Walker Percy, Science, and Stoicism in America: Are We Lost in the Cosmos?

Walker Percy WeekendI’ve posted, or posted links, about the fun I had at the Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana, especially the nice people and the fabulous “bourbon tour” on Saturday evening.

photo (1)Today, however, I’d like to write  a little something about the panels I attended on Saturday morning and afternoon. The morning panel included Micah Mattix (Professor at Houston Baptist University), Peter Lawler (Professor at Berry College), and Leslie Marsh (Professor at University of British Columbia and founder of the Michael Oakeshott Association). The title of the panel’s topic was “Lost in the Cosmos: Is Science Enough Without Religion?” Mattix was the moderator and used Percy’s underappreciated book, Lost in the Cosmos, to begin the discussion. From there Lawler and Marsh gave their answer to the question, which was decidedly in the negative. Lawler, at least in my view, talked significantly more than Marsh. I think my friend Larry Arnhart, a political philosopher who has debated Lawler in the past (Larry was not at the conference), has characterized accurately Lawler’s views here. For what it is worth, I think Larry has the better of the argument by far. Added to this, there was some talk – negative –  of “scientism” by the panel, a term of opprobrium that was/is never very well defined. It seemed to me that the panelists and most of the audience were Christians (I met and sat next to a kind and interesting Pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge who shared my interest in Wendell Berry), and what worries them, I think, is that “science” is going into places where it should not tread (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA argument). In other words, it is intellectually imperialistic. This is a strange argument to make, considering that Christians believe that all aspects of life are to be explained by Christianity/Jesus. People who oppose “scientism” should remind themselves that sauce for the goose, in short, is sauce for the gander. Scientists have the right and the duty to try and explain the world and they should not shy away from that project because it makes people, or their religious beliefs, uncomfortable. Moreover,  there have been significant developments in how we understand human beings since Percy’s death in 1990 (e.g. mapping of the human genome; startling developments in neuroscience; the excellent work of primatologists) which lead me to believe that Percy’s theory of man might be somewhat “dated.” Still, this does not mean that Percy is not worth reading, for his humour, his trenchant observations about human beings, his critique of American society, including science and religion, and his fine storytelling skills.

The afternoon panel was entitled “Will Percy’s World: Stoicism and the Southern Aristocracy.” I was particularly interested in this panel simply because I came to Walker Percy’s writings through his Uncle Will’s book, Lanterns on the Levee. I had heard of Walker before encountering Lanterns, but dived right in to his novels after reading it. There was much in Will Percy I did not care for (his racism, his patrician outlook, to name just two), but I found, and still find his Stoicism attractive. Just a sampling of gems from his memoir, the last two of which had direct relevance to the panel:

“good cooking is one of the few things that make life bearable.” (page 10)

“But I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be.” (page 27)

“After Fascism and Communism and Capitalism and Socialism are over and forgotten as completely as slavery and the Old South, that same headstrong human heart will be clamoring for the old things it wept for in Eden – love and a chance to be noble, laughter and a chance to adore something, someone, something, somewhere.” (page 34)

“Calling to mind with gratitude those to whom we are indebted on our journey is not only a sort of piety, but one of the few pleasures that endure without loss of luster to the end.” (page 49)

“I’m unhappily convinced that our exteriors have increased in importance while our interiors have deteriorated.” (page 62)

“To be at once intellectual honest and religious is a rack on which many have perished and on which I writhed dumbly, for I knew even then there were certain things which, like overwhelming physical pain, you must fight out alone, at the bottom of your own dark well, beyond ministration of assuagement or word of advice, incommunicado and leper-lonely.” (page 79)

“Peace to them, and endless gratitude.” (page 95 – on his teachers at Sewanee)

“Not satisfied with knowing they were as good as anyone else, they came to believe they were better than anyone else. Always a fatal delusion. They should have remembered hubris from their Greek.” (page 120 – on antebellum “Southern leaders”)

“Not science but the Christian sects are causing the death of religion.” (page 315)

“I suppose crises occurred, problems pressed, decisions had to be made, those four shining years [at Sewanee], but for me only one altered the sunlight. Once a month I would ride ten miles down the wretched mountain road to Winchester, go to confession, hear mass, and take communion. I had been thinking, I had never stopped thinking. I was determined to be honest if it killed me. So I knelt in the little Winchester church examining my conscience and preparing for confession. How it came about did not seem sudden or dramatic or anything but sad. As I started to the confessional I knew there was no use going, no priest could absolve me, no church could direct my life or my judgment, what most believed I could not believe. . . . It was over and forever. I rode back to the leafy mountain mournful and unregretful, knowing thenceforth I should breathe a starker and a colder air, with no place to go when I was tired.” (page 95 – on losing his faith in God at Sewanee)

The two panelists (no moderator this time) were Emily Erwin Jones (Archivist, Delta State) and Ralph Wood (Professor at Baylor University). Jones gave a nice talk on growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, where Will Percy lived (and Walker Percy grew up after his father’s suicide), and on some collections at Delta State related to the town. Still, the star of the show, so to speak, was Wood, who contrasted Will Percy’s “tragic” view of life (see quotes above) with Walker Percy’s “comic” outlook (see Wood’s “Introduction to Walker Percy” here.) Wood was an interesting speaker, well-organized, with copious readings from both Will and Walker Percy’s books. Being a professor at Baylor and having read some of Wood’s works, I was unsurprised by his criticism of Will Percy, nor do I think they were entirely unfair. Still, as I noted above, there are problems with Walker Percy’s thought as well, and I thought that there needed to be more recognition of such shortcomings.

Perhaps a more critical examination of Walker Percy’s works will be in the offing in the future. I certainly hope so. After all, Walker Percy’s best friend was Shelby Foote, a confirmed atheist, if I’m not mistaken, and one who told Percy upon his conversion to Catholicism that “he was in full intellectual retreat.”  It is enough to say at this point that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St. Francisville and have been reflecting on it ever since leaving and driving home to Texas. It reminded me of the joy I had in reading and rereading Percy’s books and the reason I named my dog, a beautiful, energetic dachshund, now deceased, Walker.

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