Conservatives face a daunting challenge today. On the most pressing moral issues confronting the country—many of them having to do with aspects of biotechnological research—the public is deeply divided, and the divisions are far from trivial. Take the issue of embryonic stem cells. Many conservatives contend that the union of complementary gametes (sperm and ovum) instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same rights as a mature human being; they thus conclude that embryonic stem cell research, which destroys this person, must be prohibited. But many others think differently. For them, the prospect of relieving the suffering of sentient human beings—especially when they are members of one’s own family or beloved celebrities such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox—should outweigh concern for the dignity of a microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish.
The former view is clearly based on the stronger argument. In the words of Robert P. George, blastocysts are indeed “capable of directing from within their own integral organic functioning and development into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of life, and ultimately into adulthood as, in each case, determinate, enduring, whole human beings.” And yet, the latter position is not obviously absurd. It is neither nihilism nor reflexive sentimentality, but rather an intuition embedded in moral common sense, that leads so many to conclude that decency requires us to do what we can to relieve the suffering of those we love. The conflict, then, arises from a tension within morality itself.
A similar dynamic plays itself out in debates over the ongoing pharmacological revolution, which promises to eliminate psychological pain, depression, and even unhappiness itself from human life. Many conservatives are troubled by the prospect of a world in which unhappiness has been banished through the chemical manipulation of the brain. But many others find little in the idea to object to. After all, doesn’t everyone believe that pain, depression, and unhappiness are evils? When they befall us, don’t we try to alleviate them? When we succeed in doing so, don’t we consider it a good thing? It would thus seem that the creation of a world without these afflictions would be a cause for rejoicing—perhaps even the fulfillment of a self-evident moral imperative. If conservatives hope to make headway in convincing their fellow citizens—and themselves—that this imperative should be resisted, they will have to do a better job of articulating what is really at stake in the drive to purge our lives of pain.
According to Peter Lawler, what is at stake is nothing less than our awareness of the truth about who we are. The title of Lawler’s new book, Aliens in America, is a reference to the Christian tradition, stretching back through St. Augustine and the Letter to Diognetus to 1 Peter, that portrays men and women as “pilgrims or aliens in this world.” The experience of “homelessness” that biotech companies hope to eliminate from our lives is, from this standpoint, “a fundamental human experience”—one that discloses to us that by nature human beings can only hope to “become ambiguously at home in this world by coming to terms” with it. Lawler maintains that this message has been obscured by modern habits of thinking that treat every unpleasant occurrence as a pathology to be isolated and expunged. It is ultimately these habits that have led to the biotechnical and pharmacological revolutions of our time—revolutions that seek to “make us completely at home” in the world.
Those who create and market such psychotropic drugs as Ritalin and Prozac treat the human propensity “to be miserable in God’s absence” as having a merely “chemical, not a natural or divine, foundation.” While this is one possible interpretation of the human capacity to be “moved by love and death,” Lawler contends that it is a profoundly insufficient one. Following the novelist Walker Percy, Lawler argues that “we have a right to our anxiety.” Far from being “a symptom to be eradicated,” it is “a sign or a gateway to the truth about our purpose as human beings. To be born, to live . . . is to be alienated, to be lost or displaced in the cosmos.” Hence our pharmacological saviors can accomplish their goals only by cutting us off from the truth and persuading us to live a lie in its place.
None of these themes are new to Lawler, professor of government at Berry College in Georgia. In a series of thoughtful books and as the editor of our most consistently engaging academic journal of political philosophy (Perspectives on Political Science), Lawler has established himself as a provocative and original thinker. Influenced by his fellow Southerners, Percy and Flannery O’Connor, no less than the political ideas of Leo Strauss, Lawler has managed to carve out a distinctively Christian position in the field of political theory. In The Restless Mind (1993), he introduced us to a deeply Pascalian Tocqueville who was primarily concerned that liberty would be extinguished by the materialist pantheism that is “the most seductive and consistent democratic intellectual doctrine.” In Postmodernism Rightly Understood (1999), he argued that contemporary skepticism about modernity, far from issuing in antifoundationalist nihilism, actually makes possible a turn to Thomistic realism in American thought. And now, in Aliens in America, he gives us a glimpse of what such realism looks like.
In his opening chapters, Lawler takes very seriously an account of contemporary American life that can be found, with minor variations, in the writings of a diverse collection of authors: David Brooks, Alan Wolfe, Richard Rorty, Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama, Carl Sagan, and others. All of these writers portray America today as a “therapeutic democracy” and Americans themselves as easygoing, nonjudgmental moral libertarians who are primarily concerned with material comforts. They would gladly sell their souls for immortality, a “perfect baby,” and an end to sickness and suffering of any kind. Some of the authors (like Bloom and, in certain passages, Brooks and Fukuyama) lament this development, coming close to describing Americans as Nietzschean “last men” with “flat souls.” Others (like Wolfe, Rorty, Sagan, and, in different passages, Brooks and Fukuyama) celebrate it as a triumph of greater democracy and tolerance.
Lawler concedes that both groups of authors have put their fingers on something very important about American life today—and he clearly sides with the former group in concluding that “the post-Cold War threat to the human soul is in some respects unprecedented, and it is very real.” Yet he rejects the diagnosis proposed by most of these critics. He accuses Bloom and others of presenting “at best a reductionistic caricature of American souls today.” Americans have not been transformed into subhuman automatons hell-bent on hedonistic satisfaction. On the contrary, they still experience moments of “human greatness and misery.” What’s distinctive about our time is not that we’ve ceased to strive for anything higher than leisure and entertainment; it’s that various “experts” and “pragmatists” have “deprive[d] us of the words that allow us to understand, and so live well with, our experiences.” The desire to use scientific and medical expertise to redeem us from the most challenging of these experiences arises out of the inability to adequately describe and thus derive meaning from them.
Lawler maintains that conservative critics of current trends do little good by reinforcing the view that the souls of Americans have undergone some kind of fundamental degradation. Instead, they should be working to revive a vocabulary that can do justice to the full range of human experiences in all times and places, including the present. But description of such experiences is not enough. In Lawler’s view, “Human nature as a distinctive point of pride and as a good in itself must be defended as never before. We must show the goodness of Being and human beings in spite of human misery.” Against Bloom’s suggestions in The Closing of the American Mind for reviving liberal education, Lawler argues that “it is not enough to defend the rare and questionable experiences of the philosopher,” for “the philosophers have not done well in defending the goodness of ordinary human lives.” In fact, “the experience of the goodness of human being is characteristically and best articulated by religion,” and by the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular.
Much of Aliens in America is devoted to showing that religion was viewed by the American founders “primarily [as] an instrument for the preservation of liberal democracy,” and that present circumstances demand that it be defended far more robustly: “Liberal democracy now has to be justified perhaps more than ever by the truth and goodness of religion.” He finds some indications of how to undertake such a justification in the work of John Courtney Murray. According to Lawler, Murray rightly found the Christian notion of the dignity of the person implied in the First Amendment—an implication that “correct[s] the impression given by the unamended Constitution’s apparent indifference to the existence of God.” The Bill of Rights, combined with the ringing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, shows that what the American founders built was shaped more “by what they were given by tradition or God” than by secular, Lockean principles. Moreover, Lawler follows Murray as well as the nineteenth-century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson in concluding that the founders “built well because they let themselves, to some extent unconsciously, be guided by the invincible facts about human nature and American tradition.” In other words, “their practice was better than their theory.” And Murray’s writings serve as a model of how to provide a better theory to “justify and so perpetuate their project—the constitutional order they created under God—in our time.”
But, for Lawler, even more useful than Murray’s works are the writings of Percy and Tocqueville. In his concluding chapter, Lawler contends that both thinkers deserve to be recognized as “Christian realists” because they remain open to the aristocratic as well as democratic—the hierarchical as well as egalitarian—dimensions of human life to an extent that is exceedingly rare in the tradition of Western thought. In the end, both of them clearly choose “justice over excellence,” but they also recognize the need to give human distinctiveness and virtue their due “against those who would, in the name of democracy, deny them.”
They thus also provide us with an account of human life capable of keeping alive the awareness that, although we ought to fight for fairness in this world, we must never confuse that struggle—especially when it tempts us to medicate ourselves into an ersatz happiness—with our ultimate and highest goal. The fact remains that “our true home lies elsewhere, and . . . this fact is the most reasonable explanation of our experiences of homelessness.” Far from being something to be treated as a defect, “our hopes and fears in this world” are, in words that Lawler quotes from Percy, “rooted in ‘the strange human creature himself,’ ‘an admixture’—of good and evil, grace and the demonic, . . . courage and cowardice.” As Lawler writes in his concluding sentence, which provides the subtitle to his book, our “inability to be more than ambiguously at home is the strange truth about our souls.”
This is Lawler’s simple lesson—timeless, but often forgotten in our time, as advances in biotechnology make the advent of Aldous Huxley’s “brave new world,” and thus C. S. Lewis’ “abolition of man,” more likely with each passing day. While his quirky style of writing—which combines long, occasionally tedious paraphrases of arguments by other authors with dense patches of original analysis and criticism—detracts at times from his argument, the power and importance of that argument is undeniable. As conservatives ponder why and how to resist the temptation to reach for all good things in this life, they would be well advised to do so with Lawler by their side.
Damon Linker is Associate Editor of First Things.