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Some Notes Regarding the Conservatism of Walker Percy

How would a cat react if deprived of sleep? How does a car perform when deprived of oil? What happens to babies if no one holds them?

I don't know how the cat would react, but I bet it would grow highly irritable and eventually violent. The car, of course, would break down. And babies, I hear, lose all desire to eat if deprived of human affection.

This type of question–What would happen to X if starved of one of its most important elements–drove Walker Percy's fiction.

But Percy applied the question to humans: What happens when people, either individually or as a culture, are deprived of religion? If we are spiritual beings, what happens when the spirit is suffocated?

Percy was a keen observer of the modern landscape and he saw into it deeply. It is, he said, devoid of meaning and aimless.

Percy's characterization of modern man's aimlessness is nothing less than an indictment against a modern world that has rejected God. A host of conservative thinkers–Russell Kirk, Bernard Iddings Bell, Anthony Harrigan, Richard Weaver–would have agreed and have traced the aimlessness back to the liberal tradition coming down from the Enlightenment, especially castigating the relativistic, secular, scientistic pragmatism that marks liberalism. Such mental dispositions are natural results of the elimination of God: If there is no God, no Permanent Thing, then all things become relative, all knowledge is based solely on science, our behavior is dictated solely by pragmatic concerns, and society accordingly becomes secular. Such mental dispositions sap meaning out of life and result in modern man's aimlessness.

To understand how liberalism's ejection of God contributes to aimlessness, it helps to understand the “genealogy” of the institutional permanent things as found in the Christian tradition. First, there is the Triune God, the very first Permanent Thing. From God comes what I call the “first generation” of permanent things, those two key things that God implemented through Christ's ministry: The Sacraments and the Church. (The Bible could also be included within this “first generation,” since it is revealed by God.) Then there are the “second generation” permanent things: those things emanating from the Sacraments and the Church. There are various items in this second generation, like the liturgy, but the most important is the family, an institution that starts in the Church through the sacrament of marriage.

From the family, comes the successive generations of “permanent things.” Initially, the family gives birth to neighborhood, friends, and the importance of private property and work, those things that protect individual families and allow them to exist. That generation, in turn, gives birth to the necessity of a good economy and the importance of government to protect and nourish the family. It also gives birth to a variety of institutions or practices that are often imbued with religious roots, even though they are hardly recognized as religious things. I would argue that service clubs, social lodges, county fairs, family or high school class reunions, even bowling leagues are (or at least can be, depending on their tilt) distant descendants of the first levels of permanent things. G.K. Chesterton, a conservative thinker par excellence by my reckoning, often defended little things, like drinking in an English pub, that ideologues disdained. He saw that they emanated at some level from deeper and more important things.

It is, admittedly, potentially misleading to refer to things like a county fair as “permanent things.” Permanent things are things that retain their form despite cultural or societal surroundings. As the generations of the permanent things move downward, they become further and further removed from the first permanent thing (God) and begin to take on more and more the ephemeral characteristics of society. But the important point is: All such things proceed from permanent things and hence are endowed with certain permanent traits that should not be effaced. And, most importantly, because such things often proceed from the highest permanent things, they give humans stability.

Now, shift back and recall that liberalism's tradition consists in eliminating God from society (and politics).

If man is a spiritual creature, and the real source of that spirituality (God and His Holy Spirit) are sucked from his soul, what happens? Something must fill the void. This fact has been understood by radicals throughout the centuries. They have repeatedly viewed religion as something that must be ripped by its roots out of society in order to implement the ideal society. Once God is torn out of the soul of the different citizens, then the political machinery could implant something else to take its place, which would, in turn, further the goals of the political machinery. Marx wasn't just waxing eloquent when he said religion is the opiate of the masses. He really saw it as an evil thing because, as long as it was in place, people would be more drawn to religious things than the implementation of the earthly paradise of communism.

The truth also has a more “grassroots” application. If God and the permanent things issuing from God are pushed out of the soul, then something must fill the vacuum at each level.

At the God level, a person needs a God-like substitute. This was what Marx realized when he sought to substitute God with the communal society. Likewise, the positivist liberal, August Comte, explicitly tried to replace God (and his saints and holy days) with a religion of science and science's saints and holy days. As possible replacements for the Church, the liberal posits a strong government, and as a replacement for the sacraments, the liberal posits social activism.

With respect to the family, it has been under liberalism's fire for hundreds of years. Marriage, for instance, has been the mocked mule of liberals for years, both among early liberals, like Percey Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and modern liberals, like the Beatniks and Gloria Steinem. The fruition of liberalism's history of abrasiveness toward marriage has been seen in recent years, especially in its advocacy of no-fault divorce laws. To replace the permanent institution of the family, there has been an intense effort to redefine the family to include single-parent households, households with step-parents, and households consisting of homosexual couples. Marriage and family, upper-level permanent things, were replaced by marriage-less households and broken families.

At the lower levels of permanent things, less profound things can substitute. Instead of neighborhood associations, or service clubs, or 4-H, people increasingly find themselves wrapped in banality.

The important point is this: the liberal intuitively wants this type of aimlessness and the resulting banality. Aimlessness is the opposite of rootedness, and rootedness is the trait of a person whose feet are in the soil of the permanent things, and the permanent things ultimately stem from God. Liberalism, by definition, is the effort to eject God and replace Him with something else and therefore it wants to get rid of those things that foster rootedness and permanency and, as a corollary, celebrates banality and shallowness in culture. (The only liberals who disdain the banality are the liberals who want banality-celebrating people to get involved in opposing the upper-levels of permanent things–like sixties radicals looked down on anyone who enjoyed bourgeois comforts instead of devoting themselves to social activism.)

This, of course, is a gross generalization and I doubt it fits any individual these days (though it certainly aptly described radicals in earlier days), but my point is: it's part of liberalism's mindset–the presumed trees, shrubs and hills of the liberal's intellectual landscape, so to speak, often so deeply presumed that they're not even recognized. Hence I say that the liberal intuitively seeks the destruction of rootedness, and hence intuitively seeks–and celebrates–aimlessness. It's no coincidence that the “cutting edge” of entertainment and our pop culture consistently finds itself in the liberal camp, from Hollywood to MTV to pornography. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is particularly relevant here: To the extent people are debased, they lap up the mass culture fare. The hollowness created by ejecting God is filled by pop entertainment.

But what does all this have to do with Walker Percy? Precisely this: Percy opposed the banality and aimlessness of modern life. In fact, the problem drove his fiction. And in this, he was, in his own way, an arch-conservative.


I am aware that I have used “permanent things” here in a manner different than Russell Kirk's use of the term. The permanent things as defined by Kirk are the “mores and norms that transcend the world's culture.” In Kirk's usage, the permanent things are in large part the virtues, like courage and prudence and charity. In my usage, the term refers more to institutional permanent things. In any event, the two usages are consistent: In the Christian tradition, they are the fruits of the genealogy of institutional permanent things sketched here. At each level of institutional permanent things, the virtuous permanent things are strengthened.