I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.
What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.
Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:
Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”
He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.
Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.
Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.
And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.
Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.