known goods of tradition and the promises of liberation.

As the violence rolled on, Chateaubriand’s choice grew less and less difficult. When he witnessed a mob parading the severed heads of its enemies through the streets, the falsity of the promise became undeniable. Running to the window, Chateaubriand shouted: “You brigands, is this what you mean by liberty?” He later wrote that he would have shot them there if he had had a gun. After a brief escape to America, the soldier returned to his homeland to fight on the side of the royalists. He would go on to become one of the great men of letters of the counter-revolution, with his seminal Génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity) playing a major part in the renewal of public Christianity in the Napoleonic era.

Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post and one of the most notable “post-liberals” to emerge from the wreckage of the dead consensus, recounts the story of Chateaubriand’s mugging by reality in the introduction to his new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Much like the young Chateaubriand, Ahmari has witnessed the chaos of the liberal moment—though now in its twilight rather than its dawn—and can only ask the champions of the age, “Is this what you mean by liberty?”

Ahmari rose to prominence on the right in the summer of 2019, when his First Things essay “Against David French-ism” fired the starting shot in a conservative civil war decades in the making. Set off by the phenomenon of “drag queen story hours,” in which men dress as women and read books (typically of gay propaganda) to young children in public libraries, Ahmari wrote that the centrist, ideologically liberal conservatism typified by then–National Review writer David French could not meet such challenges adequately; that commitment to nothing higher than procedural norms and Enlightened conceptions of freedom was not a viable or defensible program for the American right; that sincere conservatives must instead “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

In response, the voices of the establishment right reaffirmed the primacy of unbound freedom. French himself, in a public debate between the two men, went so far as to praise drag queen story hour as “one of the ‘blessings of liberty’” mentioned in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The conservative intelligentsia sorted into two opposing camps as each doubled down on its position. Soon, Ahmari was espousing integralism in the pages of the Catholic Herald, even as the premier pundits of the liberal right decried the rise of a fledgling authoritarian while simultaneously mocking him as unserious and impractical.

This book, Ahmari’s third, follows From Fire by Water, a spiritual memoir of the writer’s journey to the Roman Catholic Church. The Unbroken Thread is ostensibly a defense of traditionalism in the form of 12 explorations of anti-modern thinkers, ranging from Aquinas to Andrea Dworkin. It is that, and an admirable execution to boot. At the same time, however, this book too contains an interesting element of autobiography: Throughout these 12 brief intellectual studies, the reader who has followed Ahmari’s work can track his attempts (perhaps subconscious) to answer the accusations of his critics and to sort out the same questions he first posed publicly two years ago.

In response to the charges of impracticality, Ahmari constructs a programmatic guide that, while not laying out particular temporal goals for the New Right, still instructs the post-liberal citizen on how to engage with his community, both living and dead. Clearly deeply conscious of the charges of tyrannophilia, he roots the entire project in a revised understanding of the very principle his opponents claim to prize.

Thus, as much as The Unbroken Thread is a book about tradition, it is also one about liberty: what it is, and what it isn’t. Though hardly the pragmatic policy platform demanded by his critics, the book does present the positive, alternative vision that Ahmari’s previous polemics failed to explore in detail. It becomes clear that his post-liberalism is not a denunciation of liberty per se, nor even of a political order that prizes it. It is, rather, a denunciation of a polity that does not even know what liberty really is.

If by liberty we mean the right to host drag queen story hour in a public library, then we could hardly blame men and women of good will for denying any claim to it. If by liberty we mean a life-long free-float in an ever-expanding sea of open possibilities then it would not, in fact, be proper to the dignity of man.

Some chapters of the book are devoted to debunking this modern conception of freedom and all its empty promises. An overview of the conflict between liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone and Catholic intellectual Fr. John Henry Newman over conscience and authority convinces that something more than Pelagian individualism is needed; that the atomic rationalism underlying modern liberalism, while promising to free the human person from undue constraints, cannot do that or anything else. A look at the relatively obscure German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, a 20th-century authority on ancient Gnosticism, suggests the chaotic consequences of a liberationist rejection of bodily limitations. The treatment of Andrea Dworkin—which casts the radical, anti-porn feminist as a sort of “Augustinian moralist,” drawing her into a Christian tradition of sexual ethics she explicitly rejected—is particularly compelling in its use of a highly modern thinker to delegitimize the first and highest freedom of post-’60s liberalism: free love.

These chapters are meant to cast doubt on a concept of freedom that can include the psychological abuse of children and other acts of license that undermine the dignity of the human person. In doing so, they suggest that the supposed tyranny of confident moralism can hardly be as dangerous as the reigning tyranny of false freedom.

But what is true freedom? What should we mean by liberty?

To answer this question, Ahmari examines a few exemplary lives. The most obviously related to liberty is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident who frames Ahmari’s chapter “What is Freedom For?” Solzhenitsyn’s own life and his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich depict stark contrasts between false freedom and true.

Ahmari’s most enthralling model of true freedom—because the most extreme—is Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Catholic priest who volunteered to die at Auschwitz in the stead of a husband and father who had been chosen for execution. Ahmari’s young son, Max, for whom this book was written, is named in honor of the martyr. What Ahmari calls Kolbe’s “perfect freedom” is “freedom rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of tradition and religion.” It is the freedom of achieving man’s intended end, of willingly surrendering to the Highest Good, in contrast to the false freedoms of a long and aimless, unmoored modern life.

Ahmari’s aim in The Unbroken Thread is to point toward that freedom, by way of the traditions that have upheld and ordered it for centuries. It is a meditation on the paradox of just limits: “that for our best, highest selves to soar, other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound.” It is a roadmap through the ruins of modernity to the true blessings of liberty, which may in the end be found in a gulag, or a death camp, or at the Cross.

The subject of the final chapter is another who, like Kolbe, went willingly to an unjust death, and in so doing realized a paradoxical but profound kind of freedom: the first-century Stoic and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Once an esteemed imperial advisor, Seneca fell from Nero’s favor and was ordered to be executed.

Much of the philosopher’s career had been devoted to death and the proper approach to it, so when Seneca finally met it, though his death sentence was entirely undeserved, he met it willingly. That Seneca was not chained by any worldly concerns, that he did not rage or struggle against natural limits in favor of chosen ones, is for Ahmari both high virtue and perfect freedom.

Seneca’s “inextinguishable nobility,” he writes at book’s end, “appears so terribly distant amid the squalor and confusion of an age in which each of us risks becoming a paranoid Claudius or a gadget-wielding little Nero. It is far from clear that we might reach back and grasp something of that nobility.”

In the final image of a noble Roman resolute and dutiful in the face of death, one cannot help but hear echoes of Spengler’s soldier at Pompeii, who died at his post because nobody had relieved him. Yet Ahmari cannot muster even Spengler’s optimism, and his cynical conclusion does not quite match up with either our current situation or his own preceding 260 pages.

We find ourselves, almost exactly, in Seneca’s position. Our government is equal parts tyrannical and unstable. Any public morality has been corrupted by centuries of cultural erosion and a long string of political upheavals. It was only by claiming as his own a tradition whose moment had seemingly come and gone centuries past and in a foreign land that the Roman Stoic managed to stand against the spirit of his age, and so to earn the admiration of those who would do the same nearly two millennia later.

It was in spite of his circumstances—against the odds and the pressures of a hostile world—that Seneca, like Kolbe and Solzhenitsyn, found true freedom. It is incumbent upon us to do likewise, to reach back into the past for the fragile but unbroken thread that can bind and set us free.

Our prospects may be far from certain, but it seems fair to say that we have at least as much hope as the disfavored subjects of Nero, which may be as much hope as there ever is.

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