Poets inherit conventional verse forms and then pour words into them, like wine into a glass. It sounds confining, but it’s liberating in practice. While you’re preoccupied with finding words and phrases to fit a prescribed sound pattern, your subconscious mind roams freely, playing at the higher-order business of expressing your true thoughts.
Academic disciplines are like verse forms. Take the case of Peter Augustine Lawler, the political scientist. It was within the defined scope of his academic expertise that he cultivated his ideas. Over time, they took shape and grew. He could have scattered them here and there, as is the common practice, but he was disciplined — not because he was fussy, but because he enjoyed planting seeds and watching them sprout and mature. “Political science” was only the border that separated the organized products of his fertile mind from the wilderness outside it.
What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously. I believe him.
He created and for many years served as the editor of and primary contributor to the blog by that name, “Postmodern Conservative.” National Review Online picked it up a few years ago. We discontinued it last summer because apparently readers perceived the blog within the bigger website to be less a special venue than a ghetto. We asked Peter to write for the Corner, NRO’s high-traffic public square, and he did. He remained a regular contributor there until his death, which came for him suddenly, yesterday.
I was Peter’s “editor” at NRO — quotation marks because he was a senior scholar who had earned our trust, and my job was mostly just to fix the typos, although occasionally he asked me whether I thought a piece of his was “sound.” I would shoot him an e-mail when he’d left out a word or phrase and I couldn’t make sense of the sentence without it. He would reply promptly with the answer, usually preceded by the word “Sorry.” His tone in his e-mails was what it was in his blog posts: light-handed and mildly self-deprecating often enough that, even when it wasn’t, I was happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.
His humility and sense of humor about himself flowed from his self-awareness. His copy was typically graceful and fluid but far from “clean,” for example, and he knew it. His ear in these matters was better than his eye. Yesterday an official at Berry College, where he had taught since 1979, said — affectionately — something about his messy office, and I had to laugh: It’s what I would have guessed.
Peter had recently been appointed the editor of Modern Age, the journal founded by Russell Kirk 60 years ago. The assignment was fitting in that the “postmodern conservative” who was Peter was in some respects the natural heir to the cultural conservatism that Kirk had fleshed out and represented for an earlier generation. Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”
He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students. He wrote in sorrow about
making your living as an adjunct or temporary faculty member (increasingly the fate of philosophy PhDs) or even as a tenure-track faculty member stuck with conducting highly specialized research that produces publishable breakthroughs by knowing more and more about less and less and having your teaching increasingly scripted by the intrusive and leveling requirements of accreditation. How many of those “philosophers” really have the leisure to savor what Wittgenstein or Plato or Thomas Aquinas have to say?
Peter was the nephew of the theologian Ronald Lawler, a Franciscan priest and figure to be reckoned with among the leading Catholic thinkers of his day. Peter, a cradle Catholic and adopted southerner, had an affinity for Walker Percy, who was his mirror image: a native southerner and Catholic convert. (Peter grew up in northern Virginia, but the D.C. suburbs hardly count as the South. He moved to Georgia in his twenties and lived there the rest of his life.) Peter was not a sectarian apologist — that is, his aim was not to affirm and defend his religion — but neither did he resist his intellectual patrimony or try to hide how it informed his ideas, which were Catholic insofar as they were catholic. Or perhaps it was vice versa.