It has been nearly five years since Peter Augustine Lawler died an unexpected death at the age of sixty-five. In my estimation, he was the most penetrating and original American Catholic political thinker of his generation, a lover of his country who was a self-described “friendly critic” of the modern democratic dispensation. He learned from Leo Strauss and Alexis de Tocqueville that a friend of democracy could never be its flatterer. His voluminous writings drew impressively on the full range of classical and Christian wisdom.
At the same time, he was blessedly free of misplaced nostalgia for a medieval world (which in truth was poorly governed, whatever its other considerable virtues). Nor did he pine for the civil theologies of antiquity that reduced the human person to his citizenship, and thus radically subordinated religion to the polis or empire. In this way, he was more Augustinian than Aristotelian, with his undeniable classicism mediated by an ongoing reflection on the demands of and tensions between the City of God and the City of Man. But unlike many Christians, he never denied the intrinsic dignity of the political vocation. He was never tempted to replace political reasoning with metaphysical or ideological abstractions. He was that rare thing: a Catholic political philosopher.
Lawler and the American Proposition
Peter was a rich, dialectical (in the original non-Marxist sense of the term), and irenic thinker who strove to prevent fruitful tensions from transforming into dangerously implacable oppositions. This is most evident in his reflections on the relationship between Catholicism and the “American proposition,” as he called it, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address of 1863 and John Courtney Murray in his classic 1960 work We Hold These Truths. Peter shared Father Murray’s view that only Catholic natural law thinking, with its reasonable confidence in the directedness of the human mind and soul toward truth, could sustain the civility, dialogue, and public consensus necessary for a free and decent political order. Such a political order was at once free and “under God.” The opposite is “barbarism,” which inevitably relies on force, fear, propaganda and the systematic manipulation of men and souls. Free politics, guided by natural law, ultimately depends on confidence in the ability of “right reason” to adjudicate differences through civil conversation—not through partisan or ideological fiat.
The American Founders established such a political order even if they “built better than they knew,” as Lawler explains in his “Critical Introduction” to a 2005 reissue of Murray’s We Hold These Truths. The Founders’ nod to John Locke’s (and indirectly Thomas Hobbes’s) social contract theory would in the long run tarnish their remarkable achievement establishing a regime of ordered liberty and republican self-government. With Murray, Lawler categorically rejected Locke and all his works: in Locke’s political philosophy, he saw an undue emphasis on self-preservation as the great human desideratum, a “rationalism” at odds with practical reason and the ontological foundations of truth and liberty, a nominalist denial of the integrity of the real, and an atomistic account of society that saw contract and consent as the only truly legitimate sources of political and moral obligation. Peter knew that the deepest human attachments and obligations, such as the love of a parent for a child, often owed little or nothing to consent. Consent was an admirable instrument for informing political governance. But as the source of all social and political legitimacy, consent does grave damage to human relationships and obligations.
Yet for Lawler (and Murray), the Founders were by no means consistent or thoroughgoing Lockeans. Unlike the French revolutionaries, they refused to affirm the radical self-sovereignty of human beings. The idea of man’s tyrannical self-deification horrified most of them. While freely using the language of the social contract, they also affirmed what Tocqueville called “liberty under God and the law.” If liberty is reduced to radical human autonomy, to “self-ownership” (to use a concept introduced by Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government), then the moral and ontological foundations of free government and civilized community are undermined in one fell swoop.
But Lawler followed Catholic convert Orestes Brownson’s rich and compelling argument in his 1866 masterwork The American Republic (Peter wrote an authoritative one-hundred-page “Introduction” to the 2003 ISI Books edition of that work). Brownson and Lawler both saw that the Founders knew local self-government, the Christian religion, robust and morally serious family life, and deference to God and the laws were needed to sustain and even elevate political life.
Putting Locke in the Lock Box
To remain faithful to the best of our civic inheritance, we must resist the temptation to become consistent and full-fledged Lockeans. As Peter often jokingly remarked in his public lectures and occasional pieces, we must “put Locke in the lock box.” Locke was right to reject the ancient idea of individuals as full-time citizens completely encumbered by the polis, and he would have been rightly appalled by the way Marxism and the modern revolutionary tradition treated individuals as mere fodder for inhuman utopian projects.
But Locke’s rights-laden individual falls far short of the “relational person,” as Peter called him. Along with Catholic University political theorist David Walsh and the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, Peter Lawler was one of our most thoughtful “personalists.” He fully appreciated that the relational person ought to be the great and enduring subject of moral and political philosophy. As Lawler and Richard Reinsch argue in their impressive Brownson-inspired reflection, The Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty (2019), we must do full justice to those aspects of our intellectual, political, and constitutional tradition that affirm a capacious account of the human person. The “relational” view of the person affirms that both God and the natural moral law have endowed human beings with dignity and ordered them to truth and liberty. In the end, Lawler and Reinsch see the American soul as the product of a compromise that leavened modern liberty with enduring classical and Christian insights, insights that perceived that the ends of freedom are not of human creation.
Peter believed that this position was most persuasively expressed by the French Dominican Raymond L. Bruckberger in his once famous but now forgotten 1959 book, Images of America. Bruckberger was impressed by the way the continental Congress modified and refined the Lockean and deistic language of Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration in a more theistic direction, now affirming a providential God who was the “Supreme Judge” of the world. This high-minded “legislative compromise” avoided Jefferson’s thin deistic gruel as well as the theocratic temptation that haunted Puritan Calvinism. It was better than both of these theoretical deformations.
As statesmen more than theorists, the Founders achieved an admirable balance: they tied a political order dedicated to the protection of natural rights to a moral order self-consciously “under God.” Lawler’s point is clear. We need to theorize the Founders’ achievement, rather than radicalizing one partial idiom, the Lockean one. The Founding’s Lockean sources may have been useful in justifying our break with Great Britain, but these sources cannot sustain the ordered liberty to which the Founders were genuinely dedicated. Whether defenders or critics of liberalism, anyone who reduces the American political order to unadulterated Lockeanism—to the atomistic individual rather than the relational person—misses the essential point. The Locke wars are a distraction from the larger dialectical defense and articulation of the American proposition made by the likes of Brownson, Murray, Bruckberger, and Peter Lawler himself. It is a revealing sign of the extent of our crisis, that this rich and persuasive tradition has barely gained a hearing in a debate dominated by loud and irreconcilable ideological simplifications. Lawler showed another more truthful and salutary way.
Peter liked to say, in writing and speech, that the world was “getting better and worse at the same time.” He was no Pollyanna. In addition to correcting the false binaries that often surround discussions of the Founding, “postmodern conservatism” was another of Lawler’s key political insights. This was Peter’s response to the other dominant kind of postmodernism that radicalized modernity and left freedom bereft of all moral content. Such postmodernism was coextensive with nihilism. In the second half of his career, Peter turned to the writings and insights of the novelist/philosopher/essayist Walker Percy. Percy helped Lawler develop his thinking about postmodern conservatism and recover a “science of man” that saw human beings as relational persons created by God and directed by their very constitution to the truth of things. His chapter on “Walker Percy’s Twentieth Century Thomism” in Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought (1999) is a particular gem in that regard.
It is easy to mistake Percy for an “existentialist” given his preoccupation with the anxieties, diversions, and dislocations that preoccupy and distort the lives of late modern human beings. But Percy, the scientist-theorist, the student of semiotics, saw the human being much as St. Thomas saw him. In Percy’s words, the human person is “distinguished from the beast in being endowed with soul, intellect, free will, reason, and the gift of language.” Language in particular gives human beings the capacity to convey things with names, reflect on the meaning of things, pursue love and friendship, and know the truth about nature and ourselves. Through his investigation of language, ontological and moral realism, and the myriad diversions that distract human beings from the search for the truth, Percy recovered a “scientific” and Christian account of things that renewed Thomas’s philosophical anthropology and Pascal’s searching account of “the misery of man without God.” In so doing, Percy made a great, if largely unacknowledged, literary and philosophical achievement.
Better than any of our contemporaries, Percy exposed the deformed pleasure (rooted in twisted pride) that scientists and other “experts” took in denying the reasoning process of the human person at the heart of the scientific enterprise itself. They were “lost in the cosmos,” claiming incoherently that human beings were “detached minds” and “instinctually determined bodies,” prisoners of a dualism that could never know man as man. The scientists caught up in Cartesian dualism and scientistic reductionism could not make sense of their own activity as truth-seekers. They had no claim to authority since their “expertise” was based on a false and incoherent account of human beings and the nature of things.
The Cartesian framework ends in frustration, moral nihilism, and a will to power culminating in tyranny. Lawler applauded Percy’s call “for indomitable resistance to expert determination.” And he laconically added that “human beings will never experience themselves mainly as clever animals adjusting well or badly to their environments,” despite what biological determinists would say. Lawler would have had wise and biting things to say during the Covid crisis about the latest sophistries put forward by false experts, demagogic politicians, and intellectuals.
Peter Lawler was the most genial of men and the best of friends. Those close to him miss his endearing wit and good cheer that went hand in hand with intellectual courage. He remains an indispensable thinker for “finding our balance again” as he himself put it in his final, posthumous work, A Constitution in Full. Lawler represented a high-minded prudence and moderation that navigated humanely (and successfully) between many hostile extremes: scientism and fundamentalism, tribalism and cosmopolitanism, nostalgia for the “good old days” and an unmanly deference to the Zeitgeist, Lockean individualism and the false zeal for civil theology. He was a learned, even brilliant, advocate for what he called “Constitutional Thomism.” He was an astute but “friendly critic” of democracy in the tradition of Tocqueville, Brownson, and Murray. And better than almost anyone, Percy excepted, he saw through the cult of expertise without succumbing to anti-intellectualism. His wisdom was irenic and dialectical, classical and Christian, and attuned to the needs of the late modern age. And it remains just as needed now as it’s ever been.
This essay is part of Public Discourse’s symposium “Commemorating Peter Augustine Lawler Five Years Later.” The symposium began with Lawler’s critical introduction to John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. Other contributions include James Patterson on Lawler’s view of higher education and Richard Reinsch on Lawler’s understanding of America’s constitutional tradition.