The book of arcane knowledge the techno-capitalists don’t want you to read
The Unbroken Thread is a guided tour of influential thinkers from ancient times to the present, fusing philosophy, religion, self-help, and parenting advice. It is, of course, a work of nonfiction; journalist Sohrab Ahmari wrote it during the annus horribilis of 2020. He addresses the needs of weary, storm-tossed readers in an “age of chaos.”
Yet, halfway through, I had the sense I was reading a different book: a work of fiction I couldn’t quite place. An old, beloved story that kept getting forgotten and retold.
It felt a bit like Harry Potter . . .but it wasn’t Harry Potter. Still, it involved an ordinary boy’s discovery of magic.
Was it The Neverending Story by German writer Michael Ende? In that one, a lonely, miserable child acquires a strange old book that plunges him into a fantastical adventure. Like Bastian Balthazar Bux, I approached The Unbroken Thread with detached curiosity, hoping for a diverting read, but my experience of the book was quite different. Ahmani organized it into twelve “big questions” about God, sex, society, parenthood, and death. It speaks to the wordless anxieties that roil the modern mind. As a result, its contents feel weirdly personal and urgent.
Each chapter focuses on a historic figure whose life and thought provides an answer to one of the questions. The effect is a centuries-spanning TED Conference with an all-star lineup: Confucius explaining what adult children owe their parents (even bad ones); C. S. Lewis on why “trusting the science” is an inadequate, even sinister, approach to life; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel deploring a hyper-capitalist society that creates workaholic drones; and African-American intellectual Howard Thurman insisting that the path to racial justice runs through religion, despite the racist histories of nominally Christian nations.
In other chapters, a husband-and-wife team of anthropologists explain why the rituals of an obscure African tribe are superior to the bullet-coffee-and-Pilates rites of 21st century Americans. And the Stoic philosopher Seneca exhorts you to take off your mask (or leave it on, it doesn’t matter): You’re going to die anyway, and that’s okay.
It’s a pyrotechnic display of erudition, all written with one boy in mind: Ahmari’s young son Max. And when I focused on that fact, I finally realized what book it was like.
The Education of Wart
In 1958, the English writer T. H. White published The Once and Future King, a compilation of short novels based on the legend of King Arthur.
The protagonist of the first book, The Sword in the Stone, is an unprepossessing boy named Wart who lives on a feudal estate with his stepfather Sir Ector and his stepbrother Kay. No one expects much of Wart, destined to be Kay’s squire and errand-boy when the latter is knighted. But one day in the forest, Wart meets an old man with a long white beard and a talking owl.
This is the wizard Merlyn, who experiences time backwards and knows the future through the gift of “second sight.” In his presence, the tired old world seems both mysterious and radiant. To educate Wart in its deep rhythms and unseen order, Merlyn puts him through a series of transformations:
“My boy,” he said, “you shall be everything in the world, animal, vegetable, mineral, protista or virus, for all I care—before I have done with you—but you will have to trust my superior backsight.”
While Kay prepares to be a knight, Wart experiences life as a fish, an ant, an owl, a hawk, and has rambling philosophical talks with Merlyn. After years of this, he is kind-hearted, curious, and humble. In contrast, arrogant, thin-skinned Kay is “one of those people who would be neither a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the failing body which imprisoned it.”
As the book closes, Wart nonchalantly pulls a magical sword out of a stone and finds himself — to his and everyone’s astonishment—King Arthur.
Two paths for Max
Why does The Unbroken Thread call to mind The Once and Future King? Both books concern the transmission of arcane knowledge, an ancient blueprint to the world that only a handful of eccentrics claim to possess or remember.
Both books describe the education of a child while edifying (and entertaining) readers of all ages. They both wax poetic about time, seeing the present not as random and contingent, but linked to the past and future by a sort of . . . unbroken thread.
And both books firmly prefer Warts to Kays.
As a prominent New York journalist, Ahmari is poised to raise a perfect Kay: capable, savvy, and ambitious. At the beginning of The Unbroken Thread, he describes one possible future for his son Max as a freshly-minted yuppie:
“Two decades of good nutrition, proper schooling, and rich extracurricular activities have yielded a winsome, ‘well-rounded’ young man. . . . [He has] the confidence that comes with knowing life’s material fruits are ripe for the picking. . . . [Surrounded by rising young elites,] Max looks set to be a ‘winner’ in life.”
Yet the moment he and his friends open their mouths to speak, they talk mostly about money. They boast about their entry-level salaries at their dream firms, and how long it will take them to make partner.
“Well-being” and “self-care” and “authenticity” are their mantras when it comes to dealing with others, not least members of the opposite sex. They avoid attachments, because they encumber the true self, who longs for maximal independence across life’s realms. They all “play around,” even if they don’t openly boast about it.
Career ambition and relentless competition punctuated by chances to blow off steam: Max and his buddies may not admit that this is what they take to be the meaning of life.
While most professional-class parents would be thrilled with these results, Ahmari calls this scenario “my bad dream.”
He wants a different life for Max. Ahmani named his boy after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who gave his life to save a stranger’s life at Auschwitz. In Ahmari’s view, Kolbe possessed a radical freedom that could not be conquered, even in the darkest time and place. By dying sacrificially, in peace, he showed the world what it meant to be fully human.
“When I began writing this book for you,” Ahmari tells his son in a concluding letter, “I feared that you might inherit a life of purposeless decadence . . .”
To avoid this fate, he suggests, you will have to trust my superior backsight.
“You are very young. And yet, perhaps because death is so thick in the air these days, I feel called to put to paper the best advice I can muster.”
The Message of Tradition
Though a Catholic convert himself, Ahmari casts a wide net for this advice, which he refers to broadly as “tradition.”
The old, counter-cultural knowledge—that there exists an objective moral order, and humans can choose to live in harmony with it —“is at work in all the great religious traditions,” Ahmari writes. By depicting the world through the eyes of figures from various times and cultures—animal, vegetable, mineral, protista or virus—he aims to show certain key truths are universal. (In one edgy chapter, 1990s radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and fifth-century bishop St. Augustine express similar views on sex, for instance.)
Days after the book’s May 11 release, a curious thing happened. An Amazon search for The Unbroken Thread didn’t call it up; it was as if Ahmari’s book didn’t exist. For hours, Twitter was abuzz with speculation: While some believed it was an inadvertent glitch, others sensed a targeted hit. In an era of shadowbanning and suppressive algorithms, no one could be sure. Eventually, the book showed up in search results again with little explanation.
In any case, the book, like all dusty old books of magic, feels dangerous. The vast, impersonal forces of the present age have created a million Kays—aspiring hearts, impatient in the failing bodies which imprison them—and it simply won’t do for them to learn that there’s a proven better way to live.
Kay is a person you can sell things to.
And Wart is, well, the king.