May 24, 2017


In Fond Memory Of Peter Augustine Lawler Upon His Sudden Death : The scope of the loss is a little hard to fathom because the reach of Peter Lawler's influence was far greater than a casual observer of his work could have seen. (Yuval Levin, MAY 24, 2017, The Federalist)

Ultimately, what tied all this together was the simple but profound fact that Peter was a Christian--an American Catholic of a very particular sort. He identified that sort above all with Orestes Brownson, the nineteenth-century thinker whose renown he sought to revive. But Peter articulated it in twenty-first-century terms in a way quite distinct to himself. He had a teaching all his own. It was inseparable from his personality and persona, but it was also rooted in a particular theoretical insight, and it provided him with a unique and vital voice on the contemporary right.

The Restless Mind may be the place to start in seeking out that teaching. On its face, that book argues persuasively that the worldview of Alexis de Tocqueville was shaped less by Rousseau's political philosophy (as most Tocqueville scholars suggest) than by Pascal's psychology. Peter wrote or edited 18 books in the course of his productive career, but that 1993 masterpiece still strikes me as the most Lawlerian of them all. It is about much more than Tocqueville, though it has had great influence on how Tocqueville is understood. It offers a piercing assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of modern life, concluding that we who live in modern free societies are destined to be a little crazy, and that this might be a good thing.

Modern life, he suggested, is characterized by an effort to invent a highly individualistic form of the human person. This kind of person should be capable of unprecedented freedom, and therefore perhaps unprecedented happiness too. But it isn't really possible for actual human beings to be so thoroughly individualistic. So actual human beings can never really be quite happy while playing the role that modern free societies assign them. That means they will be restless, and eager for a different role. That restlessness is a source of endless anxiety, but also of hope--because it sends us searching for a way of life better suited to who we really are. It means modernity will always be producing its own critics and always live in a kind of creative tension with itself.

That insight, already evident in some of Peter's earliest work, is the thread that runs through his most important arguments. In bioethics, a focus of his work in the 1990s and 2000s, it led him to a social conservatism clearly critical of the excesses of techno-utopians of various sorts but not actually all that alarmed by them. The post-humanists were more ridiculous than worrisome, he thought, and ultimately the more successful they were the more resistance they would meet and strength they would lend to their traditionalist adversaries.

As he wrote, "Contrary to the hopes of our new eugenic utopians--and to the fears of some conservative Nietzscheans--we do not have the capability to make for ourselves a 'posthuman' future." In fact, he argued, "we can reasonably anticipate, therefore, that the limited but still quite real successes of the biotechnological project in fending off death and disease will be the cause of a religious revival."

The same attitude is evident in a great deal of Peter's more recent work. It is what led him to describe himself as a "postmodern conservative"--the name he gave to the group blog he led at the First Things website and then at National Review Online. He knew, of course, that the term "postmodern conservative" would be provocative, and easily misunderstood. But he had a very particular definition in mind. "Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood," he argued.

What people usually call postmodern is actually hyper-modern, in that it extends the modern project of deconstructing nature through reason to its absurd conclusion of deconstructing reason itself. Conservatives, by recognizing the limits of the entire project from the outset, can see more clearly where it was right and where it was wrong. In fact, he wrote,

Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

The solution to this problem is not to abandon modern life and its fruits (as some conservatives might want to do) but to recognize its limits and address their consequences by finding ways, within modern societies, to treat people as more fully relational beings. "So to be postmodern and conservative," Lawler argued:

is to take our stand somewhere between the traditionalists and the libertarians. The traditionalists' focus is on who each of us is as a relational being with duties and loyalties to particular persons and places. The libertarians -- or, to be more clear, the individualists -- focus on who each of us is as an irreducibly free person with inalienable rights, a person who can't be reduced to a part of some whole greater than himself or herself. A postmodern conservative is about showing how a free person with rights is also a relational person with duties. The truth is that each of us is a unique and irreplaceable free and relational person.

The implications of this view run far and wide and deep, and can help us to think about the state of our society, culture, economy, religious communities, technology, and much more. Peter's attempts to articulate this view across a broad range of subjects over decades makes for a sprawling achievement, if one difficult to summarize. I think the closest he came to simply laying it out in one place was in this 2013 essay, which I highly recommend.

Conservatives are post-modern inasmuch as we never made the mistake of being modern.  We--the Anglosphere generally--rejected the project of Reason from the outset, understanding that it was inescapably dependent on Faith in the first place.

Posted by at May 24, 2017 3:55 PM