The Magazine

Strange Land

Peter Lawler's America.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By PETER J. HANSEN
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This insight applies not merely to liberal Democrats but more broadly to liberal democrats, which is to say most Americans. In Lawler's view, Americans suffer from (and cause suffering by) an increasingly narrow, conditional view of their obligations and attachments. "Calculation about one's own emotional well-being has, to an amazing and unprecedented extent, become the language of moral discourse among otherwise ordinary Americans."

Even in evangelical authors like James Dobson, therapeutic language has compromised biblical morality (an observation that is hard to reconcile with the portrait of defiant orthodoxy Lawler draws).

It isn't that Lawler lacks sympathy with the belief in individual rights or with the desire to alleviate suffering. He simply thinks that something critically human is lost if all obligations become voluntary, or if all suffering can be relieved with the right pill. To be human is to be dominated by the feelings surrounding love and death. To be human is to live with misery; if misery is abolished, the beings who remain will be something less than human.

Lawler sees little danger that this will occur anytime soon. Nonetheless, he worries that misery--and therefore humanity properly understood--might eventually be eliminated through genetic manipulation. Perhaps he worries too much. While genetic tinkering might eventually reduce, for example, the propensity to schizophrenia or severe depression, it is hard to see how it could produce a self-conscious being who isn't troubled by his own mortality.

Lawler is less consistently clear and sharp when he leaves behind ordinary Americans and confronts more abstract or philosophic thinkers. His chapter linking Tocqueville and Percy is interesting but strained. As Lawler notes, both men think about what might be lost in the triumph of democracy over aristocracy. However, Percy's emphasis on "love as a compensation for loneliness in the ruins" might seem part of the problem to Tocqueville, who worries that democratic man will "isolate himself from the mass of his fellow men and withdraw with his family and his friends."

On the other hand, Lawler's contrast of Percy with Sagan is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. Percy observes that "the self or the being that can know the cosmos, is always a leftover in any account of the cosmos. So as modern science explains more and more about the cosmos, the human being experiences himself as more and more an alien." Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the cosmos is the being who tries to understand the cosmos by principles which exclude anyone trying to understand the cosmos. "Scientism attempts to dispense with human mystery and human uniqueness. But actually doing so would create a world not only without religion but without science."

Lawler seeks to find a middle way or synthesis which does justice to the claims of orthodoxy on the one hand and liberalism and science on the other. One alternative he discusses is natural law. However, he himself suggests that natural law as understood by Thomas Aquinas (and American Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray) is dependent upon revelation and thus isn't truly "natural."

Lawler says little about the oldest and arguably most satisfying alternative to both liberalism and orthodoxy: ancient philosophy. Given his concerns and the authors he discusses, this is a puzzling omission.

If one takes one's bearings by Plato or Aristotle rather than John Locke, then the politically unhealthy character of Locke's teaching is less troubling. Moreover, philosophy and science as the ancients understand them do not mean squeezing the objects of study into abstract mathematical categories which exclude the scientist himself.

Nonetheless, Peter Lawler's "Aliens in America" is an interesting and worthwhile book. In describing the intellectual currents currently in motion around him, Lawler implicitly and explicitly lays out his own position; and it is one likely to attract thoughtful adherents.

A businessman and political theorist living in Alstead, New Hampshire, Peter J. Hansen is writing a book entitled "Vices of Democracy."