This Week’s Guest: Sohrab Ahmari
The hallmark of the American constitutional system was the idea that all men are created equal. Of course, the American regime did not live up to that ambition for centuries, but the ideal of equality was embedded in the foundation of the republic.
From equality follows freedom: if every person is created equal, then no other person has the right to tell any one else what to do. And freedom comes with a cost: the sentiment that leads a free person to resist the rule of another is the same sentiment that leads a free person to resist the wisdom and guidance of another. Thus Americans are naturally suspicious of the accumulated wisdom of the past—of tradition.
On this week’s podcast, Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, joins Mosaic‘s editor Jonathan Silver to decry that fact. In Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, he argues that Americans have been far too suspicious of tradition, and therefore have forgotten some of the ideas of the past most essential to living a meaningful life. Here, he and Silver focus on the Sabbath as one particular example of those ideas and that loss.
Musical selections are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
I worry that the way our culture forms young people, but especially young elites, is this empty promise of “keeping your options open.” It’s one of the phrases that I truly detest, and what I mean by that is because maximizing choice is often seen as the ultimate end of what it means to be a subject in liberal modernity, the thing you should strive to do is constantly to have maximal choices, and if you narrow your choices down by committing to one path, you’ve somehow limited your freedom. Of course, what that really means is because you’ve never actually taken any steps, you haven’t moved forward, your freedom has always been impotency, it has not been reduced to act, to use a kind of Aristotelian category, it’s always impotency and you didn’t exercise your freedom, you simply had choice.
That’s the kind of fear I have for my son, and I argue throughout the book that to be untethered from this deeper traditional formation that someone like Maximilian Kolbe―and lots of others in other traditions, Jewish, Muslim what have you―took for granted actually makes you less likely to leap forward. Tradition provides this sense of ordered continuity and the sense that you know where you come from and therefore you know where to go and so you’re not scared about the future. The culture of keeping your options open, although it looks like freedom on its surface, is a kind of unfreedom.