Peter Augustine Lawler has died. The late conservative political philosopher at Berry College, member of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, Catholic, pop culture wit, and author of several books passed away unexpectedly at age 65.
In 2007, Lawler graciously allowed me to interview him, when I was trying to get the now-in-limbo-again LiturgicalCredo.com off the ground. If memory serves, this was a telephone interview, on speakerphone, captured with a tape recorder and a legal pad in the office of a then-Episcopalian assistant priest or curate.
The original page with the interview, designed in a now-dated format, has too many odd breaks to be readable. So here I will publish the interview in a more readily readable and searchable format, in his honor.
Original Intro to the 2007 Interview
I was hunting for a good quote to sum up Peter Augustine Lawler and his place within current American political thought. For all my picking around on the Internet, the clearest, most succinct summation might come from an unidentified, and clearly partisan, reviewer at Amazon.com:
“Peter Augustine Lawler is a rare find, and may be the most original and insightful political philosopher writing in America today.”
If one were to think about a short list for the President’s Council on Bioethics, one might not think about government professors at small Southern colleges. But the books, articles, and speeches Lawler has produced—while holding the Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Georgia—have earned him a place on the council and a reputation as an essential thinker for our time.
In a recent interview, Lawler talked about his new book, Homeless and at Home in America: Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place (St. Augustine’s Press), which is scheduled for release this summer, on July 15, 2007.
-Colin Foote Burch
CB: First off, the book is called Homeless and at Home in America, and the title sounds a lot like—the title sounds a little bit like—Aliens in America [ISI Books, 2002]. Tell me what you’re doing new with your new book.
PL: Well the Aliens in America emphasized the irreducible alienation of the human condition and the American attempt to suppress that. Homeless and at Home in America is more major, and more balanced, and without making a big deal out of it, sort of a correction. The first chapter is about two views of Americanization. The first view is the view of Heidegger, which is also one that’s shared by some social conservatives, extreme social conservatives, cranky cons and such, which is something like this: Americans are absolutely ruthless, ruthless, displaced. The only distinctions they recognize to be true are technological ones. Otherwise, they’re utter relativists. Otherwise, they’re utterly indifferent to the profound moral distinctions that characterize human life.
And so for Heidegger the characteristic of the modern world is technology; America is the height of the modern world. So when Heidegger uses the world ‘Americanization’ he means the reduction, of everything real that human beings know, to technology, and everything else is nothing. And so in Heidegger’s view of nihilism, America is a purely nihilistic, displaced, frivolous, endless progress toward nowhere, and a road-to-nowhere country.
But the other view is the view of Chesterton, which is: America is a home for the homeless, that the great thing about America is the romance of the citizen—everyone can find a home here. The amazing thing is that all you have to do to become an American is agree with a certain doctrine. So Chesterton compares America to the Catholic church. Any race, gender, whatever, class, background, make no difference, as long as you accept the doctrine. That’s the Catholic view, and that’s also the American view—race, gender, whatever, don’t make any difference, as long as you accept the doctrine. So there’s something profoundly at-home about Americans because Americans begin with the premise of the irreplaceable, personal significance of every human being.
In other words, America is based on a very corny view of the Declaration of Independence that’s basically consistent with Thomism and all that. So in a certain way what saves America from utter relativism is this doctrine. And so you look at America carefully and the Americans who are most at home are the ones who believe this doctrine is compatible with their religion, and so they’re particularly at home because they’re at home with their homelessness. That is, they’re at home as citizens while recognizing that citizenship doesn’t capture everything they are. And so it turns out that the best Dads, the best citizens, the people who have the most kids and the most stable family life in America are the ones who take citizenship seriously and who take their religion seriously. So from a certain point of view this book shows that there’s some truth to Heidegger, some truth to Chesterton, but the view that Christianity is incompatible with patriotism—Christians are always resident aliens and all that—this does seem to be very out-of-touch with the reality of America.
CB: Wow, that’s saying a lot. Could you go back a little bit—you made a passing comment about the Declaration consistent with Thomism? I want to make sure I understood that.
PL: Well, there’s different ways of looking at the Declaration of Independence. In my book Stuck with Virtue [ISI Books, 2005], which is sort of in the middle here – in fact, you know, it would be corny, if you took Aliens in America and chastened it with Stuck with Virtue, you’d somehow come up with Homeless and at Home or something—but that’s a little abstract.
There’s different ways of looking at the Declaration of Independence. One way of looking at it is [as] a Locke-ian document, an Enlightenment document, and a document of individualism, and the Declaration is kind of a time bomb which over the decades transforms all of American life. And so the history of America is a kind of creeping and a sort of creepy individualism which is reflected in the Supreme Court opinions Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Lawrence v. Texas and all that, which say that the Constitution demands that every feature of life be reformed with the idea of the contract between two individuals in mind. So Lawrence v. Texas implies that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional requirement, because anything two individuals decide to do has dignity and comes from autonomy and all that.
But the other view of the Declaration would be the Declaration was a legislative compromise. The view of Jefferson was changed by the view of Congress. Nature’s God, the God of Locke, was moderated with the addition of the Providential and judgment God at the end of the Declaration. So if you take the Protestant Christianity of some of the Founders and compromise it with the kind of Lockean Deism, covert atheism, of some of the Founders, the compromise between the two kind of accidentally produces Thomism. So there’s not one Thomist American Founder, it goes without saying. They’re either a Deist or a Calvinist. But the compromise between the two produces something that looks a lot like Thomism.
CB: That’s fascinating. Who are some of the characters that you, or I should say writers, that you summon in this new book. I know you’ve looked a lot at Tocqueville, and Walker Percy, and Pascal, and Christopher Lasch in the past.
PL: This book, the reviewers, the advance reviewers, say it’s my most entertaining book because it’s a book mainly of speeches.
So there’s a chapter where I kind of take on, and kind of have a critical appreciation of, the Crunchy Cons. There’s a chapter where I kind of make fun of excessive Straussian atheistic dogmatism, I have fun with this guy Tom Pangle, that chapter is called “Against the Lobotomites.”
There’s chapters on movies, like Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco—this guy is a covert Thomist, this filmmaker Whit Stillman had a great trilogy, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Metropolitan, which I got out of order there, but with respect to The Last Days of Disco, he wrote a novel after the movie came out… it was the novelization of the movie written by one of the characters in the movie, so I have a chapter on that. I
have a chapter on Casablanca.
I have a chapter on Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” which is called “Two Kinds of Nihilist and One Kind of Christian in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Good Country People’.” The title is, you know, a Seinfeld thing—a story about nothing. It’s Flannery O’Connor’s criticism of Heidegger but not put that way.
So the first chapter begins with two views of Americanization, and actually the last chapter, the chapter on Flannery O’Connor, comes back to that theme, although not in an obvious way. I didn’t make it that easy on the reader.
And then there are a couple of chapters on Tocqueville, there’s a chapter on kidney markets [and] the American problem of liberty, and again I have both side because I really think the kidney markets are in a way a close call, because given the American understanding of freedom and the human need of hundreds of thousands of people on dialysis, it’s going to be hard to give an argument against them.
In fact I debated this very nice woman at Gonzaga University, and the people who put it on were upset with me because I didn’t relentlessly attack her. I said, you know, I can see why she’s saying this. And the Catholic view, which I think is correct, is that kidney donation is OK but you can’t sell your kidney. The problem with this though is the line between donation and accepting compensation becomes fuzzy in real life: “can we pick up your bills, can we give you insurance?” But kidney donation is actually very safe, but no operation is perfectly safe. “Can we give you insurance just in case there’s unforeseen complications?” And all the way down the line.
There’s a summary of my book Stuck With Virtue which is actually very different; a talk I gave at Regent on evangelical TV.
There’s a chapter on Tom Wolfe and Harvey Mansfield, which is called “Real Men Prove Darwin Wrong Again.” It’s about how far manliness can take us, or stoicism can take us down a road of modern science that doesn’t depend upon revelation. It was really written for evangelicals to show that, if you show neo-Darwinian thought as wrong [and] we’re not really bringing revelation into play, then you might start to think about this in
attracting a larger audience for your point of view.
PL: So not only can Darwin not explain—he can’t explain the soul, which means he can’t explain any of the formation of the soul, including honor, or competition over status and all this. I mean, chimps compete over status but it’s just not anything along the lines of the way we do that.
Now, there’s a chapter on the kind of Thomistic view of the American founding, the neglected American Catholic tradition of John Courtney Murray, [and] Orestes Brownson. I had in my Aliens in America really a pointy-headed chapter on Courtney Murray that befuddled everyone, and none of the reviewers mentioned it. I now have a much simpler view where I show that John Courtney Murray really borrowed from this great 19th Century American thinker, American Catholic thinker, Orestes Brownson. But Brownson was actually an incredibly boring writer. No one’s going to read his work. So I have this kind of conceptual outline of what a Thomistic view of the American founding would look like.
I have a chapter on judicial restraint that shows that conservatives need to be against all judicial activism. They shouldn’t mix this up. They shouldn’t say silly things like, “Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided but the Court can declare the New Deal unconstitutional.” They have to become more consistent in terms of the Court, consistently backing off. The view of the Founders that judicial review would actually be something quite extraordinary, and that ordinarily whatever the states decided would be the rules. With the exception maybe of race, anything that the states decide that is reasonable—so with abortion, and same-sex marriage—the best we can really do under our Constitution is to show that these tough moral calls are left to the states. We can’t really expect the Supreme Court to declare a constitutional right that would protect babies in the womb or any such thing. All we can expect is to get the Court to back off and so the American people can have a real moral debate over these questions.
What else do I have in here? I have a chapter on American political education based on the thought of the greatest American political scientist ever, Wilson Carey McWilliams, who recently died. He was kind of a 1959 Democrat—he was pro-life, pro-welfare state, and pro-patriotism. He was probably the only member of the Democratic Party left, when he died, who was pro-life and would say good things about the Vietnam War. The
point of this chapter, between the lines, is to chasten my fellow religious-based conservatives for becoming too apolitical, too pacifist, too crunchy, and all that. Or saying that politics is nothing and the culture is everything. But politics and culture are sort of interdependent—you can’t neglect the one without horrible consequences for the other.
CB: I appreciate you giving me the outline of the book.
PL: I know I’ve skipped things—there are actually three chapters on Tocqueville, including one that has a little bit of fun with this guy Bernard-Henri Levy, who wrote this book American Vertigo, this French guy who redid Tocqueville’s journey in a chauffeured limousine and really, believe it or not, missed the spirit of Tocqueville because of his incredibly insistent French atheism and his contempt for everything Puritanical about America.
It occurred to me that there’s a subtext to this book, which is Puritanical is ambiguously good—although not completely good because of the reasons Chesterton gives. You know, there’s nothing wrong with drinking.
….It’s a rambling book in the sense that the chapters weren’t really written with the book in mind, and so all sorts of things are talked about, but compared to my previous writing I think it’s pretty lean and more accessible. The audience is the concerned college-educated person who doesn’t necessarily spend a lot of time in libraries or reading footnotes. The older I get, the more footnotes disappear, so this book… is almost a footnote-free environment.
CB: So this is probably—are you saying, this is the most accessible book you’ve written?
PL: The most accessible book. Stuck With Virtue was almost all biotechnology. All about biotechnology all of the time is a little bit leaden. But this book is everything I’ve been thinking about the last couple of years. So I’ve had occasion to give all kinds of talks on all kinds of things, and all there’s all kinds of themes that go through here.
In the introduction I say that what’s wrong with my previous work is it’s not political enough or abstract and too much for manliness—I give this guy Harvey Mansfield a lot of credit for alerting me to the importance of manliness in terms of understanding human beings. And in terms of—and even as this book has gone to press, which I’m working on this for – even in terms of the claim of the manly man as of irreplaceable personal significance.
So the chapter I have in here criticizing the Straussian Pangle is, if you think about God, from the point of view of a manly man who insists upon his irreplaceable personal significance, God can’t be a what, as Plato and Aristotle said. God has to be a who. And if you really think about what we know about human psychology, it points in the direction of a personal God. So it doesn’t prove God exists, it doesn’t prove revelation is true, but if you think about the real structure of human psychology, it’s just much more reasonable to think in terms of God as a person. Think in terms of the actual structure of human longing.
CB: Thank you again.