I met Peter Lawler when I was 19 and a college sophomore, at the same venue at which so many others like me have met Peter Lawler: at a student conference put on by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where Peter has been an intellectual luminary for decades. St. Augustine talks about the transformative effect coming across a book of Cicero’s, the Hortensius, had on him. St. Augustine said that book “changed the direction of my mind” and “set me ablaze” with the love of wisdom. Encountering Peter was like that for me.
My BA thesis and MA thesis grew out of conversations I had had with Peter; I asked his advice about which graduate program to attend and about whether to accept my first two academic job offers. But more than anything, I have found that Peter’s thinking is always on my mind as a guide and a standard against which to measure my own thought. To be bereft of his wisdom and his conversation is deeply sad, but to have had them in the first place makes me profoundly grateful.
The effect he had on me was not just because of the content of his ideas but because of the intensity of his attention. He really listened to me, an unremarkable undergraduate from a relatively unknown university on the less interesting side of Washington state. I later learned through observation that he was always like this: he habitually took people more seriously than they took themselves. He had a way of shedding light on areas you hadn’t even realized were dark, and gently and with humor convincing you that areas you thought were brightly lit were nothing of the sort. He encouraged you to make the effort to think things through in ways that always edified and never demeaned, even when you were 90% sure he was laughing at you—again, gently and with good humor. But poking fun at you was one of the ways he had of really taking you seriously. He had an ability to see what about you and your opinions was worth taking seriously and what was worth poking fun at—which would not always be the same as in your own estimation.
Whether his ability to take others more seriously than they took themselves sprang from his deep learning in political philosophy or was what led him into it in the first place, it was in evidence in so much of his scholarly and popular writing, too. Peter was a highly influential and original political thinker who wrote penetrating books about Alexis de Tocqueville and biotechnology, among other topics, but who also penned columns about the virtues of Waffle House and what we can learn from popular TV shows. After all, Socrates conversed with Parmenides the august philosopher, but also with the silly rhapsode Ion.
In my experience, the columns of Peter’s that most baffled his intellectual friends were the ones he wrote about the HBO series Girls, by all accounts a silly and lascivious show about a relentlessly exhibitionist millennial blockhead. But Peter wrote that it was secretly conservative, a kind of lampoon of the frivolousness and despair of the lives of young, upper-class sophisticates. As with the students he taught every day, Peter also wanted to take Girls creator Lena Dunham more seriously than she clearly took herself. Peter writing on Girls was far better than Girls. Just so, when Peter took you seriously, it was provocation to take yourself and your ideas more seriously. In conversation with him, you found you might be up to the task. That is what happened to me, and that is what happened to countless others he encountered.
But the same could even be said about his political science: he was able to take America more seriously than it takes itself. One of Peter’s best lines, said partly tongue-in-cheek, is that the combination of Puritanism and Enlightenment Deism at the American founding resulted in a kind of “accidental Thomism” at our country’s origins. The alternative, by the way—an increasingly Lockeanized understanding of America—leads to enormous pathologies (leading to another of Lawler’s terrific one-liners: “Keep Locke in the Locke box!”) as Americans increasingly try to live as abstracted individuals.
The drift toward individualism is doomed to wreck because human nature is not satisfied by the counterfeit satisfactions it offers. So one of the reasons Americans can’t take themselves as seriously as they ought to is because their own situation is no longer intelligible to themselves: they are plagued by desires they cannot identify, let alone satisfy. We live, therefore, at the end of the modern age, as Peter saw very clearly, since we have, as he said, seen enough of it to judge it.
In that sense, Peter’s championing of Walker Percy, the master of indirection, makes sense. For Percy, Americans are too apathetic to care much for prophetic fulminations. Gentle irony and indirection, by which truth can be confronted obliquely, works best. Peter’s message about the status of our souls in the current age was no less fulsome or robust than was Solzhenitsyn’s or Bloom’s; it was just delivered with the lightest of touches.
Overarching his work in political science, of course, was his Catholicism, which he wore lightly but unabashedly. The various counterfeit satisfactions of late modernity never surprised him. They were egregious, but he knew that it is not as if previous ages offered no counterfeit satisfactions; and ultimately, even the goods that are most satisfying to our natures leave us unsatisfied.
At bottom, our desires—even or especially our philosophic desires—point toward their supernatural fulfillment. It is a basic problem for human beings that we cannot quite conjugate our rational minds and our personal love. Both the ancient and modern pagans share this in common. But we ought to notice, Peter pointed out, that the only minds we are aware of are possessed by persons who love. Further, it is the unique contribution of Christianity, Peter noticed, that the God of Jesus Christ is both love and logos, providing in himself an end for human beings who wonder and wander on the earth as pilgrims unable to complete themselves, but having a hope that they might be completed in graced communion with the Holy Trinity. And that is the destiny that I pray Peter himself has entered into. May God grant him eternal rest and may perpetual light shine upon him.
Peter Augustine Lawler passed away suddenly last Tuesday. He contributed to the pages of Philanthropy Daily in various occasions throughout the years - most recently with a January 2017 piece about being a Tocquevillian philanthropist today. From making a communitarian case for McDonald's to writing about young President Obama's thoughts on T.S. Eliot or about the end of PowerPoint or managerial jargon, Peter had a way of drawing profound (and often humorous) insights from the mundane facts of everyday life. He will be sorely missed by his friends and readers. We encourage you to read through his articles in our archives.