One year ago today a great man died. To mark the day I’m re-posting what I wrote at the time in memoriam Peter Augustine Lawler.
Originally published May 24th, 2017
I’ve spent much of the last two days reading (and re-reading) various eulogies of Peter Augustine Lawler from his friends and colleagues. Many have been touching, most have been accurate, one missed the point completely, and none have been sufficient. I was not Dr. Lawler’s friend and certainly not his colleague, though there was a long period in my life that I hoped to be both. It’s only now that I realize that being his student may have been the much greater and more rewarding privilege. For it is true that he possessed a brilliant mind that was influential to colleagues, and it is true that he was a compassionate man who cared for his friends. Yet, he was more.
The first lesson of the first class I took with Dr. Lawler was the meaning of the word ‘philosophy.’ Dutifully I noted: philia = love, sophia = wisdom. And then we moved on. Over the course of my education, I came to realize that philosophy as practiced is often nothing of the sort. In our time, the common experience of the philosophy student is one of tearing down the very concept of wisdom itself. I also learned that there are those who still hold to the ‘classical’ notion of the efficacy of the exercise of reason. These students of philosophy tended to turn to the past to rediscover thinkers who were, at least on the surface, lovers of wisdom. What made Dr. Lawler distinctive is that he began with the premise that to be wise is first to be honest about being human. It is upon this foundation, not the practices of the classical philosophers, that Peter Lawler based his life. And it is this perspective that must be understood in order to understand the man.
For instance, many have observed his love of popular culture. To some, it appears, this was a quirk of his personality, a quaint peccadillo that stood out amongst the crowd of professional serious thinkers. It was a demonstration of his brilliance that he was able to glean perceptive value from such vulgar sources. To others, it seems to have been perceived as a way of relating to his students, thus highlighting his undeniable devotion to us. Neither of these perspectives are sufficient. For Dr. Lawler, popular culture is the way in which we reveal our collective wandering in a particular moment in time. In my time, for instance, we talked of Fight Club, The Matrix, and Lost in Translation because they were temporally unique expressions of grappling with the experience of human beings immersed in their own alienation.
It is evidence of our neurosis that his take on politics was viewed by some as nonchalant. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is only through the lens of our obsession with the ultimately uninteresting triumph of one fatally flawed ideology over another that Peter Lawler could be viewed as nonchalant. He was too fascinated by the way politics revealed deeper truths about being human – far too fascinated to be overly concerned about who happened to win an election. He did not, after all, choose politics as his academic focus by accident. It was the political philosophers who intrigued him the most because it is in politics, the ultimate cauldron of human relationships, that the strangeness of humanity is laid bare.
His common observation that everything is getting both better and worse at the same time was not the indication of a man unconcerned with the trials and travails of human life or a rejection of the importance of political policy and social action. With this pithy observation that history is a process of progressive regression he was calling us out of our utopian reveries to face the reality that we are wanderers, not conquerors. He was, in fact, constantly engaged in the endeavor to make us face up to our lostness because until we do, until we start from the point of our alienation, our willful efforts will only continue to careen us through a path of accidental successes and failures, which only serves to enhance our malaise. He was showing us that politics (or more precisely, the exercise of power) is not our savior.
He feared no line of thought because of a deep conviction that if we think hard enough, break up into small groups and discuss long enough, that we will end up, after a long journey through the wonderful strangeness of the individual/social animal, at the truth of what it means to be human. His embrace of those who disagreed with him was not the ‘tolerance’ of the relativist, the ‘niceness’ of a good man, or even the noble duty of a teacher, but rather an expression of joy in the act of walking together towards wisdom. He needed no ideological shelter to preserve his thoughts from threats, because it was not his thoughts that centered his life. You can threaten premises upon which argumentation (and academic careers) are built and you can threaten the hopes of political triumphs by challenging ideologies. You cannot threaten love. When you love wisdom you also love those who pursue wisdom and Dr. Lawler had the extraordinary ability to see, even through the most obnoxious of challengers, the searching mind in each of us. He believed more deeply in our capability to encounter Truth than anyone I’ve ever met. He was, in fact, a radical.
This leads me to being his student. All of the above was discoverable by colleagues, if they read closely enough, or friends, if they asked the right questions (and, perhaps, became students themselves). But, to be his student was not just to know him, but to experience him in practice. It is the nature of love to spread love and it was with his students that his efforts could bear the most fruit. So I have to disagree with the eulogist who said that the best example of Dr. Lawler’s thought was Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. In fact, his thought was best expressed in each moment of the classroom, communicated in the very act of teaching itself. To be taught by Peter Lawler was to be pushed, pulled, yanked, cajoled, encouraged, corrected, and all-out willed into loving wisdom. And, it turns out, you cannot become wise unless you first learn, above all, to love humanity in all its strangeness; to see humanity as God sees humanity. What he taught was not simply a body of philosophical knowledge, or even how to think deeply about the most important questions. He taught us how to live well. And if you go home and think about that the rest of the day you’ll realize that’s the best you can say about anyone.