Walker Percy’s various writings contain several puzzles: How did his philosophical essays relate to his novels? What did he intend to accomplish with his theory of language? What does it mean for us to be wayfarers, never fully at home? Percy’s novels, just as much as his essays, grappled profoundly with themes of Western decadence and decline, the persistence of alienation, the allure of war, and the effects of science on human happiness. These facets of Percy’s thought make him a profound and unrecognized resource for those hoping to understand the fault lines in contemporary culture.
Perhaps more than any thinker since Alexis de Tocqueville, Percy investigated the temptation to seek complete solutions to life’s persistent dilemmas, and traces the moral, political, and theological consequences of these challenges. This book explores the ways Percy deploys his understanding of the human person as a wayfarer with particular attention to its effects on our understanding of society and politics. His focus on man as a wayfarer both captures the restlessness of the human heart and allows us to comprehend our desire to leave this predicament behind.
The hope for escape comes in many forms, and over the course of his life, Percy explored many of these through a variety of stories and essays that together form a coherent account of how modern Americans so often go wrong in describing our own condition. Our attempts to eliminate alienation — which Percy defined as the simple phenomenon of a person feeling anxious and out of place despite living in circumstances that objectively fulfill all of the bodily and social needs modern science prescribes — stood at the center of his account (CWP 27–28). Today’s best scientific approaches still cannot easily explain why a person can be well-fed, comfortable, have many friends, a romantic partner, and a good job but still feel unhappy.
Alienation opens a door to understanding this state of affairs in some unlikely ways. The feeling of being anxious and misplaced that is so central to alienation actually fades away in what we normally consider the most unpleasant of situations. A persecuted writer facing down the agents of a repressive regime is as unlikely to be alienated as the soldier in battle. Both these individuals know who they are and where they stand in the world—knowledge that most denizens of today’s society do not possess (SSL 171). But regardless of our position, we are always to some degree out of place, homeless, and not entirely at peace with ourselves. We never fully adjust to our varied environments and fields of activity. Politically, this is important because we constantly long for an answer or remedy to our distress. Instead of cultivating a range of partially successful bulwarks that simply mitigate the worst aspects of alienation and give us ways of coping with it, man constantly attempts to discover permanent solutions to his feeling of placelessness.
Accepting the 1961 National Book Award for his first major work, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy ended his brief remarks of thanks with a comment concerning his intentions in writing the novel, which he compared to the medical discipline of pathology. In his writing, Percy adopted the “posture of the pathologist with his suspicion that something is wrong,” and added that:
“the pathology in this case has to do with the loss of individuality and the loss of identity at the very time when words like the “dignity of the individual” and “self-realization” are being heard more frequently than ever. . . . In short, the book attempts a modest restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim” (SSL 246).
All of Percy’s novels emphasize these concerns of self-understanding, but in his fictional explorations of these anxieties, he devotes particular attention to this idea that man’s confusion about his purpose in living, his alienation from other people and places, and loneliness all find their roots in his nature as a perpetually homeless creature passing through his world. The mingling of philosophy and art here is the key: by shifting between description, argument, and dramatization, Percy hoped to compel his audience to see the alienated human condition for what it is. This revelation might unsettle his readers, a change in perspective that he believed they desperately needed to see their situation anew.
In his essay “Why Are You a Catholic?,” Percy reminded his readers that the wayfaring view rests at least in part upon Christian or Jewish faith, but that this faces certain challenges in the present day. He wrote that in “the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony; which is to say, open to signs” (SSL 314). Percy feared that with the fading of our religious inheritance and the rise of secular worldviews, we also lost the language and conceptual framework that allowed us to see ourselves as wayfarers and subsequently, to accept our lack of a complete home in this world.1 As such, Percy has adopted a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward spreading his faith, one grounded in his conviction that something has profoundly changed in our culture: “I do not feel obliged to set forth the particular religious reasons for my choosing among the Jewish-Christian religions. There are times when it is better not to name God. One reason is that most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us” (SSL 314). Instead, Percy adopted a somewhat different approach, one that often concealed his faith in favor of depicting men and women in crisis, and then only providing them an ambivalent ending in their stories.
We can understand Percy’s arguments without direct reference to religion in part because the signs of our time’s anxiety and depression remain all too clear but the conventional remedies seem unattainable. Indeed, the very words that people used to use to grapple with the human condition—words like soul, sin, good, and evil—do not seem to apply in a scientific age (SSL 306). Percy took it as axiomatic that with the end of the “old modern age” and the rise of “a post-modern as well as post-Christian age,” our ability to explain our condition had virtually disappeared without anyone quite realizing this had come to pass:
“The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia . . . It is the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.” (SSL 309)
In this condition, Percy believed that arguments directly aiming at persuading people to accept their alienation and embrace a faith that can address it could have little effect. Only an indirect approach to the dilemmas of our age might suffice to awaken a wayfaring sensibility once more. Percy suspected that people raised in the wake of this linguistic confusion would not immediately find a way to recognize and understand their predicament. Revealing these ideas to today’s society requires something more than visceral than argumentative, and this explains Percy’s indirect and multifaceted approach.
Percy rarely proceeded in a manner that directly admitted his own position. Even in those interviews and essays aimed at an explicitly religious audience, Percy only indirectly explored his reasons for becoming and remaining a Catholic.2 Indeed, in most of his writings, he merely outlined some fundamental elements of the human condition that ought to lead human beings to see themselves in light of either Jewish or Christian belief. Central to this is his depiction of man as a wayfarer between destinations, never truly at home in his world. Percy suggested that this concealed and indirect approach to revealing the fault lines in the modern mind might provide the only path back to consciousness of our condition, lost in the ruins of the older forms of politics, psychology, and faith that linger in our culture. Given his belief that a direct approach to persuasion would bear little fruit (and perhaps just give offense), he consistently developed a minimal picture of the human person based in readily noticeable elements of life — one which any of us might accept, regardless of our political, moral, or theological outlook.
We might liken Percy’s conceptual starting point to a state of nature in at least two senses: first, in that he hoped to persuade his readers to accept it on the basis of empirical observation and reasoned deduction from self-evidently human traits. When we deploy “worn out” words that trigger direct associations with beliefs modern people have rejected (think here of “sin” or “evil”), people who might be persuaded to rethink their perspective instead immediately close their minds and hearts. This means that the art of moral and political persuasion must be both indirect and covert. Effective writing only very subtly introduces new or repackaged concepts into our language. Under those conditions, Percy believed that he might have a chance of “sneaking” past our intellectual defenses. Secondly, Percy’s account of language bears a direct relationship to the ways thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau framed their own starting points, although Percy’s rests upon a much less speculative set of conjectures about human history. In looking to language as the distinctively human capacity—a faculty antecedent to the full use of reason—Percy provided a starting point with which he believed no modern objective-materialist partisan of science could disagree.3
Thus, Percy’s state of nature begins with a simple anthropology: the human person distinguishes himself not by the use of environmentally conditioned signals, but rather through complex symbols and signs. At a young age, all normally developing human beings discover the capacity to use signs—words—to name objects, people, and even concepts. Percy believed that an outside observer cannot legitimately understand the process to be reducible to environmental stimuli. Moreover, if an observing scientist tried to reduce language in this way, they would have to deny something fundamental about the human condition. In Lost in the Cosmos, Percy likened this to the Fall:
“If the sign-user first enters into an Edenic state by virtue of his discovery and constitution of the world by signs, like Helen Keller or any normal two-year-old, and if aboriginal sign-use is a joyful concelebration4 [sic] of the world through an utterance in which the ancient environment of the Cosmos is transformed and beheld in common through the magic prism of the sign, it is also, semiotically speaking, an Eden which harbors its own semiotic snake in the grass.” (LC 106)
This capacity to encounter and label our reality with words, and the reasoning ability that develops in its wake emerges once early childhood ends and we become truly self-aware.
However, the appearance of language causes a lapse from this Edenic state. The moment the human being breaks into consciousness, confusion and difficulty suddenly reign. For all their utility as referents to external realities, symbols fall short when we apply them to our internal selves. The “snake” is this: “The fateful flaw of human semiotics is this: that of all the objects in the entire Cosmos which the sign-user can apprehend through the conjoining of signifier and signified (word uttered and thing beheld), there is one which forever escapes his comprehension — and that is the sign-user himself” (LC 106). This inability forms one persistent element of our alienation: as powerful as language is, we can never perfectly bridge the gap between our consciousness and that of others.
The world of language we inhabit does not seem to give us words sufficient to explain ourselves, nor can the words that serve as abstractions of reality fully capture that reality in all its particulars. This is one of the root causes of Percy’s sense of alienation. On this point, Percy bears some resemblance to Rousseau, who made a similar point in his Discourse on Inequality. For Rousseau, the emergence of language serves as the springboard for invidious comparison, competition, and inequality.5 Percy and Rousseau agree to a great degree that the limitations inherent in our language and consciousness become the first clue that the human being cannot ever fully be at home in their world. But unlike Rousseau, Percy believed that there was no complete remedy to this feeling, social, political, or biological.
Today, people aspire to explain the human condition exclusively through natural science. But this form of explanation requires that we ignore some of the most salient elements of personhood. Percy deployed this as a second clue to our status as wayfarers. He admitted that scientists can describe the biological function of specific organs, but their account of man’s evolutionary origins cannot actually serve as a satisfying answer to the simplest of questions: why are we here? Percy’s difficulty with the evolutionary biologist’s answer to this question is that it is unsatisfying in a way that literally offends the human being’s consciousness by claiming it is nothing more than the byproduct of its environment (LC 165). The nature of consciousness seems to reach beyond what an explanation from “within” might provide. This not only deprives human life of a sense of mystery, but Percy contended that it also provides too weak an explanation of how language and culture function.
Scientific humanism metaphorically places human beings in an environment the same way it does other creatures, and Percy’s point is that this intellectual move only appears to dispose of our nagging questions about the meaning of life. Such answers must use the chemical and biological interactions of the physical world to explain the higher functions of language and consciousness. Of course, many people accept such an answer, but science cannot guide us in morality. Moreover, Percy contended that accepting answers like this leaves human beings as unsettled and out of place as ever — such theory cannot aid us in actually living from day to day.
In a 1977 self-interview that originally appeared in Esquire magazine, Percy argued caustically that, “life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight” (SSL 416–7). This intuition led Percy to embrace Christian faith, but in his novels and other nonfiction, he usually depicted this “strangeness” of life in a much more ambiguous way, presenting it as a hint at our status as alienated creatures without a home.
Percy led his readers to a third clue that appears amid the sheer unnamable mystery of life: despite our lack of certainty about our origins and the confusions about our purpose this generates, human beings curiously develop persistent intuitions about our moral life, about right and wrong, and an attendant sense that our actions matter.6 Percy suggested that it is difficult to understand how this could be true of an organism merely responding to an environment. Moreover, he observed there is a deep irony that the scientific humanist frequently and inexplicably is a moralist (LC 161–163). Percy never directly invoked the language of natural law, but his novels’ protagonists usually talk as if one exists, and feel increasingly alienated from their friends and neighbors who use the language of amoral utilitarianism to justify their conduct.7
Another clue might be found in man’s persistent restlessness and dissatisfaction with his surroundings. Logically, if human beings merely adapt to their environments, Percy suggested that it would make a great deal more sense if the process of adaptation eventually ended in contentment with objectively pleasant or satisfying surroundings. But this never seems to happen. Indeed, Percy repeatedly returned to the peculiar fact that people often feel happiest in difficult, painful, or otherwise materially “bad” circumstances, and fall into depression amid a life of physical plenty, comfort, and pleasure (MB 3–5). The fact that nothing quite seems able to satisfy our longings in this world suggested to Percy that our consciousness cannot be fulfilled by material things any more than it can be mollified by the materialist explanations of our lives I discussed above.
Percy’s “clues” ought to trouble us, but he suggested that because of the loss of a coherent theory of the self, people rarely see such challenges as more than temporary distractions. What Percy would consider permanent signs of distress, contemporary Americans often evaluate quite differently. Instead of seeing our alienation as a permanent condition, we tend to view a sense of alienation or anxiety as a symptom to be diagnosed and treated. To the adherent of this viewpoint, any disorder in our psyches, our politics, our religion, and our culture can, in principle, be cured. Percy found this position dangerously incorrect.
Consider the simplest notions of the American Dream: the pursuit of a fine home, a well-paying career, and the accumulation of toys with which to divert our attention in “free” time. While securing these goals may provide comfort, after a certain point, things cannot satisfy us. Therapy and anti-depression drugs provide help for some, but seem only to relieve the worst suffering and leave the ordinary malaise of an ordinary afternoon in a place. The partisans of deep community or various political movements offer their members a kind of newfound meaning in life, but these all too often threaten to subsume the individual into the cause or group. A flight into drugs, sex, or other experiments in anesthesia might provide a temporary “cure,” but more often leads the participant down a worse path. Against these antidotes, Percy constantly turned to the idea that our efforts to escape our alienation and anxiety are misguided—indeed, doomed to failure—and his attempts to develop a theory of the human person capable of remembering this make his writing uncommonly insightful for understanding contemporary politics and social life.
Born in 1916 and educated at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Columbia University, Walker Percy came of age in the Great Depression and narrowly missed both service in World War II and a career in the medical profession. Training as a pathologist in New York City, he contracted tuberculosis in 1942, and turned to great works of philosophy and literature to pass the time during his enforced bed rest.8 Because Percy inherited enough money to live comfortably without working, his illness provided an opportunity to escape medicine—a profession he joined only out of the urging of his adopted guardian William Alexander Percy (“Uncle Will”). After recovering from his illness, he settled in Louisiana, married, and made his career as a writer. His first major publications were essays, mostly focused on the philosophy of language, but with the publication of The Moviegoer in 1961, he achieved commercial success as well as intellectual satisfaction. Eventually moving to Covington, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, Percy lived there until his death in 1990.9
Over the course of his career, Percy published six novels, two substantial collections of essays, and a genre-defying “self-help” book combining fiction with the fruits of his inquiry into many scholarly disciplines. The differences between these genres and styles of writing present challenges to any reader attempting to develop a comprehensive understanding of Percy as a thinker. Percy wrote his philosophical essays in the theoretically dense language of existentialism and semiotics, and his early novels in particular are masterpieces of indirectness and comedy. His later novels steadily develop a more direct approach, retaining the comedic tone while adding an increasingly obvious critical edge in relation to American society’s political and cultural trends.
Though Percy’s tone and approach changed over his career, certain themes recur in his work. Most scholars of literature focus on themes of existentialism, love, Christian faith, and human nature in Percy’s writings, and assume a certain degree of unity exists within his work.10 With a few exceptions, these authors tend to adopt a method which considers each of Percy’s novels or a subset of his nonfiction essays in isolation.11 These books tend to demonstrate the development of themes or ideas within each genre of Percy’s writings, and stress the harmonies present among them.
By contrast, other authors argue that Percy’s novels and essays contain a radical contradiction and divide. Patricia Lewis Poteat argues that while Percy’s essays operate from what she sees as Western philosophy’s characteristic pose of objective detachment — which she associates most heavily with Descartes — his novels, by contrast, allow us to see the human condition in its fullness and particularity.12 This conclusion draws significant inspiration from the work of Hannah Arendt, and I think Poteat errs by over-identifying Percy with the detachment of what she calls “Cartesianism,” and misses a good deal of the satirical and rhetorical importance of Percy’s nonfiction. Percy himself referred to her argument (and her husband William Poteat’s similar claims) as the “Poteat position,” and expressed a good deal of impatience with this line of thinking.13 But the Poteats’ example suggests both the difficulty and peril of evaluating Percy’s stories and philosophical works together.
My goal differs from most interpretations of Percy’s work by scholars of literature or theology. This book uses Percy’s essays alongside his novels to explore his distinctive political teaching, with particular focus on man’s nature as a wayfarer, and what this means for how we understand ourselves. A few others have attempted to assess Percy’s political importance. Most prominently, Peter Augustine Lawler sees Percy’s work as an attempt to revitalize Thomism for a jaded world.14 Only a handful of scholars have made the attempt to grapple with Percy’s potential contributions to political philosophy or social theory, much less the lessons his essays might teach to social scientists.15
By structuring a reading of Walker Percy’s works around the idea of the wayfarer, I demonstrate the ways that an approach to political philosophy incorporating literature can explore not just the broad social consequences of political ideas, but also the psychological and moral effects of different ways humans live and conceive of themselves. Using Percy’s stories, editorial essays, and philosophical work together, I draw out various themes that resonate among them, demonstrating how the permanent temptations to escape the life of the wayfarer create recurring perils in social and political life.
The first and perhaps most important of these themes flows from Percy’s claim that modern Americans live lives oriented around “theory and consumption” (SSL 309–10). Very few of the choices modern Americans make help them navigate around this peril. They often alternate between trying to explain their lives with various kinds of theory and pursuing satisfaction through material goods. Our age’s most widely accepted theories of the human person all suggest that a dislocated, alienated person — a person who cannot feel at home even in his or her favorite place—needs some form of adjustment in chemistry or thinking. None of these theories quite knows what to do with the persistence of alienation amid comfort and plenty. No surprise then, that our attitudes toward our material goods and environment so often assume that the right combination of quantity and quality of items naturally equate to the good life. Indeed, Percy at times suggests that the stereotypical capitalist-hedonist antagonist so often portrayed in 1980s and 1990s films potentially faces as great a challenge as the modern rebel who hopes to find happiness in a flight from the world of striving after wealth. Neither theory nor consumption allows us to accept the plight of the wayfarer.
My second theme centers on Percy’s account of the ways human beings sometimes attempt to escape from their alienation by turning to various forms of community. Percy helps us understand the persistent appeal of immersing oneself in a community — and the ideologies that so often accompany such unity.16 He also shows the various ways that the bonds in relation to a place and the social creeds linking people over long periods of time can grow deranged. By doing this, Percy helps us confront the deadliest political projects of the twentieth century and gives insight into the motives of those that perpetuated such evil.17 He also provides a serious critique of what he sees as the noblest alternative to the life of the wayfarer: the stoical honor culture of his native South. Throughout, Percy’s emphasis remains on the ways that we evade our own predicament by over-identifying with a community of belief.
A third recurring theme relates to Percy’s explanation for the violence of the twentieth century. Percy devoted considerable attention to the idea that comfort might engender a longing for violent crisis, war, and destruction as a way of escaping alienation. Not only does Percy’s analysis provide us with a compelling way of interpreting thinkers like Ernst Jünger, who glorified the “front experience” of World War I, but it also sheds light on why violence in television and film has acquired such popularity.18 Dangerous circumstances jar alienated men and women out of their anxiety and depression, and for Percy, even the contemplation of this serves as a temporary departure from alienation. This makes violence a particularly appealing form of escape from the ordinary life of the wayfarer and might help us unravel the puzzle of what motivates comfortable, prosperous young men to contemplate engaging in acts of terrorism and war.
A final theme I draw out of Percy’s work rests in the permanent possibility of hope. Percy challenged various forms of literary rhetoric and philosophical argument that insist we cannot successfully struggle against our world’s most destructive forces. The greatest advantage of seeing human beings as wayfarers rests in the acceptance of one’s finitude — that death and corruption come to all of us — but also in a kind of liberation from determinism and rejoicing in the mystery of life. By rejecting objective-materialist approaches to the human sciences, Percy argued that human beings can then turn to new forms of social inquiry that might measure and trace our capacity to affect the world rather than old ones that merely depict an iron cage. Moreover, life as a wayfarer also leads human beings toward seeing the incompleteness of all our remedies to alienation. For Percy, accepting this fact is the first step toward a decent life together in communities.
In addressing these four themes, this book focuses squarely on Percy as a thinker responding to various crises related man’s meaning and purpose in contemporary thought. While at times, I reference events in Percy’s life, I make no effort to explain his thinking in terms of his biography or through any psychological disposition. I use him to explore some broad trends in twentieth-century thought and history, but usually only where Percy makes implicit or explicit reference to them. In this vein, while I make several comparisons between Percy and other thinkers that I think highlight his contribution, I avoid attempting to trace out specific influences upon Percy’s thinking.19 An extended effort to trace those influences would distract from my attempt to explore the notion of the wayfarer. Moreover, Percy himself made pointed reference to his idiosyncratic use of texts. In interviews and letters, he emphasized the ways he borrowed from other thinkers as a way of sharpening his own insight, and he was very clear that his uses of these ideas and terms bear little resemblance to the way they appeared in their original form. While he drew inspiration and ideas from C.S. Peirce, Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, and many others, Percy’s concern remained focused on using them to shape his ideas for maximum effect.20
Working with Percy’s stories and essays presents one major difficulty of context. In most chapters, providing an extended summary of each relevant novel’s plot would distract attention from my main argument. In most cases where I quote dialogue or recall events from Percy’s stories, I provide some brief context rather than a full account of the events. This keeps the focus on the overall picture Percy presents us of the human condition.
I have structured my account of Percy’s political philosophy as an encounter with the successive means by which modern people seek to evade their condition as wayfarers. This follows Percy’s approach as a critic and cultural pathologist. I divide the book into three parts spread across seven major chapters. Part I, comprising chapters 1 and 2, centers on Percy’s diagnosis of today’s reigning theories of the self.
Chapter 1 focuses on Percy’s sketch of what he terms the “mishmash” theories of life so prevalent in our time. Operating in a diagnostic mode, Percy presented his readers with accounts of many popular ways of viewing human life, including new-age philosophy and spirituality, existentialism, psychotherapy, neuroscience, and others. The difficulty rests in that all of these efforts reflect only a partial truth about our condition. Some aim at depicting human beings as capable of transcending the limitations of our nature through actions of the mind or soul. Others see human beings as animals with pretensions, and seek liberation from the painful aspects of life through medical or chemical adjustment. Despite their radically differing orientations, both aspire to move “beyond” a notion of the self as ultimately misplaced or lost. They assume that by adjusting man’s inner life, alienation might disappear, and the social ills they presume to flow from our psychic disorder would depart as well.
Throughout chapter 1, I explore Percy’s suspicion that none of these mishmash theorists provide an adequate account of human life, either from the perspective of explaining our condition to ourselves, or, more importantly, for living by that theory’s precepts. By tracing the consequences that result from attempting to live in light of these theories, I show how Percy supports his claim that our theories of the self betray radical gaps and incoherencies, especially when scholars attempt to explain human language-use and consciousness. Here Percy showed that while scientists often succeed in reducing human beings into their environment, this cannot truly explain the way human beings use language. By persisting in this method, Percy’s “mishmash” theorists not only destroy our ability to see life as an exercise in wayfaring, but worse, some of them encourage an overreliance on science and its methods to create a worldview that encompasses the whole of human life.
I continue this line of reasoning in chapter 2, which explores the social and political consequences of our mishmash theories and the cult of expertise that emerges alongside those ideas. Here I focus on Percy’s account of the materialist and objective vision commonly known as scientism and its effects on our self-understanding. Percy believed that alongside a decline in religious faith, modern people have tended to bestow ever greater authority upon scientific and technical experts. He argued that this overreliance on expertise extends into every corner of human life. Yet once we grant experts this kind of authority — once we cede our sense of sovereignty over our lives — the spiritual element of human life faces great challenges and deprivations. Percy believed that as a consequence of this loss of authority, people would start to see their experience through the preformed theories generated by the experts upon whom they rely. The fact that these ways of seeing the world tend to focus on adjusting us to our existence as material beings further increases alienation, and stands as a deep rejection of man’s life as a wayfarer.
This overextension of science and its methods and the resulting exclusive focus on material-objective ways of knowing holds profound consequences for politics as well. Objective-material methods of social inquiry aim at comprehending human action through the environments and structures human beings inhabit. The noble aim to predict human action comes here at the cost of seeing human beings as fully conscious, choosing, and reasoning beings. Percy was at least as concerned here with the practical effects of individuals ceding their sovereignty to social scientific experts as he was with the moral and psychological consequences for accepting this state of affairs. If we live in an iron cage, in what sense do one’s actions have meaning? Indeed, why act at all? Living in a society designed to adjust us out of our alienation and discomfort, to manage our depression, and ensure we live happy, productive lives, Percy feared our sense of alienation would only grow amid the contrary hopes and dreams our society encourages.
Part II moves away from the intellectual efforts that attempt to abolish the concept of the wayfarer, and turns toward the sorts of communities within which alienated people seek refuge. Chapter 3 begins this account by looking to the status of American community. Percy agreed with many social critics in his emphasis on the way Americans “ricochet around the United States like billiard balls” (SSL 5), but his account is more ambiguous than most about the singular virtues of community. All too often, he argued, alienated people seek to renounce their isolation in favor of an idyllic new community life, and find frustration rather than solace. Ironically, Americans often ask far too little of themselves and their communities, radically detaching themselves from the possibility of bonds beyond their family and close circle of friends and co-workers.
Percy suggested that Americans desire perfect places to live, and all too easily lapse into dissatisfaction and disillusionment when their idea of what community might provide does not come to pass. This leaves us with the necessity of seeing ourselves as wayfarers rather than at home in the world the way Rousseau and other apostles of deep community might hope. Percy believed that the increasing standardization of suburbs and decline of regional distinctness — what he termed “losangelization” — would complicate our capacity to return to wayfaring. The hope of mitigating our isolation through the properly moderate form of community remains. By exploring this theme, I show that for Percy, our social bonds can never fully eradicate our alienation. They can, however, attenuate our longings for perfection if we view them rightly as offering wayfarers a temporary place of rest.
The only serious alternative Percy suggested might compete with the notion of the wayfarer can be found in the peculiar beliefs of the American South. When journalists and public intellectuals discuss the South’s dominant moral code today, they often focus upon various strains of Evangelical Christianity. Percy argued that was not the case in the 1930s through 1960s — and perhaps it is not as true today as one might think. In chapter 4, I turn my attention to what Percy saw as the dominant strain of aristocratic Southern thinking: a code of stoical honor that stands in uneasy tension with Christian belief. Percy explains the best and worst in this honor code. In this way of living, magnanimity, a decent code of manners, a sense of responsibility, and solicitude toward the weak exist alongside a great capacity for violence, isolated individualism, and refusal to countenance equality. This account of honor bears particular importance for the ways it helps Percy explain the typical white Southerner’s reaction to the American Civil Rights Movement, and why Christianity played such a peculiar role in the moral culture of white Southerners. He argued that many of the most moral Southerners held more to a distorted kind of stoicism than they did to any religious creed—think here of Atticus Finch. As such, Christian faith was allowed only so far into the stoic’s heart. In place of a humble submission to truth and renunciation of pride, the stoic raises up their own unassailable kingdom of the self.
Percy used the stoical honor code to show the limitations and dangers of honor as a way of binding community, as well. I devote a lengthy section of chapter 4 to his guardian, William Alexander Percy, whose experiences in World War I and after allow us to see an apostle of the stoical creed in full. Reading the younger and elder Percy together, I show that the ultimate danger of this stoic honor rests in its class-based solipsism. The ultimate frame of reference for any such code rests in the community of honor-lovers that enforce its dictates and their own reputations. Offenses to honor are always mediated through the individual honor-lovers’ judgment of how the dishonoring affects them. This stands in stark contrast to a theory of justice such as that Percy saw in the Christianity of the Civil Rights Movement. But this problem also suggests a deep flaw at the heart of any effort to escape alienation by rooting oneself in a community of honor-lovers. In a society that for the most part rejects honor as deeply as our own, such communities might only appear through violence and rebellion. This is a particularly important danger for alienated peoples who cannot name their condition.
In chapter 5, therefore, I focus on the interrelationships Percy noted between boredom, violence, and apocalypse, and their role as escapes from our everyday life. Boredom in particular struck Percy as a clue to understanding ourselves as wayfarers. He argued that our dissatisfaction with materially pleasant circumstances such as those enjoyed in American suburbs presents a puzzle to the popular ways of understanding the self and society. Americans constantly fight boredom, he argued, and they do so in part through the covert love of malice, conflict, and violence. Percy explored this phenomenon on several levels, describing our love for these escapes both in fiction and in reality. Percy suspected our imagination may not be so harmless. He claimed that the constant pull of disaster should be a clue that we need to reconsider our relations to one another and to places — that it might lead us back to being wayfarers. These thoughts all too often lead the most fragile human beings into suicide and other acts of destruction.
As a directly political matter, Percy used the desire for violent renewal as way of explaining the terrors of the twentieth century, and he devoted considerable attention to understanding what drove Germany into the hands of the Nazi Party. Mixing revulsion and sympathetic analysis, Percy suggested that a combination of disgust with the bourgeois materialism of the West alongside a desire to escape alienation-created conditions in which that monstrous ideology might flourish. His explanation bears particular importance for us today because of the many ways objective-materialist social science tends to ignore “fuzzy” ideas like alienation as an explanation for this sort of political revolution. He suggested that boredom might lead the young to accept — or aggressively seek — a new order. But these are precisely the sorts of explanations modern social science marginalizes or ignores.
Part III of the book emphasizes Percy’s contributions to renewing society. In chapter 6, I turn to Percy’s account of how a renewed social science might better address the concerns of human beings understood as wayfarers. Percy argued that the primary difficulty with social science flowed from its unwillingness to abandon the causal assumptions upon which natural and physical science rests. Treating human beings the same way as other animals, as creatures that merely respond to environmental stimuli in the broadest possible sense, defies some of our deepest assumptions about what it means to be human. In particular, social science must take the products of human thought and feeling and reduce them to their imputed causes. This undercuts our ability to understand politics as human beings shape and live it, and also fosters a kind of hopelessness and despair because of the determinism implicit in such analyses.
In place of this, Percy proposed the creation of a social science that takes the products of human language and thought seriously. He would place ontology at the center of any new social science: in the development of a minimum working model of the human person that recognizes the distinctive function of language, and perhaps identifies certain other elements important for the development of an explanatory theory about some aspect of social life. This approach, as I will show, would foster greater descriptive depth and clarity about how and why human beings act, but could not aim at predicting such behavior in advance. This mode of inquiry would refocus attention on choices and attitudes that create habits and character, and show how these serve as more fundamental causes of social trends and events in our world. Abandoning the pursuit of root causes, social science might speak to a wider audience precisely because it would depict human beings acting in recognizable ways. Such an approach might be eclectic, exciting, and ultimately remind human beings of the limitations of grand social theories and orient us away from seeking cures to our alienation. Instead, it might serve as a reminder of the limits of any form of theory to address human needs, and would point us back toward lived experience.
My last major chapter (chapter 7) turns toward the stabilizing elements in human life that Percy emphasized in his novels and essays: family, community, and the church. Despite the real dangers of taking any of these to excess, Percy suggests all three bonds can help mitigate alienation and remind men of their place as wayfarers. In his novels, most of his protagonists ultimately recognize the ways their behavior and thoughts denied or simply ignored that moderation. In this chapter, I show the ways that the ambiguity of Percy’s stories underscores his insistence that we have no perfect place of rest. His fictions always remind the reader of the harsh realities of death and loss, but also the promise of love.
Without love, Percy’s characters could not bear the more sorrowful aspects of their realities. Percy dismissed the romantic temptation to view family as everything, however, and endorsed Alexis de Tocqueville’s suspicion that modern Americans might use their family as a respite from the world, retreating into a cold privatization of life. Thus, Percy insisted that we need political communities and civil society to come alongside the family to help jar us out of our isolation. Percy returned time and again to notions of care and responsibility, placing them alongside humor and irony as central elements of a decent political life. He suggested we ought to see politics as the messy but necessary business of accepting responsibility for our past, present, and future without disregarding human dignity. This acceptance of responsibility also mitigates against man’s recurring desire for exit: as uncommitted individuals, we find it easier to entertain fantasies of escape from ordinary life; people rooted in a civic order that offers them a reason for their labors are far less likely to indulge in such flights of fancy.
As alienated creatures lost in a complex world, human beings require multiple places of rest. In homes we achieve relational love and dependence, which remind us that our fantasies of individualism cannot stand. If we join the works of our society, it will give us purpose in return. Yet, interestingly for a committed Catholic, Percy’s account of his church is somewhat muted. He focuses attention on the ways that faith completes his characters’ varied searches for meaning and truth in life. He also does not hesitate to show all the ways that religious faith can fall prey to extremes that reflect the broken nature of our souls.
Percy sought to understand and explain the deepest dilemmas of modern life. In this book, I sketch his outlook on the human person as a wayfarer and the political outlook this demands. I believe his voice is a valuable one precisely because he defies easy categorization as a political and social thinker, and throughout his career, he drew attention to some of the most vexing difficulties Americans face. As a prophet in reverse, he hoped to mitigate the worst symptoms of our malaise, and unlike so many remained alert to the possibility that we cannot blame the most fundamental elements of our condition on politics or economics or education, but rather on the permanent facts of our existence as wayfarers destined for another home.
1. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 2007) is perhaps the most synoptic recent work dealing with the nature of secularism in modern times.
2. In Percy’s most explicit essay on this point—“Why are You a Catholic?”—he dispensed with any direct apologetics, and after sketching the condition of the age which I quote above, merely affirms his belief in the truth of Christianity before moving onto an account of the present state as he understands it: confusing, deranged, and explicable only through the miraculous, that is, God (SSL 304–15).
3. Percy’s account of language bears some resemblance to what Augustine describes in the Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 10–11.
4. A Percy neologism: to celebrate with another.
5. See Discourse on Arts and Sciences in Rousseau, Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 61.
6. C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) dwells upon this point in terms that resonate with Percy. Also, for a more extended analysis of these intuitions, see Hadley Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry Into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), especially 51–84.
7. Consider Ellen Oglethorpe’s insistence in Love in the Ruins that euthanasia is “not right” without advancing any particular argument to defend this point (158).
8. For an account of Percy’s disease and course of sanatorium treatment, see Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 160–183.
9. For a brief but comprehensive treatment of Percy’s life, see Ralph C. Wood, “Walker Percy: A Brief Biography,” in A Political Companion to Walker Percy, eds. Peter Augustine Lawler and Brian A. Smith (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 11–28. I reference three other longer accounts of Percy’s life and family in this work: Jay Tolson’s Pilgrim in the Ruins, cited above; Patrick Samway, S.J., Walker Percy: A Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1997); and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). For an illuminating series of interviews with Percy’s family and friends, see David Horace Harwell, Walker Percy Remembered: A Portrait in the Words of Those Who Knew Him (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
10. For some examples, see Martin Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972); Jac Tharpe, Walker Percy (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983); Linda Whitney Hobson, Understanding Walker Percy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988); Gary M. Ciuba, Walker Percy: Books of Revelations (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Edward J. Dupuy, Autobiography in Walker Percy: Repetition, Recovery, and Redemption (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996); and Allen Prigden, Walker Percy’s Sacramental Landscapes: The Search in the Desert (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2000).
11. Examples of explicitly comparative work utilizing many of Percy’s writings include Peter S. Hankins, The Language of Grace: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Iris Murdoch (New York: Seabury Classics, 2004); Mary K. Sweeny, Walker Percy and the Postmodern World (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987); and Marion Montgomery, Eudora Welty & Walker Percy: The Concept of Home in their Lives and Literature (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004).
12. Patricia Lewis, Poteat, Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age: Reflections on Language, Argument, and the Telling of Stories (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
13. William Poteat’s essay on this, “Reflections on Walker Percy’s Theory of Language: Or, It Is Better to Stay with Hellen Keller at the Well-House in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Than to Venture to Mars and be Devoured by the Ravening Particles,” appears in The Art of Walker Percy: Stratagems for Being, ed. Panthea Reid Broughton (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 192–218. For brief accounts of Percy’s response to the “Poteat position,” see Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins, 459–60 and Samway, Walker Percy, 377–8 and 387. A related criticism of Percy’s theory of language may be found in Nathan P. Carson, “Walker Percy’s ‘Theory of Man’ and the Elimination of Virtue” (in A Political Companion to Walker Percy, 87–118), which argues that while Percy’s novels strongly suggest the importance of virtue and its cultivation, his theory of language rules out the very possibility of virtue. Carson claims that if we take Percy’s position to its logical conclusion, we cannot describe our own virtues, and therefore Percy’s theory denies the moral category of virtue.
14. On Percy’s Thomism, see Peter Augustine Lawler, Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 77–81, and Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), esp. 51–74.
15. For the other major accounts of Percy’s contributions to understanding politics and society, see the essays in A Political Companion to Walker Percy; Elizabeth Amato, “The Pursuit of Happiness in the American Regime,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Political Science, Baylor University, 2011; John F. Desmond, Walker Percy’s Search for Community (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2004); Matthew Sitman and Brian A. Smith, “The Rift in the Modern Mind: Tocqueville and Percy on the Rise of the Cartesian Self,” Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 15–22; and Brian A. Smith, “Losing Sight of Man: Percy and Tocqueville on the Fate of the Human Sciences,” Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 3 (July–September 2011), 140–46.
16. In some ways, Percy’s account here serves as a critique of Rousseau, whose aspiration in various works —especially The Social Contract and Government of Poland — seems to have revolved around creating a community capable of eliminating alienation entirely.
17. Some scholars compare Percy’s work in this respect to that Eric Voegelin. For examples, see Cleanth Brooks, “Walker Percy and Modern Gnosticism,” in Southern Review, Vol. 13 (1977), 677–87, James V. Schall, S.J., “On Dealing with Man,” in A Political Companion to Walker Percy, 80–1, Desmond, Walker Percy’s Search for Community, 88–89, and Ciuba, Walker Percy: Books of Revelations, esp. 4–7 and 274–5.
18. See Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, trans. Michael Hofmann (New York: Penguin, 2004) and chapter 4 of Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 70–108.
19. Other authors do this admirably, however. For two examples, see Ch. 2 in Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer, 19–63, and Mary Deems Howland, The Gift of the Other: Gabriel Marcel’s Concept of Intersubjectivity in Walker Percy’s Novels (Pittsburgh: Dusquene University Press, 1990).
20. Relatively late in his life, Percy exchanged a series of letters with Kenneth Laine Ketner primarily focused on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, and in one of these he referred to himself as a “thief” rather than a student of Peirce, and claimed interest in his philosophy “insofar as I understand his attack on nominalism and his rehabilitation of Scholastic realism.” Percy observed that “what would set CSP spinning in his grave is the use I intend to put him to . . . to use CSP as one of the pillars of a Christian apologetic.” See letter from Walker Percy to Kenneth Laine Ketner, February 27, 1989, in A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy, ed. Patrick H. Samway, S.J. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 130. A second example of Percy’s attitude can be found in a 1974 interview with Bradley R. Dewey, where he expressed a similarly cavalier approach to the interpretation of Kierkegaard’s writings (CWP 110–12).