Peter Lawler was not a Southern Gentleman. But he was a southerner and he was, in every important respect, a gentleman. Kind, courteous, and insistent that public discourse and private interactions both be conducted with decency and civility, he earned many friends in his too-short life. A prolific author whose specialization was seemingly everything, from popular culture to theories of social change and of the nature of the person, he always had time for professional interaction and, especially, for students. At a time when conservatives have been effectively eliminated from university positions from which they might train others for successful careers, he mentored scores of bright young students through the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and various other programs and appearances. His combination of humor and penetrating analysis of arguments and ideas made him a powerful goad to serious thought and a doorway to the work and joy of the life of the mind.
I first met Peter when a university press chose him to critique the manuscript of my first book. This was during the late 1980s when people like us were not getting academic jobs that would pay the bills, let alone provide any kind of self-respect, particularly when, like me, one’s graduate professors had no interest in being of help. Yet, after a firm-but-fair review of my manuscript, Peter helped me hone the book’s arguments and, once the process was complete, chose to get in touch to provide encouragement to someone who at that time was merely a former professor and current law student. Hundreds of emails, several visits, and numerous conferences later, I found myself continuing to follow my scholarly interests as I pieced together a career that eventually took me back to teaching and writing. Peter was a major reason why I never threw myself fully into the pursuit of money, power, and the other selfish “goods” that go along with them, and I know that my story is one of many in which he played the scholarly hero.
As to the life of Peter’s own mind, it was a fertile one, the produce of which should nourish many for decades to come. He did important work on the often-quoted, but seldom understood Alexis de Tocqueville, bringing forth the generally ignored stresses within Tocqueville’s thought concerning the person’s drives and aspirations, as well as between that associational entity that is the human person, and that potentially all-encompassing, enervating, and inhuman association, the state. He did important work on the often-overlooked American Catholic thinker, Orestes Brownson, to whom Russell Kirk also looked for understanding the spiritual nature of the American polity. He constructed what he termed a postmodern conservatism on insights into a variety of figures, including Walker Percy and Vaclav Havel, that emphasized our societal shift from modern rationalism and rediscovery of our need for associations and a variety of relationships to form working personalities.
Several schools of thought might lay claim to Peter and his work as their own. Many could and should argue with some of his historical arguments and policy conclusions. Peter would welcome the latter as part of the important fun of the life of the mind. But, amidst the fun, Peter never lost sight of what he was after: a better understanding of who we are—what our genuine nature entails and how that nature might be recognized and followed for the happiness, properly understood, of the person.
Peter was part of an insufficiently recognized and currently misunderstood tradition. That tradition generally is dismissed today as “the Natural Law School”—a supposedly narrow, theocratic doctrine aimed at imposing a moralistic code on mankind. Peter’s voluminous work gives the lie to such charges, for it shows the true diversity of thought, action, and viewpoint that can exist only within communities that recognize the limits of technology and political power to change human nature. As Peter showed time and again, we can achieve some kind of happiness, and make it possible for others, only by recognizing the reality of an order to our existence that shapes who we are as human persons. And this order dictates that societies and the governments that serve them foster and leave space for primary associations in which characters and personalities are shaped. In both his scholarship and his professional life, Peter knew the route to true happiness—through God and acceptance of the nature of his creation. May he enjoy that happiness for all eternity.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law.
Bruce Frohnen helps the Bookman honor and say farewell to a longtime friend, Peter Augustine Lawler (1951–2017).