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American Stoicism

So I gave a talk last weekend at the Ciceronian Society at Louisiana State University last weekend. It was on American Stoicism.

Another speaker (much more popular) was Rod Dreher, talking about his Benedict Option. One of the many charming things about his presentation is that he talked about actual Benedictines. He reminded is that the actual Rule of Saint Benedict is really boring, because it lays out in meticulous and loving detail a coherent, stable, and only moderately disciplined way of life. The Benedictines, as orders go, have typically had moderate and highly civilized views, and they have always been countercultural, but never in an alarmist way.

Now my view of American Stoicism, which is moderately critical, pretty much comes from the philosopher-phyisician-novelist Walker Percy.

It was inevitable that I was asked what I thought of Rod’s fine (and hugely successful) new book on the BO. Well, for one thing, our country can always use more BO, which means more people living like the Benedictines and more people living in highly civilized, highly relational, countercultural ways in general.

Now, a dumb thing I said is that Walker Percy liked and I like TV too much to be whole-hog on the BO front. But, you know, it turns out that Percy was an oblate (or sort of fellow traveler) of the Benedictines of St. Joseph’s Abbey in his chosen home of Covington, La. And he’s buried on the grounds of that abbey. Nobody thought more highly of the Benedictines than he did, although he wasn’t actually called to be one.

So a more serious answer is that I thought that the BO often needs a dose of American Stoicism — or the virtues of magnanimity and generosity (and some honor in general) to supplement Christian love. That means, among other things, that people living the Benedictine Option aren’t absolved of their relational duties to the wider community and to their country. To some extent, the actual Benedictines can be given a pass, but their monasteries are single-sex and don’t include children.

Now, Rod has said more than once, to be fair, that he actually agrees with that criticism, which is why he’s moved from his hometown of St. Francisville, La., to the fairly big city of Baton Rouge to send his kids to a classical school.

What comes next is a dense, four-paragraph summary of the genealogy of magnanimous American Stoicism, which has, as you can see, largely divested itself of its racist, classist, and even sexist baggage. Today, the option it presents is virtuous alternatives to the intrusive expert scripting of ordinary lives by Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, the demagogic populism that deforms Trumpism, and the oligarchic individualism of too much of establishment conservatism. For a primer on democratized Southern Stoicism, I suggest you review the fabulous TV series Friday Night Lights.

I apologize that this summary is written so densely, but I will unpack it later.

Southern Stoicism and Magnanimity in America

Alexis de Tocqueville explained that the two indigenous countercultures in America were New England Puritanical Christianity and the Southern aristocracy. The Puritans, in a way, made a contribution to American magnanimity by defending Sunday as a day of restful leisure, reminding the busy Americans that they were born for more than a merely material existence as beings with a high, singular, and more than merely biological destiny. Tocqueville also said that the Southerners, despite the monstrous injustice of race-based slavery, had the virtues and vices of any aristocracy. He didn’t speculate about the American future in light of that fact, assuming that the inevitable disappearance of the slave-based society would lead to the assimilation of the South into the universalism of middle-class thought and morality.

Tocqueville was wrong about that assumption. Well, far from completely wrong, but wrong enough. As the philosopher-physician-novelist Walker Percy explained in his remarkable “Stoicism in the South,” the Southern aristocracy had a coherent philosophy that reflected a real form of human excellence rooted in the virtues of magnanimity and generosity. The leading Southerners often took at their guide the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, thinking of themselves as gifted with natural and social privileges that generated corresponding responsibilities and as living as rational fortresses that allowed them to display the virtue required to handle any contingency. Stoicism was not a theme in the antebellum literary output of the South; all of the literary energy was consumed defending slavery. But it was a more prominent part of the Southern literature that flourished after the war, which reflected the consciousness of dispossessed aristocrats.

My talk addressed the most coherent form of Stoicism presented by William Alexander Percy. Walker Percy’s critical reception of the Stoicism of the man who raised him helped him to develop a kind indigenous American Thomism through reconciling what’s true about classical magnanimity with Christian love. I also talked about how Southern Stoicism became American Stoicism through Harper Lee’s portrayal of the magnanimity of Atticus Finch in defending the egalitarian rule of law from racist populism.

I concluded with the significance of the most democratized form of Southern Stoicism in places such as the novels of Charles Portis (particularly True Grit) and Tom Wolfe (particularly A Man in Full) and on the screen in movies such as Mud, Loving, and American Sniper and the TV series Friday Night Lights.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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