Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Walker Percy and Southern Stoicism

by Jeff Polet

Many of our cultural battles are intensified by our lack of imagination. We seldom display the sympathetic ability to put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes, meaning we typically don’t see them as moral actors but as immoral ones, forgetting that they don’t see themselves the same way. Surely there are persons whose motives are malicious, and others who misapprehend their own motives (indeed, this is a nearly universal human problem), and confusion, as well as self-interest, may cause us to call the evil good and the good evil. But in the main, people act out of what they believe are moral impulses, a point we’ve reiterated on this site, and one that, when recognized, may make our politics a little less heated.

The lack of imagination most fully manifests itself when we consider figures from the past. A mark of our age is the judgmentalism we apply to prior ones. We can never seem either to understand or forgive people who had the misfortune of not being born in the right place at the right time—the period of ENLIGHTENMENT—like we were. The problem is exacerbated by our tendency to see social life as a “system” from which there is no escape, and then applying to those systems broad, negative appellations (“patriarchal,” “racist,” and so forth). This double-move renders us unable to see or appreciate the irony and tragedy inherent in all things or to make complex moral judgments. We are too busy removing the specks of the past while ignoring the planks of the present, and one effect of this is to undermine the importance of human agency altogether. One reason why a well-written biography appeals to us is because it reinforces both the idea that human decision-making matters in history, and that humans are inordinately complex moral actors. Too often, we are so certain or our own rightness and purity that this complexity is lost on us.

In this context, I mention an essay published nearly 70 years ago by one of my favorite authors: Southern writer Walker Percy. The essay is both a defense of and an elegy for the tradition of “Southern Stoicism,” the most well-known example of which is Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (about which another of my favorite writers, the Southerner Flannery O’Connor, opined “I think for a child’s book it does alright”). One value of Percy’s essay is that it helps us get past noxious stereotypes we have of Southerners who lived during the Jim Crow era by reminding us, for example, that “until a few years ago the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fairmindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner.” As to our tendency to cast moral judgements without sympathetic understanding, he writes: 

Again let me say I only feel free to say this because no white Southerner can write a j’accuse without making a mea culpa; no more is the average Northerner, either by the accident of his historical position or by his present performance, entitled to a feeling of moral superiority.

In other words, he cautioned us against our tendencies to moral smugness and the inclination to feel good about ourselves by condemning others.

Instead, Percy reminded us of “the nobility of the natural perfection of the Stoics, the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity toward his fellowmen and above all to his inferiors—not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself.” Percy observed that the Stoic thrives in times of decline and decadence; “[h]is finest hour is to sit tight-lipped and ironic while the world comes crashing down around him.”

Percy contrasted the Stoic attitude with Christianity, and argued that it is largely the triumph of the latter with its emphasis on respect for the dignity of each and all that led to the collapse of the former. In this sense, the end of Jim Crow was not so much a legal reversal as it was a religious one. 

For it was not the individual, after all, who was intrinsically precious in the Stoic view—rather it was one’s own attitude toward him, and this could not fail to be specified by the other’s good manners or lack of them. If he became insolent, very well: let him taste the bitter fruits of his insolence. The Stoic has no use for the clamoring minority; the Christian must have every use for it.

Furthermore, in a striking observation, Percy wrote:

We in the South can no longer afford the luxury of maintaining the Stoa [Ed: the word “Stoicism” is derived from the Greek word stoa, meaning “porch”] beside the Christian edifice. In the past, we managed the remarkable feat of keeping both, one for living in, the other for dying in. But the Church is no longer content to perform rites of passage; she has entered the arena of the living and must be reckoned with. The white Southerner, Catholic and Protestant, has been invited either to go inside the edifice he has built or to consider what he is doing on the porch at all.

Southern manners and habits, Percy argued, predicated themselves on a Stoicism that had taken a piece-meal approach to Christianity, an accommodation that collapsed under the pressure of the Civil Rights movement. When Stoicism was ascendant, the Southerner “had been willing enough to allow Christianity a certain say-so on the subject of sin” so long as sin was understood as personal morals largely related to sex and drinking; but once Christianity had spilled beyond those bounds into public life the old Stoic attitude could no longer hold the hierarchy of Southern social life together. Having become “confused and obscurely outraged when Christian teaching [was] applied to social questions,” the old Southerner resorted to “talk about a ‘way of life,‘ ’state’s rights,’ and legal precedents, or [murmured] about Communism, left-wing elements and infiltration.” Having previously fought the Klan, they began to join it. Having its social power broken by Christianity’s social claims, Stoicism was “no longer good enough for the South.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the source of the moral energy of the civil rights movement?
  2. What are the prejudices that Northerners tend to have of Southerners and Southerners of Northerners?
  3. Does Percy’s essay make you rethink the role of White Southerners during both the Jim Crow and the civil rights eras?

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