Sohrab Ahmari fled Iran for the West, rejoicing in its freedoms alongside his wife, a Chinese national who had also found relief from the relentless tyranny of her own country. As they formed a family and looked to the future, though, they could see that new dangers awaited their young son. They could see the danger manifest in the lives of their peers, people whose appetites who knew no limit, whose characters were never given a shape or direction, who squandered their youths in license and faced their middle years with nothing but compulsive habits and cynicism. They looked for wisdom and stability — and they found it in the deep well of western tradition.
In From Fire, by Water, Ahmari reflects on how he came to the West from Iran, arriving first a hardened leftist but opening, as the years progressed, to the startling prospect that perhaps he didn’t know everything. Although he’d embraced American culture while in Iran as a way to rebel against the mullahs, whom he’d grown to hate along with their religion and the very idea of God — he was disheartened by the fact that most Americans were not the uber-cool intellectual liberals he’d admired from afar, but often ordinary people more interested in football and fishing than ideology. Ahmari’s budding cynicism and love for reading led him deeper into existentialist thinkers and the postmodern left, but at the same time his real-world observations were making him question the validity of those beliefs. He’d had a disappointing experience with the Workers Alliance organization he’d joined to fight for the sake of the proletariat in America, and his time as an elementary school teacher forced him to rethink, when he saw the affects of relativism made visible in the chaos of his students’ lives. His own internal house was nothing to admire, absorbed as he was by the party culture, and in his many mornings of hangover misery, he longed for something else. Ahmari was especially inspired by a fellow teacher, an Israeli who frequently challenged Ahmari’s assumptions in both beliefs and values. Expanding his studies beyond the philosophers of nihilism, Ahmari began to understand that the ideas he’d prized as modern were in fact very old, merely now dressed up in new clothes, and that they’d led people and civilizations into darkness time and again. He rebelled, he looked for clarity, and his rejection would ultimately bring him to the Catholic church. Although Ahmari’s recollection of how he came to the Church is a bit rushed — beginning with a casual read of the Gospel of Mark, and captivating his being in full when he witnessed the Eucharist for the first time — given that it transpired over nearly a decade, this story of an honest young man coming to grips with himself proved absolutely fascinating to me, in part because Ahmari and I had very similar journeys, unfolding around the same time.
Having learned the value of the Western tradition, Ahmari becomes in The Unbroken Thread its advocate. In every chapter, a different personality tackles a question of universal import — questions addressing God, the meaning of the cosmos and of death, considerations of what we owe one another and ourselves — sometimes in debate with another. Although Ahmari’s guests include many a saint or religious philosopher (C.S. Lewis and Augustine both feature here), the discussion brings in luminaries from other traditions (Confucius), and avowed secularists, including a pair of Marxist anthropologists and Andrea Dworkin. Ahmari opens with more metaphysical questions — how do you justify your life, and is God reasonable — and then shifts more to practical applications, exploring the aspects of life that tradition once more broadly informed. One chapter examines the idea of sabbaths and fasts, for instance, and another tackles the immutable if often ignored power of sex; a final chapter addresses Death, and the need to face it rather than waste our lives in fear and flight from it. As much as I appreciate Ahmari’s perspective, his prescriptions often veer into the territory of state-imposed morality — an astonishing development given his background and hatred for the mullahs. While The Unbroken Thread provides much to think about for the inner-minded reader, any inch ceded to Caesar is one too much.