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Converging Lines of Thought

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 02, 2011

I have mentioned that Peter Augustine Lawler’s Modern and American Dignity triggered several profitable lines of thought as I read it, some of which I have already incorporated into my ownn developing series of explorations of human dignity. Lawler’s study excels at introducing critical themes in the discussion of what it means to be human.

Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and executive editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science. He also served on Bush’s Council on Bioethics, a body much criticized in its deliberations for being too open to God. Lawler’s intellectual heroes include Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Pope Benedict XVI. His book is subtitled “Who we are as persons, and what that means for our future.” It is one of the most intellectually stimulating studies I’ve read in a long time.

This is not to say that Modern and American Dignity completely explains human dignity. It is not so much a systematic exposition of an ultimately conclusive argument as a rich reflection on key aspects of human dignity, how it is perceived today, and what problems this raises. In the course of his work, Lawler introduces the reader to influential thinkers whose insights or errors illuminate the question: Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Tocqueville, John Courtney Murray, Solzhenitsyn, and more.

As a sort of starting point, Lawler explores the public reaction to the collection of essays published by Bush’s committee (“The Human Dignity Conspiracy”). He then proceeds to consider such problems as the challenge of living the classical magnanimous life in a democracy (“Tocqueville on Greatness and Justice”), the corrosive effect of nominalism on spiritual understanding (“American Nominalism and Our Need for the Science of Theology”), the compromise among America’s founders concerning modern and traditional notions of dignity (“Building Better than They Knew”), the shifting perception of dignity in a technocracy (“Solzhenitsyn on the Challenge of Our Technological Civilization”), and the nature of the good in a culture in which people live too long (“Stuck with Virtue in Our Pro-Life Future”).

It is hard to quote Lawler briefly, because his insights emerge primarily in the context of a deep discussion of both prevailing attitudes and personal aspirations. But in dealing with the contribution of Solzhenitsyn, Lawler comes close to encapsulating his own assessment of the debate:

Solzhenitsyn, in his 1978 Harvard Address, reminded us, that “if man were born only to be happy…, he would not have been born to die.” That’s not to say that he wasn’t born to be happy. His happiness comes from fulfilling the purpose he has been given—“his task on earth,” and that “evidently must be more spiritual” than “a total engrossment in everyday life.” Thank God, that total engrossment is impossible for beings born to die, and we have no choice but “to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled on, as in the Modern Era.” (204)

My criticisms of Lawler’s presentation are few. He has chosen to situate the discussion in the American context, and although this does not prevent him from exploring truly universal questions, I could have appreciated, at times, a more abstract line of argument. He takes for granted that modern notions of dignity too often produce people who grow more and more anxious and discontented, but I’m not certain that those who fall into this category always recognize their anxiousness and discontent. And he ends the book with a personal note on political philosophy which, to me, was an inadequate way to wrap up and tie together his most important themes.

But Lawler is brilliant in his analysis of the destructive attitudes toward autonomy and productivity that we have inherited from John Locke, he firmly grasps the priority of the God question which each of us must answer in light of our own spiritual experiences of personal reflection and moral judgment, and his book reads like one of those mysteriously great classes we’ve all had, in which the professor is a master of indirection. We are presented with fascinating ideas and information; we may not see at each moment how everything fits together; but by the end of the course, our understanding is enlarged in ways we had not dreamed were possible.

Flannery O’Connor famously entitled a collection of her short stories “Everything that rises must converge”. This applies well to Modern and American Dignity. The separate points of each chapter rise to the level of seminal insights. And in the end, like all profitable lines of thought once properly balanced, they form a very satisfying whole: They converge.

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