[percy-l] Percy-L Digest, Vol 117, Issue 8

Michael Larson larsonovic at gmail.com
Sat Oct 10 00:38:33 EDT 2015

*Lauren*, I don't think liberalism and conservatism are rotations but are
rather fundamentally different postures toward reality. It's true that
someone might convert (rotate) from one to the other in the event of a
sea-change in beliefs, but that would not be rotation in the Percyan sense,
which, as I understand it, is caused by boredom with one's current method
of reentry (thus the need to rotate to a new one).

I think you're right, though, that Percy wasn't satisfied with simply
categorizing people and then using that label as a means of pigeonholing
them or, worse yet, dismissing them.

*Janet*, I never got the sense that Percy liked *any *categorical
definitions. Which is not to say that he himself did not have any
classifiable characteristics, only that he was leery of the tendency to
reduce people to labels. The individual is always more complex than the set
of labels that describe him--even if they are true as far as they go.

*John*, it's always tenuous (and probably unwise) to give one-sentence
definitions of complex concepts like liberalism and conservatism, so there
is, by nature of the concision, much elaboration, clarification, and nuance
left unsaid. But I was responding to Janet's comment about Percy's having
had seemingly contradictory views, some "liberal," some "conservative." My
thought was that these litmus-test issues usually don't go deep enough, as
a means of identifying a person's orienting beliefs, to be very useful. And
that's why you can have apparent contradictions in the same man--because
the surface-level litmus tests may appear to be opposed, even if the
underlying convictions are not actually so. And this is what I was trying
to address with my definitions: I was trying to get a level below (i.e.
"the root") the knee-jerk label associations and identify the philosophical
orientation that makes a person tend toward one or the other posture.

Without belief in an objective moral order, there is little, if anything,
to conserve, except individuality--that is to say, individual liberty. You
could argue, I suppose, that this principle (of individual liberty) is, in
fact, the objective moral code of liberalism, but that is something of an
illusion, because individualism is subjective by nature, which means, among
other things, that it is subject to change, depending on the  influence of
the age in which the individual lives; and in all ages, the will of some
individuals is inevitably going to clash with that of other individuals.
Out of this clash comes democracy as the liberal solution to government,
whereby individual liberty is still the highest good, but conflicts are
resolved by the will of the majority. And before the modern democracies
came the preparatory Reformation, which was the liberal principle applied
to Christendom, whereby the State would be eventually loosed from the bonds
of the Church, and the individual would be eventually freed to make of his
religion what he will ... as an individual. And so it has come to pass. We
live in the age of the liberal principle.

In that sense, we're all liberals. Shoot, the United States was founded on
the idea, and we've taken now to exporting it, in its economic and
governmental forms, for decades, so the world is being made in our image
(though it doesn't always go so well with Islamic states ... or with

My contention that Percy was a conservative, though, is based primarily on
his conversion to Catholicism in 1947. By his own admission, he accepted
that, in matters of faith and morals, the Catholic Church was the arbiter
of truth. To my knowledge, he never retained for himself the liberty of
choice to be at variance with any of those teachings. In other words, he
was not an a la carte Catholic. Such submission to what he understood to be
the objective moral order of things, the true nature of things, had an
obvious and lasting effect on his life and his work. He had a thing outside
himself that was the *object *of his personal liberty, the *reason *for his
free will. By this subtle demotion of individual freedom to the role of
means rather than of end, he took the path of conservation rather than

There's always more to be said, of course, but I've gone on too long
already. Let me say, though, that I agree with your assessment of Percy's
broad appeal. Seems like just about anybody who likes to think, likes
Walker Percy. I thought I heard once that Tim Robbins was going to star in *The
Moviegoer*. But that was back when he was Binx's age. Alas.

*Karl*, Thanks for your comments. Percy was, no doubt, a man living in the
new South, and I think he liked to acknowledge that about himself just to
make it clear, in case anybody wondered, that he did not retain any airs
from having been *to the manor born*. And I agree that he stayed
persistently clear of endorsing or identifying himself with either liberals
or conservatives. An aversion to labels, I think. But one label he never
avoided was that of Catholic. I would think that this is because he took it
quite seriously. That is to say, I don't think he viewed the Church's
teachings on faith and morals as "man's concoction." Rather, like most
converts, and especially maybe those who converted before Vatican II, he
saw the Catholic Church as a divine institution, though peopled by humans.

Regarding your definition of liberalism, it sounds more like what I would
call progressivism or even evolutionism. Not that those three ideas are
unrelated. I think liberalism, in its elevation of individual human
liberty, grows faith naturally in the collective human experience as
well--the idea that we are progressing or evolving as a species. But I
think this belief is a *result *of liberalism and not its root. My reason
for thinking that liberalism, at its root, rejects an objective moral order
is that it simply must do so in order to give individual liberty its
elevated place. If my obligation is to adhere to something outside myself,
to a truth that exists indifferent to my personal preference, then my
liberty is curtailed, and the fundamental principle of liberalism is
thereby undercut.

Best wishes all,
Mike Larson


Message: 1
Date: Thu, 8 Oct 2015 21:17:16 -0400
From: Lauren Stacy Berdy <lauren.stacy.berdy at gmail.com>
To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion"
        <percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org>
Subject: Re: [percy-l] Percy, liberal or conservative
Message-ID: <5617159C.8000808 at gmail.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="windows-1252"; Format="flowed"

I believe that Dr. Percy had what Marcel called
" the gift of presence"
he looked at us with unblinking eyes.
He knew that we humans, including himself, were all unique messy specimens.
He sucked crayfish with Klansman ( citizen council ) and he spoke up for
we were all equally  in his sights.

Liberalism  and conservatism are just rotations...yes? ( better than

Take gd care,
Lauren Stacy Berdy

Message: 2
Date: Thu, 8 Oct 2015 17:44:29 -0700
From: "janetcantor37 at yahoo.com" <janetcantor37 at yahoo.com>
To: percy lists <percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org>
Subject: Re: [percy-l] Percy, liberal or conservative
1444351469.90627.YahooMailAndroidMobile at web165704.mail.gq1.yahoo.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"

I am glad to hear these days descriptions. It is what I have always thought
but hesitated to say.

?Do you think Percy would like these definitions?

Message: 3
Date: Thu, 8 Oct 2015 20:37:54 -0500
From: John Pearson <jp at jlarsp.com>
To: percy list <percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org>
Subject: Re: [percy-l] Percy, liberal or conservative
Message-ID: <C7FB4877-8DCB-4BC9-AFD3-538FA13DD09A at jlarsp.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8

Wow. As a self-described liberal there is virtually nothing in your
definition that I recognize about the definition of liberal (it frankly
sounds like a definition given by a conservative, so that they can easily
knock it down), and little about your definition of conservative.

This is an interesting discussion, and one of the many reasons I love the
work of Percy is that he is not easy to categorize, and to some extent,
each reader is moved to think and in some sense can find something in his
writing they connect with, even when coming from vastly disparate parts of
the political spectrum. I think the list has proven this?over the years
there have been plenty of conservative and plenty of liberal arguments for
and interpretations of Percy?s work.

This has been an interesting discussion and it?s great to see the list jump
to life. Something I think Janet said about Percy not being easy made me
wonder if living in the twitter age is part of why?in some circles
anyway?his popularity has for the moment waned. He deals with complex ideas
that cannot be easily summed up in 140 characters. (I?m not saying Yates
can, so at best this is relevant to Percy?s decline). It does seem that
these things often run in cycles. I also agree that part of Yates
renaissance is due to the movie of Revolutionary Road, which was well done
and caught the zeitgeist of the moment. There is much in Percy that is
universal, and if there was ever a film made of one of his novels, I?m
guessing that would boost the sales and readership of all of them. (And of
course that is a cart/horse question.) In the meantime, it is wonderful to
have a little corner of the internet where those who have been influenced
by Percy?s work can gather and discuss.

I don?t post here often, and am always thankful when I see the list spring
to life. It inspires me not only to reread Percy, but to think, and to
write. So thanks to all who read and post and keep the list going.
Best wishes,

Joh Pearson

Message: 4
Date: Fri, 9 Oct 2015 03:01:46 +0000
From: "Karl M. Terrell" <kterrell at stokeswagner.com>
To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion"
        <percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org>
Subject: Re: [percy-l] Percy, liberal or conservative
Message-ID: <D23C88F1.695E4%Kterrell at stokeswagner.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"

Interesting comments, Michael.  Thank you.  I agree with your observation
on the root of conservatism: "... the belief that there is an objective
moral order and that society is best when it conserves whatever has been
learned (or revealed) about that order and tries to live in harmony with
it."  William F. Buckley, Jr. once colorfully expressed it thusly
(paraphrasing): "A conservative stands astride the horse of so-called
progress, and hollers, Halt!"

But I respectfully take issue with the characterization of the "root of
liberalism" as lying within the "belief that there is no objective moral
order."  I'll comment further ... but I should, first, address this issue
as it relates to our man Percy:

Percy was a son of the Old South, and a beneficiary (in material terms) of
an Old South patriarchy.  But he came of age in one of the iterations of
the so-called New South, and so identified himself (writing once,
somewhere, as evidence of this, that his "earliest memories" were of a
"golf course").  In short, he was of his times, and he certainly wasn't
oblivious to the 'conservative vs. liberal' issues of his day (i.e.,
preservation of the ways of Jim Crow vs. civil rights).  That said, it
appears to me, this particular divide didn't interest him all that much.
He did use the contretemps of the day, however, as comic fodder in Love in
the Ruins, and in some of his essays (comic and otherwise).  As I read
these efforts by Percy, though, he endorsed neither the conservatives of
his day (racists, on the whole) nor the liberals of his day (which, I
think, he viewed as boats without a mooring).

He was also a convert to Catholicism, certainly suggesting a conservative
bent.  But, I don't believe Percy adopted that particular faith with a view
toward preserving, or in adoration of, "an objective moral order."  The
so-called "objective" standard has been concocted by man.  Percy was highly
suspicious of man's ability in this regard.  Those more knowledgeable than
me of Kierkegaard's brand of existentialism, I am sure, could add to this.

As for the root of liberalism ... my understanding, for what it's worth: It
is the belief that mankind, through learned experience, can improve.  This
belief doesn't reject or negate an "objective moral oder" (whatever that
might be).  Liberalism, in fact, seeks this out - and tries to take it into
account - while considering also other evidence.  In my humble opinion,
this is what Percy was up to.

Thanks for reading,

Karl Montague Terrell
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