Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tonsor #5 -- The Essence of Modernity

I was having a beer with a couple of other graduate students. We were on a patio that looked onto William Street, enjoying the warm air and kibitzing about our classes after Week One at Michigan. The man across the table said, with apparent satisfaction, "There are no more conservative professors in Ann Arbor."

"Oh, that's not true," I shot back. "I had lunch with him."

Rackham Graduate School at U of M
That comeback may have gotten a laugh, but it pointed to a real problem: the anemic state of ideological diversity among academics in 1987. Not just at Michigan but across the nation during the Reagan era, faculty in the social sciences and humanities voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Political diversity was in noticeably short supply in Rackham Graduate School, the home unit of history graduate students at the University of Michigan. Tonsor informed me that he knew of only one other professor in U of M's history department who voted Republican, and our history department was arguably the largest in the U.S.

I hasten to add that, although the other profs I would encounter at Michigan were liberal, my experience in Ann Arbor was not as horrid as what was being reported on many American campuses. Perhaps I chose my classes wisely and had a little luck, but my profs were fair. They never docked me on ideological or religious grounds, nor did I sense there was ever a political litmus test to win grants or earn good grades. David Hollinger, Raymond Grew, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Tom Tentler, David Bien, Kathleen Canning, Jim Turner, Victor Miesel, Linda Neagley -- I respected every one of them as scholars. Indeed, it was they who taught me that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity.

*     *     *

The next morning, a Tuesday, I arrived at Tonsor's office in Haven Hall to tell him about an upcoming trip that would require me to miss one of his classes. He was not yet in for office hours, so I looked at the material he'd posted on his door. You can tell a lot about a person by what they post on their door. What caught my eye was a cartoon from the New Yorker. It showed a baseball scorecard of two teams, the Realists and Idealists. In each of the nine innings, the Realists had scored a run or two, while the Idealists had been shut out. Yet the final score was Realists 0, Idealists 2. It made a good laugh all the better knowing who posted the cartoon on his door.

"Hello, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor as he neared his office. I was beginning to learn his tone of voice, that note of deliberation, characteristic of his greeting. It was as if he were expecting you and now awaited the unwrapping of a pearl. As he flopped his satchel down on the desk, I sat briefly to tell him about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC. I could tell that he was genuinely pleased for me, as I had won first place in a national essay contest on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City," he admonished me. "It's where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement -- well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington."

Now that -- that last sentence -- provides yet another illustration of how Tonsor could toss out a thought so easily yet so provocatively, leaving me vexed. I thought conservatives were enjoying their heyday with Ronald Reagan in the White House. Before I could ask for elaboration, he returned to the matter at hand, and said that we could arrange to discuss the material in History 416 that I'd miss. That was considerate of him -- not every professor was so accommodating.

On my way out the door, I remarked with a smirk that Cassirer's Philosophy of the Enlightenment was as tough as its billing.

With an arch smile and a waggle of the head, Tonsor replied, "Among intellectual histories of the Enlightenment, it's Moby Dick. There are easier whales to harpoon, but they wouldn't be as much fun to pursue."

*     *     *

"Modernity is the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is modernity," Tonsor proclaimed from the lectern later that morning. "I exaggerate only slightly. By the second half of the seventeenth century and especially by the first half of the eighteenth, Europe was seeing two forces unleashed which would characterize modernity in general and the Enlightenment in particular. One is rationality. The other is liberalism. Recall how in our first meeting I said that ideas have power; they have consequences when men seize on them. If you see how both rationality and liberalism have informed and continue to shape the intellectual and institutional life of the West, then you will know why you think the way you do."


Monday, September 19, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 4 -- 1505 Morton Ave.

She was standing at the front door with a warm smile and an extended hand. Already at hello, it was apparent that Caroline Tonsor was diametrically different from her husband. In physical appearance they were not at all like the cartoon of the married couple that aged alongside each other until they looked exactly alike. Quite the contrary. He was stocky; she was slender. He had short gray-white hair; she, long dark brown hair. His eyes were lighter, impatient, and discerning;[1] her eyes, darker, approachable, and kind.

I would soon learn that their personalities were as different as their looks. Where he came off as forceful and judgmental, she was soft-spoken and accepting. Where he was the know-it-all, she asked questions. Where he liked to sprinkle his conversation with something that surprised, even outraged, she was happy with quiet displays of wit. The differences between the two is perhaps best summed up by the fact that students, among themselves, always referred to him as "Tonsor," to her as "Caroline."

What with her down-home likability, I soon cottoned to Caroline. She looked to be about the age my mother would have been had she been alive. And because my parents had divorced, I couldn't help but wonder if the Tonsors' marriage were like so many between two diametrically different people who nevertheless made the union work.

Their two-story house was modest, with a living room and dining room that seemed typical of a wood-frame dwelling built, say, in the twenties. Whatever the main floor lacked in size it made up in warmth, owing to three things that worked in concert to give the space an outsized coziness. First was the wingback chair to the left of the hearth. Great stacks of books and papers formed columns on either side of the chair. There was no question who sat upon that throne! Second was a Bach fugue playing in the background, which perfectly suited the home of a humanities professor. Third were the delightful sprays of flowers by the fireplace, at the front window, and on the dining room table. They gave a sweet fragrance to the downstairs.

Caroline noticed me looking closely at a bouquet. "Gardening," she said, "is Stephen's magnificent obsession."

"No," Tonsor protested, "it's a maddening obsession. The weather quite literally almost killed us. It was an extraordinary summer of extreme heat and drought that did not break until mid August, when the blessed rains returned.[2] Up to that point we and the flowers were all wilting together."
Flowers filled the house.

Recalling the mention of grandchildren during the walk, I asked Caroline whether they got to see their children and grandchildren often. She told me that her oldest daughter had been visiting recently with her two children. One of them went to football camp; the other to band camp, at Interlochen.[3]

Tonsor added, "During the summer and on holidays our house is often full of children and grandchildren; and it has long been our custom to invite students over for lunch.[4] Back in the sixties, Tom Hayden sat on that couch." Tonsor waved off the living room as if he actually did not care one jot that Tom Hayden had sat on his couch.

I followed Tonsor into the dining room. He moved a fat novel off the table to a nearby bookcase and motioned me to sit down. "I've been reading Trollope," he said. "His women are boring. He does an excellent job at depicting them but they are dull and trivial people. The only interesting ones, Lizzy Eustace and the Countess Neroni, are petty criminal types. Come to think of it, most of his men are dull and trivial, too."[5]

"Caroline, it looks as if you've cooked up a storm in the kitchen!" Tonsor exclaimed with much pleasure. We sat down to a hearty lunch, as he had promised: pot roast, potatoes, carrots. The surprise came when Tonsor poured me a glass of sherry. That was a first.

*     *     *

After our fill of lunch and spirited conversation, Tonsor and I walked back to campus mostly in silence. Although the clouds seemed to lift a little, the air remained warm and humid.

Retracing our steps through Burns Park, I reflected on the fast start of my academic career at Michigan. On this first day of classes, it was not yet 2 p.m., and already I'd had the privilege of spending four hours with my graduate advisor and meeting his gracious wife who welcomed me to their home. I was eager to report their hospitality to my circle of family and friends. But as an introvert with two glasses of sherry in me, I was starting to flag. It was time to retreat into the labyrinth of Harlan Hatcher Library, where I could jot down insights from my conversation with Tonsor, prepare for my other classes, and tackle Cassirer in light of everything I had learned that morning.

Once back on the Diag, Tonsor broke the spell of our self-enclosed hike. He made an observation that revealed more about who he was. "I have been reading a doctoral dissertation written by one of your colleagues, Mr. Winnie."[6]

I wondered if Tonsor had drunk too much sherry: Winnie? My name is Whit-ney.

He didn't pause, and I wasn't about to interrupt. "At first I did not want to read it. It's long, it's the sixth dissertation from this past year, and I was supposedly on leave. But I must say it is quite fascinating. It is a history of the Cochin family, one of the great French Catholic families of the high bourgeoisie. The dissertation is based on the family archives made available by the present Baron Cochin. They were liberal conservatives, and the historian Augustin Cochin, who died in World War I, could probably best be called a reactionary. They are my kind of people."[7] With that arresting thought, Tonsor faded into the reflections of Haven Hall's glass doors.

So Tonsor was a "liberal conservative" who would be called a "reactionary." Confused? So was I. I knew that I'd eventually have to sort it all out during my study at U of M. But that would come in due course. For now I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the lunch.


[1] One of Tonsor's former students, who later became a close friend, said that the unsettling effect of Tonsor's thick lenses was to make him peer at you with "the two glass eyes of a fish."
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor letter to Henry Regnery, August 3, 1987, pp. 2-3; and Tonsor letter to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1; both in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.
[3] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1.
[4] During these same years, another great European intellectual historian was hosting weekly lunches for his graduate students. At Yale University, Frank M. Turner (1944-2010) took his teaching assistants to Yorkside Pizza near campus. See Frank M. Turner, European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche, ed. Richard A. Lofthouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), Kindle edition, "Editor's Preface," loc. 132.
[5] Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, p. 3.
[6] Lawrence Hutchinson Winnie, "Aegis of the Bourgeoisie: The Cochin of Paris, 1750-1922," 2 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1988.
[7] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 3 -- The Rage for Order

My first class at Michigan had me churned up. Tonsor's introduction to Ernst Cassirer unloosed a Niagara of imponderables that were cascading through my brain. Had this bold humanist pulled off one of the most audacious philosophical projects of the twentieth century?

The iconic Erwin Panovsky
As Tonsor erased the board and stuffed his folders and books back into his satchel, I went to the front of the class and joined a few other students who had follow-up questions to put to the professor. I did not push myself forward but stayed a little back so that I could pick up additional insights from his answers. To one student he said something about Peter Gay being an American disciple of Cassirer's. To another he put Cassirer in the context of the so-called Hamburg School that included Aby Warburg and Erwin Panovsky. To yet another he quipped that the task of dethroning Aristotle proved more difficult than that of decapitating Charles I[1]. These little insights piqued my curiosity, but when my turn came I pursued a different line of questioning:

"Given the breakdown of the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century,
did Cassirer really think an age of reason could be resurrected in the twentieth? I mean, after trench warfare, Nazi concentration camps, and Soviet gulags -- didn't these catastrophes destroy the idea of progress and turn Enlightenment aspirations into an Endarkenment?" I had recently read an article with that sophomoric neologism, "Endarkenment," in the title and thought myself clever.[2]

"Sometimes all one can do is weep at the grave and hope for better things to come," said Tonsor with mock seriousness. "Mr. Whitney, do you have plans for lunch?"

"No, I don't. I'm free," I said with slightly too much enthusiasm; I imagined that I looked like a dog on point.

"Why don't you accompany me back to the house, where my wife Caroline will have prepared lunch, a hearty midday meal in the German style," he said grandly.

All I could think was, "Wow!"

Near Community News on South U and Forest
We walked out of East Engineering into a light drizzle and onto the noisy bustle of South U. A couple of blocks down was Community News, a claustrophobic shop where Tonsor liked to pick up his morning New York Times and Wall Street Journal. "In these pages I read about the strife of interests masquerading as principles," he quipped.

The newspapers securely tucked into his satchel, Tonsor set a moderately fast pace across the grid of leafy streets south of the main campus. Over the next twenty minutes we went through Burns Park, an older neighborhood with cozy, well-preserved houses. A gray sky enclosed us like Tupperware. Once we reached the quieter streets, I could hear Tonsor breathing but he was not too winded to talk.

The northern boundary of Burns Park is in the bottom right of this 1880 bird's eye view of Ann Arbor.
"After class you asked a good question that probes the limits of the Enlightenment. The fact is, it was self-limiting. Human nature is inclined to follow reason to a point, but no farther. Recall the passage in Boswell that describes Dr. Johnson kicking the stone: It was real and it was unmovable. Human nature is that stone -- real and unmovable.[3] For better or worse, human beings do not want to live by unaided reason alone, but also by passions and emotions, irrationality and violence, magic and mystery, spiritual insight and divine revelation.

"There is evidence going back 10,000 years of human beings revolting against rationality. Because it's a given of human nature, you can see the revolt all around us to this day. Look at the current proliferation of psychotic lifestyles!"[4]

The sarcastic way he said "psychotic lifestyles" made me laugh.

"It was a rare revolution that could base itself on rationality and mount a serious challenge to all the spiritual orders established in the Axial Age. The Enlightenment posed that challenge. It took root in the late seventeenth century when the exhausted soil of Christendom could nurture little else. Europe had depleted itself in savage wars of religion. These civil wars were fought in part over which Christian authority would prevail -- Catholic or Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist, Trinitarian or Unitarian. With the spectacle of Christians turning Europe into one giant Roman Colosseum for their mutual slaughter, some thinkers opened their minds to new sources of authority that could win universal assent and put an end to the strife. With the rise of experimental science, certain men began to believe they had discovered a promising source of authority. It would not be long before the scholastics' Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis would start to unravel. The medieval disputatio would no longer be regarded as a satisfactory way to mediate the world. A revolution was under way. Christendom would never be the same."

"Didn't the Enlightenment eventually prompt intellectuals to quit using the word 'Christendom' and start referring to our civilization as 'the West'?" I asked.

"Yes," Tonsor said with emphasis. "The evangelists of the Enlightenment were a confident lot. They believed reason and science came closer to commanding universal assent than any particular religion could. But the unintended consequences of a revolution are often more interesting than its intended ones. The hyper-rationality of the Enlightenment would spark a reaction. The romantic movement was the most obvious counter-Enlightenment, but to make that point does not take us very far. At a more primal level, there was an anomic reaction that undermined the Enlightenment from within. It is important to teach students about the long shadows cast by the Enlightenment itself across the eighteenth century. Otherwise they will never understand it."

Tonsor abruptly halted and leaned over. Since he was in his sixties, for an instant I wondered if it were his heart. To my relief he was only picking up a penny on the sidewalk. "For my grandchildren," he said, the pink skin of his face flushed from bending over. "I'll add it to their piggybank."

I registered this little kindness and asked how many grandchildren he had; it would be a good talking point to raise with his wife whom I was about to meet. But my mind was on the stretch. Since I was not sure what "anomic" meant, I sought clarification.

The 1897 source of the word "anomie"
"Anomie is one of the marks of modernity. It is as much a psychological condition as a social one. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim popularized the word in his study on suicide. 'Anomie' describes the psychological and social instability that results from the breakdown of values, beliefs, social norms, and social structures. In both individuals and institutions, you can detect symptoms of anomie in the loss of vision and purpose. People who lose their faith, who do not know the rules of the new order, or who have not discovered the role they should play in the new order, become disoriented and neurotic. That is to say, they become anomic."

"Like starting a game of checkers and suddenly finding yourself playing 3D chess?" I asked, seeking an adequate analogy.

"More like going from dominoes to football," said Tonsor, making the analogy even more outrageous. "Both are contact games but the similarity ends there!

"When people experience the loss of order, they manifest all the traits of Hell -- fear, anxiety, depression, guilt, boredom, and alienation. They cannot remain in such a state. The need for order will not be denied. When chaos eventually sparks a rage for order, the result, ironically, can be more disorder -- anything from bread riots to revolutions.

"If the Enlightenment pushed people to question intellectual authority -- in the Catholic Church, Ptolemaic astronomy, and Aristotelian philosophy -- a mere nudge could get them to question political authority. Why have a king? Why have a pope? The many abuses in the Old Regime left France in dire need of reform by 1789. But the revolutionaries did not foresee the unintended consequences of their revolution. As Augustin Cochin,[5] Francois Furet, and others have pointed out, the great paradox of the French Revolution is that it started with the goal of ridding France of absolute monarchy ... and ended with the most absolutist ruler the nation ever had, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Anomie accompanied the upheaval every step of the way. Indeed, anomic mileposts line the chaotic road from the Enlightenment to Napoleon. This central paradox of the eighteenth century, barely mentioned in textbooks, would be a most interesting path for you to explore, Mr. Whitney."

I appreciated that he was suggesting a future paper that I might research and write. I had never before considered the anomic roots of modern revolution.

"Anomie is one way to approach the problem of modernity. Historians seek out its sources in the disorientation that comes from encountering strange lands; the discovery that we live in a vastly more pluralistic world than was previously imagined; the skepticism that arises from exploration and pluralism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation; the rise of the new public intellectuals who questioned all the old authorities; the decline of religious faith in the face of growing relativity; the overthrow of kings; the destruction of traditional life-ways; the breakdown of communities through war, enclosure, industrialization, and continuous economic innovation; the new technologies that destroyed craftsmanship and made workers redundant; the mass migrations into big cities; the lack of mediating institutions in the slums of those crowded cities; the new ant-heap societies. All of these developments contributed to the problem of modernity."

"Which is why you've devoted your career to understanding and confronting modernity?" I asked.

"Yes," he said with emphasis. "The problem of modernity in general is also the problem of the Enlightenment in particular. The philosophes drove long nails into the coffin of Christendom. They were revolutionaries in the most fundamental sense: They changed the way people think. Through their conversations and writings they reorganized discourse and attitudes about key questions -- about intellectual authority, about who has permission to tell civilization's story, about who gets to debate, about who can say what is real, about what is persuasive, about what is considered beyond the pale.

"The bolder thinkers of the Enlightenment put forward the silly idea that the human mind is a blank slate, a tabula rasa; that changing the environment can change the sense impressions that reach the mind; that human nature can thereby be perfected; and that a utopia can be achieved in this life. That concatenation of reasoning would result in modernity's endless social, political, and economic experiments. All these things make the Enlightenment one of the most significant transformations in world history. Because the Enlightenment changed the way people think, it anticipated as well as precipitated Europe's transition from the Renaissance and Reformation to the fully modern world.

Preoccupation with Decline and Fall during the Enlightenment
"In an upcoming lecture, I shall present abundant evidence of the contemporary reaction against the Enlightenment. Throughout the eighteenth century, the possibility of decline lurked behind the salons' sparkling conversations like a bad shadow. You can see the reaction in the luxury debates that explored how wealth leads to personal, familial, and societal decadence. You can see it in Piranesi's cult of ruins. You can see it in the manneristic-anomic style of painting which depicts nightmares and death. You can see it in the books that are preoccupied with the decay of the Roman Empire -- in Montesquieu's great work on the decadence of ancient Rome, and then Gibbon's magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can see it in the graveyard school of poets and especially in Thomas Gray's fascination with mortality in his melancholic poem, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.' You can see it in Edmund Burke who identified terror's link to the sublime. The debates, the art, the histories, the poetry -- all give us abundant justification to unmask the so-called Enlightenment and to see its underlying darkness. Out the window goes the Age of Reason's self-congratulatory theory of progress -- a theory inadequate to explain the regress it brought about. For all these reasons, it is advisable to handle the so-called Enlightenment with tongs.[6]

"And now you see, Mr. Whitney, where Ernst Cassirer comes in. The Enlightenment project as originally conceived did not take adequate account of its own shadows. In the modern age, the more perceptive one was, the more one discerned the implications of a world unmoored from the old absolutes and devoid of meaning.[7] No one was happy to live in this theater of the absurd. Cassirer was among the European thinkers who revived the search for universally valid meaning. As a humanist he wanted to restore integration to knowledge as well as wholeness to the human condition."

When he paused I made a mental note to capture, later that day, Tonsor's key to the Enlightenment with this organizing image:

Light bulb (reason) > hard rock (human nature) > shadows (irrationality, etc.)
What you see in the shadows is perhaps more important than what you see in the light. 

This insight captured something much more profound than what could be read in the history surveys. It was why I came to the University of Michigan to study under Stephen Tonsor. The morning made me feel the giddy frisson of discovery.

Then I looked up and saw that we had arrived at 1505 Morton Avenue.


[1] Joseph Ward Swain, The Harper History of Civilization, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 791.
[2] R. F. Baum, "The Age of Endarkenment: Naturalism and Nihilism in Modern Thought," Intercollegiate Review (spring 1986), pp. 39-48.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Technology and the Conservative-Classical Liberal Debate," January 5, 1981, pp. 27-29; in Stephen J. Tonsor collection, box 41, file 1, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.
[4] Ibid., p. 6.
[5] Later in the day I learned that the French historian Augustin Cochin had been on Tonsor's mind in the late summer of 1987. Cochin had been inspired by Durkheim, and the former's investigation of the sociological-anomic roots of the French Revolution was among the topics treated in a dissertation being completed by one of Tonsor's students, Lawrence Winnie. (Stephen J. Tonsor letter to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2, in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.)
[6] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 267.
[7] Ibid.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 2 -- First Class: Why Ernst Cassirer Matters

Our introduction to intellectual history.
In that initial meeting of History 416, Tonsor tried to whet his students’ appetite for the first text we'd cover -- a doozy of a read -- Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. I don't know how persuasive he was with most of the undergraduates -- they were not exactly kittens that had just discovered the bowl of cream. I'd wager he spoke over their heads. But he was certainly direct.

“If you are like the thousand or so students who have preceded you in this class, then you will find this first reading difficult. This is a good thing -- you would not learn if it were not difficult.” Tonsor added, sotto voce, “Herr Doktor Professor Cassirer will no doubt cull the less serious scholars from the class.” The sarcasm in the word “scholars” seemed to reverberate as much as the jackhammer had.

It’s true. Cassirer's Enlightenment was even more intimidating than our professor. At home that night I would discover that it was the most difficult book I had yet encountered in my academic career.[1] On second thought that's not true -- it couldn't hold a candle to college calculus. Cassirer was, more precisely, the most difficult author I had yet encountered in the humanities. Importantly, in this first lecture Tonsor used Cassirer to demonstrate one of the things intellectual historians do: They clothe naked ideas in their biographical, historical, social, cultural, and philosophical finery.

Among the highlights from Tonsor's first lecture:

“In the book you will learn about the original Enlightenment project in the eighteenth century. In the author you will learn about a reconstituted enlightenment project in the twentieth century. The link between book and author will help you understand the continuity and change of Enlightenment ideals over three centuries.” I thought: This is brilliant pedagogy. Tonsor is assigning a book that is unsurpassed in the secondary literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, by an author who was himself a primary source in an attempted twentieth-century enlightenment.

Nazi Germany (1933-1945)
Then Tonsor tried to put the romance back in intellectual history. I say “back” because, by the 1980s, intellectual history was passé and took a back seat to social history“It may surprise you to learn that bookish scholars can be heroes. But I tell you that Cassirer was a hero. In an atmosphere of decline and fall – first of Weimar Germany then of the Third Reich – he sought to preserve the best of German civilization: the liberal, humanistic Germany built up by Kant, Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and other leaders of the Aufklärung. After the catastrophes of World War I and the twenties, he watched the Weimar Republic weaken and become susceptible to the Nazi takeover. Yet he was not passive in the face of the rising irrationality and violence. Writing The Philosophy of the Enlightenment with urgency in the early 1930s, he sought to fortify Weimar’s cultural immune system to resist Nazi ideas and symbols. He and other intellectual leaders did not succeed in stopping Hitler, of course, and Cassirer even took the fall of the Weimar Republic as a personal defeat.[2] Yet his work would assist Germany in its odyssey back to civilization following the world wars. That’s one reason why The Philosophy of the Enlightenment remains an exemplar to this day. You don’t know whether you, too, may someday be called to serve your fellow man in this profoundly important way. In Cassirer you might find a heroic model of intellectual and moral courage.”

“Cassirer wrote about the Enlightenment at the University Hamburg, an unlikely place for a renascence of anything resembling enlightened thought. The poet Heinrich Heine said that Hamburg, a city of merchants, is where poets go to die."

“Although he was a contradiction to his age, Cassirer was an important cultural thinker prior to his death in 1945, and he remains so now. Cassirer came of age when modern philosophers had dug a Grand Canyon between the sciences and humanities. Peering into the vast rift between these two ways of knowing, he conceived the improbable task of building a bridge that would once again link the two rims of this philosophical canyon. We must give Cassirer credit for his audacious attempts to reconcile physical nature with the human spirit, the exact sciences with the arts, the objective with the subjective, reason with passion, analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy. In the fractured modern age, he was a reconciler. To integrate all knowledge was one of the great Enlightenment projects; the goal of all the great humanists. Cassirer, arguably the greatest German humanist of his generation, was uniquely qualified to revive the Enlightenment project. Even if the project ultimately failed, his ambitious effort to unify the sciences and the humanities – to reunite the knowledge and truth on both sides of the epistemological canyon – was a heroic effort to restore the cultural unity of the West.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
Tonsor next said he hoped we'd find ourselves “arguing” with Cassirer during the entire course, from the first class to the last. “Ernst Cassirer was part of the revolt against Auguste Comte and the array of positivist ideas that were so influential in nineteenth-century Europe.[3] Positivism confines itself to the data of the senses and of experience. If you are an atheist, you are probably a positivist. Cassirer argued that the stakes of the anti-positivist revolt to Western civilization were high: If positivism went unchecked, if there were no anti-positivist revolt, then man would eventually regard himself merely as a material being. His free will, his moral agency, his spiritual life – all would suffer. This is an internal argument that each of you must also settle. And you thought that intellectual history would be dry!”

The lecture took a personal turn when Tonsor told the class he read Goethe every day. Indeed, it was his regular reading of Goethe that helped him understand Cassirer. For Cassirer was also devoted to Goethe and read him religiously.

Permit me to use this thought to push the fast forward button three decades, to 2016, as I write these reflections on my years in Ann Arbor. It has been a delight to discover a resurgence of interest in Ernst Cassirer. Young scholars have recently written several excellent books that argue for his centrality to twentieth-century intellectual history. Stephen Tonsor was one of only a handful of intellectual historians who stressed Cassirer's importance back in the 1980s.

Among these young scholars is Edward Skidelsky whose important 2008 book on Ernst Cassirer reminded me of Tonsor's first lecture in History 416. Like Tonsor, Skidelsky discusses how Goethe was resurrected at the end of World War II as the lost hero of a former Germany, an enlightened, liberal, humanistic Germany. It was no accident that Weimar was chosen to be the home of the first German Republic following World War I – it was Goethe’s home as well and thus highly symbolic of the promise of German humanism. Also after World War II, the historian Friedrich Meinecke proposed public readings of Goethe as a form of national reeducation after the Nazi years. German intellectual leaders like Cassirer looked to Goethe to recall Germany to the ideals of the Enlightenment and to its humanistic promise.[4]

A passage Skidelsky quotes by Cassirer’s wife, Toni Cassirer, is particularly apt:
The Greatest
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

“His interpretation of history; his feeling for nature; his ongoing endeavor to broaden his outlook, to extend his knowledge to almost all fields so as to strengthen his judgment and guard it against all one-sidedness, to free it from the influence of parochial experience, to distance it from the events of the day – all this derived from Goethe. His firm faith in the value of human personality, his longing for form and harmony, his abhorrence of violent destruction – both of his own ego and of the surrounding world – his loathing of ideological, political, and religious slogans – in short, everything that constituted the essence of his being, came from Goethe. I learned to understand Goethe through Ernst and Ernst through Goethe.”[5]

Could this quotation about a scholar's immersion in Goethe get at something in the core of the professor standing before us?

Exactly one minute before class was to end, Tonsor wrapped up. Cassirer, he intoned in his peroration, was one of the giants of twentieth-century intellectual history. Of Jewish parentage, his early grounding in the liberal arts prepared him for graduate study in history, literature, and philosophy, which he would skillfully integrate throughout his career. Many of his best works, including The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), were written in Weimar Germany, at the University of Hamburg, where he also supervised young Leo Strauss’s doctoral dissertation – another seminal thinker in the intellectual community I was learning about. Cassirer's warning against dismissing Enlightenment thought, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, made the book as poignant as it was significant. Because he was Jewish, he was part of the diaspora out of Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. “The culture of central and eastern Europe,” concluded Tonsor, “never recovered from the diaspora and attendant loss of brain power.”

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)
As I write the previous sentence I linger over it and ponder the melancholy it expresses. Allow me to digress. I did not realize it at the time, but what Tonsor said on that first day of class would be significant to my evolving estimate of him in the years to come. Recall that just before I first telephoned Tonsor in April 1987, I had a conversation in which Gregory Wolfe told me about something controversial Tonsor had said at the Philadelphia Society in Chicago the previous year.[6] Tonsor’s remarks were not well received by the Jewish neoconservatives in attendance. (In my view, they were justified in taking offense.) Subsequently there were nasty letter exchanges in the pages of National Review. Following that radioactive fallout, there was an informal campaign to blackball the Michigan professor because he was thought to be anti-Semitic. When I learned of the smear campaign, my mind traveled back to this first classroom lecture of Tonsor's, a foundational lecture in intellectual history in which he heaped praise on a Jewish humanist named Ernst Cassirer, the same Jewish humanist who had supervised Leo Strauss’s dissertation. Leo Strauss! – the North Star of the Straussian school and an inspiration to many a Jewish neocon. In December 1991, when National Review allowed the charge of anti-Semitism against Tonsor to resurface in its pages, I wrote a letter to the editor that defended Tonsor against the charge of anti-Semitism. I went to Tonsor's house and showed him the one-page letter. He thanked me and gave me his blessing to send it off to New York.

It was never published.

[1]To reconstruct Tonsor's lecture on Cassirer in History 416, I am most indebted to and grateful for the background information and insights provided by Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
[2] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 212-13.
[3] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 1
[4] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 76.
[5] Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981), p. 87; trans. and quoted by Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 240.
[6] For a transcript of the 1986 Philadelphia Society remarks, delivered at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, see Stephen J. Tonsor, “Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 303-08. The offending paragraph is found in the middle of p. 305.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 1 -- First Class: The Craft of the Intellectual Historian

Thursday, September 10th, couldn't come fast enough. It was the first day of the semester. I had been living in Ann Arbor since August 4th and was eager to start academic work.

Throughout the morning, fog and thunderclouds moved through the Huron River Valley. Although the Diag looked gloomy under a dark canopy of trees, the outermost branches of the honey locusts showed hints of the yellows soon to come under crisp autumn skies.

I arrived in East Engineering early to find a good seat for my first class at U of M: History 416, Tonsor’s Nineteenth-Century European Intellectual History. I still could not believe my good fortune to attend such a storied class. I took my place three rows back from the lectern. For the next few months, this was the space in which I would learn the most about the public Tonsor, both as a teacher and intellectual historian.

The vibe at Michigan
An affable fellow a few years my junior sat down to my left. He sported a tee shirt with a familiar slogan on campus: “Harvard, the Michigan of the East.” “Have you ever taken Tonsor before?” he asked.

“No, this is my first semester at Michigan. I get the impression we are going to learn a lot.”

“He’s brilliant but he’s got a reputation,” the student said, starting to shake his head. “He’s been known to kick trash cans at faculty meetings that don’t go his way. And when a feminist challenged him in one of his classes, he said to her face that her soul was as filthy as the floor she walked on.” My eyes inadvertently dropped to the floor. I had put myself through Colorado State University as a janitor, so I knew filth on floors.

With those two episodes in my head, I saw the barrel-chested Tonsor walk into the classroom looking vaguely harried. His head was thrust forward, and his mouth was open from walking fast and ascending the stairs to the second floor. His eyes appeared to recede behind thick lenses. He carried a brown satchel, well worn and scarred, out of which he took several books and a handwritten lecture on lined, yellow paper. I would learn that it was Tonsor’s habit to lecture from scripted notes, each topic contained in its own manila folder.[1] His final warm-up routine was to write the authors and titles of important books on the chalkboard. On this first day he wrote the following:

Roland N. Stromberg, European Intellectual History since 1789 (third ed.)
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment
M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism
Hegel, Philosophy of History
J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, and Wagner

These were the seven books the class would read during the semester. I took note of the balance of materials: three original sources, three secondary works, and one textbook for good measure.

At 10 a.m. sharp, Tonsor began his lecture in the most inadvertently humorous circumstances I’d ever seen in a classroom: “Do not think,” he said importantly, just when a jackhammer started to pound away outside the window…. “Do not think,” he repeated more loudly to the jackhammer's rat-a-tat-tat…. Then, drawing himself up, he bellowed, “Do not think that it is I who am speaking to you. No, it is the Voice of History.”

East Engineering
No, actually it was the Voice of the Jackhammer. At least that’s what most of the 40 students in the class must have been thinking.

Tonsor glared at the window, fixated on the construction work on East Engineering. “You really should go to the university administration, protest this intolerable racket, and demand the full refund of your tuition!”

Some of the students shifted uneasily in their chairs; others tried to laugh. His burst of temper reminded me of my father.

Composing himself, Tonsor thrust his head forward over his yellow pages of handwritten notes and resumed: “I quote Ernest Renan, one of the most interesting apostates of the nineteenth century. He abandoned the priest’s cassock for the historian’s gown. But more on the apostate Renan later.

“This course in modern European intellectual history will challenge you in five fundamental ways. First, the content is more abstract than the material you've encountered in other history courses. By focusing on beliefs and knowledge, values and symbols, ideas and ideologies, we shall explore what is unique about human beings -- our capacity to reason, to deliberate, to develop ideas -- capacities that sharply differentiate us, in kind, from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“The noisome squirrel that invades my garden has a social order; he has a sense of territory; he communicates with other squirrels; he builds nests; he mates; he eats and is eaten -- by me when I've had enough of his mischief. But there is no evidence that he thinks abstractly about his relationship to himself, to other squirrels, to the world, or to his creator. He exists in the realm of necessity, not of freedom. No matter how refined his instincts, he is incapable of creating, modifying, rejecting, or transmitting abstract ideas. He has no notion of authoring a history of squirrels.

“The second way this course will challenge you is to see that ideas change; they develop. They are not static but have a rich arc within the larger human adventure. If you were to write the history of squirrels, the story of their lives 10,000 years ago would be the same, in all the essentials, as the story of their lives today.

“Not the human story. From the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of civilization forward, our way of life, our language, our society, our military technology, our economics, our politics -- all have changed, profoundly, many times over. All things human change because we think about them, criticize them, grow bored with them, and imagine something different that might make life better. The history of ideas, especially since the transition to modern times, is also one of dramatic change. It is sometimes hard for students to grasp, but what you think of liberty in 1987 is not what French revolutionaries thought of liberty in 1793. What you think of equality today is not what coffeehouse Marxists thought of equality in 1848. What you think of the Constitution on its two hundredth anniversary is not what citizens thought of the Constitution two centuries ago.

"The third challenge is related to the second. Because you are going to become more aware of changes in human thinking, I hope this course encourages you to break out of your familiar, limited way of seeing things. History is a core discipline of a liberal arts education precisely because it frees you from the fallacy of presentism, the belief that you should judge the people of the past by the standards of the present. In this history course, you will be urged to develop the habit of sympathetic identification with those who lived in the past; to try to put yourselves in their shoes; to understand them on their terms, not yours; to comprehend their way of thinking, not yours. Otherwise, once you fall back into your conceptions of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, you cease to think historically. You lack perspective, and without perspective, your worldview is impoverished."

Tonsor then turned to the board and wrote in large letters, “Einfühlung.” “Einfühlung,” he said slowly, “is German for 'sympathetic understanding' -- one of the most important concepts in the study of history, and we shall recur to it often.”

He resumed reading from his notes. “The fourth way this course will challenge you is to see that it's the changes in the way we think that make other changes possible. We shall discover that changes in the mind often precede changes in society, the economy, politics, military strategy, and so forth. Changing the way people think is one of the most revolutionary things you can do. If a people change their mind about astronomy, and think Copernicus describes reality better than Ptolemy does; if a people change their mind about physics, and think Newton describes reality better than Aristotle does; if a people change their mind about life on earth, and think Darwin describes reality better than Genesis does; if a people change their mind about medicine, and think Lister describes reality better than Galen does; if a people change their mind about politics, and think Madison describes reality better than Plato does; then that people will create a different world than would have existed otherwise.

"I also hope that you will learn to see the intended and unintended consequences of ideas. The Enlightenment dethroned divine revelation and, in its place, enthroned experimental science. The philosophes did so thinking that reason was a better guide to reality than Genesis. But Pascal observed that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend. Sometimes man is moved to think and act in a way that is contrary to the dictates of reason. When John Dalton formulated atomic theory, he saw its useful applications but never dreamed of "the bomb."

“We can see how ideas have consequences in a contentious matter before the American people today. Our Constitution does not interpret itself. Whether your senator votes to confirm Judge Robert Bork, President Reagan's nomination for the Supreme Court, depends in part on whether he believes in a strict or loose interpretation of our fundamental law. Each of these interpretations has consequences.

“Fifth and finally, I hope this lecture course in modern European intellectual history challenges you to 'know thyself' better. In readings and lectures we will encounter a series of revolutions. More specifically, we will account for changes in European thought from the advent of Romanticism around 1750 to the anti-positivist revolt in the 1870s; we shall consider the content of the determinative ideas in culture and society; and we shall also attempt to provide an explanation for the many ideological changes that occurred before, during, and after the French Revolution. There is heavy emphasis on the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism as well as on the emergence of Realism and Naturalism. As you grapple with each of these isms over the next fifteen weeks, you will recognize yourselves and understand better where your own ideas come from.

"There will be regular class discussions of the texts -- you can see that I've written them on the board. Your participation will constitute one-quarter of the grade. Your mastery of the material will also be evaluated by a midterm examination and by a final examination. Be sure to bring blue books on exam days.”[2]

Stephen J. Tonsor (1923-2014)

In these first few minutes I noted that Tonsor pronounced certain words the way Catholics from south Saint Louis do. His “or” sounded like “are”; his “for” like “far”; his “order” like “ardor.”

“During our time together, we will challenge an idea that arose in the Enlightenment and attracted many apostles in the nineteenth century. It's the idea that history is the story of unending progress. Students today may think that it is, but it is not. Civilized men forever contend with barbarism. As a professor of mine used to say, quoting Virgil to the ordinary Illinois farm-boy and farm-girl types whom he taught, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum – things have tears in them.’”[3]

Once Tonsor settled into his lecture, he commanded the room. I thrilled at his rhetorical strategy, which was a study in definition. He laid before us the key terms of the course, elucidating on “nineteenth century,” “modern,” “European,” and “intellectual history.” The most memorable image in this first half hour of the lecture was borrowed, he explained, from his most influential professor at Illinois, Joseph Ward Swain. “The study of history is like driving a car, in reverse, at night. Looking through the rearview mirror, you can only see a narrow section of a dimly lit road already traveled. What is more, the farther back you go, the dimmer the light. Holding that analogy in mind, you will understand why even the most rigorous research must be wedded to the imagination. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, there is no good history without imagination.”

I was writing furiously in the shorthand I had taught myself as an undergraduate, capturing every syllable I could. 

[1] In this classroom habit Tonsor followed his mentor. See his essay, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), ed. Gregory L. Schneider, p. 311.
[3] Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 312.