Atticus Finch's American Stoicism

It’s hard not to think of the printing of two million copies of Harper Lee’s “new book” as a capitalist macroaggression against America. Many readers consider it a sequel, although it’s really a rough and in some ways misbegotten draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the work that stands as the one and only account of heroic virtue shared by all Americans. When I go to my college classes, I (fake) struggle to find a piece of cultural literacy that all of us in the classroom share. The result is always the same.

Given the place that this 1960 book—allied with its 1962 movie version—has assumed in our country, we should defer to Ms. Lee’s decision about how to think of Atticus Finch. It’s telling, on the other hand, that she never reworked the draft for publication. On her agenda of possible future novels, we know from a letter, was one “laying into” her home of Monroeville, Alabama in 1958—when the anti-integrationist fanaticism in which her father (A.C. Lee) and her town participated would have been at its height. But she never wrote that novel (or any other). She did well to let Atticus be who he had become.

That’s not to say to say the portrayal of anti-integrationist Atticus in the 1950s contradicts the one we know so well from the time of the Great Depression, a noble defender of the rule of law against the racist mob. At a conference on the Southern novelist Walker Percy just over a month ago, I predicted that the Atticus of the “sequel” would likely be an anti-integrationist. Percy, taking note of the character’s classical name, described Atticus as the most celebrated of the Southern Stoics. The Louisianan writer had learned from the man who’d raised him—the philosopher-poet William Alexander Percy, author of Lanterns on the Levee (1941)—that the leaders of the South, antebellum and post-bellum, considered themselves disciples of the Greek and Roman philosophers.

Tending to favor in particular the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (the philosopher-emperor) and Epictetus, they thought of themselves as members of a ruling class of rational men, a class that included the best men of the South—and the best of men across time and space. According to Will Percy, Pericles and Robert E. Lee would have recognized each other as kindred spirits.

Privileges coming from nature and social place are accompanied by responsibilities. And those responsibilities are fulfilled through the practice of the high virtues by men of means, magnanimity, and generosity. Moreover, upholding one’s responsibilities presupposes courage, or rising above fearful materialistic calculation. Will Percy, pretty much like Harper Lee’s Atticus, stared down a racist lynch mob attempting to take the law into its own hands. And again like Atticus, he thought of himself as using what he had been given to elevate the community for which he had assumed responsibility. The motivation of these Stoics was fulfilling one’s duty to be an unflinching rational fortress of virtue. As Atticus told Scout, “before I can live with other folks, I have to live with myself.” Those Stoics knew, and know, who they are and what they’re supposed to do. They think of themselves as always acting accordingly, even at the cost of deep loneliness or death.

Will Percy was, like Atticus Finch, a lawyer. The character and the man defended the form of the law, and the protection it afforded all men and women, against the irrational animosity that sometimes rouses up ordinary people in a democracy. They showed us that Alexis de Tocqueville was right in saying that lawyers are—at least sometimes—to be cherished as the closest thing we have in America to an aristocracy, a class rationally and temperamentally attached to a standard higher than mere popular inclinations. Their standard is not sectional but matches that of their country: it is the principle that all men are equal before the law.

Now, your Southern Stoics aren’t aristocrats because they are lawyers. Often they are lawyers because they are aristocrats. Their honorable manners and morals in fact originated in the Southern aristocracy based on race-based slavery. In thinking about that complication, we return to the astute and balanced observation of the Frenchman who visited in the 1830s. Tocqueville saw the Southern masters as having the virtues and vices characteristic of any aristocracy, and it’s those virtues that will always merit our attention as qualities lacking and still much needed in our largely middleclass country.

Those virtues persisted and became less ambiguously noble with the disappearance of slavery. Not only that, as we see in so much of Southern literature, those virtues became part of the consciousness of being a “dispossessed aristocrat.” The Southern literary imagination before the war, Walker Percy explains, was consumed by defending slavery. After the war, it became both critical and appreciative of the display of the distinctively Southern ways of life, as formed and deformed by the “original sin” of slavery.

Atticus, despite being a local political leader and man of breeding and learning, doesn’t have much money or property at all. Most of his daily round and his personal associations are pretty democratic or ordinarily middleclass. Still he defines himself against what’s “common” in terms of the classical moral virtues of the Greeks and Romans. And so his community recognizes him as a ruling class of one by returning him to the legislature time and again without question or opposition.

Harper Lee’s classic book and especially its movie version teach us about the cruel and ignorant vulgarity of racism. She engenders not just contempt but also some pity for the low-grade “white trash” characters who live in the thrall of cruel and ignorant illusions about blacks. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is mostly a tale of a magnanimous man, of a man whose virtue can only be seen in full when it is required to try to save a wrongly accused man and to arouse his community to a sense of duty that might protect the people from themselves. More than trying to save a particular man, he tries to save the truth and virtue on which the fictional Maycomb’s civilization depends. It’s also a tale of a very lonely man—a widower whose companionship is his children and his books, the delight in which he shares with Scout every night—who has the class not to whine that most of those in his life are beneath him.

In his essay “Stoicism in the South,” Walker Percy writes that these Stoics were a genuine manifestation of a kind of natural human excellence right here in our country. They were, he adds, only secondarily Christian. This is true of Will Percy and Atticus, who make mention of the virtues of Jesus only when they overlap with those of the philosopher-emperor. They and their children attended church (for Atticus, the Methodist church), and worshipped God with their local community. But they did not seem to pray. As Scout observes about Atticus, each of them “liked to be by himself in church.”

Percy wrote his essay to explain the failure of Southern leadership to respond responsibly to the challenges of getting rid of segregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. They, for a while, joined the vulgarly racists populists in resisting integration as an imposition from outside that challenged the established social order. The Stoics heroically defended the black person who could not defend himself—but did so paternalistically. What they could not bear was the “insolence” by which blacks came to demand that their rights be protected by a legal transformation that had nothing to do with Stoic virtue. What the Southern Stoics lacked, Percy claimed, was belief in the truthful insights of Christians about the equality of all men under God and the loving virtue of charity.

As Tocqueville said, a failing of aristocracies in general is the complacent expectation that things will always be about the same as they are now, and that slavery or inegalitarian servitude of some kind will always be with us. So the Southern Stoics, partly in their misplaced magnanimity or proud self-admiration, missed the justice in the civil rights movement’s clamor for liberation. And, for a while, they didn’t choose the rule of law over irrational populist inclination, the kind expressed at the meetings of the White Citizens Council that the Atticus of Watchman justifies as the extremism that curbs the extremists on the other side.

For any student of Walker Percy and Southern Stoicism, it shouldn’t be surprising that Atticus was a magnanimous defender of the black person’s rights under the law in the 1930s and yet an endorser of illegal responses to the defense of that person’s rights in the 1950s. All this might be a teachable moment in the greatness and limitations of aristocratic leadership. It might also stimulate thought on the place of classical philosophy in America, as well as the relationships between pagan and Christian virtue and coming to terms with the truthful claims of both magnanimity and justice.

That conclusion, however, depends on the assumption that the Atticus of the two books is really the same person. Both are written by one author. But Go Set a Watchman was discarded by the author, at the suggestion of her editor. The draft was written in the third person, but it is basically from the point of view of Jean Louise Finch returning to her hometown after spending years in New York as an artist. So it’s a pretty standard story of a sophisticated young woman in rebellion against the provincialism and narrow-mindedness of the people she grew up with, beginning with her formerly idolized father.

The editor’s suggestion was to rewrite the book from the point of view of a strikingly perceptive little girl who loves and admires her dad above all. That, of course, places the time of the book back when he was at his best. It was a shift that transformed To Kill a Mockingbird into a children’s book (or what today is called “young adult fiction”), and the South’s most penetrating writer, Flannery O’Connor, famously dissed it as such. But it’s one hell of a children’s book. The author took on the responsibility of thinking through what children should know about the virtue of a great man. It also means that any criticisms of the Stoic lawyer that enter in (and some do) have to be subtly indirect.

For Atticus, if you think about it, falls short of perfection. While he is to be admired for defying local convention in defending a black man against the accusations of whites, maybe he goes too far: He is way too hard on the poor white woman who alleges rape and her family who lie to save their dignity. The poor whites are reduced to animalistic stereotype by Atticus’ formidable rhetorical skill—a skill that didn’t even seem to be aimed at winning an acquittal from a random selection of ordinary white men, who didn’t want to think of any white as worthy of pity—as inferiors—in a relationship with blacks. Atticus makes them seem much worse than they really are, as he acknowledges privately elsewhere.

Now Atticus does tell his son Jem that whenever a white man cheats a black man, “no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. . . . There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.” The standard of being low-grade trash is all about behavior regardless of social circumstances, and so it’s not the case that all poor whites are trash. And he speaks to the jurors as if they are better than trash. But the overwhelming impression is the identification of trashiness with poverty, just as the general impression is that poor blacks are innocently ignorant—easy to cheat—and so need to be protected from trashy white men who take advantage of them.

Here we see why even the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird would not look forward to a world in which blacks would no longer need the protection of men such as himself because they could deal with trashy, low-grade whites on their own. It’s one thing to acknowledge that blacks have equal rights under the law, it’s another to see them asserting them on their own.

And one piece of evidence that the lawyer believes that his client Tom is less than he really is is that Atticus too readily identifies Tom’s plight with that of Boo Radley, a man deserving of being excused from the rule of law. It’s somewhat condescending. But as Walker Percy remarks about the man who raised him: The somewhat condescending concerns that move the magnanimous man are better than the lack of concern for others’ well-being that characterizes our individualists these days.

There’s no way children would notice Atticus’ shortcomings. Far more important that they come to see how wrong it is when people put their selfish desires and reputation before truth and justice. And, through the eyes of Scout, Atticus actually morphs into a better man than Ms. Lee originally imagined A.C. Lee to be.

The film, an emotionally intelligent adaptation by the great Horton Foote, is arguably more insistently edifying than the book. It’s less about the day-to-day details of small town life and focuses more on the drama of the trial. Unfortunately, but perhaps necessarily, it truncates Atticus’s closing argument before the jury, removing his marvelously precise account of what equality before the law is not, and also leaving out his invocation of Thomas Jefferson, who “once said all men are created equal.”

We all know where Mr. Jefferson said that, and so there’s no need for Atticus to mention the place. Atticus does say that “certain people use that phrase out of context,” mentioning “Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington.” And other people misuse it to justify the promotion of “the idle and stupid along with the industrious.” Those “educators will gravely tell you” that “because all men are created equal . . . the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.” It almost seems an anachronistic reference to Brown—at the time, a six-year-old decision—that roots racial inequality in feelings of inferiority. But what Harper Lee’s character means is that, contrary to the Yankees’ humanitarian social science, some people ought to feel inferior.

Atticus’s general message is that pity, although sometimes a truthful emotion, often blinds us to the truth associated with justice. It’s not even against Jefferson’s principle, he goes on, to acknowledge that “some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it,” as Atticus himself was, as long as they use it well. It’s just a fact that “some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men,” and that’s not the business of the government.

It takes a man of aristocratic character, you might say, to be able to speak so eloquently to Americans about what equality is not, although there’s not a word Atticus says with which Mr. Lincoln would have disagreed. The Stoic and the Republican are equally against the promiscuous levelling of the Progressives’ welfare state.

For Atticus, “there is one human institution that makes the pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution . . . is a court.” It’s the courts that “are the great levelers, and it’s in our courts that all men are created equal.” All men are equal before the law, which means they aren’t equal—and shouldn’t be regarded so—in most of the arenas of life. The leveling that is the law has nothing to do with natural differences or personal gifts.

That is not, of course, a Christian teaching. And Walker Percy (not to mention Martin Luther King, Jr.) might be right that living out the proposition that “all men are created equal” requires a Christian dimension that Atticus can’t provide. The Christian dimension of Atticus’ message to the jurors is that we’re all sinners—liars and cheaters lusting in our hearts. But his point is that we all—black and white—equally need the restraint of the law, not that we’re all equally worthy of love.

Still, it’s not the case that the courts are somehow better than the people. “A court is only as sound as a jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up,” says Atticus. The courts only fulfill their promise as levelers if jurors follow Atticus’ injunction: “In the name of God, do your duty.”

The rule of law isn’t anti-democratic because, in our country, it depends on the virtue of the people. The rule of law, we can say, depends on a touch or more of the Stoic rubbing off on us all. Now, of course, on that day in fictional Maycomb the jurors didn’t do their duty. Nor did Atticus expect they would. The book teaches children what they need to know and admire to grow up to be someone who does his duty despite what others may do.

We can see what Harper Lee tried to accomplish for her country—and not the South in particular—through the drama of Tom Robinson’s trial. So what we learn from Go Set a Watchman is irrelevant for understanding the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird, who is a different and better man. Well, not entirely different, but better along the lines of his distinctive virtues. Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s gift to her country, is less a Southern than an American Stoic—one democratized by the egalitarian teaching of Mr. Jefferson.

The “teachable moment” here is that democracy needs men and women of rare and elevated virtues, and we depend on them to elevate us all to be responsible for the rule of law.