Why every smart liberal should read conservative philosopher Peter Lawler

Remembering Peter Lawler, a conservative intellectual giant

Books by Peter Lawler.
(Image credit: Amazon.com)

When open-minded liberal and progressive friends ask me which contemporary conservative thinkers are worth reading and wrestling with, I usually tell them to read Peter Augustine Lawler.

Lawler died unexpectedly on Tuesday morning at the age of 65, which will likely inspire me to offer this advice even more urgently. Indeed, at a time when the post-Goldwater conservative movement finds itself increasingly eclipsed by right-wing populism, Lawler's distinctive vision and voice may be more pertinent than ever.

I first encountered Lawler in writing and in person in the late 1990s, at a time when I was wrestling with the moral challenge of the Socratic philosophy I absorbed in graduate school while studying with students of Leo Strauss. Lawler's respectful but deeply critical engagement with the thought of Strauss' great popularizer Allan Bloom — an engagement that continued all the way down to his final essay, which was published the night before he died — proved enormously fruitful to me. Lawler's equally searching books and essays on a range of other writers and topics — Blaise Pascal, Richard Rorty, bioethics, Alexis de Tocqueville, Carl Sagan, transhumanism, David Brooks, Flannery O'Connor, John Courtney Murray, liberal education in an age of disruption, Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis — provided me with a model of intellectual reflection that was accessible to a wide audience while never sacrificing depth or ambition.

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Lawler was a great champion of biblical (and specifically Christian) anthropology, with its portrait of human beings as pilgrims wandering in the world, continually, restlessly longing for a sense of completion, home, and belonging that can never be entirely fulfilled in this life. To grasp human beings in all their complexity, politics needs to be given its due as a crucially important mode in which people seek this fulfillment. But politics also needs to be placed in perspective, its limits continually revealed and examined. The philosophical pursuit of wisdom limits politics in this way, and so does the contemplation and worship of God — both of which grow out of the elemental human experience of wonderment at the world and its grounds. That's why Lawler was fond of saying that the fundamental truth about the human soul is that we are fated to "wonder as we wander, and wander as we wonder."

The alternative is to lose ourselves in ersatz forms of satisfaction — to delude ourselves into thinking that perfect fulfillment and completion are possible in the world. One example is the idea of moral progress that permeates so much of modern liberal and left-wing thinking. The promise of continual moral improvement eventually culminating in the achievement of perfect justice and reconciliation animates progressivism in all of its forms — just as some forms of conservatism bleed over into a counter-narrative of moral decline. Lawler never tired of reminding his readers and students of the deeper truth that history is always becoming at once better and worse (in different respects), and that the effort to make us fully at home in the world has the paradoxical effect of making us feel more homeless than ever.

It's in this sense that Lawler embraced postmodernism, provided it was "rightly understood" — as a critique of the progressive assumptions embedded in modern culture and politics, as well as in the decline narratives that often crop up in reaction to them. To be postmodern in the decisive respect is to be liberated from the modern prejudice in favor of unidirectional historical development. It is to embrace "realism" about the human soul — which lives and thrives in relation to others, loves and hates with passionate intensity, and strives nobly for truth and wisdom.

In cultivating this postmodern realism, Lawler took novelist Walker Percy as an unlikely guide — especially Percy's under-appreciated 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos. Lawler loved this quirky and brilliant book, which takes the form of an existentialist self-help manual. Unlike every other self-help book, which aims to provide pat, facile answers to life's perplexities, Percy's version does the opposite, revealing to readers that they are in fact mysteries to themselves, unsure of why they've set out in search of help in the first place, or even of what would count as helping. To read the book cover to cover, taking its seemingly endless series of amusing quizzes and tests, is to find oneself productively confused about the most basic questions of human life. It is to come face to face with one's own ignorance about oneself.

And that's the best place — the truest place — from which to begin thinking about how to live, how to worship, how to engage in politics, and how to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. It's also the soundest starting point from which to achieve some modicum of wisdom about all of these crucially important topics.

Though Lawler was never my teacher in the strict sense, I learned an awful lot from him over the years. Thankfully, his writings remain — to educate, edify, and provoke deep thinking. They are a gift to anyone who longs to understand what it means to be human.

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