Walker Percy is our most astute analyst of what ails the American soul.
Since seeing the movie Julie and Julia the other year, I do a double-take whenever I see an old photograph of Julia Child on a cookbook: Is that the actual chef, I wonder, or Meryl Streep, who played her so realistically? So I found myself doing a double-take when I saw the photograph today of my too-soon departed friend Peter Lawler, for his image looked so like the famous picture of Walker Percy, the novelist and essayist he most admired. Both were Southern and Catholic and, to borrow the title of one of Percy’s novels, both adopted the conceit of the “Last Gentleman,” an ideal whose lasting charm insures it will never quite be true.
I don’t remember when I first met Peter. Like the youngest child in a family, who one knows with one’s mind was not always there but whom one cannot imagine the family being complete without, so Peter seems always to have been part of political science as I have known it, whether around the table at a Liberty Fund colloquium, or on the faculty together at an Intercollegiate Studies Honors Institute, or in the bar at annual meetings in political science. We must have met at the Southern Political Science Association, now that I think of it, probably when I was new to the South and to Catholicism, and he, with that glorious middle name, seemed to embody all that was good and old in those two much-maligned traditions—not least because it would never have occurred to him to deny whatever ills they caused.
Peter wrote a great deal in recent decades. Once I was on his email list and regularly got updates with links to his latest postings and articles, and I often felt that he wrote more quickly than I could read. He was not afraid to spar with the likes of George Will, nor to take seriously a television series or two or three and see in them a key to understanding contemporary America. I never quite grasped his fascination with popular culture—the first sentence of this remembrance is the sum total of my writing on the subject, done in tribute; and I confess not to have been able to stomach more than the first episode of Girls—but I think it was the teacher in him determined to understand what moved his students, like Allan Bloom, about whom he wrote his valedictory essay, published in Public Discourse yesterday morning as he died.
I said that Peter was Southern, but I don’t think he could have cared less about Robert E. Lee and all that. Instead, he loved the South for its devotion to family, for its faith, for its acceptance of life with all its imperfections—and therefore its humane tolerance for people, no matter how crippled or distraught. He wrote about anxiety and restlessness, inquiétude in the French of his beloved Pascal and Tocqueville, and he agreed with Tocqueville that this characterized the American and the modern condition, or I should say postmodern, as he did. He wrote about this mood as though he knew it, but not as though it could be overcome. It could only be endured. He taught me that Stoicism was fundamental to the South, at least as tempered by Christianity.
His was a manly piety, more comfortable in the back pews than on the altar, and more interested—at least in my limited observation—in the intellectual concerns of the Church than in its liturgy. He did real scholarly service to Catholic intellectuals by introducing and making readily available Orestes Brownson’s American Republic (ISI Books, 2003), a noble effort, written at the denouement of the Civil War, to interpret American government and its “new birth of freedom” as congruent with the Catholic and Aristotelian tradition. In contrast to Brownson, perhaps, Peter wrote as though the metaphysical certainties of the Church could be better glimpsed than known, but that seems to have been sufficient comfort in the face of anxious doubt. Or maybe it was the perpetual teacher in him that aimed to unsettle certitude and to calm fright.
Peter often spoke and wrote about death—uncannily, it’s a major theme in that final essay—often ironically. He took quite seriously those moderns, from Benjamin Franklin to Peter Thiel, who thought man can overcome his own mortality here on this earth by his own powers, but more for what the aspiration revealed about the spiritual poverty of modernity than as something a decent man should hope for. He won, alas, his bet that he would foil the actuarial tables and prove a net contributor to the Social Security fund, delaying just a little the demise of the welfare state. The world already feels a little duller in his absence, except for the glow of the many students he inspired, who might yet keep lit his light.