For any student of Southern Stoicism, it fits that Atticus Finch was a magnanimous defender of the black person’s rights in the 1930s yet an endorser of illegal responses to that person’s rights in the 1950s.
It’s hard not to think of the printing of two million copies of Harper Lee’s “new book” as a capitalist macroaggression against America. Given the place that this 1960 book—allied with its 1962 movie version—has assumed in our country, we should defer to Lee’s decision about how to think of Atticus Finch.
That’s not to say to say the portrayal of anti-integrationist Atticus in the 1950s contradicts the one we know so well from the time of the Great Depression, a noble defender of the rule of law against the racist mob.
Percy, taking note of the character’s classical name, described Atticus as the most celebrated of the Southern Stoics. Tending to favor in particular the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (the philosopher-emperor) and Epictetus, they thought of themselves as members of a ruling class of rational men, a class that included the best men of the South—and the best of men across time and space. The motivation of these Stoics was fulfilling one’s duty to be an unflinching rational fortress of virtue.
His community recognizes him as a ruling class of one by returning him to the legislature time and again without question or opposition.
Those virtues persisted and became less ambiguously noble with the disappearance of slavery. Atticus, despite being a local political leader and man of breeding and learning, doesn’t have much money or property at all.
Lee’s classic book and especially its movie version teach us about the cruel and ignorant vulgarity of racism.
More than trying to save a particular man, Finch tries to save the truth and virtue on which the fictional Maycomb’s civilization depends. In his essay “Stoicism in the South,” Walker Percy writes that these Stoics were a genuine manifestation of a kind of natural human excellence right here in our country.
Percy wrote his essay to explain the failure of Southern leadership to respond responsibly to the challenges of getting rid of segregation in the wake of Brown v.
As Tocqueville said, a failing of aristocracies in general is the complacent expectation that things will always be about the same as they are now, and that slavery or inegalitarian servitude of some kind will always be with us. A failing of aristocracies is the complacent expectation that things will always be about the same as they are now, and that slavery or inegalitarian servitude of some kind will always be with us. For any student of Walker Percy and Southern Stoicism, it shouldn’t be surprising that Atticus was a magnanimous defender of the black person’s rights under the law in the 1930s and yet an endorser of illegal responses to the defense of that person’s rights in the 1950s.
That conclusion, however, depends on the assumption that the Atticus of the two books is really the same person. The editor’s suggestion was to rewrite the book from the point of view of a strikingly perceptive little girl who loves and admires her dad above all.
The author took on the responsibility of thinking through what children should know about the virtue of a great man. Now Atticus does tell his son Jem that whenever a white man cheats a black man, “no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. Here we see why even the Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” would not look forward to a world in which blacks would no longer need the protection of men such as himself because they could deal with trashy, low-grade whites on their own. It’s one thing to acknowledge that blacks have equal rights under the law, it’s another to see them asserting them on their own. One piece of evidence that the lawyer believes his client, Tom, is less than he really is: Atticus too readily identifies Tom’s plight with that of Boo Radley, a man deserving of being excused from the rule of law. The film, an emotionally intelligent adaptation by the great Horton Foote, is arguably more insistently edifying than the book. It takes a man of aristocratic character to be able to speak so eloquently to Americans about what equality is not.
We all know where Jefferson said that, and so there’s no need for Atticus to mention the place. Atticus’s general message is that pity, although sometimes a truthful emotion, often blinds us to the truth associated with justice. It takes a man of aristocratic character, you might say, to be able to speak so eloquently to Americans about what equality is not, although there’s not a word Atticus says with which Lincoln would have disagreed. For Atticus, “there is one human institution that makes the pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. The rule of law, we can say, depends on a touch or more of the Stoic rubbing off on us all. The rule of law isn’t anti-democratic because, in our country, it depends on the virtue of the people. We can see what Lee tried to accomplish for her country—and not the South in particular—through the drama of Tom Robinson’s trial.


The “teachable moment” here is that democracy needs men and women of rare and elevated virtues, and we depend on them to elevate us all to be responsible for the rule of law.
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You might say this when you’re talking about someone and they come into the room, message you or you see a photo of them. Many readers consider it a sequel, although it’s really a rough and in some ways misbegotten draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the work that stands as the one and only account of heroic virtue shared by all Americans. At a conference on the Southern novelist Walker Percy just over a month ago, I predicted that the Atticus of the “sequel” would likely be an anti-integrationist. The Louisianan writer had learned from the man who’d raised him—the philosopher-poet William Alexander Percy, author of “Lanterns on the Levee” (1941)—that the leaders of the South, antebellum and post-bellum, considered themselves disciples of the Greek and Roman philosophers. And those responsibilities are fulfilled through the practice of the high virtues by men of means, magnanimity, and generosity. As Atticus told Scout, “before I can live with other folks, I have to live with myself.” Those Stoics knew, and know, who they are and what they’re supposed to do. The character and the man defended the form of the law, and the protection it afforded all men and women, against the irrational animosity that sometimes rouses up ordinary people in a democracy. Not only that, as we see in so much of Southern literature, those virtues became part of the consciousness of being a “dispossessed aristocrat.” The Southern literary imagination before the war, Walker Percy explains, was consumed by defending slavery. Most of his daily round and his personal associations are pretty democratic or ordinarily middle-class. She engenders not just contempt but also some pity for the low-grade “white trash” characters who live in the thrall of cruel and ignorant illusions about blacks. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, is mostly a tale of a magnanimous man, of a man whose virtue can only be seen in full when it is required to try to save a wrongly accused man and to arouse his community to a sense of duty that might protect the people from themselves. It’s also a tale of a very lonely man—a widower whose companionship is his children and his books, the delight in which he shares with Scout every night—who has the class not to whine that most of those in his life are beneath him.
So the Southern Stoics, partly in their misplaced magnanimity or proud self-admiration, missed the justice in the civil-rights movement’s clamor for liberation.
All this might be a teachable moment in the greatness and limitations of aristocratic leadership.
While he is to be admired for defying local convention in defending a black man against the accusations of whites, maybe he goes too far: He is way too hard on the poor white woman who alleges rape and her family who lie to save their dignity.
Far more important that they come to see how wrong it is when people put their selfish desires and reputation before truth and justice.
It’s less about the day-to-day details of small-town life and focuses more on the drama of the trial. It’s not even against Jefferson’s principle, he goes on, to acknowledge that “some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it,” as Atticus himself was, as long as they use it well. The Stoic and the Republican are equally against the promiscuous levelling of the Progressives’ welfare state. And Walker Percy (not to mention Martin Luther King Jr.) might be right that living out the proposition that “all men are created equal” requires a Christian dimension that Atticus can’t provide.
So what we learn from “Go Set a Watchman” is irrelevant for understanding the Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who is a different and better man. When I go to my college classes, I (fake) struggle to find a piece of cultural literacy that all of us in the classroom share. On her agenda of possible future novels, we know from a letter, was one “laying into” her home of Monroeville, Alabama in 1958—when the anti-integrationist fanaticism in which her father (A.C. Moreover, upholding one’s responsibilities presupposes courage, or rising above fearful materialistic calculation. They think of themselves as always acting accordingly, even at the cost of deep loneliness or death.
They showed us that Alexis de Tocqueville was right in saying that lawyers are—at least sometimes—to be cherished as the closest thing we have in America to an aristocracy, a class rationally and temperamentally attached to a standard higher than mere popular inclinations.
Their honorable manners and morals in fact originated in the Southern aristocracy based on race-based slavery.
After the war, it became both critical and appreciative of the display of the distinctively Southern ways of life, as formed and deformed by the “original sin” of slavery. Still he defines himself against what’s “common” in terms of the classical moral virtues of the Greeks and Romans.
This is true of Will Percy and Atticus, who mention the virtues of Jesus only when these overlap with those of the philosopher-emperor. They, for a while, joined the vulgarly racist populists in resisting integration as an imposition from outside that challenged the established social order.


For a while, they didn’t choose the rule of law over irrational populist inclination, the kind expressed at the meetings of the White Citizens Council that the Atticus of “Watchman” justifies as the extremism that curbs the extremists on the other side.
It might also stimulate thought on the place of classical philosophy in America, as well as the relationships between pagan and Christian virtue and coming to terms with the truthful claims of both magnanimity and justice. It was a shift that transformed “To Kill a Mockingbird” into a children’s book (or what today is called “young adult fiction”), and the South’s most penetrating writer, Flannery O’Connor, famously dissed it as such. The poor whites are reduced to animalistic stereotype by Atticus’ formidable rhetorical skill—a skill that didn’t even seem to be aimed at winning an acquittal from a random selection of ordinary white men, who didn’t want to think of any white as worthy of pity, as inferiors, in a relationship with blacks. But as Walker Percy remarks about the man who raised him: The somewhat condescending concerns that move the magnanimous man are better than the lack of concern for others’ well-being that characterizes our individualists these days. And, through the eyes of Scout, Atticus actually morphs into a better man than Lee originally imagined A.C. It’s just a fact that “some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men,” and that’s not the business of the government. The Christian dimension of Atticus’ message to the jurors is that we’re all sinners—liars and cheaters lusting in our hearts. Will Percy, pretty much like Lee’s Atticus, stared down a racist lynch mob attempting to take the law into its own hands. Their standard is not sectional but matches that of their country: it is the principle that all men are equal before the law.
In thinking about that complication, we return to the astute and balanced observation of the Frenchman who visited in the 1830s.
And so his community recognizes him as a ruling class of one by returning him to the legislature time and again without question or opposition. They and their children attended church (for Atticus, the Methodist church), and worshipped God with their local community. The Stoics heroically defended the black person who could not defend himself—but did so paternalistically. The draft was written in the third person, but it is basically from the point of view of Jean Louise Finch returning to her hometown after spending years in New York as an artist. Atticus makes them seem much worse than they really are, as he acknowledges privately elsewhere. But his point is that we all—black and white—equally need the restraint of the law, not that we’re all equally worthy of love. Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s gift to her country, is less a Southern than an American Stoic—one democratized by Jefferson’s egalitarian teaching.
To help you understand your new Australian friends and colleagues a little better here is an explanation of 15 commonly used idioms in Australia. Again like Atticus, he thought of himself as using what he had been given to elevate the community for which he had assumed responsibility. Tocqueville saw the Southern masters as having the virtues and vices characteristic of any aristocracy, and it’s those virtues that will always merit our attention as qualities lacking and still much needed in our largely middle-class country. What they could not bear was the “insolence” by which blacks came to demand that their rights be protected by a legal transformation that had nothing to do with Stoic virtue. So it’s a pretty standard story of a sophisticated young woman in rebellion against the provincialism and narrow-mindedness of the people she grew up with, beginning with her formerly idolized father. There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.” The standard of being low-grade trash is all about behavior regardless of social circumstances, so it’s not the case that all poor whites are trash.
The book teaches children what they need to know and admire to grow up to be someone who does his duty despite what others may do.
What the Southern Stoics lacked, Percy claimed, was belief in the truthful insights of Christians about the equality of all men under God and the loving virtue of charity. It also means that any criticisms of the Stoic lawyer that enter in (and some do) have to be subtly indirect.
But what Lee’s character means is that, contrary to the Yankees’ humanitarian social science, some people ought to feel inferior. But the overwhelming impression is the identification of trashiness with poverty, just as the general impression is that poor blacks are innocently ignorant—easy to cheat—and so need to be protected from trashy white men who take advantage of them.



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