In the 1960s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly penned “The Gulag Archipelago,” an indictment of the Soviet system that was so profound and damning that it helped usher the downfall of Soviet communism.
Solzhenitsyn saw the evils of communism with stark clarity. But after he was exiled and moved to the United States, he would shock the world with his critique of the West, specifically the excessive freedoms he witnessed and the “abyss of human decadence.”
What does true freedom mean? Is it possible for a man in a gulag to actually be freer than a man enjoying the greatest wealth the world has to offer?
So argues Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.”
Jan Jekielek: Sohrab Ahmari, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Sohrab Ahmari: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve really been enjoying reading “The Unbroken Thread.” It’s a fascinating, fascinating book. It’s almost like you decided that you wanted to look at tradition and see if there’s a value for tradition in today’s increasingly progressive world, a fascinating meditation on these questions. You look at all sorts of historical figures and what they had to say about life and about freedom. So what inspired you to write this book?
Mr. Ahmari: Sure. I wrote this book for my son, Max. He’s now four years old. But when I started to write it, he was two years old. When I was childless and unmarried in my 20s, I was working for the Wall Street Journal opinion pages in New York and London. I enjoyed all the dynamism that our progressive world offers—just the sense that you can work anywhere, party anywhere.
But that all changed when my wife and I learned that we would be having our first child. Suddenly what looks like this barrier-dissolving, do anything you want, choice-maximizing impulse of our liberal order was a threat in some ways to my son, because I want to hand down to him something more solid than that.
I worry about the kind of man that a world that constantly says, “Just do what you please to get ahead in life. There’s nothing more to our common life together than just pleasing your baser appetites.”—what kind of a man with such a world would chisel out of my son.
So that was the anxiety that prompted me to write this book. It’s a book that’s written for my son. It’s an attempt to bind him in a way to an older way of looking at the world, encapsulated by the term tradition, that says that you’re not free just to the extent that you’re unregulated and can do whatever you want or choose from the widest range of options. But really true freedom lies in accepting limits, pursuing a life of virtue, and governing yourself. So the book is in a way, ultimately, a fatherly love letter.
Mr. Jekielek: Indeed, and you named your son after St. Maximilian Kolbe, which I discovered while reading, who is actually someone in whom I found inspiration in my life as well, being Polish. My nephew is also his namesake.
Mr. Ahmari: He told me, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Before we go there, though, you’re a devout Catholic. Clearly from reading the book, I get that sense. But I don’t think you wrote this book just for Catholics. It’s a very interesting look from all sorts of angles, actually.
Mr. Ahmari: Yes. I thought, I need to raise some questions in the mind of my son and hopefully in the mind of the reader—questions that poke holes in our contemporary, liberal, secular, technocratic certainties. Obviously I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. I’m a journalist; I’m a storyteller, but what I can do is tell the story of great ideas.
So what I do is pose 12 questions that our contemporary society is very confident don’t matter anymore—questions about how do you justify your life? Is it reasonable to believe in God? And if there is a God, why would he want you to take a day off once a week? I would explore each of those through the life of one great thinker.
You’re right that those thinkers represent a really wide range of traditions. There are definitely some Catholics, maybe about a fourth. But there are also Protestants, a pagan thinker like Seneca, Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Abraham and Joshua Heschel, even Confucius.
Mr. Jekielek: Atheist thinkers, even.
Mr. Ahmari: Atheist thinkers like Andrea Dworkin who was a brilliant radical feminist, actually. We can get to how uneasily they may sit with each other—St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dworkin, and then a rabbi. The way that I do this is, I don’t suggest that all these people all agree on everything, because obviously they don’t, but they represent a tradition.
All those traditions stand for this idea that there are limits we adhere to which make us free. And accepting limits, like the fact that you have an embodied existence—that we are born into bodies and don’t seek to transcend the body through various kinds of technological means—or death as a limit itself, or the Sabbath as a limit on how much we work. These limits make us free, paradoxically.
Also, paradoxically, the demolition of these limits, although it seems like that would come in the name of liberation, getting rid of the limits makes us less free, makes us slaves to our appetites and slaves to our baser side. So that’s what ties these 12 traditions together, even though on the surface, you’re right, there’s such a diversity of thinkers represented in this work.
Mr. Jekielek: The other thing that I’ve really enjoyed a lot is that I don’t think you offer a ton of definitive answers, either. But you really got me thinking about these types of questions. You lead off talking about St. Maximilian Kolbe. I will tell you the question I was thinking right after remembering his life.
The centerpiece of what most people know about him is that he gave his life in Auschwitz, so that another common person beside him could live. What struck me is this sort of act in our society would seem almost senseless. Why would you do that? He was clearly more socially important and valuable or something than the other guy, or at least to me it would seem that way.
Yet, he made a decision. Then you argue that this is almost like a radical exposition of freedom by making this decision, but I don’t think most people here would think of it that way.
Mr. Ahmari: We can now give the spoiler away, as it were, that the Max that I mentioned who’s my son is named after Maximilian Kolbe. The thread in the title of the book is essentially the thread I’m hoping to use to lasso my son and tie him back to a deeper tradition represented by the sacrifice of Kolbe. Kolbe—you know the story because you’re a Pole.
He was a Franciscan friar who was rounded up by the Nazis during World War II. He lived a remarkable life before all of this. But his claim to fame is this moment in which he’s rounded up, imprisoned in Auschwitz, and someone from his prison block escapes.
The usual practice of the camp commandant was that for every one person who would escape, he would choose 10 men randomly to die from that prison block. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was not among the 10 chosen. But when he heard another of the condemned men cry out, “My wife, my children.” He was a married man. He (Kolbe) stepped forward from the line and said, “I’ll take his place,” and stepped into this kind of horrible punishment bunker where you just die of starvation.
When I read the story I was 31 years old and on the cusp of becoming a Christian. When I heard that story, it just floored me. It wasn’t the kind of story where you think, “Okay, that’s very moving. Nice, put it away.” I had to do something with it. So I named my son after him.
But more than that, I had to think about what he did and what made that choice possible. When you’re at Auschwitz—I can’t imagine it and none of us can directly—but when you’re in a situation like that, your range of choices is very narrow. You don’t get to choose what you eat and how you dress. That’s all pre-determined for you by this evil system.
So if freedom just means having the widest range of choices in this kind of sense, and fulfilling your own desire for well-being, then you can’t be free in a situation like that. But if freedom means overcoming yourself and achieving a degree of spiritual mastery, then St. Maximilian Kolbe at that moment was the freest man in Europe, even though he was in a concentration camp.
And those two accounts of freedom differ. One of them, which is the relatively modern account, the one that I worry will shape my son, says, “Just do as you please. Freedom means to just be unregulated and chase after your own material well-being. But there’s this older and deeper account of freedom that says, “Freedom is overcoming yourself, maybe even overcoming yourself unto death.”
It’s that account of freedom that I fear we’re about to lose. Plenty of people make sacrifices like that, nurses and doctors during the COVID pandemic, and mothers and fathers all around the world. But the ideology that governs the modern West, unfortunately, I argue, makes an action like St. Maximilian Kolbe’s become insensible. Why would you do that? Just look out for number one, and that’s it. That’s freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, okay, but why would you? Why would you?
Mr. Ahmari: So why would you do that? In his case, there are many instances in which you would overcome yourself just for natural reasons. That makes sense, right? You actually recognize that giving in to all your, let’s say, sexual appetites ultimately doesn’t make you happy. It leaves you feeling actually the opposite of happy. It makes you feel miserable.
But in his case, it’s a kind of supernatural idea of freedom, where, really, it’s an image of the cross. Jesus tells his followers that there’s no greater love than to lay down your life for a stranger. In Maximilian Kolbe’s case, when he’s doing that, he’s essentially presenting an image of the cross in this darkest place you can imagine, Auschwitz. Although it looks like defeat, it’s ultimately his victory.
No one remembers the Nazis, even on a natural level. No one in history remembers the Nazis well, but an act like that it’s such a witness to the world of what love could look like—not love for someone you would naturally love, but for a stranger, an absolute stranger.
If you are skipped over on the line, you survive, and you would never remember who that person was. Yet that person now has a family and goes on to live because of your sacrifice. There’s something so profound about that. I don’t think it can be fully explained in natural terms. That has to be understood in supernatural terms.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting. I’ve been to Auschwitz seven times for various reasons. But I’ve often gone into the museum, as you’ve probably seen. There’s the cell where he died of starvation.
Mr. Ahmari: A pilgrimage site now.
Mr. Jekielek: Right, exactly.
Mr. Ahmari: The Popes often go when they visit.
Mr. Jekielek: This whole question of freedom is what I found perhaps the most fascinating in the book. You bring up actually one of my favorite commencement addresses, probably my favorite commencement address that I’m aware of. I was five years old, I think when it happened, so I had no idea of course at the time, but Solzhenitsyn’s world split apart. It’s an amazing, amazing thing.
By the way, I want to recommend it to our viewers. If you haven’t seen this, you can look it up on Solzhenitsyn’s website; there’s a site that’s dedicated to him. This was kind of a shocking moment for Harvard University where this commencement happened. Everybody there was expecting gratitude, but Solzhenitsyn in 1978 came and basically indicted the West, talking about this question of freedom. You do a kind of a deep meditation on this.
Mr. Ahmari: You’re exactly right. He was expected, as he put it in his own diaries, which have only recently been published in English—he said, “I was expected to sing the immigrant’s ode to the great Atlantic fortress of liberty.” Obviously, he was grateful as an exile who had escaped the Soviet Union and come to the West. He had won fame while he was still there as a chronicler of the evil of Soviet communism. So he comes over, and obviously he’s inundated with invitations from different universities to come and give commencement addresses and the like, and he refuses most of them. But when finally Harvard comes, he agrees.
His audience expected him to give a certain kind of speech. The Soviet Union was bad, which he obviously knew was bad because he was the person who made the world know about what the Gulag was like—the horrors of forced labor and torture and just these abominable things the communist authorities were doing. So you would think he would come in and just condemn that and express gratitude for his newfound freedom in the West. But he didn’t do that.
He devoted most of the commencement speech to raising questions about things that have gone wrong in the West. It wasn’t like he was saying, “Communism was so great, I miss the Soviet Union.” He remained here for his entire life, and he ultimately saw the Soviet Union dissolve, to his great pleasure. But he was warning the West that there are trends in the West that are also troubling—that the West had lost the distinction which the ancient world almost universally made—between freedom for doing good things and freedom for doing bad things.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: ”Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence. It is considered to be part of freedom. It is time in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”
Mr. Ahmari: Freedom for evil, is really license for evil, and is not freedom at all, because it causes suffering to yourself to others. This is something that many of our Founding Fathers here in the United States also recognized. Someone like John Adams constantly distinguished between true liberty, which is liberty to do what you ought to do, and license, which is just not true liberty at all.
Solzhenitsyn pointed this out and diagnosed it in various realms of life. But he’s especially picked on the western press, which although it had this kind of liberty on paper to say whatever it wanted, didn’t serve readers, because it didn’t serve the truth. He had experienced this first hand with western reporters lying about him or what he had said, misrepresenting his viewpoints, and the kind of narrow conformity that existed, again, in a society that constantly praises free speech, free expression, and free thought. Somehow all the major media seem to take the same points of view on everything.
And that was in 1978. I would argue, if you fast forward to 2021, the reigning kind of conformism of the West, despite its apparent paper liberty, has gone on hyperdrive. We see it so much more in coverage of everything from the Trump administration for the last four years, the pandemic, our racial tension, and on every point by point. Somehow this seemingly free society is deeply, deeply conformist.
This was one of the paradoxes that Solzhenitsyn really hammered and was able to diagnose, presciently. He was not popular for having done so, as you know. He was reviled afterward. It really shifted his reception in the West.
Mr. Jekielek: It just struck me as I was thinking about it a little bit earlier today that this was a cancellation of sorts. We didn’t use that terminology. He wrote a book that was so comprehensive in detail—I’m talking about “The Gulag Archipelago,” of course—but also in its spiritual strength, that no one could deny the reality of it.
Mr. Jekielek: However much folks wanted to think the Soviet Union was great, this just laid bare the horrors of that system, and changed things. He was ultimately hailed, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was hailed as a hero, but then ultimately, because he dared to speak what is apparently the unspeakable, he was kind of canceled.
Mr. Ahmari: The shocking part really was he said at the penultimate moment of the speech: If I were asked today to recommend your society, meaning the modern West, as a model for the transformation of mine, meaning the place that he escaped from, Russia under the rule of the Soviets behind the Iron Curtain, I would decline your offer, meaning I don’t want your society as a model for mine.
So obviously, that so scandalized mainstream opinion in the West, because they’re saying, “You don’t have gratitude. You should learn to just appreciate our freedoms. Our freedoms do mean that we have a kind of rancorous society, yes, but it’s ultimately good. How dare you do that?” He went from being a Nobel-winning, courageous writer, brave heart of a man, master prose stylist, to being treated as a reactionary, a kook, a mystic, a theocrat, a would be dictator.
Mr. Jekielek: You can’t read “The Gulag Archipelago” and not just be amazed by the writing. It’s just so beautiful.
Mr. Ahmari: It’s a work of historiography, but it’s so much more than that. In my chapter, I focus more on “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” because before he ever gave his critique of the West in the Harvard commencement speech, you could see the seeds of it in this book. “Denisovich” is the more philosophical of the two. Obviously, it’s a novel.
“The Gulag Archipelago” is a work of historiography. “Denisovich” is more of a novel, but it’s thinly fictionalized. The question is, “Can you be free in a gulag?” which is kind of parallel to the Kolbe story we talked about. You have two character types explored in the novel.
Obviously, these are conditions in which you have to work in negative-30 freezing wet weather and constant humiliation by guards. The food rations are horrible. Fish soup with fish eyeballs swimming in it. Everything you can imagine evoked by the word gulag is there, and yet you have characters who, even under those conditions do what’s right. They serve their friends, they work hard, not because they love Stalin’s regime, but because if they don’t work hard, all of them suffer. So they chip in for the common good.
Then you have characters who, under the same conditions, constantly debase themselves. They’re trying to steal other guys’ bowls of food or steal cigarette butts because they’re addicted. And you see, okay, even under these kinds of conditions, it’s possible to achieve a kind of interior freedom, and not to let yourself be interiorly defiled, or you can let go and let yourself be defiled.
So that had a profound lesson for the West, which I think was echoed in the Harvard commencement speech, these two different accounts of freedom. Because what Solzhenitsyn saw in the modern West was that, unfortunately, because of certain developments, philosophical anti-traditional developments, what had happened was that the type of people who were base in the Gulag, who constantly just chase after their own appetites, those people triumphed in the West, in the modern West. And the people who were the good people, in his view, were often beaten down in the West, even though the conditions were free there. It’s not a gulag anymore. So that’s a pretty devastating critique.
Mr. Jekielek: A little while ago, I interviewed Peter Boghossian. One of the things that he said, which I thought was very fascinating, was that he doesn’t think the political spectrum of Left and Right is so meaningful anymore. His thought was that it’s a question of whether you value cognitive liberty or not. That is a much more relevant spectrum. I have much more in common, he says, with a fundamentalist Christian who believes that I get to believe and think what I get to believe, and no one’s going to compel me one way or the other than with people who do.
As I was reading your book—this is something I’ve been thinking about a bit—there’s also another lens to look at things through, and that is your relationship with God, or however you understand that, the divine: is it a center point of your life or is it something that is on the side or more of a cultural thing where it isn’t something that you’re constantly addressing or thinking about daily? What do you think?
Mr. Ahmari: I think that’s a more profound and important dividing line. If you don’t think about questions like, “How do I justify my life? Is there some larger cosmic order with which I am obligated to bring my own life into harmony?”
I just think that the risk there is—and I know there are plenty of atheists or non-believers who live individually moral lives. If society as a whole thinks that nothing ultimately means anything, what we think of as the conscience, for example—that voice inside you that directs you to do the right thing and avoid what’s wrong—if that’s just the synapses firing in your brain or a product of a long kind of evolutionary development, and nothing more, if that becomes a societal norm, which I would argue it has, then conscience itself dies.
Is that a threat, because you don’t attach any special meaning to the fact that it seems to be that all of us have this interior voice that’s constantly telling us? And where does that voice come from? To me, that voice is testament that there’s an objective moral order to the world. If we are able to partake in that objective moral order, then that must be thanks to a supreme being who has set it all in motion. I agree with you, and that’s a very important dividing line: is God just the kind of remnant of our earlier superstitions or an active agent in our lives, and one with whom we constantly have to be in dialogue and seek to try to understand?
Mr. Jekielek: Something I found really fascinating and I wasn’t aware of this story at all. Victor and Edith Turner, the anthropologists, went to Zambia and spent a lot of time with a tribe, I don’t know how to pronounce it.
Mr. Ahmari: The Ndembu tribe.
Mr. Jekielek: The Ndembu tribe, and basically got involved in some of the tribe’s rituals and discovered profound meaning. This is just fascinating. They discovered sufficient meaning in those rituals that they sought out, having been atheist previously, to become religious. You actually explore this question of ritual itself, and what the value of it is.
Mr. Ahmari: That’s addressed to the fact that about 20 percent of Americans now claim to be spiritual but not religious. “I have my own sense of divinity or spirituality, but I don’t want set rituals that have been handed down by religious authorities or tradition over centuries or millennia.” This is the view of many Americans. “It’s oppressive. It’s an imposition. I just want my own spirituality.”
And what I argue, through the life of Victor and Edith Turner, is that fails as spirituality. To be spiritual but not religious, the part of it that falls short is the spirituality part, because they actually do all sorts of things that would count as ritualistic.
The people that I’m speaking about, they do spinning, and they eat only bananas when they go on these retreats to try to detoxify their bodies. That’s kind of like ritual. A lot of world religions have this element of self-denial and asceticism. They do have that part. But what they lack is this shared account of ultimate meaning and shared rituals that only traditional religions offer.
So Victor and Edith Turner encounter among the Ndembu, true ritual. You and I couldn’t convert to the Ndembu religion and Victor and Edith Turner didn’t do that. But they noticed that ritual does lots of things in Ndembu society. For example, it disciplines would-be rulers.
In the Ndembu tribe, the person who wants to become the chieftain has to undergo this ritual where at first, all the villagers get to insult him. They get to jeer him and mock him. What did that do? Then afterward, when he’s finally installed as the chieftain, he’s not allowed to hold it against the people who insulted them, because it’s part of the ritual. So it reminds the powerful that even if you’re granted power, it’s in order to serve these people not just to rule over them.
In a lot of traditional societies you don’t just become a man in a kind of imperceptible way. You’re just going through your teenage years, and then at some point, you feel like you’ve become a man. The transition from boyhood to manhood is marked with a ritual. Often you have to go out to the wilderness and survive on your own.
Why did traditional societies do that? It’s because it marks that something has changed. Whereas in a society that doesn’t have that kind of a ritual, a lot of men never grow up. They just float on, continuing to play video games into their 30s and 40s. There’s nothing wrong with playing video games, but to make it your central preoccupation is not adult.
So in all these instances, they saw that religious ritual in its full sense—practices that are repetitive and symbolic—they code into an entire society its own sense of ultimate meaning, and pass it on to new participants. They do all sorts of important things in human society that no other mechanism achieves.
So we have to have ritual. The fear that I explore at the end of the chapter is that now we’re beginning to create rituals, new rituals, public rituals, that have the ritualistic elements of traditional religion, but without any of the forgiveness or redemption. So for example, we now have a liturgy of public contrition, or penance.
This is very much like the traditional version where you go before God and you say, “I have greatly sinned. I’ve offended God, and I ask his forgiveness,” but except you do it to the Twitter republic, where you have committed a kind of thought crime and you go in front of your followers and you say, “I’m very sorry for having used the wrong word in whatever context. I’m going to learn from my experience. I’m in touch with communities,” and blah, blah, blah, this kind of PC ritual of repentance and confession, except there’s no forgiveness.
Traditional religion had the elements of repentance, but it came with mercy, it came with redemption. The secularized Twitter version has the same elements of confession, but with none of the redemption, none of the mercy, none of the love that was encoded and handed down in the traditional version of an act of contrition or confession.
Mr. Jekielek: This is interesting, this movement that’s come out of critical theory, exemplified in critical race theory, some people call it wokeness. There’s a number of people, John McWhorter comes to mind, that see it as a kind of secular religion. I think he says it’s exactly a religion. I, myself, wouldn’t see it that way. But it seems to have some of these types of elements, like the ritual.
Mr. Ahmari: Yes, it has liturgies, and some, I would argue, bastardized or distorted elements of theology. For example, there’s an element of original sin in critical race theory, except the original sin is not universally distributed, like the kind of Christian theology where all of us are marked by this original transgression of our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden, and were somehow wounded by it, and therefore, that affects how we live our current lives.
It’s that certain people are marked by this, depending on your race, because they believe in intersectionality. Depending on who you’re interacting with, you might carry the original sin or not. So with respect to an African American person, an Asian person would be marked by original sin, because Asians are seen as a white adjacent. Then with respect to a white person, that Asian person is guilt-free, because it’s the white person who’s the ultimate oppressor. It’s a very malignant way of looking at people.
The original theology I think is true. In fact, G.K. Chesterton said original sin is the one kind of aspect of divine revelation for which we have daily proof. You see the Fall every day. There is something wrong with human beings, across all generations, across all peoples. There are things about us that trouble us, and those mirror the Fall and therefore original sin.
But this kind of politicized version of it picks and chooses who gets to be blamed for these racial sins and gender ones. And it’s all situational. It’s all relative, depending on who you are in a given context—you’re blamed or you’re not blamed. So I do agree with McWhorter that it’s pseudo-religion.
What I would say, because I’ve read some of his work, I think he seems to see all religion as kind of superstitious and backward in this sense, and so wokeness is just another one. I would say that actually true traditional religions have a much sounder account of what it means to be fully human and why we need a God, rather than these distortions of them, like wokeness, like critical race theory.
Mr. Jekielek: Part of that is that, essentially, they don’t believe there’s individual agency. There’s group agency and group guilt. Individual action doesn’t determine culpability, for example. I just made this connection to Maximilian Kolbe, back to where we started here. Somehow, making a decision like that is the ultimate agency, isn’t it, in a situation where you don’t have a lot of it?
Mr. Ahmari: Yes. It also helps to answer your question in a different way. It also helps explain the problem of evil, which has been a challenge to people of faith for a long time. If there is a God why would he allow atrocities like Soviet communism or Nazi Germany?
One answer, there are many other answers, but one answer is that because he wants us to freely choose to love him. God doesn’t want you to be an automaton. He could have made an automaton who just picks the right choices, but then those choices wouldn’t be free ones. There’s nothing beautiful about an automaton that always does the right thing. It’s precisely when you could do something base, could do something evil, that it shines all the more when someone does something like that.
So it’s precisely in a context like Auschwitz, where the evil of Auschwitz, meaning all the deprivation of good that exists in a place like that, highlights the goodness. It underscores the goodness of the man of faith. So his act of freedom is also a kind of testament to the beauty of freewill and the beauty of true love, as opposed to automated love, which is not really true love at all.
Mr. Jekielek: In the process of writing the book you’ve dwelled on quite a number of very interesting thinkers, out-of-the-box thinkers for their time, certainly. Were you changed in this process? Is there something you can put your finger on?
Mr. Ahmari: Yes, I will. Let me go back to the Seneca chapter, which is the closing chapter. The question it poses is what, if anything, is good about death? Obviously, no individual death is anything but tragic. But as I was living through the pandemic, and I was writing that chapter in March, April, into early May, when the pandemic of 2020 was at its absolute height and you had lots of death all around you.
And even though I’m a believer, and Seneca was not a believer—he was a pagan, I’m a Christian—nevertheless, he had this practice where he said, “Live every day, just with the thought that you could die, and that will help you overcome a lot of fear, and it will help you live in a healthy way, because then you’re not constantly afraid of any one source of death.”
For example, a virus. Because if you dodged the virus, you might choke on a piece of fruit, and that’s how you meet your end. So if you see everything as a potential threat, then no one source of potential cause of death would become such a source of terror where you can’t live. And that helped a lot through the pandemic to think about that you could die.
That doesn’t mean you should take irrational risks or be stupid. Seneca didn’t think you should be a jackass and bungee jump with a frayed bungee cord that you could collapse and fall. If he knew about the germ theory of disease, he too would take precautions to avoid the novel Coronavirus. But to have a sense of equanimity and not constantly think any one thing—that you could die and just be realistic about it, helped me through the pandemic.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that really struck me about the book, and I don’t know if you say this explicitly, but basically in a number of traditions that I’m aware of, in the Buddhist tradition and in Falun Gong and in others, there’s this important value given to the idea of suffering, almost like suffering is a good thing. Suffering is required to live a better life. I’ve seen this theme coming up again and again in the book.
Mr. Ahmari: Yes. Yesterday I had a discussion with my friend Rusty Reno to whom the book is dedicated. He’s the editor of “First Things.” He brings up this vision of ultimate peace in the Bible. What is the vision of peace in the Bible? It’s the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s a place of absolute light, all is known, and everything is in a way flat. There are no hills, there’s no mystery, everything is known by the people of God. That is an ideal.
But as he noted, and I noted, for the Christian, you don’t get there unless you go through the cross. Because you through the suffering of the cross, that’s what makes fallen humanity be able to access that heavenly Jerusalem. That is reflected in what you said.
It’s true in eastern traditions as well. Although they don’t seek after a transcendent heavenly horizon, the idea is that you reach a higher plane of existence by going through suffering. A life in which you attempt to just remove all the suffering through technological means and just make everything easy for yourself is not a fully human life, even. You’re missing out on what it truly means to be fully human.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up, Sohrab?
Mr. Ahmari: Yes. We’ve talked about a lot of different traditions in this conversation and I do in the book. But if I have to say, “What is tradition as such, tradition itself? I have a very simple answer. It’s ordered continuity. You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going. And that’s continuity.
What I worry about is that a lot of our fellow citizens who aren’t grounded in any tradition whatsoever think that they’re liberated in that way because there’s no dead hand of the past holding on to them. They’ve gotten rid of the dead hand of the past, as they see it.
But actually, because they don’t have a sense of where they’ve come from, what’s the best of the past, they also lack the confidence to leap into the future. I see that with a lot of young people.
Again, as a father writing this book for my son, one of my anxieties is young people don’t ever make decisions, because they constantly want to keep their options open. So they’ll date, but they’ll date for 10 years. They’ve never quite settled down. They’ll never say, “Do I want to become a priest or not,” this kind of final decision. They’re in this permanent state of suspended animation.
The reason that happens is because they don’t have a sense of tradition. If you have the kind of guardrails of the past or these steps that you know, you’ve come from behind you, then you can decisively act into the future, and live a more fulfilled life than if you just exist in this state where you don’t have a past and you don’t have a future. You just live in the present.
I don’t think that’s a fulfilling life. That’s the greatest spiritual crisis of our age, this inability to decide and inability to make great sacrifices, because you don’t know where you’ve come from.
Mr. Jekielek: Sohrab Ahmari, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Ahmari: Thank you. Thanks again.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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