He Built Better Than He Knew

Peter Lawler’s passing has been quite painful to me as it has to so very many people who were his students, friends, and colleagues. His death means that a source of incomparable wisdom in my life is gone. One story that sticks in my mind is the time that Peter secured a rather sizable grant from a certain foundation. He had to participate in a contest of sorts for the grant. His other competitors had put together PowerPoint presentations, binders, flow charts, deploying MBA-speak to demonstrate the vital impact the money would have if they could make use of it. Peter, who never hesitated to mock MBA-speak in deadpan tones, thought the episode illustrated technocratic practices at their best, applying corporate business techniques in the realm of non-profit outreach. Peter told me that he wrote down a few lines on a scratch paper while waiting his turn to speak to the grant-making committee. He delivered his “innovative” talk in a few minutes. He focused on—what else?—virtue and human nature. Needless to say, he was chosen to receive the funding.

Peter’s influence on me began years before we met. He helped me calm down, although Peter didn’t know it. I started reading his work my third year of law school during a period when I was a bit uptight and dour, convinced, as a wisdom-filled 24-year-old, that my country had not only made a series of wrong turns but was possibly wrong from its beginning, rooted in a rootless individualism. Lawler knew better, and with his book Postmodernism Rightly Understood, he helped me begin to grasp the truth about America and also its flaws. These flaws needed to be understood and evaluated from a position of gratitude and respect for the achievements in constitutional freedom that had been secured.

The truth about America, Lawler argued, was that our Founders had deployed a Lockean liberalism to justify and explain their act of creating a new political order.  However, this Lockean freedom had never been understood in an unrelenting ideological fashion that made America the inevitable republic of liberated individualism. That outcome could happen, and was in fact a potentiality in our Founding, but other resources were certainly present. Moreover, the freedom of the Americans had always been understood, beginning with the Puritans and by numerous other oncoming religious groups—the Baptists, Jews, Catholics, and Mormons—to be at the service of our relational personhood. A nation conceived to protect natural rights had become a home for the homeless, and this included religious wanderers. And while persecutions did exist for dissident faiths, in time, these same communions found unparalleled opportunities to practice their faiths and build their communities.

So we were free to be citizens, but we were both more and less than citizens, Peter taught in his magnificent introduction essay for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s edition of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic (1865). Our freedom was really meant to be put in the service of our relational duties as parents, spouses, members of religious communions, workers, and, of course, citizens of America; or as Peter had taken lately to saying, we needed to employ “libertarian means in the service of nonlibertarian ends.”

This meant that our Founders, in the words of Brownson and John Courtney Murray that Peter never tired of repeating, “built better than they knew.” The act of constitutional founding, Peter relayed, had been done amidst the background of the natural law and the full scope of the Western legal, constitutional, philosophical, and religious inheritance. Our providential constitution was where you needed to start to understand our country.

In later writings, Peter made clear the ways in which the individualist strand in American political thought had increasingly come to dominate more and more of our social, cultural, and religious existence. What had begun as a noble liberal attempt to free humans from tyrannical government by employing a constructed government in the service of natural rights had outstripped its political bounds. And many Americans, following elite discourse, increasingly viewed the family, religion, and even thick notions of republican citizenship as collectivist attempts to rob them of their freedoms.

As Peter so eloquently put it:

The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher’s duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen’s selfless devotion to this country, from the creature’s love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life.

The ultimate and undying source of resistance to this Progressive logic was human nature, which, as Peter noted, always carried a mighty pitchfork. Lawler pointed out America’s problems as a loyal friend. Friends tell the truth, but do not exaggerate faults. Peter, like Tocqueville, did the former without succumbing to the latter. We could actually, he insisted, see from a position beyond modernity and its limitations. He called it postmodern conservatism which affirmed “as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations,” thus challenging “liberated postmodernism… and the modern premises it radicalizes.” So, following his lead, some of us started calling ourselves Pomocons. Pomocon talk provided tremendous resources for those with ears to hear the reasons why we should resist American conservatism’s favorite pastime: hand-wringing.

Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. . . .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.

Besides, America’s real strength, Peter explained, has never been in a Progressive, national uniformity of liberalized ends, but in the possibilities that are always springing eternal in the pockets of our decentralized excellence. The context in this case was higher education, but his insight, brimming with the truths of localism, subsidiarity, and our constitutional federalism, echoes across the subjects of public controversies.

This is the Lawlerian insight that enabled him to pick up on what many conservatives overlooked as the debate over same sex marriage wound down. The winning argument for same sex marriage had turned on a gay Burkean case for relational personal belonging, one that sought to root this new institution in a bourgeois relational institution and not in liberation. And, it followed, if same sex marriage’s public case had been settled on these relational grounds, then religion and its institutions, which also emerged out of relational personhood and belonging, should remain free from coercive interference as they, in turn, practiced their separate and now dissenting understandings of marriage and human sexuality. Marriage and religion are supreme institutions of relational belonging, love, and devotion and deserve to be given a wide berth by government. So, Peter thought, Justice Kennedy’s strange-sounding paeans to marriage in Obergefell and his concurring opinion in the Hobby Lobby case were an attempt to make this profound point.

You might remember when behavioral economics seemed to be all the rage—Obama, Sunstein, and all that behavioral regulatory jazz questioning the bedrock insights of classical economics. It was enough to make you lose faith in limited government; that is, unless you didn’t think economists were all that enlightening on politics to begin with. Naturally, Peter didn’t. The behavioral types were going to nudge us, at every important moment of our lives (or even oftener) to do the responsible thing in our dietary, consumer, financial, and retirement choices. The fear was that this “libertarian paternalism” was limitless in its reach.

Enter Lawler. Unlike most, he didn’t wade into the economic or cognitive behavioral swamps to critique this school. He didn’t need to—he simply noted that neither its advocates nor its practitioners had much class, or much sense of devotion to the country. In short, rather than be members of real communities and uphold real obligations in the work of republican self-government, this class’s members—convinced that they deserved their elite status—would manipulate us endlessly with the tools of the regulatory state. And in doing so, they would insulate themselves from the hopeless mediocrities and lesser-deserving Americans who lived somewhere else, not in the Super-zips of course.

Peter argued, bracingly yet somehow cheerfully, that the precondition of living a virtuous life that upheld your loved ones, your community, and your country, was death. Our mortal bodies were the basis of our reason, our self-consciousness, and our freedom which enabled us to act responsibly. And our anxiety and dislocation, our obsessiveness in the midst of abundance, was reasonable evidence that this world is not our home.

Up to his last essay, Peter homed in on the transhumanist quest to conquer death as another instance of the gnostic turn in modern ideology and its ceaseless war on human nature and God. He reasoned that, in effect, the transhumanists want to wield biotechnology to become the Christian God and take away death’s sting. Peter’s life and his death teach the opposite. We don’t need to obsess about conquering death, but to accept the victory we already have under God over death’s sting. Surely Peter Augustine Lawler rests in peace.