See Part 1 of this Series here.
The Catholic writer Peter Lawler and the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher frequently blog about what they call “Southern Stoicism.” The term was originally coined by the Southern writer Walker Percy, who also happened to be a Catholic. In describing the South, Percy said that its greatness, “like the greatness of the English squirearchy, had always a stronger Greek flavor than it ever had a Christian. Its nobility and graciousness was the nobility and graciousness of the old Stoa. How immediately we recognize the best of the South in the words of the Emperor [Marcus Aurelius]: ‘Every moment think steadily, as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and a feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice'”
Percy is not wrong in his description of the South, which is certainly Stoic, but to describe it as such leaves out several important pieces. Percy was peculiarly able to pick up and define the South’s stoic streak because Percy was raised by an actual self-professing stoic. Walker’s uncle, William Alexander Percy, was no Christian. He instead believed in “the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius.” The Aristocrats of the Old South would have understood what William Alexander was speaking of, but in our time such a man is hard to find. William Alexander was perhaps the last of the stoic aristocrats who understood his culture. Southerners today still value things like duty, manliness, and honor, but they have forgotten the name of the Emperor.
William Alexander resolved early on to raise Walker as a Stoic so, despite the world around him, he would value things like “Love and compassion, beauty and innocence.” It is unsurprising then that Walker proved so adept at diagnosing the Stoicism of the South, but he nearly misses out on the key to understanding Southern Stoicism. He compares the South to the greatness of the “English squirearchy,” but then continues on to the Stoics. Any analysis of Southern Culture should go the other way around. We should start with the stoics and then go on to the English. To understand Southern Stoicism, to understand the South at all, one must also understand England.
Some of our questions about Southern Stoicism may be cleared up if we call it by what it was in its the very beginning, and perhaps at its very best: Toryism.
We are told time and again that our ancestors came to this country to get away from England. For the puritans and dissenters of New England this is certainly true, but many of those who settled in the South came for the glory of King and Country. Virginia, after all, was named in honor of the Queen. Both Winston Churchill and G.K. Chesterton approvingly referred to the early Southerners as Cavaliers, and their influence would last to the present day, as many Englishmen have noted. G.K. Chesterton was speaking of contemporary America when he coined the phrase the “Toryism of the South.” In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Churchill somewhat negatively compares the north to Cromwell’s Puritans as against the Southern Cavaliers. Churchill also wrote a short “what if” story that imagined an American reunion with Great Britain after the South won the Civil War. T.S. Eliot spoke fondly of the Southern Agrarians. And perhaps most revealing, Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee to express his sympathies after the war.
This distinct Englishness, or Southern Toryism, can be traced back to those original Cavaliers who settled the Southern colonies. Those Cavaliers brought with them their traditions, their values, and most importantly, their Church.
To understand any culture you must understand its religion. The Church of England is one that values authority and tradition, and it brought these values to the American South. The Southern Aristocracy mimicked the English aristocracy as best it could. Both looked down on commerce. Both believed in local community and landed economy. Both believed in family. And both, even if in name only at times, remained adherents to the Anglican Church.
Even after the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church remained the default religion of the elite. This is best exemplified in the life of John Randolph of Roanoke. Even before his famous (and sincere) conversion experience, Randolph confessed that, “Having been born in the Church of England, I do not mean to renounce it. On the contrary, I feel a comfort in repeating the Liturgy, that I would not be deprived of for worlds.”
Randolph is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the Southern Aristocrat. He famously summed up his political creed by confessing, “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.” In keeping with the temperament of English aristocrats, he found the business of the world to be tedious. Commerce and politics is not what makes the world go round. At best, the Nobles considered them necessary evils. The true business of men was community and family, and the best way to keep these two necessities intact was to keep them centered around the land. Believing this, Randolph thought avarice in industrialism, commerce, and politics to be the greatest source of society’s evils, and he often expressed a desire to retreat from the world for solitude and prayer.
If there is any greater aristocrat than Randolph, it could only be Robert E. Lee, whose acts of chivalry included distributing prayer books to his troops.
After the Civil War the Episcopal Church continued its decline, but its influence remained. The Southerner in the last century was like the deposed aristocrat who has lost his throne. He carries himself like a gentleman even if he no longer has all the trappings of one. All his titles and land may be taken from him, but he still rules in the wintry kingdom. Hence stoicism. It was always a feature in the South, but it used to be fused with Anglicanism to stand as Toryism. Now neither are what they once were, and the South’s distinct culture is being lost.
Chesterton once said that the old vibrant cultures of Rome and Greece could only survive within the hard exterior of Catholicism. The recent failures of evangelicalism to retain and transmit culture leave us to conclude the only hope for Southern culture is a (small “c”) catholic revival. With evangelicals moving from the chapels to the theaters, the only remnants of a distinct culture will be found near counter-cultural churches. I may be biased, but I think the Church best suited to minister to the South is the one that gave it its culture in the beginning.
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”