Monday, October 2, 2017

Tonsor: Western Civ: Socrates

Following is my revised lecture on Socrates. It was originally composed when I was a graduate student under the tutelage of Stephen Tonsor at the University of Michigan.  

The core idea: Socrates offers a compelling answer to the question of how to be happy and live a good life. 

I. Introduction to Socrates

One of the reasons that I am a humanist and not a social scientist is that I believe individual human beings can be leaders who make a difference and even change the course of history. One intellectual leader who changed the course of human thought was Socrates. Although he lived 2,400 years ago, he remains a sure guide for the perplexed to this day. He took up the question thoughtful people in the ancient world asked and keep asking to this day: How can I be happy and live a good life?

The answer Socrates offered might surprise many people nowadays because it has nothing to do with having a great career, accumulating awards, or owning things. For Socrates, the key to being happy and to living a good life was to love wisdom above all else. Loving wisdom leads us to act with relentless virtue and to seek the unvarnished truth. 

We know, for example, that we cannot be happy if we act badly and are plagued by a guilty conscience. Instinctively we sense a connection between virtue and happiness.

Socrates also knew that there were social consequences to the quest for wisdom. Because moral and intellectual discipline is so hard, because the "long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery" never ends,[1] citizens might begin to question their faith in democracy, for citizens must learn to govern themselves before they can presume to govern others. 

II. A Giant of the Earth

In a recent Time magazine survey of the most consequential human beings who have ever lived, Socrates ranks 68th. That may not sound spectacularly high until you realize that he is 68th out of 107 billion people who have ever lived.[2] When expressed mathematically -- 68/107,000,000,000 -- Socrates peers down on us like a giant of the earth (because of course he is).

It's perhaps surprising that he ranks so high. In the first place, Socrates did not leave behind any of his own writings. We only know this enigmatic man through the observations of others -- Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aristotle -- and these sources are hardly in agreement about the man. 

Moreover, Socrates did not do the things that get most people into the history textbooks. He never founded a religion, never founded a nation, never led an army, never held high office, never discovered a new world, never wrote an epic poem, and in fact did not leave us one word in his own hand. He had no career, no money, no school, and likely held public office only once, and then only briefly. He was a man of simple habits who spent most of his waking hours roaming the streets of Athens in search of people who might teach him something important.

What Socrates did have was a keen intellect that he generously shared with students. Through his students, especially through Plato, this lover of wisdom became one of the most consequential human beings who ever lived.

III. Three Contexts

Historians and biographers like to write of the "life and times" of a person. Framing a biographical narrative in its broader context helps readers see things that might otherwise be missed. There are at least three important contexts that help us understand what it was like to be Socrates.

First is the fifth century BC, a time of remarkable synchronicity throughout Eurasia. Along with Socrates in Athens, there also lived at this time the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Persia, and some of the great Jewish prophets in the Middle East including Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, and Esther. Countless millions of people down to the present day have been inspired by these religious and philosophical leaders, a few of whom never wrote a word. So important was this era to the moral and spiritual development of humankind that the philosopher Karl Jaspers put the fifth century BC at the center of the "axial age," which saw human history turn. 

Second is the Greek intellectual revolution that occurred not just in Athens but in Ionia in Asia Minor. There arose a number of thinkers who today would be called scientists, as they did not resort to the gods to explain what happened in nature but instead used reason to search out what caused earthquakes, storms, seasons, and the proliferation of life. Socrates was not a systematic philosopher. He did not use reason as the pre-Socratic philosophers did, to investigate nature and propose a comprehensive view of the cosmos. Rather, he used reason to explore man's search for the good life, the way ethicists might today.

Third is the Golden Age of Athens. This flowering of culture occurred after Athens won a war against the superpower of the day, Persia -- not once but twice (490 and 480 BC). Socrates lived through most of the Golden Age. But the splendor of democratic Athens faded rather suddenly when she and her allies began fighting their fellow Greeks, the Spartans and her allies, in the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which exhausted every polis that got caught up in the conflict. The last five years of Socrates's life coincided with a terrible time in Athens. The war had ended, but there were recriminations over who made Athens lose both the war and the peace. An annoying gadfly who was critical of the Establishment made himself an easy target to swat.

IV. Life of Socrates

Historiographically we cannot avoid the "Socrates problem." Because this gadfly did not himself leave behind any writings, our portraits of him have been colored by others. It turns out the sources lead to two divergent views of the man. 

On the negative side, the comic playwright Aristophanes poked fun of Socrates as a silly but dangerous fellow who was always putting the wrong ideas in people's heads; he was just another sophist. For a fee he would teach students how to be clever and confound his listeners, making the worse argument look better and the better argument look worse. Other detractors were angry that Socrates tore down the authority of the greatest democrats of Athens during the postwar years when the polis desperately needed stability. Because Socrates challenged the status quo, he was thought to be impious, a revolutionary who created new gods. Crowning all these reasons was the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth and thus the future of the weakened city-state. The dastardly Alcibiades had been his student, after all.

On the positive side, Socrates was veritably worshiped by his pupils Plato and Xenophon, who wrote of his sterling character, unimpeachable integrity, and relentless pursuit of virtue. They also admired the fact that their teacher was a skeptic of all received opinion when it came to the Big Ideas -- justice, virtue, piety, love, knowledge, and other notions. Because Socrates was a brilliant conversationalist, he attracted many youth who felt he put the romance in the search for wisdom: The "long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery,"[3] according to Socrates, was the most noble thing we human beings undertake.

Historians will never be able to reconcile these two different views of Socrates. But based on Plato's early dialogues and other source material, the following is what we can say with some degree of certainty:

He was born in Athens in 470 BC. His name means "master of life." His father Sophronicus was a stone mason. His mother Phaenarete was a midwife. Later in life, Socrates would compare himself to a midwife: as a midwife mastered the skill or art of delivering babies, so the lover of wisdom mastered the art of giving birth to the truth.

For the first forty years of Socrates's life, it was glorious to be an Athenian. The recent defeat of the Persians from the east gave the upstart democrats in the West the confidence and energy to unleash their talents. The result was the Golden Age. All through Socrates's childhood and early adulthood, Athens was experiencing a great cultural flowering on the way to becoming the freest, most advanced civilization in the world. 

Despite all the beautiful statues sculpted during the Golden Age, Socrates did not fit the physical ideal of the Greek man. The sometime stonemason was short, stocky, and ugly. 

Instead of spending his life plying his trade, Socrates was intent on pursuing wisdom. What was knowledge? Opinion? Virtue? Vice? There was no consensus in ancient Greece. Perhaps most striking of all were the irreconcilable teachings of Parmenides and Heraclitus. The former saw reality in terms of being; the latter, in terms of becoming. Faced with these contradictory doctrines, Socrates managed to hold both in dynamic tension. This fact is critical to understanding how his mind worked. Socrates was no ideologue. His accommodation of irreconcilable intellectual tensions led to his trademark skepticism and love of paradox.

The turning point in Socrates's life came when his friend, Chaerephon, went to Delphi to consult the Oracle of Apollo there. The priestess, who was inhaling hallucinatory vapors, told Chaerephon that Socrates was the wisest of men. When Chaerephon later reported this delphic utterance to Socrates, the humble stonemason didn't believe it. He hardly felt wise and he certainly fell short of fulfilling the delphic command to "know thyself." From that point forward, Socrates's mission in life was to determine whether the oracle about his wisdom were true. He went about Athens, in the agora and the neighboring workshops of craftsmen, questioning the smartest people he could find; citizens who, by reputation, were considered wise.

Somewhat late in life Socrates married Xanthippe. She was thought not to have a good temperament and was referred to as a shrew. Her husband apocryphally said of marriage, "By all means marry. If you marry well you will be happy. If you don't marry well you will become a philosopher!" He also urged restraint when criticizing other people's marriages: "No one but the husband and wife knows where the sandal pinches."

In the Apology Socrates tells us that he and Xanthippe had three sons. At 70 years of age, he reported having a son who was almost grown and two other boys who were considerably younger. That means he started having children after the age of 50.

The second most important woman in his life was apparently Diotima, who he claimed taught him everything he knew about love. I have no idea what that really means and shall leave his mysterious reference to her to your imagination.

For most of Socrates's early years, life in Athens was good. Then came the Peloponnesian War, the devastating civil war from which Greece never recovered. In the conflict Socrates fought on the side of the Athenian alliance against the Spartans and their alliance. He was what Americans would call a "grunt," a heavily armed infantry soldier or hoplite. 

Up to the age of 70, this combat veteran, Socrates, would have no doubt felt pressure to remain in fairly good physical condition because it was expected that men could defend their polis. Nevertheless, he was showing signs of old age at his trial.

Despite physical limitations, Socrates walked the talk. He did not scold others for failing to exercise temperance and self-control while excusing himself from the same rigors. He had the capacity to endure Herculean physical discomforts for others' sake. One story relates how he gave his sandals to a fellow hoplite who was suffering in the snow. Socrates, barefoot, endured the ordeal cheerfully and without complaint. 

Socrates always consumed wine in moderation and never got drunk. This trait may be one reason that he was able to resist sexual advances and never be seduced. In Plato's Symposium, the reader gets the idea that Alcibiades had a crush on Socrates and tried to seduce his teacher on numerous occasions, without success. Indeed, Socrates urged people to keep romantic love in proper perspective. A much better outlet for the heat of passion is to pursue truth and virtue, wisdom and beauty -- relentlessly pursue them like a man in love. Ultimately he argues that the most worthwhile endeavor a human being can undertake is the arduous search for wisdom, for wisdom is the foundation of the good life.

Socrates was a self-described gadfly who believed it his duty to sting Athenians with their own hypocrisy and smallness of soul. But he did so with a wonderful sense of humor, often ironic and self-deprecating, sometimes cutting and sarcastic. His funny way of questioning authority attracted an estimable following among the youth of Athens.

Among Socrates's students, as we have seen, was Alcibiades, who was no democrat and who led a naval expedition to ignominious defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Guilt by association was counted against Socrates in the tough years following the war. The relationship with Alcibiades and other critics of democracy no doubt hurt Socrates at his trial.

Since Socrates was relentlessly virtuous, the cowards who wanted to take him down had to fabricate charges. Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon accused Socrates variously of atheism, of believing in gods not sanctioned by the state, and of corrupting the youth of Athens with his own idiosyncratic religious beliefs. Socrates was brought before a court. After listening to the testimony of both sides, the jury voted 281 to 220 to convict the old man and sentence him to death. 

About one week after his trial in 399 BC, Socrates drank the cup of poison hemlock in jail, the victim of judicial murder. Soon he became renowned as a martyr for wisdom. 

After the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the trial and execution of Socrates is arguably the most famous case of judicial murder in world history. Like Jesus he is a supreme example of someone who lived by his principles, even unto death.

In the popular imagination Socrates is usually remembered for two things: for saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and for drinking the cup of poison hemlock at his judicial murder. As we have seen, the two are connected: The Establishment, feeling the sting of Socrates's rebuke after years of war, made him the scapegoat for its incompetence and troubles.

V. Philosophy of Socrates

Despite his humble origins, Socrates became a man for the ages. He is justly considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Even his name is significant, dividing an ancient era in two: the pre-Socratics and what followed.

To be a philosopher in the original, literal sense is to be a "lover of wisdom." Socrates was most definitely that. He was not an academic philosopher in the way we understand the term today; he did not earn degrees or pursue a university career or write articles for peer-reviewed journals. Rather, he was profoundly curious and largely self-taught, and that made him an original. 

Socrates did not create a cosmology or metaphysical system, as many of the pre-Socratic thinkers had. Rather, he pursued the definitions of terms that he believed were essential to living a good life -- piety, justice, virtue, truth, goodness, beauty, love. To define a thing well is the prerequisite to understanding it.

Socrates distinguished himself from two types of public intellectuals in his day, the sophists and the pre-Socratics. Despite being accused by Aristophanes of being a sophist, Socrates actually had no respect for their ilk. For a fee the sophists taught the sons of the wealthy how to use rhetoric and emotion in self-serving ways. Sophists considered it sport to manipulate people out of their convictions, power, or wealth. In democratic Athens, these cunning men focused on manipulating others instead of doing the hard work of reforming themselves.

Socrates was also different from the pre-Socratics. These "scientists" in Asia Minor were doing something new, searching out natural explanations for phenomena that had previously been explained by myths since time out of mind. As pioneering as these thinkers were, Socrates did not show much interest in them. He did not devote his energies to learning from nature; nor from history. He focused rather on how to live the good life in the polis he loved. He said his "teachers" were his conscience (his daemon), the men of Athens, and a woman named Diotima. He learned both by listening to his daemon when it warned him away from doing or saying something; and by conversing with the citizens of Athens, putting questions to them, to see in what ways they spoke in error and in what ways truth. 

In the pages of Plato, Socrates's conversations tended to follow a pattern. 

1. Socrates would approach a respected citizen or recognized expert in some area -- say, the law. Whom he approached was important. The person had to command social respect. Socrates did not want intellectually to "punch down."

2. He would open the conversation by saying he wanted to learn more about some Big Idea -- for example, justice -- because he was not wise when it came to knowing what it was. He'd profess ignorance about the Big Idea, the what of the conversation.

3. Socrates would then ask basic questions about the idea of justice to see what the expert would say. Usually the first round of questions would try to establish a philosophically sound definition that always and everywhere applied, one that did not admit of any exceptions. But because Socrates was a skeptic, no answer offered by his interlocutor ever settled the matter. Every so-called answer just led to more questions. Such dialectical conversation is potentially never ending -- but that is the point. It is hard work to name (and define) things rightly.

4. Never-ending inquiry was just what Socrates sought. Listening carefully to his interlocutor, Socrates would always hear problems with the conventional definitions. Socrates would engage in cross-examination (Greek elenchus) during which he would point out the holes in the expert's definition, or explain why an illustration might be inadequate or an analogy fallacious. At no point in the process would he nastily accuse his interlocutor of being poorly educated -- au contraire. Often he was flattering. But the irony was rich, for the conversation would hold a mirror up to his interlocutor's mind and reveal that the interlocutor was not as educated as he thought he was. Socrates simply let his interlocutor's own words convict him of his ignorance. 

For the Establishment, it was maddening the way Socrates inadvertently humiliated prominent citizens. But it was precisely these democratic leaders who were responsible for the disastrous Peloponnesian War and irreparable decline of a great polis. The result was not good for Socrates: He made enemies in the Establishment and this would prove critical at his trial. Remember, he either implied or told people to their face that "the unexamined life is not worth living." That would be taken as an insult. His persistence in saying such a thing led, when he was seventy years old, to 280 of 501 jurors sentencing him to death by drinking poison hemlock.

In sum, we can say of Socrates the philosopher:  

He wanted us to know the truth to the extent that conversation, reason, and elenchus could uncover it (the concern of epistemology).

He wanted us to listen to our conscience and to behave in a relentlessly moral manner (the concern of ethics).

And in the polis he wanted to live in a community that pursued the good life, the virtuous life (the domain of wisdom), because that is the greatest thing men and women can do. 

VI. Impact of Socrates

To the everlasting chagrin of his enemies, death did not silence Socrates. He would continue to teach, generation after generation, wherever we encounter the Big Ideas -- of philosophy, of liberal education, of the good life. We get an idea of the scale of Socrates's long-term impact when viewing the Renaissance painting by Raphael, The School of Athens
In his great painting, "The School of Athens," Raphael places Socrates among the figures at the top of the steps.
The gadfly is in the olive robe several figures to the left of Plato and Aristotle, who are conversing.
Why do you suppose Raphael paints Socrates with his back to Plato and Aristotle? 

Decisive for Socrates's future impact was the fact that his pupil, Plato, worshipped him. As Henry Adams observed, there are two ways we impact eternity: One is by having children; the other is by teaching. And did Socrates ever impact eternity by teaching Plato. Plato would memorialize Socrates in some three dozen dialogues. Alfred North Whitehead would say that all subsequent philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato.

Socrates is not only a founder of the liberal arts tradition in the West. Scholars who have studied him are finding ever stronger links to a number of later giants in the canon. There is evidence, for example, that Shakespeare wove Socrates's teaching into Timon of Athens. "Shakespeare's genius," writes Darly Kaytor, "is at least in part due to his uncanny ability to transform [Socratic] wisdom into fully realized dramatic action."[4] 

Socrates was a master of irony, of the distance between what seems to be and what is. Socrates often strikes the pose that he knows less than everyone else, when it's quite clear from his conversations with Athenians that he knows more than anybody else. He doesn't go around pounding people over the head with his superior knowledge. Rather he lets others arrive at that conclusion after trying to answer his questions. 

Shakespeare was likewise a master of irony, the distance between what seems to be, and what is.[5]

Some 24 centuries after his death, Socrates continues to inspire teachers and thinkers because of the scenes from his life and the way he teaches us today. Again and again in Plato's dialogues, we see that Socrates perfected the art of dialectical conversation with its keen listening and close questioning. Because of his skepticism toward "conventional wisdom," because of his ability to question every easy answer, he is the "patron saint" of both teachers and students who enjoy drilling deep into a topic in the classroom. He is a permanent rebuke to the sophist, a rejection of the person who can make the bad seem good and the good seem bad. Socrates stands for truth.

Indeed, Socrates's life -- his witness, unto death, to truth and virtue -- would make him a hero to all who value a liberal education. A liberal education is that which befits a free human being. This point is worth elaborating. The value of a liberal education is not just that it imparts certain skills -- deep reading, critical thinking, clear communication, and analysis of complex problems through the lenses of different disciplines. 

Above and beyond these admirable skills, a liberal education should impart critically important values -- the values Socrates taught by example. His life is a testament to the proposition that "one becomes free only through a long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery, generally under the tutelage of those more in possession of the requisite excellences" than the students are. These, then, are the ultimate values of a liberal education: truth and goodness, virtue and beauty, wisdom and the lifelong quest to know.

So I end on the question that concerns us in this class: Does Socrates deserve to be a role model for your generation? Should precious hours in Western Civ 101 be devoted to teaching future lawyers, engineers, and business leaders who this gadfly was, what he taught, and why he was martyred? I believe so, and my confidence is reinforced every time I reread Plato's Apology and the other early dialogues that tell us about Socrates's life. In Plato's exquisite portrait of his teacher you will come face-to-face with a great human being -- a hero of the liberal arts who implores us to value what is best in us. 

What do we value?

Hopefully we value our conscience. When it comes to conscience, Socrates speaks of the importance of listening to and obeying that inner voice, that "still small voice" that urges us to do the right thing. 

Hopefully we value our character. When it comes to character, Socrates implores us to guard this most precious possession of ours through the relentless pursuit of virtue. You don't sell your soul for a quick buck.

Hopefully we value our knowledge. When it comes to knowledge, Socrates prompts us to seek the truth no matter where it might lead, even when it hurts or confounds. 

Hopefully we value witnessing to others. When it comes to witnessing, Socrates shows us how a besieged man nevertheless exhibits the courage to stand up to malicious accusers and a corrupt society. 

Hopefully we value the democratic way of life, but with due caution. When it comes to democracy, Socrates challenges some of the givens of our day -- above all, our unquestioning faith in popular sovereignty. Today we keep a scorecard on the progress of democracy around the globe and think of democracy as one of the great achievements of Greek civilization. That's why all democratic leaders like a photo op atop the Acropolis, with the Parthenon as the backdrop. But Socrates was pessimistic about democracy, a critic of mass rule. In Book 6 of the Republic (by Plato), Socrates has a conversation with Adeimantus in which he compares democracy to a ship. Out at sea, with a storm on the horizon, who do you want to captain the ship? Just anyone? Or do you want someone who is well trained in piloting and navigation? Letting citizens vote without a proper education is as irresponsible as letting just anyone sail from port without a chart or training and experience as a captain. Now, Socrates would be tried by a jury of 501 of his peers and unjustly convicted and executed. This is not the way a free government should operate. A free government is only sustainable if citizens can govern themselves. Socrates patiently revealed, through conversations that held a mirror up to fellow citizens, that they did not sufficiently understand such basic concepts as justice, piety, virtue, truth, and goodness when applied to themselves. Yet they presumed to govern others?

Do we presume to govern others?

Our nation needs the gadfly's sting right here, right now, to rouse us from the complacency in our soul and the corruption in our society. 



[1] This discerning phrase is from R. J. Snell, "Betraying Liberal Education: A Response to President Paxson of Brown University," Public Discourse, October 2, 2017, at URL  

[2] Since the original lecture was composed some three decades ago, I felt it important to update the historical ranking in light of the world's larger cumulative population. See URL About the survey: "Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams.... When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value."

[3] Snell, "Betraying Liberal Education."

[4] See Darly Kaytor, "Shakespeare's Political Philosophy: A Debt to Plato in Timon of Athens," at URL

[5] URL

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tonsor: America: Liberal or Conservative at the Founding?


A heavy overcast settled over the Huron Valley. Expecting a cold rain at any moment, I sought shelter in Haven Hall. My hope was to intercept Tonsor coming down from his office, then to accompany him on the walk across the Diag to class. I had the proverbial "deep question" for him. Seeing him emerge from the elevator in his Paddington Bear hat, I greeted him and after pleasantries put my subject before him:

"Professor Tonsor, I am interested in how you think about the American founding. A political philosopher I'm reading says that America was the product of the Enlightenment, meaning that it was founded as a classical liberal nation. According to this view, conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's 'right wing,' pushing for freer markets in a free-market system and smaller government in a federal system. American conservatives are thus not like European conservatives who, in reaction to the French Revolution, sought to restore the ancien regime with its monarchy, mercantilism, and three orders. Since that old-world conservative tradition never existed in the U.S. after the founding, what we call 'conservative' on this side of the Atlantic looks much different from conservatism in Europe. Do you think that conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's right wing and nothing more?"

Tonsor responded: "The question, as you ask it, is not well framed. It tries to make the founding an 'either-or' event: liberal or conservative? But the interpretive methods that characterize the humanities encourage us to think not in terms of 'either-or' but in terms of 'both-and.' Complex events elicit divergences of interpretation. Note that I use the plural, "divergences" of interpretation. Given human incomprehension, it is rare to have just one interpretation that is intellectually sufficient.[1]

"Were we all liberals then? Were we all liberals in 1776 and 1787? That's what you're asking. From the viewpoint of the political philosophers who see the founding as the outcome of debate during the Enlightenment, we were liberal. But is there another way of reading the Founding? Taking in the longer perspective of Western civilization, we might ask: Were we conservative in any sense that is prior to and separate from liberalism? And the answer to that question is, yes, most definitely, if you consider the founders' inheritance from the ancient world and Christendom." 

I said, "That longer perspective is what Russell Kirk achieved in The Roots of American Order."[2] 

"There are many who have looked at the American founding in a longer perspective -- Wilson Carey McWilliams, for instance.[3] But since you are taken with Russell Kirk's argument, Mr. Whitney, I'd like you to elaborate."

Oh, my. I was taken aback when Tonsor suddenly lobbed the question back to me -- it was unusual for him to do so. But since I was the one who had just teed up Kirk's Roots, I had to run with it. The ideas in The Roots were once considered mainstream in the academy,[4] and I had read the book with enthusiasm before moving to Ann Arbor. But in the 1980s the book was hardly ever referenced much less taught in American and Western civ surveys. This presented problems for a graduate student. In the company of the methodological gatekeepers in Michigan's history department, it was best not to cite Kirk's Roots since his thesis was considered out-of-date at best; and racist, sexist, classist, and elitest at worst.

Taking a deep breath I said: "There is truth in the claim of the political philosophers. Since we were the first nation established in the modern age, our political economy was liberal from the start. In the first place, we didn't have a feudal or mercantile economy. We had a modern free-market system that owed much to Adam Smith and the Enlightenment. 

"Second, we didn't have a feudal or absolutist monarchy. Instead we had a mixed constitution that was the result of enlightened reflection [5] on liberal philosophers like Locke and republican thinkers like Montesquieu; the resulting federated polity balanced the primacy of the individual (seen in the liberalism of the Bill of Rights) with the primacy of civic virtue (seen in the republicanism of the Northwest Ordinance, Article III), and did so within a framework of innovative checks and balances to thwart the tyranny of the majority (seen in the Constitution of 1787). 

"Third, we didn't have a social order that looked like the ancien regime with its aristocratic privileges, noble titles, and laws upholding primogeniture. Traditionalist European conservatives -- Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Pio Nono -- hated what we were. They condemned 'Americanism.' Our natural aristocracy renewed itself each generation in a relatively mobile society where most could rise due to merit and a little luck. So, yes, in all these fundamental ways, we were not a conservative European nation but a modern liberal one that owed its founding institutions mostly to the Enlightenment."

"Fine, but is there another way of reading the founding?" asked Tonsor in his laconic way.

"Yes," I said, "there's also truth in the claim that our founding was conservative -- deeply conservative in ways that were prior to and separate from liberalism. Our modern liberal roots, strong as they are, do not tell of deeper roots still. America's deeper cultural roots are revealed in our unwritten constitution, our habits of the heart, and our syncretic worldview -- a fusion that holds in dynamic tension the living traditions of ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, as well as medieval London."

"I'm surprised," said Tonsor, "that you stop at medieval London. Remember that Protestant and Catholic thinkers were engaging the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Archbishop Fenelon, Bishop Berkeley, John Locke, John Witherspoon -- they sifted the Age of Reason in light of what Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London had to teach.[6] Out of that dynamic tension, out of that struggle between those who argued for continuity and those who argued for change, emerged the Founders' syncretic worldview. The intellectual leaders of the American founding -- Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, Wilson -- stood atop the pinnacle of that worldview." 

One thing about my conversations with Tonsor: He always kept my mind on the stretch. There was no resting with him. I had never read any Dickinson or Wilson and in fact did not know that they were intellectual leaders of the founding.

"Dr. Kirk," I said, "does speak to our moral and spiritual formation. When Americans go to church or temple on Sunday, we are walking into the space inspired by premodern, illiberal religions that originated in the Near East between two thousand and three thousand years ago.[7] In theory liberalism is neutral when it comes to religion. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to believe in the God of the Christians or the God of the Jews. Yet Judeo-Christian moral norms and spiritual comfort have been a cornerstone of our culture from the start."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "To paraphrase Tocqueville: 'I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious indifference and complete political freedom. I am inclined to think that if he lacks faith, he will be a subject. But if he believes, he has the chance to be free.' Liberalism, he thought, cannot exist in some theoretical cultural vacuum. It needs religion to prop it up."[8]

Sucking in a larger breath, I said: "Another example Dr. Kirk explores comes from our intellectual formation. When young Americans read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others who inform our defense of reason and discourse, they are entering a space inspired by premodern, pre-liberal philosophies that originated in the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago.[9] Liberalism does not mandate what must be taught. It tries to be value free when it comes to knowledge. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to pursue the ancient classics that originated prior to and separate from liberalism. Yet we know that deep engagement with the 'great books' expands the competence of citizens to assess the human condition and to judge current events."

Tonsor weighed in: "So it seems that, in addition to religion, liberalism needs the interior reflection encouraged by the humanities to prop it up." 

"I think so, yes," I said in agreement. "Still another example in Kirk comes not from the Anglo-Saxons so much as from medieval England after the Conquest. Liberals would like to take credit for many of the developments that have contributed to ordered freedom in the modern age -- the common law, stare decisis, Parliament, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other individual rights that were later adopted by liberalism.[10] In truth, they cannot. There was no -ism called liberalism when these rights and innovations appeared in the Middle Ages. Yet their absence today would be unthinkable in liberalism's public square."

Tonsor objected: "Stop right there. Using the term, 'public square,' is such a banal descent into cliche."[11]

"Okay," I said, trying to disguise my pique. Unfortunately, I was becoming used to Tonsor's gratuitous criticism of the way I said things. At the same time, I figuratively slapped my forehead since the word "okay" also made him peevish. If ever I wanted to drive him nuts I could say: "The public square is okay." 

It was probably a good thing that I did not have time to dwell on Tonsor's peevishness since we had mounted the stairs and were entering the classroom. I was proud of myself for making the case that classical liberalism could not fully account for the American mind. Using Kirk, I had pulled back the curtain on our founders' deeper conservative roots -- evidenced by the living traditions they embraced from Semitic Jerusalem, Mediterranean Athens, cosmopolitan Rome, and Germanic London. Conservatism was not just the right wing of classical liberalism but something much richer.


After Tonsor slapped his satchel down on the table at the front of the class, he came back to the desk into which I was settling. "You know, Mr. Whitney, we must talk more about The Roots. It's a beautiful work in conception but a flawed work in execution."

My professor's words reminded me of something I'd read between Fort Collins and Ann Arbor the previous summer. At the beginning of the road trip to Michigan I had grappled with Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'"[12] and it occurred to me then that his 1975 essay might be a critique of Kirk's 1974 book. Both were written in anticipation of America's bicentennial celebration, and both sought to plumb the meaning of the American experience. 

Tonsor's thesis was that the American founding revitalized Britain's governing principles and thus could be seen as a conservative event. However, in the process of revitalizing Britain's governing principles, the American founding also unleashed the ideas of liberty and equality to an unexpected degree. After 1776, the empire of liberty would spread as never before. Also after 1776 and especially after the four Civil War years culminating in 1865 -- what Lord Acton called "the Second American Revolution"[13] -- the empire of equality would spread as never before. The American founding, paradoxically, was just as much an act of revolution as it was an act of conservation. Looking back, Kirk had focused on the American founding as a fusion of the living traditions of four old cities -- Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. Looking forward, Tonsor saw the American Revolution as a launchpad that took man's aspiration for more liberty and more equality to new heights. It was both-and: both a conservative and an innovative event; both a stroke for liberty and a stroke for equality.

Given my admiration for both men, I needed to come to terms with the tension between Kirk's and Tonsor's interpretation of the founding era. Each in his own way seemed to sound the right note. Could their notes be harmonized? The Roots was one of my favorite works of history, plumbing the subjects I liked to think about most. It played no small part in my decision to pursue graduate studies in history. The Roots was also an important work since it preserved an interpretation of American history that was important to keep alive, somewhere, anywhere, in the postmodern academy that dismissed it amid a swarm of deconstructing "narratives." But Tonsor's insight was also critically important to understanding how America became the country she was. Could I keep the thought of both men in dynamic tension? 

Kirk published the Roots in 1974 in anticipation
of America's bicentennial celebration.


[1] Tonsor thought that the most difficult problems of modern history did not usually involve what happened but why it happened. Rarely was there just one correct interpretation of why a historical event or movement occurred. Sifting a variety of interpretations was thus a fixity in Stephen Tonsor's thought. He demonstrated appreciation for different interpretations in one of his first publications after graduate school, when he assembled and compared then-current interpretations of Nazism: Stephen J. Tonsor, National Socialism: Conservative Reaction or Nihilist Revolt? (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1959). The pamphlet is in a series called "Source Problems in World Civilization." In a statement that serves as the foreword, the publisher explains that the task of the historian "is essentially one of selection ... for it is only through selection that knowledge can be arranged in meaningful and usable patterns." Tonsor's pamphlet is a selection of the most compelling interpretations of the philosophical and ideological roots of Nazism. Tonsor concludes: "Perhaps the variety and contradiction in the four major interpretations of National Socialism [in this pamphlet] suggest the difficulty involved in reaching conclusions concerning any historical event or movement. Moreover, these are only four among many interpretations.... If the judgments of [conflicting students and historians] are sometimes ambiguous or slow in coming, perhaps the fault lies in mankind's incomprehension rather than in history's opaqueness." (pp. i, 26, 27).

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1974). 

[3] Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). This award-winning book treats some of the same themes as Kirk's Roots and Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" but precedes them both.

[4] For an earlier statement of Kirk's basic thesis, see the address by the former president of the American Historical Association, Carlton J. H. Hayes, "The American Frontier -- Frontier of What?" December 27, 1945, American Historical Review, vol. 50, no. 2 (January 1946): 199-216, at URL 

[5] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, 1 and 9, 1787. 

[6] For a recent study of the traditionalists' confrontation with the Enlightenment, see Ulrich L. Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[7] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 2, 5.

[8] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Et tu, brutish?" Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1979, p. B36.

[9] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 3-4.

[10] Kirk, Roots, chap. 6.

[11] Both Tonsor and I were alluding to a recently published book by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" Modern Age, vol. 19, no. 2 (spring 1975): 136-45.

[13] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty: America in Acton's Thought," Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

Friday, September 8, 2017

Tonsor: Catholicism: Confrontation with Modernity


T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
"You speak about the confrontation with modernity," I observed in our next office-hour conversation. "More than that, you have dedicated your life to it -- it is your mantra. But what specifically does the Catholic confrontation with modernity look like?"

Tonsor answered: "It looks like Chesterton ... Belloc ... Dawson ... Maritain ... Gilson ... Guardini ... Sheed ... Ward ... Waugh ... and a host of others who led the Roman Catholic intellectual renaissance. It looks like Eliot ... Lewis ... Auden ... and many more who led the Anglo Catholic intellectual renaissance. 

"You no doubt want to know: What do these Roman- and Anglo-Catholics share in common? One element they share is humility. These Catholics -- integral humanists all, since they recognize that man is both matter and spirit -- these Catholics know that the underlying order which is perceived in the course of human experience and history never reveals itself in its completeness and perfection. Human limitations, passions, and sinfulness always stand in the way of a complete vision and harmonious accommodation.[1] 

"People are sorely mistaken if they believe God revealed what a specifically 'Catholic' social arrangement, political regime, or economic system should look like. The proclamations of today's televangelists notwithstanding, Jesus is not a registered Republican. He is not a Yankee-doodle patriot. He did not ordain our federated polity or free-market economics. These systems are of human devising. They are more or less satisfactory, and they are always conditioned by man's inadequacy and sinfulness. To elevate a human invention is to worship man rather than God, and Karl Barth was correct to call such excesses of enthusiasm by their right name: idolatry.[2] 

"Nevertheless, to be a Catholic in any meaningful sense is to confront the modern age, to critique modernity. The task of the Church in every age is to be like the parent who pesters teenagers with relentless questioning before they go out on a date. Since the modern age is a particularly petulant teenager, the Church must challenge the culture, standing up to any individual or authority who would harm life, violate religious freedom, or diminish the dignity of the human person. The Church -- along with her integral humanists -- should thus be a gadfly, a sign of contradiction to our base drives and animal motives. Note that I said 'should be.'

"In practice, the body of believers has hardly presented a unified front. That's because there are two kinds of Catholics -- positivists and realists. There are many nominal Catholics in the academy and they tend to be positivists. You will know they are positivists by their governing assumptions. Positivists believe that religion is a purely human phenomenon that reflects the evolution of human consciousness. Thus ethics are merely social conventions. Positivists would say that a controversial issue like abortion, if it is considered 'wrong,' is only 'wrong' because the hierarchy says so, or because the catechism and canon law say it is. In other words, it is only 'wrong' because human beings with authority claim it is wrong. Such positivism is similar to what one hears about rights: Human beings have rights because the state or society says so.

"There is another position, that of the official church and her integral humanists. They are realists. The realists think that morals are grounded not in social convention but in objective reality, a reality that is inseparable from the order of creation. For the realist, abortion is wrong because it offends God and disorders man.

"The gap between positivists and realists cannot be papered over. There is a perennial battle between them. Take, for instance, the issue of premarital sex since it is linked to other nettlesome issues like birth control, abortion, children out of wedlock, and intractable poverty. To think like a modernist is to be a positivist and say, Premarital sex is only 'wrong' because social convention makes it so, but that does not make premarital sex intrinsically wrong at all times in all places. To think like a traditionalist is to be a realist and say, Premarital sex is intrinsically wrong because it violates the order of nature, of reality, and it offends God. 

"The positivist-realist divide is one of the fundamental chasms in the modern mind. It is a fierce battle line in the present culture wars. When I say that to be Catholic is to confront modernity, what I mean is that the traditionalist Catholic will weigh the so-called truth-claims of the positivist against his own beliefs as a realist. Every ethical proposition, every action, will be sifted and tested -- not necessarily rejected outright, but sifted and tested: To what extent is it true, good, and in adherence to the natural law? To what extent can error teach us something of value? This has been the Catholic way from St. Augustine to the Dominicans to Lord Acton. It is the way of charity, and we are called to be charitable in our disagreements -- though I find it exceedingly difficult to be charitable toward silly people!" 

Tonsor was in a rare revelatory mood. To get him to admit a weakness was like trying to get a bone from a bulldog. But since it was best not to point that out, I simply said: "To disagree without being disagreeable, as Gerald Ford likes to put it."

"Yes," he nodded.


I wanted to stretch our discussion from the conversational to the civilizational. What elements in the critique of modernity united the Roman- and Anglo-Catholic realists? "From your teaching it is clear that the Catholic confrontation with modernity will also venture onto a larger stage, that which shines a light on the course of a country or a civilization. Won't Catholic cultural critics judge a country or civilization against its best moments. For the U.S. a benchmark might be what the founding fathers achieved to expand the empire of liberty. Another might be what the civil rights movement did to expand the empire of equality. For Western civilization a benchmark might be the advance of peace and prosperity in the nineteenth century; or the will of the allies to fight to the death to secure victory in World War II."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "And determining those benchmarks would be a good debate to have. 

"The important thing to realize is that becoming a Catholic, like being a conservative, is to embark on a quest for order. Ultimately this quest is not for a humanly created order invented as a form of political wish-fulfillment, but a discovery, though history and experience, that such is the way things are. The notion that the ideologue can create his own order out of whole cloth, fashion his own paradise out of nature, build his own utopia out of ideology, has been the human calamity of the past two centuries."[3]
Prometheus, by Otto Greiner (1909)

"It's a thin line between prudent progress and Promethean overreach." I offered.

"Yes," he said simply. "If the first requirement of the integral humanist in our day is to confront modernity with humility, then the second is to name things rightly; to say, after careful consideration, This pattern of thinking or that pattern of behavior is disordered. It is imprudent. Tragedy will follow in its wake." 


"Still one more thing is needed," concluded Tonsor, sitting squarely like a block of granite.

"What is that?" 

"The temptation for Catholics and conservatives to be as Faustian as the modernists. But we must be watchful lest we become what we disavow. In the end, perhaps the confrontation with modernity comes down to the simplest thing -- being an example, ourselves, of how best to live. That loving dedication to family, community, and all those who lent their lives in the past to the fashioning of a living tradition that can only be religious. Service in the cause of the good, the true, and the beautiful is always an act of compelling love."[4]


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Mistaken Assumptions," Modern Age (winter 2002): 59.

[2] Ibid.: 58.

[3] Ibid.: 59.

[4] Ibid.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Equality


After we began the walk back to campus, the mood settled and Tonsor broached a topic related to the one we had probed over lunch. "You'd be interested in a book I'm working on, Mr. Whitney. It's about equality. Remarkably, there has been no systematic historical exploration of the idea of equality in recent times. This, despite the ridiculous overproduction of monographs! Yet historians have failed to provide an account of the development of the idea of equality. I argue that this notion -- equality -- has provided the key signature of the modern world. No idea has played a larger role in the history of the past two or three centuries than that of equality."[1]

"When it comes to equality," I said, "it seems everyone nowadays embraces some form of trickle-down Marx." 

"Very true," Tonsor said with a gust of laughter. 

"Now," he said, "insofar as the historian can discern, inequality characterized all civilizations in the past. In fact, if one were to argue that the experience of history constitutes a prescriptive norm, then one must confront the fact that the great bulk of human experience constitutes an argument against equality. Until the eighteenth century nearly all men regarded inequalities of wealth, status, and power as in the nature of things, an unalterable given. That changed sometime in the eighteenth century. Witnessing the American and French revolutions, men in substantial numbers questioned inequality from the standpoint of political and social justice.[2]

"Roughly speaking, equality is to the modern age what freedom was to the early modern age. As you know, freedom -- freedom of thought, speech, religion, politics, economics, national independence -- stamped nearly all important historical struggles from the Reformation to the French Revolution and beyond. We are still under freedom's spell. But at some point after the French Revolution, equality eclipsed even freedom as a value and now plays a larger role than ever in our debates, polities, and aspirations."[3]

"Your subject reminds me of Robert Frost's poem, 'The Black Cottage.' There the poet ponders Jefferson's famous lines in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created free and equal. It is 'a hard mystery,' Frost says. The idea is so radical that people don't know what to do with it:
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.[4]

"Yes," my professor said. "It is a hard mystery."

We waited at Hill Street to let the traffic near the campus clear.

"As you know," Tonsor resumed, as soon as we could walk again, "I advise my students to be alert to historical development. By historical development I mean neither the ideological distortions that you see in the Hegelian dialectic, nor the Whig notion that the 'past is prologue,' nor the nationalists' Darwinistic chest-thumping, nor the Marxian scheme that imposes a theory of scientific inevitability on the historical record. None of that is history. That is ideology -- a one-size-fits-all ideology. History is an empirical discipline. I want students to explore historical development empirically. I want them to order their thinking in a disciplined manner, which means, first, examining the symbolic record men have left behind and, second, basing their interpretation on the canons of reason, logic, and evidence. 

"History is also a humanistic inquiry. So it is important that students understand the meaning of any given development to the human person in community. What are the implications -- morally, spiritually, politically, socially, culturally -- for the human beings experiencing that development?"

I thought: Tonsor's advice to students was about as succinct a statement as I'd heard of the normative method that had been developed by historians over the last two centuries. It was the method championed by the German historian Leopold von Ranke in the mid-nineteenth century. But nothing stays the same in the modern age. The Rankean method had come under withering fire by the time I was in graduate school. In fact, the Rankean ideal was the subject of a book I had been encouraged to read, That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. The University of Chicago historian was wholly skeptical of the quest for historical objectivity -- it was a myth.[5] Not that anyone was arguing that history was a nomothetic science; it was as far away from Platonic absolutes as a field could be. But historians influenced by postmodern theory were drawn to the other extreme, that history was just another literary genre; as such, it was nothing more than subjective, relativistic "narratives" filled with tentative truth-claims. Tonsor in his Aristotelian way rejected both extremes -- rejected the view of history as a rigorous nomothetic science and rejected the view of history as a mere literary genre. History for him was the sweet spot in between. It was an empirical discipline that valued evidence, facts, reasoning, and veracity; it was also a humanistic inquiry that plumbed how man's interior struggles and external confrontations and accommodations with reality left a record that subsequent generations could examine. This record helps us understand what human beings believed and valued. 

I further appreciated that Tonsor did not confine exploration of the past to "the written record" as so many historians taught, but to the larger "the symbolic record" since he himself liberally used art, iconography, music, and architecture in his intellectual history and cultural criticism. His return to the topic at hand pulled me out of my meditations on the complex nature of historical inquiry.

"In the case of equality," Tonsor said, "the development has been exceedingly complex. The idea is more convoluted, has meant more different things, has undergone more transformations, than just about any other idea in the modern age.[6] Would you agree?"

"I would!" I said, excited that Tonsor was sharing his book proposal with me. "Recently at Mass the reading was from Matthew,[7] the parable about all the laborers getting the same wage, even the ones who show up near the end of the day. It caused quite a ruckus. People didn't get it then, and we don't get it now." 

I continued: "There are so many different ways to look at the idea of equality because there are so many different arenas in which the struggle for equality has taken place. It's been humankind's running struggle, I suppose, since Hammurabi and Moses. The priests -- they have to define what religious equality looks like. Are all human persons equal by virtue of having souls and being created in the image and likeness of God? The judges -- they have to work out what the equality of all persons under the law looks like. The politicians -- they have to determine political equality through norms like one man one vote. The entrepreneurs -- they must seek economic equality by eliminating barriers to entering the marketplace and obstacles to growing their businesses. The social theorists -- they come up with redistributive policies like guaranteed income and school vouchers to give every disadvantaged family a ladder up." 

"You are referring to Milton Friedman," observed Tonsor. "One of our most creative thinkers on the right when it comes to the problem of equality and the related idea of equity. And then there are the abstract philosophers who continue to spin out their ethereal theories. They can be interesting and not altogether unproductive. But it's important to note that when a philosopher like John Rawls writes about equality, he is only ratifying changes that have already occurred in a Sitz im Leben, in a real historical and cultural context."[8]  


I hardly heard what Tonsor last said because a policy idea suddenly occurred to me, out of the blue: "What if we provided a national income for every American adult below a certain line of adjusted gross income, and tied that income to the nation's economic performance. In any given year, if the economy did well, and more revenues came in to the Treasury, then the income floor would be higher. Giving everyone the dignity of a minimum income would satisfy the left. And giving everyone a stake in robust economic growth would satisfy the right. Maybe such a vision of the common good could unite left and right," I offered, steeling myself against his usual charge, that I was being Pollyannaish. 

"It will never happen," he said grumpily. "Still, you should write your idea up for National Review. They might publish it."


After a few moments my professor continued: "What I find especially fascinating is the distance between all the paeans to equality -- by the political scientists, philosophers, Marxist theorists, and historians -- and the absence of equality in the world as we find it. As you know, works dealing with the organization of human society tend to divide into how society is, or how it ought to be: into descriptive or prescriptive treatments. So: Machiavelli in The Prince wrote descriptively; Plato in the Republic wrote prescriptively. Christopher Jencks in Inequality wrote descriptively; Huxley in Island wrote prescriptively. But no author can claim to have found true equality in our civilization. Is this not strange? In a day when demands for equality are at an all-time high, when the rhetoric of equality is at a fever pitch, when the promise of equality is a staple of political life, the fact is that while certain kinds of equality have increased over the past two centuries, there is, overall, little enough by way of genuine equality.[9] 

"Muhammad Ali seeks more political and economic equality. But he is who he is and earns what he earns because of a peculiar combination of genetics, metabolism, training, and opportunity that can only be described as extraordinary. No amount of political or economic equality can suppress that fact.[10]

"And so it is that our experience of individuals and of society is not the experience of equality but rather the experience of the most intense and pervasive inequality. And yet the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence asserted that 'all men are created equal.' Surely there is a contradiction in American political theory in particular and in Western political theory as a whole between prescriptive and descriptive social and political analysis. So we must ask, what exactly does the clause mean? Did it mean the same thing to Thomas Jefferson as it did to the son of a hardscrabble farmer in south-central Illinois named Abraham Lincoln?[11]

"The idea of equality is central to understanding the American experience. It is the fundamental idea that lies behind the American Revolution and the extraordinary society we in America have created. More important still, the idea of equality has transformed not only the political life and society of the United States but also the life and society of the world.[12] 

"Yes, the notion of equality has been the single most potent revolutionary force the world has ever seen. Over and over again in the course of the past 200 years, mankind has defied tradition and status, blood and accumulated usage, in the hope of regenerating and recreating society. More often than not these revolutions have ended in failure and even a diminution rather than an increase in equality."

"Thus confirming Orwell's quip," I said, "that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?"

"Yes," Tonsor chuckled. "Orwell's mordant wit gets straight to the heart of the matter: Ideologues have been manipulating the idea of equality for two centuries now. Still, it is equality that has provided the dynamism, the moving force that has energized modern history. The great liberal and leftist revolutions of the past two centuries have all been made in the name of equality."[13] 



[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "A Few Unequal and Preliminary Thoughts," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 63-65.

[2] This statement stretches the chronology found in J. B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (Kindle ed.), p. 8; Bury's book is favorably cited by Tonsor and informed some of his thinking on the subject. See Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[3] Again, this statement stretches the chronology found in J. B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, p. 8. See Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[4] Robert Frost, "The Black Cottage," lines 64, 68-70, in North of Boston (1915). Many thanks to W. Winston Elliott III for reminding me of the origin of those lines.

[5] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[6] Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 63.

[7] Matthew 20: 1-16.

[8] Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 63. 

[9] Ibid., p. 64.

[10] Ibid., p. 65.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 68.

[13] Ibid.

Tonsor: American History: The South


Jesse Jackson received a surprisingly high
percentage of the white vote when he ran in
Democratic primaries and caucuses in 1988.
In Michigan he easily won the Democratic caucus.
Jesse Jackson made a remarkable run for the presidency in the early months of 1988 -- two decades before America would elect its first black president, Barack Obama. Michigan played a significant role in the ascent of the civil rights leader: After he won the Democratic caucus with 55 percent of the vote, Jackson for a brief time was the Democratic front-runner since he had the most pledged delegates. Whatever their politics, many voters recognized that it was a significant threshold for an African-American to cross.[1]

Tonsor was cynical about this historic moment. When I joined him and Caroline for lunch a few days after the caucus, he dismissed the result: "Jesse Jackson's showing in Michigan is a fluke and he won't win -- he can't win. America is not ready for a black president. To cite that great expert, the comedian Don Rickles: 'Last year we said things can't go on like this, and they didn't -- they got worse.'"

He chuckled, but I was not feeling the vibe. Because of recent conversations among my circle of acquaintances and friends, the topic hit an irritating boil that was ready to pop. In my agitation I hardly noticed that the ever-gracious Caroline set a plate of hot food before me.

"Well," I said, "I was born and raised in Texas and also spent part of my childhood in New Orleans, and I find it interesting how many Northerners think they're experts on the South. Some of our colleagues on campus have expressed dismay that Jackson is racking up primary victories below the Mason-Dixon Line, and not just with the support of black voters. He's winning with significant white support, too.[2] I am starting to think that Northerners don't want to give the South any credit for overcoming the burden of its history." 

My Texas drawl was subtly surfacing in my speech, as it often did when I spoke about my childhood home at any length or with any passion. Tonsor sat squarely in his chair, looking at me through his thick glasses with that sphinx-like expression of his. I had no idea what he was thinking -- maybe he had never heard my Texas accent before -- but I raised the ante in an effort to get him to play his hand.

"I've been surprised by the prejudice against the South on campus," I persisted, "and by the condescension toward Southerners. Yesterday one of our department's star grad students said that a Southern accent knocked ten points off a speaker's IQ. 

"But I'll tell you what I think after living in the North these past several months: When it comes to race relations, I think the North needs the South to be its scapegoat. Look at how Northerners are always calling out the South for being racist. But notice that they bring out their fog machine to obscure the truth and hide their own racist past."

Tonsor, I perceived, began to shake his head but I could not tell whether it was in agreement or disagreement. 

"Don't you think," I repeated with growing heat, "that a lot of Northerners use the South as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from their own legacy of racism -- whether it's Brown University capitalizing on the New England slave trade, or it's Indiana reviving the KKK after World War I, or it's Detroit being the most segregated city in North America? Aren't both sections of the country stained with the blood of America's original sin. It's always easier to look at the splinter in the other fellow's eye than to deal with the splinter in your own. I don't think the North is in any position to lecture the South when it comes to race."


Caroline and Tonsor fussed with their food. They were uncharacteristically quiet. It suddenly occurred to me that I was violating their hospitality. Here I sat at the table of two Northerners who were feeding me and who likely sympathized with my complaint. But I had a burr under my saddle, and my heated and defensive rant was not conducive to friendly conversation. The irony was not lost on me that I was acting in a very un-Southern way; my mother would have been mortified. Apologizing, I looked for a way to change the subject.

"You are just expressing your Southern pride," said Tonsor with understanding. 

"It just shows that you feel comfortable enough with us to say what's on your mind," added Caroline kindly.

"Thank you for saying that," I said. "As you can probably sense, I feel more conflicted than ever. It's not as though I can return to the South and fall into the old conversations. I cannot act as though I haven't learned things. Maybe the Dunning School is not the last word on the subject."

Columbia University historian William Dunning
For Caroline's benefit, and for mine too it turned out, Tonsor elaborated, "Mr. Whitney is referring to one of the most influential historians in U.S. history, William Dunning. During the Gay Nineties and early twentieth century he left his mark on the first generation of university-trained doctoral students who wrote on the Reconstruction era, and their work would influence the interpretation of Reconstruction for a hundred years. [3] His intellectual genealogy is also worthy of note. He himself was German trained -- by the extreme nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke, a historian who is best handled with tongs. After returning to the U.S., Dunning established himself at Columbia where he was a teacher of Carlton J. H. Hayes, who was a teacher of Joseph Ward Swain, who was a teacher of mine."[4]

"So your professional genealogy descends from Dunning?" I queried, wondering whether I had just stuck my foot in my mouth.

"I would be a mutation," Tonsor said sarcastically, "for I am much more in Lord Acton's line of descent and have never considered myself part of Dunning's so-called school. But it is important to know who he is. Dunning notched his gun by slaying apologist after Northern apologist of Reconstruction. Not surprisingly his legacy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the South is quite enthusiastic about him. He and his doctoral students at Columbia did painstaking archival research to demonstrate how much the Radical Republicans hurt the former Confederate States of America. There was much of value in their findings, for they help us understand why the South resents the North to this day. On the other hand -- a stained hand, no doubt -- in retrospect he is considered a racist. People think his work extended the shelf life of Jim Crow and made black disenfranchisement respectable. Today, as you can imagine, his shade is persona non grata at the American Historical Association, which is ironic considering he was one of its founders.

"I also mentioned Lord Acton whose reflections are to the point. It is my considered judgment that Acton was the most knowledgeable foreign observer of American affairs in the nineteenth century. His writings on America are not much read nowadays because he supported the South in the Civil War. Yet I urge you to read his long essay on what he called the Second American Revolution; it's published in his journal The Rambler, and it's misleadingly titled, "Political Causes of the American Revolution." Acton was no defender of chattel slavery -- not at all like Calhoun who wrote of slavery as a 'positive good' -- yet he believed the federal system of states' rights was critically important to upholding freedom and curbing the enlargement of the national government, not to mention the expanding tyranny of the president. The South, Acton believed, was fighting for liberty, for progress, and for civilization.[5] And while he believed that most great men were bad men,[6] he sympathized with the tragic pathos of Robert E. Lee, who felt duty-bound to defend his homeland against invasion. He wrote to Lee following his surrender, 'I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.'"[7]

I silently noted the irony that Acton wanted to uphold freedom in the states that supported slavery but, feeling that I had been combative enough already, kept the observation to myself. 

"For me," I offered instead, "there's no going home to the same South. I see it differently now. I'll always love my family, of course, and the flavors, smells, and scenes of my childhood, but I've had to rethink what I learned in childhood -- about race, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, all of it. I mean, my generation is probably the last to see Southerners stand when the band strikes up Dixie! Even my view of Lincoln has taken a 180. Several members of my family thought he was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution. They could never speak his name without gnawing their hand over his invasion of the South. They have a point. But then you travel. You read. You talk. You reconsider. It takes time to come to terms with the South's mixed legacy." 


"You are dealing with a tangle of myth, memory, and the politics of nostalgia. Because the Civil War is the American Iliad,[8] it is constantly being refought in the public memory. Much is at stake, for myths make meaning, meaning makes politics, and politics make myths.[9] It will take time, but you will find a way to come to terms with your Southern legacy," Tonsor said, and added, in a softer register: "Maybe it's harder for Texans because of the pride Texans have in the Lone Star State. But with time and perspective you will sort it out.

"I have a similarly complicated relationship to my home, the Great River Country of south-central Illinois, with its large horizons, its prairie panoramas, and its riparian woodlands. The Land of Lincoln," he added with a mischievous grin. I smiled back at him, for we had reversed roles. In dialogue he was more likely to be the edgy one with the chip on his shoulder; I the patient listener. Today we got to see things from the other side of the fence.

Lincoln Hall, where Illinois's history department once was housed. The
edifice looks like a Roman temple dedicated to a "god," Abraham Lincoln,
whose bust is in the alcove at the end of the lobby.
"I was raised on Lincoln," said Tonsor. "He was everywhere in my childhood. After World War II, when I attended Illinois -- a land-grant university whose founding was owed to Lincoln's support for the Morrill Act -- I encountered his words every day, literally. The history department was then in Lincoln Hall, a building that was designed to look vaguely like a Roman temple to a god, and in this case the god was Abraham Lincoln. As you approach Lincoln Hall from the Main Quad, you can look up at the entablature which girds the top of the building and see a Bartlett's worth of Lincoln quotations."

"The hall is a veritable shrine to Lincoln," added Caroline. She looked at her husband and said, somewhat tentatively: "There must be three dozen quotations of the President, and a bust in the lobby." 

"Yes." Then, turning to me he remarked, "I have mixed feelings when I return home, to south-central Illinois. Caroline and I usually drive back to Jerseyville over the Fourth of July to be with family. But there is always something depressing about going back. So many people there have never reached for more than a very average life. Meaningful conversation can be tough slogging. Most of what they know about the world comes from lowbrow television shows. But these are my people and it's home.

"So I understand your attachment to place, as well as your very complicated relationship to Texas and the South. It's similar to my complicated relationship to south-central Illinois. The irrational attachment to place is one of the things that makes us human. Alas, the importance of place is often overlooked in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Ann Arbor. Here reign the deracine."



[1] R. W. Apple Jr., "Jackson Wins Easily in Michigan in Surprising Setback to Dukakis," New York Times, March 27, 1988, at URL "; R. W. Apple Jr., "Jackson Is Seen as Winning a Solid Place in History," New York Times, April 29, 1988, at URL 

[2] E. J. Dionne Jr., "Black and White: How Jesse Jackson Made History While Losing Wisconsin, New York Times, April 10, 1988, at URL; E. J. Dionne Jr., "Jackson's Share of Votes by Whites Triples in '88, New York Times, June 13, 1988, at URL

[3] For a more recent treatment of the state of the historiographic debate over William Dunning and his legacy, see The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, ed. John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, Foreword by Eric Foner (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[4] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Joseph Ward Swain," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 312.

[5] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty: America in Acton's Thought," Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

[6] Lord Acton letter to Mandell Creighton, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Kindle edition), chap. 9, loc. 4880.

[7] Lord Acton letter to Robert E. Lee, November 1866; quoted by Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty."

[8] This expressive allusion was used by the University of Chicago professor Richard Weaver in "Lee the Philosopher," Georgia Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (fall 1948): 297. Previously it was the title of a book that was published when Tonsor was an undergraduate: Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman, The American Iliad: The Epic Story of the Civil War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947). 

[9] A similar formulation was offered by the Berkeley historian T. J. Stiles, "We Need a New Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe," History News Network, August 27, 2017, at URL