The Western march toward unfettered freedom should be a triumph when viewed in the rearview mirror of oppression, tyranny and slavery.
But Sohrab Ahmari pops that balloon with a simple question: At what cost has freedom come?
Author and op-ed editor of the New York Post, Ahmari argues the moral liberations meant to free us have, in many ways, ensnared us. His newly released book, “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in a World of Chaos,” explores how to combat the effects of a society that fixates on the wrong sort of freedom.
Ancient communities understood liberty to have far more limits than modern culture would recognize. The truly free person, the understanding went, was one who achieved self-mastery, thus being free from the bondage of poor choices. It was the duty of a virtuous society to cultivate those outcomes by setting up behavior guardrails.
Those traditions passed on for centuries, but they’ve largely been replaced today by the mission of maximizing choice.
That presents a paradox: By removing civic laws governing the sabbath, for example, is not the Sunday worker now chained to his employment? By untying sexual moorings, is not the pornographer now a slave to prurient desires?
The arguments are made more forceful when considering Ahmari’s fascinating perspective — an ex-atheist Iranian-American Roman Catholic convert writing for his son, Max, who he wishes could be raised in a society that prizes virtue, morality and tradition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: You lament the demise of society’s observance of the Sabbath and also the laws that used to govern communities during the Sabbath. Does the government have a role to, as I’ll put it, legislate morality?
Sohrab Ahmari: Government legislates morality no matter what. There is no government that one way or another doesn’t legislate some morality. The question is, which morality is it? Is it a true one? Is it a time tested one? In declining to “legislate morality,” government nevertheless legislates morality. By the license that you permit a people, you signal what’s OK.
This is deeply embedded in the classical tradition — Aristotle, Cicero, they all say the law is a teacher. So, the law — what’s legal and what’s not, in addition to the customs and less formal structures that govern a people’s life — the laws are a teacher, and they tell people what’s good and what’s not. They educate the people. If the law permits something, it telegraphs to the people that that thing is good, or that thing is acceptable. There’s no situation in which a law one way or another doesn’t form a people.
Now on the Sabbath, I would just say this: In the United States, which is a sort of paradigmatic liberal society, we’ve had a sabbatarian tradition since before the republic was founded. Not just in Puritan New England, but in colonial Virginia, which was supposedly more secular, and in New Amsterdam (New York) — in all of these the colonial authorities imposed a sabbatarian tradition from a Protestant point of view, and that tradition persisted up to not too long ago.
The idea wasn’t just that society is better ordered if it sets aside one day for honoring God in the image of God’s own rest, in the image of God’s own celebration of creation, and that it’s good for people from a spiritual point of view to spend one day with the Bible, with scripture, with contemplation, with the things of God. It’s also that it had benefits for the the worldly common good. We spend six days of the week in a constant mode of acquisitiveness, rivalry, economic competition, geopolitical competition, at each other’s throats, and it was good, especially for working class people, to have one day where we could all cease from this kind of rivalry that shapes the rest of our lives. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great jurist, who is no religious man, nevertheless said “Whoever invented the Sabbath was a friend of the working man.”
We got rid of the Sabbath, again, not too long ago — over the course of the 20th century. Little by little, it came under attack. More and more, it was liberalized, beginning in municipalities, and then states that allowed municipalities to choose whether to honor it or not, so that by 2019 the last statewide blue law went the way of the rotary phone and airplane smoking section (North Dakota was the state that had the last statewide Sunday Sabbath law).
We were told that this would bring liberation: “Now you have choice. You don’t have to do one thing on Sunday, you can work. you can shop, you can socialize at the mall.” And then we see this paradox of false liberation that I highlight throughout my book, that such liberation did not turn out to be as promised.
What it really meant was liberation for large market actors. Mom and pop shops didn’t want Sunday shop stores to be open because they would have trouble with staffing. It was the big box retailers and Chamber of Commerce types who pushed for that, and the result is that families don’t have time together. We don’t have one, eight-hour window during which we can just be together, not harried.
For upskill workers, too, the constant availability of work on the phone means that you don’t have a minute where you can give your family your fullest attention. So again, what appeared to be liberation, what appeared to be choice, had lurking behind it a deeper unfreedom.
DN: Would you support restored Sabbath laws and, more broadly, public activism toward policies of this nature?
SA: That’s my jam, man. Definitely.
There are other forms of liberation that we didn’t need: The liberalization of obscenity and pornography in this country is a very new thing. I’m a man of the right, I’m part of the conservative movement, but I have a certain type of libertarian conservative friend, who — you know what retconning is in movies? Where they go back in a series and change the past to make it all fit the new sequel? — they retcon the past to make the founding seem a lot more libertarian than it was.
This country had common-law obscenity laws before it was a republic. Then we had federal obscenity laws. We’ve just declined to apply them to internet pornography beginning in the 1990s on the theory that most people don’t use the internet. That’s what the Supreme Court said at the time. Of course, at the time that was true. ...
We have an anti-obscenity tradition because we recognize that even the production of pornography does not just involve the degradation of individuals involved, whether or not they give their consent. If it’s truly a degrading act, the fact that I signed a piece of paper saying I’m OK with this happening to me doesn’t make it any less degrading or debasing to human dignity. ... What young people are able to see about what they think relations between men and women should be like alters their psychology about things like sex and relations between men and women in a very profoundly distorted and harmful way. ...
Is that liberation? Is the 11-year-old boy who encounters hardcore pornography and thereby becomes addicted to evermore exploitative and extreme imagery — we know this from empirical psychological research that it literally rewires the young brain, and his own defective will conspires with the ready availability of prurient content to leave him addicted, and he no longer can relate to women in a normal way — is that person free? Just because government isn’t coercing him, isn’t he enthralled to a much more sinister and insidious coercion, which is the alliance of the pornographer and his own defective will?
Is it a normal society that my son, Max, for whom I wrote this book — he’s now 4 years old — statistically speaking is likely to encounter hardcore pornography before he hits puberty? Nine out of 10 do, that’s a University of New Hampshire study, and it actually goes back a decade. Prepubescents were likely to encounter pornography before hitting puberty — a decade ago. Is that a normal society? Is that a good society? Is this liberation?
A good statesman wants to make his people happy, which means that he wants to lead them to virtue.
DN: At a recent event, you asserted that a good society should make it easier to live lives of virtue. What does virtue mean to you?
SA: I go by the Aristotelian definition: Roughly speaking, virtue is the habit of doing the right thing so that a virtuous person, after a while, makes the right decisions in terms of fortitude, prudence and temperance, and does these things and enjoys them for their own sake because his nature is so habituated to virtue.
What society’s role? Every true society seeks to lead people to virtue. Aristotle tells us in the ethics that the role of every good statesman is to lead his people to virtue, ultimately because we know that a virtuous life is a happy life. It’s a life that is in accord with men and women’s rational nature. So, a good statesman wants to make his people happy, which means that he wants to lead them to virtue.
Every true society, every true civic gathering of people aims to do that, but I would argue that modernity has abandoned that account of virtue ethics, and virtue politics, and reduced freedom to the mere choice to be able to choose from among the widest range of options — unrestrained by moral authorities, unrestrained by tradition, unrestrained by concepts of virtue. The result is a society that makes it harder for men and women to live virtuously.
DN: Has modern society abandoned the pursuit of virtue because it’s too limiting? Or is there something else at work?
SA: The root of the issue has to do with an incorrect account of freedom. The pre-modern traditions, broadly speaking — our Judeo-Christian heritage, our classical Greco-Roman heritage, and many other societies around the world that don’t fit into the kind of Western matrix at all, such as the Confucian tradition — all of these traditions define freedom as being able to master yourself, to govern yourself: You are free from your own appetites, you are free from your own baser nature. You’re detached from these things and therefore, not only can no tyrant ultimately sway you this way or that through his tyranny, but you yourself are free from your own interior tyranny.
That was the pre-modern account of freedom, and both the Christian and the classical accounts really kind of meshed together in the church’s moral teaching. The modern account of freedom, as I said, is just about being able to choose, so that there’s no difference about whether you choose for good or you choose for evil. You can choose divorce, or you can choose to get married. You can choose to worship God, or you can choose to blaspheme. Modernity doesn’t care; it just wants you to be unrestrained.
Modernity doesn’t care; it just wants you to be unrestrained.
Paradoxically, what that results in are people who are much more likely to be slaves to their passions, as we see all around us. At a social and economic level, it empowers private actors to wield tremendous tyrannies over ordinary people, like large Big Tech corporations, for example. We’ve liberated them to do as they please, but we’re not freer for that. We’ve, created liberty for market actors, for corporations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean freedom for the family, freedom for the worker, freedom for the ordinary human beings.
DN: We live, as you point out, in a very legalistic society that has, by and large, abandoned some of these time-honored traditions. Do you see that changing anytime soon?
SA: I do see things changing in the long term, and I would say that everyone senses that something has gone wrong with the West — that we’re unhappy, that we were promised liberation but find ourselves unfree in various ways, hemmed in by our own appetites, hemmed in by large corporate actors, hemmed in essentially by private tyrannies of various sorts.
We feel it. And I think with that realization, that sense where we can look around and honestly assess ourselves, there will be an opening for political actors like me to propose an alternative. I’m met with tremendous disagreement, believe me. But there’s no other choice.
You have gratitude for the society you live in. You want to restore its faith, and from my point of view, it’s very personal. This is the only country I have, and I have a son and a daughter, and I want them to grow up in an environment, let alone that they should be like saints, but for them to at least be able to live ordinary lives of virtue.
Right now, my children are likely to inherit my elite status — they’re going to probably go to elite schools and find good jobs or whatever — but I’m worried that they won’t be able to live lives of moral purpose. So I have to act.
I can propose tradition, as I attempt to do, as an alternative. And, I encounter lots of young people who are, to put it bluntly, conservative Christians — conservative isn’t even the right word because they don’t necessarily want to conserve so much that’s broken in our society; in many cases, they see it as a work of uprooting — who are keen to change things. I see them, and I have great hope in the power of small, determined young elites.
Every great change has been driven by intelligent young elites. And so I don’t worry when people tell me, “Oh, the culture isn’t with you.” The culture sways this and that. It’s the rising young elites that matter, and when I look at the next generation of Christian elites, it gives me hope.