Peter Augustine Lawler, in Memoriam

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 May 24, 2017|
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My old friend Peter Lawler passed away this week at his home in Rome, Georgia. Peter and I were close pals during the 90s, when we both found ourselves happily marooned in north Georgia. I have such wonderful memories of those years, times spent together early in my married life and when my daughter, Marjorie, was young. We dined, vacationed, talked shop, and rediscovered Walker Percy all together. What follows is my preliminary appreciation of my friend’s life and work.

Peter Lawler spent his life defending and explaining human greatness. Peter took seriously the fact that we were living at the end of the modern age, and his thinking about that fact took the form of a question from which he never departed: What is the condition of the soul of western man at the end of modernity? When we first met and became friends at the very end of the Cold War it seemed a good time to pose this question in a radical way.

Besides his continuing reflections on Tocqueville over the years, there were two books and an author that spurred Peter’s thinking in the 90s, leading to his breakout book of 1999, Post-Modernism Rightly Understood: A Return to Realism in American Thought. The two books were Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. The author was Walker Percy. Percy was by far the greatest influence on Peter and the key to his mature thought. It was Percy’s thought that was for him the American “return to realism.”

By temperament and conviction, Peter was resolutely nonchalant about politics. His reading of Percy only reinforced this tendency. This became frustrating for many of his friends. In conversation, Peter’s instinct and habit was the counterintuitive interjection; his characteristic mode was irony. Back in the earliest days of our friendship I remember his remark that one thing he learned from Tocqueville was that things are always getting better and worse at the same time. So why worry?

Peter in a way “discovered” Percy. He told me this story of how he discovered him: Browsing in a bookstore one day in Atlanta, wasting some time, he happened to pick up two books Lewis Lawson had edited, Conversations with Walker Percy and More Conversations with Walker Percy. Leafing through them he had a eureka moment: Percy is a PHILOSOPHER, and in these conversations he is EXPLAINING HIMSELF in layman’s terms! Peter discovered Percy (and I can assure you he really did). For me, this is Peter’s core achievement as a scholar.

Percy and Peter’s “realism” is the truth about ourselves and the strangeness of ourselves: beings unlike any others in the cosmos, haunted by love and death, relational yet inward-dwelling, fated to be wonderers and wanderers. Those who know Peter’s work know all the wonderful variations he spun on these themes and I will not rehearse them now. Still, the best introduction to Peter’s work is Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos.

Peter’s was one of the most interesting minds around at the turn of the millennium. He had many enthusiasms, all of which flowed from his interest in encouraging what he called a post-modern conservative future. For example, there was the “manliness” project founded on two wonderful books of the early 2000’s: Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (as well as A Man in Full).  There was the “Stuck with Virtue” project that stemmed from Peter’s work on the Bioethics Council and his concern over a so-called post-human future. There was even for a time the “Orestes Brownson” project, which I must confess I never quite understood. Not as well known was Peter’s work with Mark Henrie and others at ISI to publish books by conservative European thinkers in what was called the “Crosscurrents” series. This was one of Peter’s great contributions to fighting the culture war. And how can I not fail to mention his wonderful blog on Peter Schramm’s old No Left Turns website.

By temperament and conviction, Peter was resolutely nonchalant about politics. His reading of Percy only reinforced this tendency. This became frustrating for many of his friends. In conversation, Peter’s instinct and habit was the counterintuitive interjection; his characteristic mode was irony. Back in the earliest days of our friendship I remember his remark that one thing he learned from Tocqueville was that things are always getting better and worse at the same time. So why worry? A deeper explanation is that Peter was an Augustinian and a Pascalian. His middle name was Augustine and he made sure people knew it. Therefore, he was inveterate in resisting “declinism.” In his typical space traveler way, he wanted to fly above things. This was perhaps a weakness, but for many it was an endearing one.

Perhaps what made Peter different from some other “conservative liberals” of the Tocquevillian sort was his genuine affection for America. His love of Walker Percy was indistinguishable from his love of the South (Though unlike Walker he did not have an Uncle Will). He made his home in Rome, Georgia. He enjoyed American popular culture. He was devoted to his American students. He reveled in talking to ordinary Americans.

Peter never directly addressed post-modernity from the standpoint of political order. There was no end of history, but there was no bright line either. If he had a political teaching, it was an enhanced liberal democracy, a liberal democracy with soul, certainly a more relational liberal democracy. He treasured human liberty on all its levels. In this regard, Peter’s hard to explain optimism about our future can be traced to his reflection on our fallen human nature. If “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly up,” then that was protection against our becoming last men. Thus Peter’s strange and “realistic” combination of optimism and pessimism was of a piece. Nevertheless, Peter’s deepest thought was not conducive to serious reflection on the persistence of nations or national identity.

Perhaps what made Peter different from some other “conservative liberals” of the Tocquevillian sort was his genuine affection for America. His love of Walker Percy was indistinguishable from his love of the South (Though unlike Walker he did not have an Uncle Will). He made his home in Rome, Georgia. He enjoyed American popular culture. He was devoted to his American students. He reveled in talking to ordinary Americans. More to the point, he agreed with Percy that the place he would like to be when waiting for a message that he was not lost in the cosmos, was Lost Cove, Tennessee. As he would put it, he was at home as well as homeless in America.

I will miss Peter. Our disagreements had grown substantial over the last eight years. We just saw things differently. Still, the truth of Peter’s core work remains. I had hoped someday to have a quiet talk after the course of events had clarified things. But this regret is minor next to my faith that my friend is now no longer lost in the cosmos.

About the Author:

Robert C. Jeffrey
Robert Jeffrey is Professor of Government at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Dallas in Politics and Literature back in the old days. He was raised a liberal Democrat, but converted to Catholicism and conservatism at Stanford University in 1970. He worked for the Reagan Administration with Claremont colleagues in the late 80's, where he met his wife, Christina, and afterwards moved South where he has lived happily ever after. His greatest deed was helping to raise and teach his daughter, Marjorie.
  • AEJ

    Beautiful tribute to your good friend. Thanks for sharing it here.

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  • Sophroniscus

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. I enjoyed this much more than your other AG articles.