Servile Leisure: Walker Percy's the Last Gentleman and the Philosophy of Josef Pieper

By Humphries, Rachel Faber | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Servile Leisure: Walker Percy's the Last Gentleman and the Philosophy of Josef Pieper


Humphries, Rachel Faber, The Mississippi Quarterly


THE WORD "GENTLEMAN," WHICH FIGURES PROMINENTLY IN THE TITLE OF Walker Percy's second published novel, simultaneously calls to mind the social world of manners and morals and the economic world of money and class. Percy scholars who study the concept of the gentleman generally limit their focus to the former aspect, emphasizing the stoic code of behavior that characterized the male plantation elite in the old South. (1) In one way or another, these critics argue that Will Barrett--and characters like him in Percy's other novels--refashion or reject Stoicism in order to survive in the postmodern South. While Percy undoubtedly engages with his "Uncle" Will's stoicism in the novel, its prominence in both Percy's fiction and nonfiction tends to overshadow any study of the economics of being a gentleman. Though Will Barrett is almost universally identified as the novel's titular "gentleman," landed gentlemen are not janitors--or "humidification engineers." If they have any profession at all, they are planters, doctors, lawyers, or generals. The Last Gentleman does not limit itself to these categories, however; its almost encyclopedic catalog of occupations depicts people wealthy enough to travel for weeks at a time, play golf, buy fancy telescopes, and read Wittgenstein, as well as people who work for hire as janitors, butlers, gardeners, cooks, coroners, nurses, companions, and hunting guides. Labor, race, and social stratification, therefore, unavoidably interact in Percy's treatment of the gentleman.

Deeply influenced by the thought of the "Catholic Revival" that peaked in the 1940s and '50s, Percy would have been aware of contemporary theories of labor and leisure. As an active participant in the intellectual climate of the Catholic revival, when "it was . . . common for Catholic intellectuals to pay close attention to the reigning philosophies of the day"(Quinlan 58), Percy probably encountered the most prominent exposition of Catholic thought on the subject: Leisure, the Basis of Culture, by German philosopher Josef Pieper. (2) Pieper was well respected in the 1950s and 1960s as an ethical philosopher and student of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. When the English translation of Leisure, the Basis of Culture--still Pieper's most well-known work in English--was first published in 1952, T. S. Eliot admired the convergence of philosophy and theology in Pieper's work in his introduction. Eliot argues that Pieper "restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom. By affirming the dependence of philosophy upon revelation, and a proper respect for 'the wisdom of the ancients,' he puts the philosopher himself in a proper relation to other philosophers dead and living" (16). In the United States, Allen Tate's favorable review in The New York Times Book Review drew additional attention to Pieper's ideas. (3) Josef Pieper's thought clearly influenced the climate in which Percy matured as a writer.

The Last Gentleman (1966) followed Walker Percy's first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961). Their plots are broadly similar. Both follow an intelligent, but dislocated, male protagonist as he embarks on a search for meaning apart from his family's past; both novels end with the death of a teenage boy. The Last Gentleman differs, however, from its predecessor and even its sequel (The Second Coming, 1980) in its examination of labor and leisure--an examination illuminated by reading Percy's novel alongside Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Though there is no evidence that Percy read Pieper's book, The Last Gentleman reflects major elements of Pieper's thought. As a homeless wayfarer whose peculiar perspective on reality makes him unusually receptive to both people and things, Will Barrett echoes Pieper's picture of the gentleman of leisure with startling accuracy. The issues of labor and face, however, disturb any tidy parallel between the two authors. …

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