What Is ‘Southern Stoicism’? An Interview with Professor Peter Lawler

Most people’s introduction to the so-called “Southern Stoicism” is in the writings of one of the great novelists, Walker Percy (Percy happened to come from a long line of Stoics as you’ll see). And anyone interested in this specific offshoot of Stoic philosophy and American history inevitably find themselves drawn to Peter Lawler who has deeply studied the subject matter. Peter is a Dana Professor of Political Science at Berry College in Georgia. He is also the editor of the quarterly journal Perspectives in Political Science and is the author of multiple books and has written about Southern Stoicism for The National Review. We reached out to him to ask about his definition of Southern Stoicism, for more book recommendations, and much more. As you will see below he was incredibly generous with his answers and you will undoubtedly walk away from this interview with a deeper understanding of both the American South and Ancient Rome. Enjoy!

A lot of our readers have a good understanding of Stoicism, but it might be a surprise to hear that there is such thing as Southern Stoicism. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Well, I learned from Alexis de Tocqueville—author of the best book on America and the best book on democracy—the antebellum South had the virtues and vices of any aristocracy. Well, its vices were more vicious because of the unprecedented monstrosity of soul-destroying race-based slavery. But that doesn’t mean virtues weren’t there, and that even we might still benefit from them as sources of strength where we middle-class democrats are weak. Tocqueville didn’t talk up the possible contribution the classical orientation of much of Southern education might make to America, because he thought all that was distinctive about the South would eventually dissolve into the universality of middle-class life. The slave-based regime, he knew, was doomed, and justly so. Tocqueville was mostly rightly about would happen, but not completely so. The virtues and a softer version of the aristocratic vices persisted after the war: The aristocrats came back to power for a whole, and Southern literature emerged as the consciousness of dispossessed aristocrats, in Faulkner, Walker Percy, the Agrarians, and many others.

Not only that, but distinctively Southern virtue persists in an increasingly democratic form, and the evolution of Southern literature reflects that. The South, as a whole, remains more honorable and violent, less materialistic and more spiritual, than the rest of the country. Consider the disproportionately Southern composition of our armed forces, and that Mississippi genuinely is the most Christian state in the country.

On the precise category of “Southern Stoicism,” I discovered in an essay by Walker Percy (“Stoicism in the South”). Percy was raised by his “Uncle Will”—William Alexander Percy, the great poet, exemplary community leader, and a remarkably self-conscious and consistent follower of Marcus Aurelius. He believed himself to part of an aristocracy of wisdom and virtue extending across time and place from Pericles to Marcus Aurelius to George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Will Percy was, as Walker Percy wrote, quite a one of a kind. He was a gay racist aristocrat who opened his home to both the Southern Agrarians (who were more than a bit racist) and the African-American leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes. Under his watch, Greenville MS was a cultural center and had one of the best public school systems in the country.

Walker Percy and Shelby Foote labored to gets B’s and C’s in English. He also was an American patriot, loved in military service during World War I, and was very in love with life despite the kind of loneliness that accompanied being gay in those days. He took great joy in sharing his love with others through poetry. His complacent racial paternalism was his biggest and unwittingly cruel self-deception.

So Will Percy was quite a singular Stoic. Walker learned from his of the pervasiveness of the tradition of Southern Stoicism among the leaders of the agrarian South: Their devotion to the classical virtues of magnanimity, generosity, and courage as men born to rule themselves and others, Walker Percy claims, was a real form of natural human excellence that flourished for a while in our otherwise modern country. In Percy’s novels, the virtues of Stoic leaders are displayed, but he typically concludes that Stoicism culminates in nihilism when it class-based support dissolves. And Stoic virtues were inadequate to confront the challenge of the Civil Rights movement, with its clamoring claim for rights by people whom the Stoics believed to be under their paternalistic protection. Walker Percy also suggested, if you look closely, that there still might be a place for ironic Stoics even today, for those unable to be happy with either being Christians or morally clueless middle-class consumers and producers.

Well, one more thing; Walker Percy developed in both philosophic prose and in the narratives of novels a kind of indigenous American Thomism—a for of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas for our time and place. This was a huge intellectual accomplishment, even if turns out not to be one that swept our nation. Thomas Aquinas, of course, brought together the philosophy of Aristotle with the revelation of Christianity, which meant modifying the proud moral virtue displayed by both the Greek Aristotle and the Roman Cicero with the humility of the Christian. Walker Percy actually writes that in his novel The Moviegoer, the whole history of the West is recapitulated in one weekend in a New Orleans suburb. The wandering of the Roman patricians reading Greek philosophers (as in Marcus Aurelius) is brought together with the wandering of the Christian pilgrim on the road. That wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of Southern Stoicism. Percy may have surpassed the Stoics, but he never dispensed with them.

Walker Percy is one of the first Southern writers to talk explicitly about Stoicism, you said that one of the reasons for that is that all the Southerners before him were too consumed by defending slavery or segregation. But Stoic themes are all throughout the Civil War. Gallantry, doing one’s duty as they understood it, honor, quiet suffering. Yet the elephant in the room of course is the exploitation of all those people, the terribleness of slavery. It strikes me as fitting that Thomas Wentworth Higginson who led one of the first black regiments for the Union was a translator of Epictetus, a former slave. How does one reconcile the fact that the Southern aristocracy took Marcus Aurelius as a guide yet defended something as abhorrent as slavery?

Percy said there was hardly any antebellum Southern literature because all the literary energy was used up defending slavery. Many of those defenses were both ingenious and deeply repulsive. But we can’t forget that the Roman patricians had slaves, and they regarded the work of slaves as indispensable for supporting their noble leisure and great deeds. So in a way taking Marcus Aurelius as a model was one way of vindicating slavery and later the racial paternalism of segregation. It is also true that Southerners admired the philosopher-slave Epictetus as much as the philosopher-emperor.

The lesson of Epictetus is that the rational man is never inwardly a slave, no matter what his political and material circumstances happen to be. As the novels of the contemporary Southern Stoic Tom Wolfe—often called “the novelist of manliness”—show, Epictetus rises in the Southern imagination as Stoicism gets democratized. In A Man In Full, Wolfe has a completely down-and-out character who finds inner freedom by actually coming upon a copy of Epictetus’ writing, and he ends up knowing exactly what to do to preserve his dignity all by himself in a maximum security prison. And that novel ends, with a character on fire as a born-again Zeussian—or a Stoic.

Can you tell us why Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird represents an ideal of the Southern Stoic virtues?

The first thing to remember here is Atticus Finch is literally the only exemplary literary hero shared by virtually all Americans today. And he is a Southern Stoic. Consider the name Atticus, not a Lee family name! The character was named after the Roman patrician-philosopher who was Cicero’s best friend—not exactly a Stoic, but a sort of Stoic fellow traveler. Atticus’s virtue was magnanimity, deploying his singular virtues and character to save the rule of law from a mob in his particular community. For the most part, Atticus, although admired by everyone and even the community’s representative in the legislature, lives a very marginalized life, spending a lot of time alone with his thoughts and his books  But he does his duty–not out of love and charity, but because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. If you look closely, Atticus isn’t perfect on the justice front, but as an honorable man he abhors all that is common and trashy—including the cruelty of racism. His great achievement is to have, in the crucial respect, democratized Southern Stoicism by defending the one place all  American men and women are undeniably equal—before the law. It’s corny but true: He turns Southern Stoicism into American Stoicism without ceasing to be Southern: He’s quietly the best shot in the county.

Aside from To Kill a Mockingbird, can you give our readers recommendations on books and movies that closely embody Stoicism—particularly Southern Stoicism—in your opinion? I know you’ve written about Friday Night Lights’ coach and I’d love to hear you elaborate on that.

There’s a relatively recent tradition in Southern literature and film that’s all about democratized Southern Stoicism.  It might begin in Charles Portis’ under-appreciated True Grit (which is infinitely more insightful than the two movie versions). It continues, as mentioned above, in the novels of Tom Wolfe. It’s also found in the writing of Horton Foote and the films based on it, in the perfect films of our best director, Jeff Nichols (Mud and Loving),  and in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.  Because so much democratized Stoicism finds its home in Texas and Arkansas, I’m half-jokingly touting the emerging discipline of “Texarkansan Studies.”

READ TRUE GRIT!  There you have democratized chivalry and no racism whatsoever among the admirable characters. The magnanimous Rooster Cogburn is a kind of outlaw by nature who rode with the most outlaw part of the Confederacy—Quantrill’s raiders in Missouri.

A special place of honor has to be given to the best TV show ever—Friday Night Lights. There an honorable and hugely rational football coach—Eric Taylor—who cultivates and defends maybe the most genuine form of meritocracy (aside from military service) remaining in our country—high-school football. There honor and violence—disciplined by rules and not ending in death (although life-altering injuries)—produce a community of warriors that transcends the social boundaries of race and class. And that classy band of brothers is protected by their coach from the manipulative vulgarity of the trashy white oligarchy who run the town.  The talents of Eric Taylor are those of a true aristocrat of talent and virtue that exists across time and space, and he does as well in leading men in inner-city Philadelphia as he does in Dylan Texas.  His “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” is, if you think about it, perfectly Stoic.

What about sexism? Well, Coach Taylor has, sometimes grudgingly, quite the egalitarian marriage to a woman ever bit a natural aristocrat as he is. And she teaches him to appreciate the intellectual virtues and those adept at practicing them. The Coach can’t imagine, for good reason, a woman actually playing top-level football, but he recognizes the right woman can be a coach. And he follows his wife’s pursuit of scholarly excellence to Philly.

For more on Southern Stoicism, please read my American Heresies and Higher Education.