The Top Five Lawler Books
And the Origins of the Postmodern Conservative Tag
PostModernConservative’s name and inspiration comes from Peter Augustine Lawler, 1951-2017, and the 4th anniversary of his passing is coming upon us, on the 23rd. In 1999, Lawler published a book of essays, centering on discussions of Walker Percy’s work, but also featuring discussion of Francis Fukuyama, Richard Rorty, Allan Bloom, and Christopher Lasch. His title was Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought. From that came the provocative tag “Postmodern Conservative” that Peter used for the group blog he launched in 2010, which I was a regular writer for.
What does that tag mean? Well, Peter gave us an essay on that topic (in Stuck with Virtue), and later on, a briefer explanation, but here’s what he first said about his unique understanding of the term “postmodern.”
This book is about signs of a movement from modern to postmodern thought in contemporary American writing. By modern thought I mean the attempt to master or to overcome nature through action directed by thought.
…Postmodern thought rightly understood is human reflection on the failure of the modern project to eradicate human mystery and misery and bring history to and end.
For most Americans in the 1990s, “postmodern” meant what was going on in the English departments especially, under the spell of French thinkers like Derrida and Foucault, and it was regarded as antithetical to any notion of conservativism. But for Peter, all that was the “wrongly understood” postmodernism, that as with certain earlier uber-modern thinkers like Rousseau and Marx, really only deepened the modern project’s hold even as it claimed to be moving beyond it. He didn’t bother to write on postmodernism’s most famous paragons, saying that the movement’s secret leader had been the earlier and radically historicist thinker Alexandre Kojéve—thus, he began his analysis of the bad postmodernism with that thinker’s most-prominent champion in the 1990s, Fukuyama. Percy and Lasch emerged as examples of the realist and good postmodern position, and he also mentioned Tocqueville, the dissidents Solzhenitsyn and Havel, and John Courtney Murray (and some unnamed Thomists) as examples of it.
The reference to Murray and Thomism, and the focus upon Percy also—all point to Peter’s Catholic faith. Prior to branding himself and his fellow travelers as “postmodern conservatives,” he was often tagged as a leading light of the “faith-based Straussians.” That tag may come to matter more.
In any case, here at pomocon we regard Lawler as a major thinker, so that we understand that our passed-down intellectual brand was and will continue to be less important than his thought, unless some future genius whose talents far exceeds ours adopts the brand also. And while we do see that Lawler’s idea of postmodern realism lies at the heart of his insights, we are speaking of a very large body of insights indeed.
In terms of topics, Lawler made major contributions in thinking about, well let us see—philosophic anthropology, biotechnology, historicism, “securitarian-ism,” varieties of libertarianism, American film and long-form television, Catholic understanding of the American Founding, the idea of “polis-fodder,” fascination with the possibility of alien contact, the exurbs, “Sams-Club” Republicans, higher-education reform, religious liberty, Southern Stoicism, social conservatism, and Darwinian conservatism.
In terms of figures, in addition to his groundbreaking work on Murray and Percy, he made major contributions to our understanding of Locke, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, Orestes Brownson, Walt Whitman, and most of all, Alexis de Tocqueville. And at a sometimes lesser, but still quite compelling level, few have written better on thinkers of our time: William Galston, James Ceaser, Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle, Larry Arnhart, and sundry other Strauss-influenced scholars, as well as Rorty, Lasch, Chantal Delsol, Rod Dreher, Pope Benedict XVI, Marilynne Robinson, Whit Stillman, Tyler Cowen, Peter Thiel, and David Brooks.
(BTW, Lawler’s interest in that last thinker’s “Bourgeoise Bohemian” BOBOS in Paradise book is why our thumbnail features a photo of Peter hamming it up in front of a fortuitously stumbled-upon sign for a “Bobo Spiritual Life Center.”)
In some instances, such as his confined-to-one-chapter investigations of Whitman and Jefferson, his contributions are not yet widely recognized, but with many of these topics and figures, scholars know they have take his view into account.
—Peter with Rod Dreher and James Patterson. Three important thinkers on American religion.
I will admit, however, that Peter often repeated himself, and ultimately wrote too much. We’d be better able to grapple with his legacy, and would lose little, if about 30% of his published prose were to disappear. There is a ton of it out there. As it stands, any “Lawler scholar” has got to deal with the fact that he re-presented a number his insights eight or nine times but in slightly different ways, or, in slightly different contexts. Sometimes the differences are meaningful—in others, incidental. And believe me, profundity is possible to stumble into at nearly any time in his writings, and even in the more popular ones for the blogs Postmodern Conservative and Big Think. (Some of the best of this popular mode of Peter’s writing is collected in his Allergic to Crazy—pg. 217 of which is key.) This means you can never be too sure…you’re reading along, thinking “Oh, this is the usual Lawler stuff on so-and-so repackaged to fit…” and suddenly you find yourself in a passage of gold, of immense philosophic importance, even one that sheds new light on his whole body of thought.
The other challenge in reading Lawler is the shifting line between his interpretation of another thinker and his own thought. In his best work, there are most fruitful aspects of this challenge, but overall, it increases the difficulty of quickly determining whether a particular Lawler piece is essential, or minor. This is because Lawler has three modes of interpretation: 1) interpretation that draws out the analyzed thinker’s meaning, and often more insightfully than any other commentator, 2) interpretation that is mixed with, or even just serves as a springboard for, his own profound and original thinking, or 3) interpretation that is mixed with, or even just serves as a springboard for what is…well, repeat Lawler thinking. Such thinking is treasure compared to 98% of all other kinds, but still. Generally, with an author Lawler had never dealt with before, and who had any real worth, he tried to remain mainly in mode 1). He was just to other thinkers. Nonetheless, there are not a few pieces that seem at first to be aiming at mode 1) and 2), but which turn out to be mostly mode 3).
Someday someone, perhaps myself, should try to narrow his essays, chapters, and blog posts down to an essential twenty-to-forty pieces, and also provide a few reading plans through these.
A tall order, but what I can provide here is my judgment of the five best books:
1.) Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future. 2005. Not as philosophically rich as the next three selections, but the best introduction to Lawler. Highlights include ahis essential “Putting Locke in the Locke-Box,” one of his main statements on postmodern conservativism, and the important “Libertarian Fantasy and Statist Reality.”
2.) The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty. 1993. In my judgment, either the second-best commentary on Tocqueville, or at least among the top five. More thoroughly referential than most commentaries, but nonetheless, packed at every point with the seeds of Lawler’s own thinking, including major statements on socialism, religious liberty, Strauss, and on the relation of Pascal, Rousseau, and historicism. As I tried to show in my review of it for Perspectives on Political Science, it also contains some of his best thinking on the relation of Christian faith and philosophy. (See also Ralph Hancock’s essay on it in that same memorial issue.) Strangely, scandalously, it remains out of print, but the 250$ you’d have to presently pay to own a copy really would be worth it.
3.) Modern and American Dignity: Who We Are as Persons, and What That Means for Our Future. 2010. Not as thematically tight a set of essays as Stuck with Virtue, but more profound on biotechnological issues, and in general. The core essays, chapters seven and eight, are among Lawler’s most important statements, on the whole history of the West and the meaning of America, even if they spring off of certain insights from Murray, Brownson, and Benedict XVI. Had I to save only one of his books, thinking of the greatest good for the greatest number, this would be it—if I just could resist my Tocquevillean urge to reach for Restless Mind first!
4.) Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls. 2002. This is Lawler of the first interpretive mode, and probably the most “traditionally scholarly” set of essays. Some of it is finishing up ideas explored in Postmodernism Rightly Understood, as he again analyzes aspects of Fukuyama, Rorty, and Percy. It also features his analyses of a set of Strauss-influenced thinkers on the American regime, one of his key Murray essays, and his Jefferson essay.
5.) American Heresies and Higher Education. 2016. A lesser work, but the most accessible of his essay collections, and his only book (besides his co-written one on A Constitution in Full) that is dealing with what I’d call the post-2013 situation. The essays on higher education’s current woes and prospects for reform are quite good, and one highlight is a consideration of Plato’s radical critique of democracy in The Republic and how it applies to contemporary education issues.
As I said in Songbook No. 121, a number of key things changed around 2013-2015, culminating in the disasters of 2020, and these to some degree make Peter’s earlier books seem dated, never in their core insights, but in the ways they are tied to a late-90s-through-the-aughts situation. One distinctive aspect of the politics of those days was the way it seemed plausible when Lawler suggested that either a) the religious social conservatives, or more likely, b) the libertarians, if altered into “liberal-tarians,” might soon rise to new heights of popularity and power, or perhaps both of them simultaneously, becoming the two major competitors. Well, it didn’t turn out that way! Although Lawler was among the first to see that. In any case, the key aspects of his philosophic thought function apart from the situation they were born amid.
I hope some of you familiar with the richness of Lawler’s work will chime in below with your own ranking of his books, or of his essays. (Oh, and for book-ranking purposes, let’s leave his many edited volumes out of the running.) For those new to Lawler, your approach to his writings would depend on which other authors you’d like to study alongside him—the Percy-lover, for example, should begin with Postmodernism… and Aliens...
Whatever critical issues I’ve raised, I will end by stressing that these are among the wisest works I’ve ever read, and that Peter Augustine Lawler deserves to be regarded as one among a handful of major thinkers of our time, one essential for philosophic conservatives, and especially, for philosophic believers in the God of the Bible.
And, I miss him…whatever else his words do for me, they still stir hopes, and bring back fond memories.