The news came as a shock, but turned into an outpouring of love and affection, reminiscences and gratitude. Peter Augustine Lawler died on May 23 at the relatively young age of 65, but he died in the hope of the Risen One and lives on in the lives he touched. He had made living well in the light of our mortality central to his thought and writing and teaching, and this light made him appreciate the relationships of love and friendship that make up the mysterious grace of existence. Few had the gift for friendship as amply as Peter, and he bestowed it widely. He was more the good servant fructifying the Lord’s talents than an observer of Aristotle’s strictures concerning the number of one’s good friends.
Students were the most frequent beneficiaries. Peter was devoted to the vocation of teaching. He was a Catholic Socratic, interested in the souls and lives of his students, cherishing the privilege of helping them to explore and understand themselves and the world around them. This high calling was further ennobled by the company he enlisted to help him and them: the Great Books, and lesser but still important ones. He was quick with a quip or an ad lib, able to connect the textual past with the present, the high with the low. His classes were must-see-TV. How many of us teachers have had students collect our classroom sayings and post them?
The classroom was not the only venue for Peter’s teaching. He updated the agora with Starbucks, and many students found those caffeinated encounters high points of a day, a semester, and even (I once heard) a college career. It is not only in wine that there is truth. At a Starbucks, or in his incredibly messy office, Peter greeted, listened, counseled, encouraged—and critiqued. “You’re smart, and you’re vastly underperforming.” “There went twenty minutes of my life reading that paper.” Only a teacher known to be utterly benevolent, as well as surpassingly smart, could deliver such lines and achieve a productive result. Of course, a compliment was gold (even if hindsight sometimes showed it was for promise as much as performance).
Peter taught others, and in other ways, as well. He was a prolific writer, a frequent lecturer, and an enterprising editor, constantly on the phone and the internet, soliciting, commenting, complimenting. And he was a blogger. Boy, was he a blogger!, with venues at No Left Turns, Postmodern Conservative, Big Think, LibertyLaw, and NRO. Borrowing a line from the Bard: He could sing both high and low.
His 1993 book on Tocqueville, The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty, was the high point of the high, or at least the scholarly. It rather quickly became a minor classic in Tocqueville studies. Which means: in American studies. Which means: about us. Peter highlighted better than anyone before him the Pascalian dimensions of Tocqueville’s thought. Tocqueville’s American democrats, “restless in the midst of prosperity,” were especially human precisely in their restlessness. We could take some pleasure, even pride, in our characteristic misery. It was okay to be discontented; in fact, it was human. Our souls’ longings will always exceed the limitations of our bodies, our mortality, and the world. Religion, politics, and domestic life were all necessary, but partial, remedies to the human disproportion.
This insight never left Peter, and it gave rise to such sentences as, “We need to appreciate the greatness and misery of the guy in the jogging suit.” He found our humanity in the usual places—religion, politics, philosophy; but also in unlikely ones—jogging suits and Waffle Houses.
And in popular culture. He could have been a professional critic, and maybe in some sense he was. People marveled that he found the time to watch so much TV and so many movies, as well as attend so many Willie Nelson concerts. I suppose it helped that in many periods of his life he suffered from insomnia. If other academic friends introduced a new field of study, “politics and literature,” into political science, Peter was instrumental in putting “pop culture studies” on the map for conservatives. (Paul Cantor and Martha Bayles should also receive mention.) He was particularly interested in the portrayals of masculinity and femininity, so Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Girls received close attention in the past several years.
He emboldened and enlisted younger scholars, such as Carl Eric Scott and Titus Techera, to share their insights and analyses. Together, they demonstrated that canonical learning could be brought to bear upon today’s cultural products in a way that was illuminating, and that often led to greater appreciation of today’s artists and their endeavors. This was a real gain for conservative thought.
Peter’s academic field was political science, and he was a dutiful if eccentric member of that profession. He began rather conventionally, writing a dissertation on pragmatism at the University of Virginia and writing about American political thought (an early article was on the theme of demagogy in the Federalist Papers). His volume of American Political Rhetoric: Essential Speeches and Writings (coedited with Robert M. Schaefer) is in its 7th edition. The guiding thought was Aristotle’s: Man is a political animal because he possesses logos and can engage in debate about the noble, just, and advantageous. Socrates earlier had said that the truly human life consisted of giving an account, logon didonai, and American statesmen, politicians, and citizens fall under the rule. The study of studied American speech was a privileged way of considering the American experiment, as we talked to ourselves about ourselves.
Soon enough, Peter displayed an increasing independence of mind. During the Cold War he discovered the dissidents, especially Václav Havel (he left Solzhenitsyn to his friend Daniel J. Mahoney). Peter learned two things from the dissidents: the notion of “living in the truth”; and the disconcerting thought that Communism and Western liberal democracy had things in common, modern science to begin with, that challenged human freedom and dignity. As a result, Peter was better prepared than most for the challenges that faced America and the West after the Cold War, including those posed by developments in biotechnology.
Peter learned from Havel the insight contained in the title of his 1999 book, Postmodernism Rightly Understood. A quintessential Lawlerian phrase, that! It tweaked the intellectual avant garde—it appropriated a term from them, and gave it its true meaning. Tellingly, the “rightly understood” comes from Tocqueville.
“Postmodernism rightly understood” recognizes that with the godawful reality and happy implosion of Soviet Communism, fundamental tenets of modern thought had revealed their falsehood, while the courageous witness of the dissidents had shown the centrality of “conscience” for our humanity. Modern science and technology would have to be more modest, human rights would have to receive better grounds and be coupled with duties and gratitude, and the validity of a “personal point of view” on things would have to be recognized. Tocqueville had warned of the tyranny of the majority, and later events had displayed the dangers of ideology and soi-disant expert rule. At this point, Tocqueville needed to be complemented by a greater emphasis on the human person as revealed in the crucible of totalitarianism. Christianity too, the religion of persons, divine and human, began appearing more often in Peter’s reflections, often in the person of Augustine, he of the restless heart.
The ins and outs of Peter’s observations on the unfolding postwar political and cultural scenes—Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump; Richard Rorty, Big Love, Modern Family, Friday Night Lights, and Mud—are beyond the scope of this reminiscence. The list of presidents indicates the partisan vicissitudes of our national politics, while the cultural references suggest a constant trend in Peter’s thought, with some cross-currents. Three big points (Peter loved the word “big”) should be made.
Peter took seriously his socratism and his duties as a political scientist. From Tocqueville (and Aristotle before him), he learned that the duty of the political scientist was to see “not differently but farther than the partisans.” He did his best to give each side of a debate a fair hearing, and to lay out the best form of its argument, as well as the best version of the passion or sentiment animating it. This meant that there was often truth in both positions, as well as truth and consequences unforeseen by both. This put him in a delicate position. Combative partisans appreciated his fairness and evenhandedness, while they often felt inadequately supported, perhaps especially the conservatives with whom he identified. Though never a CINO, he sometimes disappointed his comrades-in-arms. From Aristotle and Tocqueville, though, he had learned that moderation is rare but necessary in politics; he tried to exhibit it in his analyses and judgments.
From Tocqueville’s comparison-and-contrast between aristocracy and democracy—wherein democracy brought gains in justice, but losses in other estimable human qualities—Peter drew the lesson that “things are always getting better and worse.” He saw gains as well as losses when others only saw losses, and this outlook inoculated him against extremes of elation or depression, politically speaking. Sometimes I wished that he had applied another Tocquevillian insight—that democracy tends to radicalize its principles of equality and freedom, especially equality, with dehumanizing consequences. In some cases, the gain was minimal and the loss grave.
Peter’s political equanimity was rooted in another trait he shared with Socrates: He was singularly lacking in what Plato’s Republic calls thumos, spiritedness. This is a deeply ambiguous, but deeply important, human and political sentiment, the root of an attachment both to justice and to “one’s own.” Lacking it, Peter hardly felt the blows that came from the misdeeds of political foes and derelictions of political friends, and he was singularly untouched by political indignation.
I confess I am not entirely convinced that this was an unqualified virtue in him. It helped justify his tendency towards irony when he confronted disagreeable disagreement, and it rationalized the equitable moderation he felt was incumbent upon the political scientist. I believe that some things do entail, and amount to, the death of a decent politics and society. Peter seemed never to entertain that disconcerting thought.
There was one great exception to Peter’s moderation, though here he expressed himself not with indignation but with trenchant advocacy. Peter was most passionate about education, higher education, and the liberal education that dealt with souls, and which he knew firsthand as a beneficiary and practitioner. In the past several years, liberal education became an increasingly salient topic and theme for Peter.
He was among the first to argue that it was not tenured radicals, but accreditation agencies and mandating bureaucrats, who posed the greatest threat to liberal education. To be sure, the former were more than a pest, and the mania for STEM education needed to be challenged. Tocqueville, though, had already shown that the tendency towards the useful in science and education was inherent in democracy’s DNA; and Jonathan Swift, Walker Percy, and Leon Kass were available antidotes to that reductionism.
The new challenge came from the federal government’s and accreditation agencies’ homogenizing and hectoring regulations. As the solution, Peter invoked diversity rightly understood. “Diversity” was the liberal mantra, and dealing with it was in some ways America’s origin and vocation: E pluribus unum. But diversity should encompass not just color or ethnicity or gender, but intellectual point of view—that was the conservative rejoinder. Amen, said Lawler. But in today’s fraught circumstances, he added, institutional diversity was needed most of all. Let Middlebury be Middlebury and BYU, BYU. And we should appreciate those smaller liberal arts institutions, often Catholic, that continue, no doubt imperfectly, the tradition that began with Socrates. As a graduate of a famous Great Books program, I can only say, Amen.
At Berry College in Rome, Georgia, for thirty-eight years Peter Augustine Lawler made his own little academy. He wrote and travelled, spreading the word about the greatness and misery of being human, the creature born to wonder and to wander. But he never forgot where home and his chief work were. The outpouring of love and affection, reminiscences and gratitude, that have marked his passing show what a single, gloriously singular, person faithful to his vocation can do to touch lives. For those who have benefitted beyond measure from that fidelity, it remains to emulate it.
Paul Seaton teaches philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland.