Learning from Peter Lawler

Peter Lawler (photo courtesy Berry College)
Remembering a generous scholar, author, and editor

I write to praise a man of some fame from my own knowledge. This is the right place for such praise, both because Peter Lawler wrote for National Review and because I got my start as a writer here because of him. He encouraged me to reflect on American movies, music, and popular culture — he made me a contributor to the Postmodern Conservative blog when it was hosted here. Since recently taking over the journal Modern Age, he encouraged me to write on poetry there, too. Who would take a foreign kid seriously about American culture? Peter Lawler did. He encouraged me to formulate my thoughts for the broad American audience, and I therefore owe him a debt of gratitude I shall now never be able to repay. He published my essays on Leonard Cohen — not a subject much tackled among conservatives — because he took seriously the resources we have for devotion and self-reflection in our popular culture. I saw in his attitude what he meant by “postmodernism rightly understood,” the title of one of his books. He was never a snob, never a philistine. He was gentlemanly in a way that encouraged gentlemanliness in others.

To say nothing of the many things he did himself or for others — there are others far closer to him than I was who can explain his virtues and achievements — to express only my own debt of gratitude, I ask: Who would publish an unknown writer’s comments on Auden’s poetry in a serious conservative journal? Peter Lawler did. Perhaps there is no worth to these essays I have written, but his generosity and freedom from prejudice or conceit should be obvious, and they deserve praise. I cannot now thank him — this is all I can do to express my gratitude.

Early on Tuesday, thinking myself at leisure, I got to reading his latest essay, on Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I read this essay to my wife, explaining what I knew from Peter Lawler’s writings to be on his mind and how I thought I would like to answer him, all in the confidence that I could write an essay about it that he would take precious time to consider and, indeed, perhaps publish. Never for a moment did I think this was because I deserved his attention, but because of his generosity, the pleasure he took in conversation, and his interest in tricky, essentially disputable observations. He reasoned with clarity while retaining an interest in sophisticated analysis, always remembering how obscure human things are. It turns out that I was wrong to think he would simply be there, waiting for me to talk to him again. This is now no longer possible. We are all mortal, and death ends even friendship, leaving us only with our memories.

I have said what I owe Peter Lawler. It is fitting that I now say what I learned from him, so that you, too, may incur a debt of gratitude and be blessed with the burden of owing him thanks for the good he can do you. Peter Lawler encouraged and practiced the least American virtue, moderation. He was a conservative because he thought there was much in America that deserved protecting and because he knew, too, that America itself often caused deserving things to be in need of protection. This made him unlovely to partisans on both sides, because partisans perpetually threaten to tear America apart on principle, thinking that they do not need each other. He knew they needed each other and that Americans need to learn to live together, including by ignoring each other at times. He was therefore constantly on the lookout for prudence and statesmanship, precisely in order to allow Americans to see what they needed to see and ignore what had to be ignored in order for them to have the chance to live together.

He treated American culture with the love and respect it deserves, without sentimentality or idolatry, without contempt or self-loathing.

He practiced his moderation in this way: He was always skeptical of the principles of the partisans while careful to defend the moral ground from which partisan principles arose. He treated claims to justice seriously and always turned the argument around to showing the political and Christian meaning of equality — to showing that equality in America is an American way of thinking about equality, with habits of body and mind, with traditions and inclinations that all deserve attention. He defended, too, the right of the partisans to be partisan: He wanted to save Americans from their tendency to turn political questions into legal questions, legal questions into constitutional questions, and theological questions into technical questions. He wanted to preserve for his countrymen the freedom to face up to their predicament, to see their situation as it is and as it might be dealt with decently.

He treated American culture with the love and respect it deserves, without sentimentality or idolatry, without contempt or self-loathing. He knew that it was capable of benefiting from — and even a little in need of — the attention of serious analysis. He did not think beautiful things would be killed by philosophy nor that philosophy was too precious to waste on the loves and likes of his fellow countrymen. He encouraged equality in this way, without denying the difference between the great and the mediocre. He was American in this way, too, that he did not show off, nor did he make big claims for himself. This is partly why those of us who learned from him or his writing must now praise him well.

Finally, I will talk about this time of troubles in America. Peter Lawler was, in being a southerner, also an American patriot; in being a Catholic Christian, also a thoughtful democrat; in being conservative, also concerned with preserving for America the freedom to deal with political problems well. For all these reasons, he knew more and saw farther than most people did about the shocking events of the last year or more. He nevertheless never acted with the self-importance of the partisan. He was incapable of becoming hysterical. He was always worried and usually confident about America. He never pretended to be in control of events or to be able to offer people the assurances or revenges they desired vociferously. He had no taste to humiliate people with whom he disagreed, even if he thought them clueless. He had no taste to encourage anger in his fellow conservatives, even if he thought them in the right. He did not predict the current crisis, but he did better, inasmuch as he helped so many of us reading him to navigate it. He never blamed the country or his fellow conservatives for not listening to him, nor did he pretend that, if obeyed, he’d save the country, if not the world. He had a sense of humor even about himself. He thus provided so many of us with a needed antidote to the delusions of our times.


Peter Lawler, RIP

Peter Augustine Lawler: “Postmodern Conservative”

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