Peter Lawler's passing has been quite painful to me as it has to so very many people who were his students, friends, and colleagues. His death means that a source of incomparable wisdom in my life is gone. One story that sticks in my mind is the time that Peter secured a rather sizable grant from a certain foundation. He had to participate in a contest of sorts for the grant. His other competitors had put together PowerPoint presentations, binders, flow charts, deploying MBA-speak to demonstrate the vital impact the money would have if they could make use of it. Peter, who never hesitated to mock MBA-speak in deadpan tones, thought the episode illustrated technocratic practices at their best, applying corporate business techniques in the realm of non-profit outreach. Peter told me that he wrote down a few lines on a scratch paper while waiting his turn to speak to the grant-making committee. He delivered his “innovative” talk in a few minutes. He focused on—what else?—virtue and human nature. Needless to say, he was chosen to receive the funding.
Peter's influence on me began years before we met. He helped me calm down, although Peter didn't know it. I started reading his work my third year of law school during a period when I was a bit uptight and dour, convinced, as a wisdom-filled 24-year-old, that my country had not only made a series of wrong turns but was possibly wrong from its beginning, rooted in a rootless individualism. Lawler knew better, and with his book Postmodernism Rightly Understood, he helped me begin to grasp the truth about America and also its flaws. These flaws needed to be understood and evaluated from a position of gratitude and respect for the achievements in constitutional freedom that had been secured.