Devastated. Just devastated.
That is how everyone at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute feels today after learning that our friend Peter Augustine Lawler has passed away.
Actually, devastated is an understatement. Peter has played such an important role in ISI’s educational program for so long, and has been a friend, mentor, and teacher to so many, that it is almost impossible to imagine an ISI program in which he won’t play a major part. He has been an ISI stalwart for decades. He was a magnificent and beloved teacher, not least because he challenged students in ways that most professors never do. Peter taught in the ISI Honors Program for many years, becoming a mentor to countless ISI students. He was one of ISI’s most popular campus lecturers as well. Frankly, he is irreplaceable.
Peter was a man of capacious learning. Not many scholars can write as authoritatively and engagingly about Alexis de Tocqueville as about the HBO series Girls (or higher education, or Flannery O’Connor, or transhumanism, or the latest blockbuster movie, or Walker Percy, or . . . well, you get the idea). A prolific writer, Peter contributed frequently to ISI’s own Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age.
When, last year, ISI began the search for the next Modern Age editor, dozens of impeccably credentialed candidates stepped forward. The fact that Peter was chosen from such a deep and talented field speaks to the passion, experience, and creative vision he brought to Modern Age. He had the credentials, of course. He wrote or edited eighteen books. He served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics. He was executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science. He received the Weaver Prize for Scholarly Excellence. But Peter stood out for his wide-ranging intellectual interests and an all-too-rare ability to understand and actually engage with the arguments of those with whom he disagreed. That latter aspect was evident in Peter’s writings: he didn’t dismiss or caricature his intellectual opponents.
And it made him the ideal person to lead Modern Age. He was intent on making the journal something you don’t see much anymore: a forum for debate and discussion among conservatives of all stripes. Just this month his debut issue as Modern Age editor appeared. I encourage you to read the fine contributions Peter commissioned and edited. The issue is provocative, challenging, and timely, while offering a breadth and depth of perspective rarely found today. It captures what he was aiming to create with Modern Age: a place where you won’t always agree with what you read, but where you’ll engage with the most important ideas being batted back and forth on the right, and where leading thinkers from all along the conservative spectrum hash out their differences. In creating this forum, Peter honored what Modern Age founder Russell Kirk identified as the journal’s purpose: to “stimulate discussion of the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
Peter was excited to hop on a plane to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for a special Modern Age panel discussion and reception celebrating his debut issue and the beginning of a new era at Modern Age. Needless to say, we have canceled the D.C. event as we mourn Peter’s passing. To move forward would be not only inappropriate but also pointless, as a great part of the purpose of the event was to introduce Peter as the journal’s new editor and to allow him to lay out his vision for Modern Age.
Please keep Peter’s family in your thoughts and prayers. He leaves behind his wife, Rita; their daughter, Catherine Jackson, and her husband, Patrick; two grandchildren, Henry Augustus and Molly; and his sister-in-law, Sara Schnuck, to whom he served as a devoted caregiver for the past twenty-one years.
This morning, Rita Lawler offered the perfect reflection on her husband. “He truly loved the students, and loved the books, and loved the work,” she told ISI. “And he is counting on all of us to go forward with the work of liberal education.”
Though we are overwhelmed by this loss, we will indeed carry on. We can think of no better way to honor a great friend, teacher, and mentor—and an even better man.
Requiescat in pace.
Charlie Copeland is president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and publisher of Modern Age.