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…
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.
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