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Rather gruff and rumpled-looking, Peter Lawler was absolutely and always his own man. Not from an elite or Ivy League background, Peter nevertheless could have, and often did, run complete circles around his intellectual opponents, many of whom thought themselves superior. An American original and an anti-individualist individual, he was the very personification of a healthy academic wit…

Peter Lawler

Editor’s Note: Imaginative Conservative Senior Contributor Peter Augustine Lawler (1951-2017) passed away last night, at the age of sixty-five. Our co-founder, Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, pays tribute to Dr. Lawler below.

The first time I met Peter Lawler, he scared the be-jeepers out of me. I was not yet out of graduate school, but I was speaking at a conference for conservatives. A full generation ahead of me and already well established in his career, Peter was also an invited speaker. I listened to his talk with intense admiration. He had been going on and on (in a good, academic way) against Hayekians and Kirkians, but I was both! He even jokingly referred to himself as a “reformed Straussian.” Not ever having knowingly met a Straussian, I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Everyone else did, it seemed, and during his talk he received a number of appreciable laughs. When he listened to my talk, however, he just stared at me. Frankly, I thought he despised it. I left the conference more than a bit confused, but I was also pretty sure that Professor Lawler thought very little of my talk or my views. I had no idea if the two of us would ever cross paths again, and, it seemed, that that was that.

To my surprise, I ran into him at another conference, just about a year later.  Again, we were both invited speakers. He gave a great talk, not surprisingly. When it was my turn to speak, though, he excused himself, stating that he wanted to go to his room and take a nap. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement! I was feeling rather uneasy as I was taking the stage. Just as I was about there, a student stopped me. Professor Lawler, this young man said to me, told everyone to watch me. The student then listed off about five reasons why Peter liked me as a scholar and a person. I was not only at a stage in my career, but I was also at the exact moment in my life at which I very much needed to hear this. That kind of praise from a man I considered immensely wise meant everything to me. Needless to write, my confidence level soared as I took the stage. At that moment, I knew I had made it.

Sometime last evening, Professor Peter Lawler passed away. He was sixty-five year old, and he had just started feeling ill on Friday. This news, I will freely admit, hit me hard. Very hard. Only four hours later (as I write this), it’s still hitting me hard. Peter had too much to give to the world to be taken so soon. Being a rash and poor Christian, I want to shake my fist at God and ask, “Why?” (For what it’s worth, I think God can take a little anger every now and then. He is, after all, pure wisdom and pure mercy.)

I can’t state that Peter and I ever became close on a personal level, but I can state with certainty that I had the privilege of being one of his closest allies in this whirligig of a world. I saw Peter frequently over the past two decades, and, each time, we enjoyed each other’s company, each other’s ideas, and an intellectually solid friendship. He never failed to criticize me when and where I needed criticizing, and he never failed to encourage me when I needed and deserved encouragement. I’m sure that to the end of his days, he thought me a goofy confusion of traditionalism and libertarianism, but he also—rather beautifully in this polarized and corrupt world—took me for what I was and am.

Rather gruff and rumpled-looking throughout his adult life, Peter was absolutely and always his own man. Not from an elite or Ivy League background, Peter nevertheless could have, and often did, run complete circles around his intellectual opponents, many of whom thought themselves superior. An American original and anti-individualist individual, he was the very personification of a healthy academic wit.

A scholar, he was also a vital man of letters. He could write on anything, and he always did so with brilliance. Whether the issue be political, legal, constitutional, diplomatic, scientific, psychological, or pure pop culture, Peter handled every issue with deftness.

As we Imaginative Conservatives very well know, Peter—thank the Good Lord—was one of us. Once, a few years ago, when an unfriendly voice accused our beloved journal of being monolithic in thought, Peter justly, humorously, and publicly tore the objector down. The Imaginative Conservative, he argued, might well be the most ecumenical and diverse online journal for those who refuse to bow to the Left or to mammon.

I only knew Peter as an academic ally and drinking companion over the past two decades, and, I’m devastated by his departure. I would guess that those who knew him as a close friend and colleague are simply beside themselves today. Peter left behind a great deal, however. We have his many books, his many essays, and his great and magnanimous friendship and mentorship.

He was thrilled to have been named editor of Modern Age last fall, and, though I’m biased, I think the one issue he edited that saw print was the best one produced since Russell Kirk edited issue 1 of volume 1, back in the 1950s.

Peter was a serious if not showy Roman Catholic.  As such, he’s probably racing Russell Kirk though Purgatory to the finish line as I type this. I would guess that they’re having a blast right now— talking, joking, and philosophizing. Peter, of course, is telling Russell exactly where each erred.

And Russell is grunting his agreement.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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5 replies to this post
  1. I could not believe my eyes when I read the title and my first thought was that he’d just become Editor of Modern Age. Our loss. RIP Mr. Lawler.

  2. While I never met Dr. Lawler in person, I got to know his work or essays pretty well. I first heard of him when he started writing on No Left Turns, and in a blog post spoke out against the “creeping libertarianism” of our times in re: organ/kidney markets. As a conservative with an undergrad understanding of Economics (a minor @ Ashland U.) I immediately lashed out at his position. Certainly organ/kidney markets are ethical (on a utilitarian basis they seem to be). The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 by trying to put Locke in the “Locke Box” essentially brings about the painful demise of thousands. If the alienation of organs were permitted markets would develop a pricing mechanism which would reduce the current shortage. I am not sure where I currently stand on the issue, but certainly Peter Lawler was an ethicist, who thought that treating human body parts like a commercial commodity was an indignity that could trump saving lives. There are few thinkers who resist the reduction of human life to productivity, and yet still pretend to be guided by a standard.(albeit anyone who followed Lawler for long enough would come to doubt the possibility or a standard or philosophy which could explain the human situation.) It is telling that you begin your essay mentioning Hayek, and don’t end with him. Yet even on Organ Transplantation one does not know that the NOTA by keeping prices high/supply constrained doesn’t encourage scientists to develop artificial organs, that is one must admit that only Iran has a “Hayekian” solution to organs, which I was interested in since coming out of undergrad I wanted to unite Islam and Western economics. An interesting thing about Lawler essays is that there was always room to disagree, and the scope of the disagreements had a certain recurring permanency or eternal return. He often times wrote what appeared to be superficial comments, which rarely were.

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