Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tonsor #12 -- Conservatism, Liberalism, Reaction

View of Washington, DC, on the approach to National.
September 17, 1987, was the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. That morning I was on a jet bound for Washington, DC, to see one of the world's great charters of ordered liberty.

The descent was turbulent. The view from the left side of the plane offered a welcome distraction. On the approach to National I could look east onto the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill, and neoclassical buildings on either side of the Mall. The White House was barely visible, but the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were vivid and close. This first visit to the nation's capital made me feel like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Besides being infected with a corny kind of enthusiasm for historical sites, I was truly stirred by the monuments of civic republicanism.

But something else was stirring, too. Looking out at nation's capital, I thought the bleached monuments made the city look like a colony of the ancient Roman Empire. The scene reminded me of Stephen Tonsor's words: "Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City, Mr. Whitney. It's where scholars go to die."

In his autobiography, Edward Gibbon recounted his first trip to Rome where he experienced his "Capitoline vision." He ascended steps that overlooked the ruins of ancient Forum, musing as barefooted friars sang Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. Suddenly he conceived the project to write what the world would later know as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

My view from the plane did not inspire a correspondingly ambitious project. But I was working hard to understand what Tonsor had said one week before, after our first History 416 class. It was the conversation that left me scratching my head, yet I felt it mattered. What did my professor mean when he said that both "liberal conservatives" and "reactionaries" were his kind of people? How did three quite different -isms -- liberalism, conservatism, reactionaryism -- fit together in one man's head? I sensed that the answer would help me understand not only Tonsor's view of modernity, but also his notions of civilizational decline, cultural decadence, and imperial decay.

*     *     *

On the flight's descent, I found my imagination taking off. I was embarking on a journey that would lead me into territory for which my map had only the broadest contours, and not very accurate contours at that. So the key at the start of the journey was to take Tonsor at his word. No ideologue, the man said that he embraced life's complexities. He contained multitudes.[1]

1. In time I would understand that the conservative in Tonsor was grounded in the West's Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman patrimony. Our civilization's first order had been informed by that synthesis during the Middle Ages. You can see it in the way St. Thomas Aquinas baptized and then went beyond the teachings of Aristotle. It's why the civilization Aquinas helped build was called "Christendom." Significantly Tonsor, a man of the modern age, did not cling to the forms of bygone Christendom. He would later tell me that a book like James J. Walsh's The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries was too nostalgic for his tastes. "The good old days," he like to say, "were not all that good."[2] So it was not the forms but rather the essence of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman synthesis that inspired him -- its ethical precepts, religious insights, and spiritual comforts in a world wondrously made by its Creator. In essence, then, the conservatives were the guardians of civilization, men and women alive to Tocqueville's habits of the heart that are formed in families, religious communities, civil society, and local politics.

2. In time I would understand that the liberal in Tonsor celebrated the spirit of liberty in human nature. That spirit was always present in the West but emerged quite forcefully in the Enlightenment and challenged Christendom directly. (The Renaissance had challenged Christendom indirectly.) Our civilization succeeded in absorbing many of the resulting intellectual, moral, and spiritual tensions between Christendom and the Enlightenment, but these binary sources of authority led to the de facto renaming of our civilization. Henceforward we would be "the West" or "Western civilization" instead of Christendom. The Enlightenment was epitomized by Thomas Jefferson, whose newly articulated natural right to the pursuit of happiness would prove to be one of the most potent concepts to emerge from the so-called Age of Reason. The pursuit of happiness would justify the efforts of individuals to free themselves from "oppressive authority, outworn customs, arbitrary rules, unfair regulations, and tyrannical taboos." The process of liberation was good -- to a point -- so long as the pursuit was properly ordered to man's imperfect and imperfectible nature. Tonsor was no utopian.

Allow me to pause to emphasize Tonsor's argument that, in a healthy civilization, the liberal type who struggles to expand the empire of freedom must be balanced by the conservative type who is the guardian of the civilization's institutions and teachings. They are complementary types, these two -- the liberal reformer and conservative guardian -- and both are needed in productive tension. Indeed, it was that productive tension that gave rise to the dynamism of the West that we identify with modernity. Tonsor was teaching me to see modernity as successive experiments in freedom -- which sometimes turned out to be excessive experiments in freedom that had to be tested and sifted in light of our older Judeo-Christian patrimony.

3. In time I would understand that the reactionary in Tonsor required me to abandon the security of my Merriam-Webster preconceptions. Reaction, I would learn, was not a temporal concept -- it was not the politics of nostalgia that sought to turn back the clock to some mythic golden age. It was impossible to go back to anything. Rather, reaction was a philosophical or political or perhaps even a sociological concept at the center of what Tonsor called the "West's inner history."

Aristotle, son of the physician Nichomachus 
I had difficulty grasping Tonsor's unconventional notion of the reactionary, but my road-to-Damascus epiphany came when I could see the idea through his eyes as an Aristotelian.[3] If one sees the reactionary as a kind of physician in the Aristotelian mold, then the type makes sense.[4] The Aristotelian physician viewed diseases in terms of excesses or defects of elements in the body. Applied to politics, we see that the reactionary is an Aristotelian-like physician who seeks to restore the balance between the change element and the continuity element in a culture. Reaction is thus the cure for any disease of excess or defect in the body politic. It applied to the excess of liberalism (too much change) and to the excess of conservatism (too much continuity). When confronting liberals, the reactionary sought to reintroduce order in a society whose abuse of liberty had led to widespread disorder, anarchy, and licentiousness; thus the reactionary, seeing liberty abused, fought for order restored. When confronting conservatives, the reactionary sought to enliven the patient with an injection of reform that a dynamic society needs to stay healthy; otherwise the patient does not thrive.

Conservatism. Liberalism. Reaction. These three elements made sense in dynamic relation to one another and as part of the organic development of our civilization. Tonsor adopted the role of the Aristotelian physician. To preserve the West's humane order, the reactionary in him sought a balance between the liberal push for innovation and the conservative temperament for preservation. Thus the civilizational task of the reactionary-liberal-conservative to balance change and continuity was in no way ideological. From generation to generation the ideal is always evolving, always developing out of the tension between innovation and conservation. In his ethical critique of modernity, Tonsor's task was to discern the degree to which change and continuity were in right relation to one another.

I knew that it would take time fully to digest the meaning of these three concepts and their relation to one another. Tonsor's thought was not always easy to understand. His personal interactions were not always easy to navigate either, and in fact could get in the way of understanding his thought. As his colleague, fellow historian John Willson, observed, "Steve was often an enigma to me."[5] Willson's observation reminds me of a passage from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!"[6]

*     *     *

With the plane's descent, the nation's civic monuments disappeared from view, one by one. Then came the bump of the wheels skidding on concrete followed by the rapid deceleration that pushed me forward in my seat. Soon I would be afoot in the Imperial City.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[2] Bernard Tonsor interview with GW, Jerseyville, IL, July 1, 2014.
[3] Ann Tonsor Zeddies correspondence with GW, January 26, 2015.
[4] Aristotle's father, Nichomachus, was the court physician to the king of Macedon.
[5] John Willson correspondence with GW, November 8, 2016.
[6] My thanks to Winston Elliott for this passage by Dickens.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tonsor #11 -- Battles Royal

Harry Rosenberg (1923-2010)
What is grad school about? I am asked that question by students. They think that because they love to watch the History Channel, graduate study in history will be an extension of their personality. They should think again.

Take the professional class that grad students at Michigan enroll in to begin their career as historians. Our first meeting in History 616 was a historiographic set piece. Taught by two internationally renowned professors, Elizabeth Eisenstein[1] and Raymond Grew,[2] it was unlike anything to which I'd been exposed as an undergraduate. At Colorado State University, I had read the classics of historiography with a wonderfully engaging medievalist, Harry Rosenberg.[3] Under his direction our class studied Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Plutarch, St. Augustine of Hippo, Bede, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Tuchman -- not one of whom was a professional historian.

So naturally I wondered whether Eisenstein and Grew's class would continue in that vein. It would not: The difference between undergraduate study at CSU and graduate study at U of M was the difference between the Boy Scouts and the Marines (and I mean no disrespect to CSU). At Michigan, any amateur or populist or sentimental attachment to history was to be burned away like dross from diamonds. Was that a good thing? Was there not something valuable in the dross -- those popular biographies that make the best-sellers lists; those rollicking narratives produced by passionate non-specialists for the informed lay public?

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)
Indeed, what if some of the best sellers were the diamonds? And some of the monographs were the dross?

I fell in love with history as an undergraduate by traveling, taking classes with dedicated professors, and reading non-academic writers -- H. G. Wells, Will Durant, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Robert Caro, Richard Norton Smith. I also enjoyed the first-rate documentaries I had seen by Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clark and, later, Ken Burns. But I quickly learned during these first weeks in Ann Arbor that the "amateurs" were verboten -- never to be referenced in an academic setting. To drop a name like Tuchman was not just bad form; it was lethal to professional advancement.

For that reason I identified a tension in myself early in Eisenstein and Grew's class. My heart was pulled by the amateur's love of a story well told; my head by the specialist's obligation to produce monographs that addressed a recognized historiographic problem. As time went on, that tension would stretch me painfully. Like any untreated pain, it threatened to grow until I sought a remedy.

In that first class, Eisenstein and Grew took turns outlining modern methods by which to study European history. They discussed eight major approaches and a number of minor schools that had arisen in the last two centuries. I had no idea there could be so many. Was the study of history really that complicated?

Elizabeth Eisenstein (1923-2016)
It was. The goal was to begin the process of professionalizing us. It was not just to make graduate students realize that history is written from a viewpoint; it was obvious that there was no such thing as perfectly objective history. Nor was it just to show that viewpoints change; change over time was equally obvious. The goal was to get us to see how each historiographic approach constituted a paradigm.[4] These paradigms were like warring religious sects. Each had its authorities. Each developed an agenda for research. Each defined the problems worth investigating. Each had its journals, jargon, and methods. Each had its biases and limitations. Each had its methodological gatekeepers who would fight to the professional death on behalf of the paradigm's defense. And each was responding to larger developments (e.g., the Marxian approach to the Industrial Revolution, and social history to the rise of democratic mass culture).

At the beginning of their professional training, graduate students were introduced to these various approaches to historical study so that they could recognize the battle lines the methodological gatekeepers had drawn. It was all inside baseball to the professionals, but I'll admit that it was fascinating for a journeyman like myself.

For example U.S. history, which was the bread and butter of our profession, grew out of nationalism -- one of the most powerful ideologies of the modern age. Some historians have argued that the -ism was sown during the Reformation; that it sprouted after the Westphalian settlement established the modern nation-state as the unit of international relations; and that the American and French revolutions saw its first flowering. In concert with these developments, the national history paradigm constructed a unified narrative to give a people a common heritage and destiny; also, in an age of immigration, to unify a country's different ethnic groups around a single narrative. This paradigm has dominated for two centuries. It was the approach that my grandparents' generation learned, that my parents' generation learned, and that my generation learned in school. Indeed, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, national history was important in the North's efforts to dominate the South's telling of history. To preserve the modern American nation-state, there could be no resurrection of the Lost Cause. As a Texan living in the North, I found this insight illuminating.

One of the most interesting topics that Eisenstein and Grew raised was that the two troubled instigators of the Second World War, Germany and Italy, were the last great European powers to achieve national integration. To what extent was there a causal connection, they asked.

The really important thing I learned early in History 616 would never be on a test. If the Socratic aim of education is to "know thyself," then I learned there was a persistent something in me that would resist professionalization. It hit me as I listened to Eisenstein talk about biographies. The writing of biography/hagiography was a dominant historical paradigm from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. As background to the biographical paradigm, Eisenstein fleshed out some of the social history. She explained that what we now regard as a college education was available to only one or two percent of the population. In Europe the privileged young men of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie had two options to pursue higher learning. They could either attend a university associated with a Christian sect (in which case historical study would have been colored by Augustinian or Thomistic theology mixed with Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy) or they could learn from private tutors who introduced them to the international "republic of letters" (which consisted mostly of Greco-Roman authors in the original languages). Biography and hagiography, it was believed, were essential to training in aristocratic leadership. The tales of Great Men provided models and antimodels of oratory, statecraft, war-making, aristocratic leadership, and civil service. I listened to all this and thought, yes, this paradigm was an inspired use of history -- it made eminent good sense. Nonetheless, it was frowned upon in the historical profession because of its "methodological individualism": it studied only one human unit at a time.
Raymond Grew (1930- )

I will never forget the high-hat way Grew weighed in at the end of Eisenstein's summary, in case there was any temptation among us to sell out and -- Lord forbid -- write a popular biography: "Biographies may provide interesting reads on the beach and in suburban book clubs, but ask yourself if methodological individualism[5] really advances our understanding of any current historiographic problems." I liked Ray Grew, but you could almost hear him sniff at the words "suburban book clubs."

Sitting in class that first day, I wondered if professional historians criticized President John F. Kennedy for using a best-seller to avoid Armageddon. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, JFK asked his advisors to read Barbara Tuchman's riveting account of the outbreak of World War I, The Guns of August, in hopes of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict.[6] 

History 616 felt worlds away from Tonsor's History 416. Certainly it was paradigms away from Döllinger, Acton, Burckhardt, and the other historians Tonsor loved to teach.[7] At the time I wondered if Eisenstein and Grew would regard Tonsor's favorite historians as antiquarians, and their books as historiographic curios. I would later learn that they did not.[8]

The battles royal in the history profession were interesting to discover -- certainly they mapped out an intellectual history that was important to know. Soon enough, though, I would feel additional battles royal brewing inside me.
  • The first was between my mind and heart: Would historical professionalization come at the expense of historical delight? I did not want to focus on theories at the expense of texts, or on methods at the expense of meaning. I'd heard of devout Christians going off to graduate school to study theology -- only to lose their faith in God. I did not welcome a similar fate. 
  • The second was between my pursuit of intellectual history (passé) and the new cultural history (trendy): Would my research in the history of ideas seem dated before I even got to "Go" on the board game of professional advancement? Unsympathetic peer reviews of my articles could sink my work at the start. 
  • The third was how I would respond to the growing awareness that my graduate advisor was isolated in the Michigan history department and an outlier in the broader profession.[9] There were red flags. They included Tonsor's friendship with Henry Regnery (the controversial conservative publisher); his relationship with Revilo Oliver, (his step-father-in-law who was a founder of the John Birch Society); his calling himself a Nixon Republican and serving the administration (loathed among the academic elite)[10]; and his seemingly anti-Semitic speech (at the Philadelphia Society in 1986). Any combination of these factors might be used to try and diminish Tonsor. Any one of them could also be used against me through guilt by association. I am a loyal person -- I was loyal to Stephen Tonsor -- but to what extent would my loyalty hurt my professional advancement?[11]
*     *     *

The next time I sought Tonsor out during office hours, I was on a mission. The air felt cooler, and autumn was making its lackadaisical way to Ann Arbor. The trees were still late-summer green but the sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at. I found my professor hunkered down in Haven Hall. He was wearing a tweed coat and a rather old-fashioned tie.

After inviting me to sit down, I asked him what he thought of the new paradigms I would be studying -- deconstruction, the new cultural history, identity studies, and all the rest. How did his notion of intellectual history fit in?

"I've suffered through many a talk by deconstructionists, Mr. Whitney, and the shallow tam-tam of their analysis leaves me underwhelmed.[12] As for their writing, well, only people with that much education could write so badly.

"Most of what passes for intellectual history these days is not especially helpful to my work. It does not help me chase down my quarry but is a diversion. I simply do not share the same concerns."

My mind flashed back to what Tonsor told me in an earlier conversation. His aim as an intellectual historian was to understand modernity; his goal as a cultural critic was to confront modernity.

Tonsor squinted at one of his shelves as if to look for a book. "Within the last year I read an article by John G. A. Pocock in which he threw up his hands when asked to define 'intellectual history.' He made the observation that it was Germans who had developed theories of history in the nineteenth century. Then the inevitable French came along in the twentieth century and set out to destroy what the Germans had created. There's nationalism for you! Now, what did French philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault turn around and do -- but perpetuate theories of history!"[13]

He chortled at the irony, and I along with him. It was good for me to see how Tonsor held himself aloof from intellectual fads that did not speak to the work he was trying to do. He was secure and did not need to impress others. Perhaps it was the stubborn German in him, but he knew what he was about and was not going to bend either to peer pressure or to intellectual fashion. Tenure gave him that protective "bubble." I appreciated having him as a role model.

As he grew more excited he breathed in little puffs and waved at the door: "Up and down this hall sit historians in judgment of 'high' intellectual history. It is considered elitist because it tells us nothing of the dramas of the valet and scullery maid. Now, there is nothing wrong with exploring the struggles of Everyman. There is nothing wrong with investigating the quotidian concerns of the middling sort. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with trying to understand why a culture's leading thinkers believe the way they do. We intellectual historians explore a different kind of drama -- the drama of debates won or lost, of books that moved a nation, of ideas that changed the world. We shine a light on the drama of wonder unquenched, of questions unanswered, of desires unrequited, of quests uncompleted. We study the symbols and myths men use to order experience, to convey meaning, to connect with others. Virtually every modern generation has had its battle of the books, and it mattered who won the battle. All a way of saying, Mr. Whitney, that intellectual history is central to the human drama."

Mission accomplished. Tonsor's words -- his character as a scholar -- was the fillip my sagging spirit needed.

*     *     *

Later that day, riding the bus back to my apartment on North Campus, I recalled what Tonsor had recently said to me about Washington, DC, the Imperial City where scholars/historians went to die. A related but altogether heretical question crossed my mind: What if the postmodern university was where historians go to die? Could Barbara Tuchman even be hired by a top-tier history department? Or were the great storytellers scattered about in the little denominational colleges, out in the provinces where they were little noticed? More heretical still: Perhaps it was the journalists who were writing the best history these days.

Looking back on the 1980s, I marvel at the irony of it all -- marvel at the fads and how each Next Big Thing was breathlessly embraced in trend-setting history departments. When I entered Michigan, intellectual history was passé. It struggled for respect. Tonsor struggled for respect. I struggled for respect. The situation has changed dramatically. Today, every Next Big Thing from the eighties is passé, every one of them.[14] And Michigan now prides itself on being one of the bellwether programs in the world to study -- intellectual history.[15]

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same.


[1] For The New York Times obituary of Eisenstein, which surveys her significance as a historian, see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[2] For the University of Michigan commendation of Grew, see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[3] See URL, accessed September 25, 2016.
[4]The concept of the paradigm, developed by Thomas Kuhn in his groundbreaking 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was one of the most important concepts that intellectual historians taught in the 1980s. It remains a key concept in the humanities. For the continuing applicability of the term, as well as for current insights and updated literature of the various historiographic schools, I am indebted to Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014). She is a big name in historical studies now, and she was a big name in historical studies then.
[5] The term "methodological individualism" is freighted with history and embroiled in dispute. For the meaning of the method in the work of Weber, Hayek, and especially Karl Popper, see URL
[6] It turns out that Tuchman's ideas about the start of the war were not entirely accurate. See URL, accessed October 12, 2016.
[7] For the official description of Tonsor's History of History I (History 587), see URL, accessed September 23, 2016.
[8] In fact, I would soon discover in office hours conversation that Grew deeply appreciated Lord Acton's critique of nationalism and cited that appreciation in his article, "The Case for Comparing Histories," American Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 4 (October 1980), p. 763.
[9] In a review of Gregory L. Schneider's collection of Tonsor's essays, historian John Lukacs wrote: "In the academic circles of professional historians Tonsor is hardly known, perhaps even not at all. This is regrettable, but perhaps right too, because of the nearly inevitable false and corrupting conditions of recognition, publicity, success in the world in which we now live." John Lukacs, "The Art of History," The American Conservative, September 12, 2005; at URL, accessed December 10, 2016.
[10] GW phone interview with Paul Gottfried, December 16, 2016. Gottfried said Tonsor openly referred to himself as a "Nixon Republican" in 1971, when he was being interviewed for a position in the history department at the University of Rochester. Gottfried, who was also being interviewed for the position, said that Tonsor's willingness to reveal his allegiance to Nixon sank his chances of being hired there.
[11] Many years later I conducted two interviews with historians who helped me better understand my early professional concerns about Tonsor. First was my conversation with Dr. David A. Hollinger, one of the leading intellectual historians in the U.S. who is now emeritus at UC-Berkeley. In the 1980s Hollinger was a colleague of Tonsor's on the history faculty in Ann Arbor, and he served on my prelim and dissertation committees. In a conversation in Berkeley, CA, on April 26, 2015, Hollinger told me that Tonsor made little effort to raise the status of intellectual history within the larger profession. "I personally got along well with Steve," observed Hollinger, "but he was off doing his own thing, writing Emersonian essays and pursuing topics none of the rest of us cared about. He should have been teaching at a small denominational college where he would have been more appreciated." Second was my conversation with Dr. Gregory L. Schneider, a professor with the history faculty at Emporia State University. In my interview with Schneider in Emporia, Kansas, on August 3, 2016, I would learn that Tonsor himself suspected that he might be a professional liability to younger scholars. When I asked Schneider how Tonsor responded to his effort to edit a book of Tonsor's essays, Schneider responded that when he first traveled to Ann Arbor in 2004 to meet the Michigan historian, Tonsor was concerned about how the project could hurt Schneider professionally. Said Tonsor, "I don't want you to be sullied because you are writing about me."
[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Foreword," Lectures on the French Revolution, by Lord Acton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2013), ebook loc. 36.
[13] John G. A. Pocock quoted in URL, accessed September 25, 2016.
[14] Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era.
[15] See URL; and

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tonsor #10 -- Enlightenment and Liberalism

"Modernity is the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is modernity," Tonsor proclaimed in his Shermanesque cadence from the lectern later that morning. "I exaggerate only slightly. In the second half of the seventeenth century and certainly by the first half of the eighteenth, Europe was seeing powerful new forces overtake the traditional thought and culture of Christendom. One of these forces, liberalism, was instantiated in the salons, writings, and reforms of the Enlightenment.

"I would like you to note two things. First, the Enlightenment was revolutionary. It was revolutionary because it would establish a competing source of authority in the European mind and thereby change the fundamental character of our civilization. Henceforward there would be not one source but two sources competing for intellectual and moral authority -- the ancient and medieval source of religious values that developed in Christendom, and the modern source of secular values that developed in the Enlightenment. The former was oriented to the things 'above'; the latter to the things 'below.' The struggle between these two competing sources of intellectual and moral authority would raise the pivotal question in the West's inner history: What should the relation between these two sources of authority be?[1]

"Note, further, that this shift in the fundamental character of our civilization did not follow the French Revolution but preceded it. Indeed, it was the Enlightenment that made the French Revolution and so many subsequent upheavals possible because men had already changed their minds. On our side of the Atlantic, John Adams made a similar point when he said the American Revolution had occurred in the minds of men at least a decade before any shots were fired. This point brings to the fore what I told you in our first class. Ideas have consequences. It is when men change their minds that other changes become possible. Our Marxist friends get it backward."[2]

There I sat in my chair, marveling at what my professor was saying. If we had been at the Met, Tonsor's intellectual dash in the opening minute of class would have been regarded as a bravura performance. The way he laid out "the pivotal question in the West's inner history" gave me the chemical fix I craved, the giddy frisson of discovery.  So, I thought, today's lecture[3] will be the Rosetta Stone, the sacred tablet that encapsulates Tonsor's take on the modern problem. We will see his fierce intellect[4] in all its brilliance reveal his intellectual task to understand modernity and his ethical task to confront modernity. In tandem these tasks comprised the civilizational mission of Stephen J. Tonsor.

Stirred with anticipation, I gripped my pen tightly and pressed down on my looseleaf paper with so much force it became crinkly. It was time to take a deep breath: Reverting to the days when I practiced Transcendental Meditation, I slowly exhaled my mantra to calm myself down.

Suddenly -- an intrusion. As Tonsor was saying, "Our Marxist friends get it backward," a woman with a longish ponytail walked up to the near side of the blackboard and wrote, in large chalk letters, "Learn or die." She coyly smiled at Tonsor, who was staring at her wide-eyed, then slipped out of the classroom. I had never seen anything like this display of audacity, certainly not before an old-school professor. We all wondered what would happen next as Tonsor walked to the end of the blackboard and scowled at her message. His face was red. "Yes," he growled, "learn or die." Just as he was about to rub out her words, he paused, put down the eraser, and said in a brighter register, "A wise one, she!"

We laughed. Her words would survive but she would not. Apparently she was dropping his class because we never saw her again. Tonsor returned to the lectern and resumed as if nothing had happened.

"You may have taken a survey course in Western civilization that has led you into error. If you were taught that the Enlightenment was a unified movement, then you have the wrong idea. Now, it is true: There were certain convictions that were found in virtually all the different manifestations of the Enlightenment -- in France, England, Scotland, Germany. Let us listen to the great intellectual historian and student of the Enlightenment, Sir Isaiah Berlin, tell us what elements the diverse strands had in common:
These were, in effect, the conviction that the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by the intelligence of man; that man was capable of improvement; that there existed certain objectively recognizable human goals which all men sought after, namely happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty, and virtue; that these goals were common to all men as such, were not unattainable, nor incompatible, and that human misery, vice, and folly were mainly due to ignorance either of what these goals consisted in or of the means of attaining them -- ignorance due in turn to insufficient knowledge of the laws of nature.
Moreover ... it was by and large believed that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the permanent central core in terms of which human beings could be defined as a single species.... Consequently the discovery of general laws that govern human behavior, their clear and logical integration into scientific systems -- of psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and the like [were central to the Enlightenment project].... [A]ll discoverable facts would, by replacing the chaotic amalgam of guesswork, tradition, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and 'interested error' that hitherto did service as human knowledge and human wisdom (and of which by far the chief protector and instigator was the Church), create a new, sane, rational, happy, just, and self-perpetuating human society....   
This is the noble, optimistic, and rational doctrine and ideal of the great tradition of the Enlightenment from the Renaissance until the French Revolution, and indeed beyond it, until our own day.
"What interested Berlin even more than the conventional view of the Enlightenment that students get in survey classes were the many important divisions within the movement. I shall give you three. (1) On the question of human nature, not every French Encyclopedist or German rationalist believed that man is by nature good, ruined only by the follies and wickedness of priests and crippling institutions like the Church. Voltaire, for instance, believed that man was quite possibly cruel by nature. (2) When it came to religion, some of the philosophes were devout theists, while others were militant atheists. (3) And when it came to politics, some championed enlightened despotism, others democracy. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the Enlightenment is not one theological, philosophical, social, political, and economic program.

"When I ask you about the Enlightenment on, say, the midterm examination, don't give me the bumper sticker slogans you learned in AP history or college survey. You must specify which Enlightenment, which thinkers, you are referring to."

*     *     *

"Recall how in our first meeting I said that ideas have power; they have consequences when men seize on them and act with the conviction that they are true. If you see how liberalism informed the intellectual and institutional life of the modern West -- if you also see the fierce reaction against liberalism in the modern age -- then you will be well on the way to understanding the last three centuries.

"By liberalism, I do not here mean the politics of Ted Kennedy. I have plenty to say on the politics of Ted Kennedy and his family,[5] but there is not enough time in our class to chase that rabbit down the hole."

Tonsor looked up from his notes: "For you city slickers who do not know, rabbits burrow in holes, and the allusion is to an early scene in Alice in Wonderland."[6] The sarcasm!

"The term 'liberalism' came into existence in the nineteenth century. It serves as a convenient device that intellectual historians use to identify a pattern of behavior and a habit of mind that are historically significant. Note that 'liberalism' is an -ism; that is to say, it is an ideology. Simply defined, an 'ideology' is a system of integrated beliefs, theories, and aims that constitutes a sociopolitical program. Every ideology expresses some deep desire in man to realize a good. Yet in the process every ideology ends up isolating one or two elements of human nature at the expense of others. Marxism, for example, responds to man's envy and desire for equality with others. When such an ideology ossifies into a sociopolitical program, it may capture something essential to the moment. But it becomes just another period piece, it fails to be universally applicable, and it falls into Trotsky's proverbial ash heap of history. Note this paradox about every ideology, every -ism. Every ideology seeks to order the human condition but does so at the cost of disordering some aspect of our human nature."

Those last words struck me and I wrote the sentence down carefully. It was the meat of the nut. It was why the Enlightenment inevitably involved an "endarkenment." Tonsor, again: "Note this paradox about every ideology, every -ism. Every ideology seeks to order the human condition but does so at the cost of disordering some aspect of our human nature."

Tonsor punched his critique of modern ideologies and -isms -- liberalism included -- with lines of verse by the poet, Walt Whitman:

     Do I contradict myself?
     Very well then I contradict myself,
     (I am large, I contain multitudes).[7]

"Now, the modern ideology of liberalism seeks to order the human condition. It is the modern instantiation of an older spirit of liberty that resides deep in the constitution of man. The liberal spirit is ever on the lookout to free the individual -- free him from oppressive authority, outworn customs, arbitrary rules, unfair regulations, and tyrannical taboos. It is premised on man's free will. It rejects determinism. Above all, it recognizes the individual's freedom of conscience, his decision to choose between right and wrong, his freedom to order his life as he chooses within the framework of the historical options available to him. As we shall see, it can also refer to the many misguided things individuals do to liberate themselves from an otherwise reasonable order. In short, liberalism tries to account for the sum total of decisions individuals make when they elect to diminish the realm of necessity and to enlarge the realm of freedom. It is thus no artifice or windy abstraction. It is grounded in historical evidence that strongly suggests the human preference for freedom. Again and again we see the instantiation of freedom in very concrete actions. I shall give you examples.

"Some ten thousand years ago, man chose to quit the paleolithic lifestyle and instead adopt the neolithic lifestyle. Beginning in Asia Minor, he made the decision to stop hunting and gathering in a Hobbesian state of nature, and instead to focus his energies on growing crops. By doing so, he was electing not to get up every morning wondering where his next meal would come from. I emphasize that it was a choice because there was nothing inevitable about the Neolithic turn. Man chose to diminish the realm of necessity imposed by hunger, and to enlarge the realm of freedom made possible by storing surplus food in ceramic pots and granaries. Of course, it was not a linear development. The neolithic era arrived across the face of the earth in fits and starts. It experienced setbacks during droughts and shortages caused by war and pestilence. Yet the point stands: Men apparently calculated that the net result of their preference for the neolithic lifestyle would yield greater liberty. The anthropological evidence shows that once the choice was made, man never voluntarily went back, en mass, to hunting and gathering."

Tonsor paused: "The deer heads mounted in suburban houses suggest that middle-class men miss the call of the wild. Apparently so do the intrepid hunters who travel up to Canada to experience the wilderness by shooting wildlife from a helicopter!" A few of the outdoorsmen in the class laughed.

"Some five thousand years ago, man chose to quit the neolithic lifestyle and instead adopt civilization. Beginning along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, he decided to build walls and provision armies. He apparently did so to diminish the realm of necessity: He sought to buy time before his death and avoid being enslaved in the first organized wars. So he chose to enlarge the realm of freedom made possible by greater security. I again emphasize that it was a choice because there was nothing inevitable about this turning point. Yet civilization spread across the face of the earth, from Sumer to Egypt to India to China to Central and South America. It grew in fits and starts. It experienced setbacks when city walls were breached and when armies invaded, but man apparently calculated that the net result of his choice would be greater liberty. The historical evidence shows that once the choice was made, he never went back voluntarily, en mass, to the neolithic lifestyle.

Tonsor again paused: "I know a few flower children who tried to do so back in the sixties, without success. Today they are all on Wall Street."

The students laughed at Tonsor's display of sarcasm.

"What we call Europe -- the westernmost extension of the Eurasian land mass with its numerous peninsulas and isles -- was a locus of the spirit of liberty. We see it in the democracy of ancient Athens and in the republic of ancient Rome. We see it among the Saxons in the time of Hengist and Horsa (as Thomas Jefferson was at pains to point out). We see it in the interminable struggle between church and state, as well as in the emergence of the medieval commune.

"Beginning in the 1300s and 1400s -- and gathering momentum during the Enlightenment in the late 1600s and 1700s -- the liberal spirit expanded into sphere after sphere of human activity. Men began to see increasing opportunities to diminish the realm of necessity and to enlarge the realm of freedom. In economics, politics, and society -- slowly but surely -- oppressive authorities were overthrown. Dead customs were cast off. Restrictive laws were repealed. Marketplace regulations were lifted. Social taboos were relaxed. All these developments were intended to free the individual from anything that oppressed, anything that kept him down. That impulse to free the individual from arbitrary oppression would always be the true north of the liberal spirit.

"At the dawn of the modern age, in the Renaissance, artists, writers, and men of intellect seized on the opportunity to diminish the realm of necessity and enlarge the realm of freedom. Beginning in the fourteenth century, clerics did a radical thing. They embraced pagan classicism at the inevitable expense of Christian scholasticism. In doing so they inadvertently raised paganism to the point that it almost rivaled Christianity. Now, these men were not apostates -- they regarded themselves as good Catholics. But their love of the classics of ancient Greece and Rome started an intellectual revolution within Christendom, a revolution that would legitimate two sources of civilizational authority where only one had existed before. To the Renaissance mind, the Greco-Roman classics spoke almost as much to the human condition as did Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Because paganism was elevated, it rivaled Christianity as a source of authority. Men now had a choice in how they would mediate the two. This is the key to understanding how the Renaissance expanded freedom. Indeed, if Jacob Burckhardt's thesis is correct (as developed in his groundbreaking cultural study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), then it was this freedom that emerged hand-in-hand with a radical new concept: the individual. Now Renaissance Man could publicly laud both the pagan hero and the Christian saint. Each type presented a model of human excellence. Each type generated its own criteria of human flourishing. Renaissance Man accepted both these models of excellence and held them in a state of tension. All the while the Church went along with the development. There was no Albigensian crusade to stamp the pagan ideal out, and even the popes went along with the new pagan humanism. Never before had Christendom given this degree of license to intellectual, moral, and spiritual freedom. You can now see how the Renaissance, by embracing two different sources of authority in paganism and Christianity, and by lauding two different models of excellence in the hero and the saint, became a dress rehearsal of the Enlightenment.

"In the early modern age, men also saw the opportunity to diminish the realm of necessity and enlarge the realm of freedom when it came to shaping their fundamental worldview. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Age of Exploration, the Europeans' encounter with new worlds opened men's eyes to the proliferating variety of human cultures. Believers lost their innocence. Now they were aware of the possibilities of other worldviews. Were some truer than others? The resulting pluralism opened the way to an a la carte skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism on a scale never before seen in world history. To understand what I mean, I would refer you to a book that is often assigned by my colleagues, The Cheese and the Worms (1980), by Carlos Ginsburg. It is the true story of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller who was put on trial for his heretical musings. Contrast Menocchio's story to that of the more radical philosophes in the Enlightenment, men like Baron D'Holbach and Denis Diderot, who two centuries later could openly proclaim they did not believe in God. The taboo against atheism had been lifted. In the Enlightenment, freedom of conscience and of religion was dramatically expanding.

"In sphere after modern sphere, men willed themselves into greater states of freedom. The spread of freedom did not occur because of some abstract force of history. It was not Hegelian nonsense. Rather it was due to men making the choice, again and again, to be more free.

We see the spread of freedom in the new town charters, the new constitutions, the evolution of Parliament, and newly articulated rights. We see it in marketplace reforms and free labor contracts. We see it in the decline of arranged marriages as well as in the abolition of entail, primogeniture, and ultimogeniture. We see it in religious reforms and in many other concrete actions. To know this quest for freedom is to know the modern age in a major key. The Enlightenment was its spearpoint. None of this should surprise you -- we Americans know it well because the quest for liberty rallied the patriots of the American Revolution.

"Diminishing necessity, enlarging freedom -- these can be good things befitting the nature of man. 'Can be,' because when men enlarge freedom, they do not lose the need for order. Indeed, it is precisely when they enlarge freedom that they need to be attentive to order -- to what Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart." Such habits are formed by family life, religious communities, civil society, and participation in local politics. Think of these habits as part of a culture's unwritten constitution, which is the foundation of the written Constitution.

"Now, there can be too much of a good thing. Liberalism promoted freedom, but its individualism did not reinforce the moral and social restraints that are needed to sustain freedom.When man's freedom outruns his self-imposed restraints, when he has experienced the anxiety that arises from political anarchy and personal licentiousness, he feels the rage for order. Yes, the rage for order. Men will not tolerate chaos. It is not in our nature to tolerate chaos. Chaos has erupted in the modern age and this has provoked numerous reactions against liberty. We have seen chaos when men are uprooted from their traditional communities. We have seen it in the new industrial economy with its ant-heap societies. We have seen it in the wars of competing -isms, so many that fewer and fewer men knew what to believe. We have seen it in political revolutions, first in England, then in America, then in France -- and ultimately in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. What is Nazi Germany but the rage for order after the mounting chaos of World War I, hyperinflation, depression, and confusion in the Weimar Republic?

"Any questions?"

Oh, yes, there were questions, but before anyone could raise a hand, Tonsor seemed to want to plow forward. "Let's next consider rationalism," he said, putting one set of notes into a folder and removing another set from a different folder. As he scanned yellow ruled pages of handwritten notes, he stuck his lower jaw out. His face projected a bulldog determination.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor credited Friedrich Heer with the above-below struggle at the heart of "Europe's inner history"; see Tonsor's essay, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 263-64. If the West's "inner history" created the tension between classical, medieval Christianity and the modern Enlightenment, an additional tension came about in the 1960s when both classical medieval Christianity AND the modern Enlightenment were overthrown by postmodernism, which rejected both the norms of faith and reason. Adding to the tension was the simultaneous rejection of Western worldviews and the adoption of non-Western worldviews such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, and other forms of Eastern thought. Today it is clear that our civilization's inner tensions arise from the fact that large parts of the population now recognize one of three authoritative sources. Nowadays there are Christians, scientists, and counter-cultural thinkers.
[2] Tonsor consistently emphasized how mental, moral, and spiritual changes preceded material changes. See his essay, "Gnostics, Romantics, and Conservatives," in Equality, pp. 266-67.
[3] My reconstruction of Tonsor's lectures is an amalgamation that combines (1) my notes taken during the lecture; (2) further research I undertook to prepare for his midterm and final examinations; and (3) later reading of Tonsor's essays, research in the archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and at the University of Minnesota, and interviews with those familiar with Tonsor's work.
[4] I am grateful to the intellectual historian Seth Bartee for this characterization of Stephen Tonsor as a "fierce intellect," conveyed in private correspondence, October 16, 2016.
[5] At the time Tonsor was giving this lecture, during the fall of 1987, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was leading the campaign in the U.S. Senate against Justice Robert Bork, who had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Conservatives like Tonsor went on record to charge Democrats, who held the majority in the Senate, with being so hostile to Bork that they could not give the nominee a fair confirmation hearing. In the heat of the battle, conservatives coined a new verb, "to bork." To bork means to engage in relentless personal and misleading professional attacks against a judicial nominee to prevent the nominee's advance. Tonsor's public view was expressed as a signatory to Sidney Hook's letter of support of Bork in the Congressional Record, October 22, 1987, and October 23, 1987.
[6] See URL, accessed October 18, 2016.
[7] Excerpt from Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," 51, at URL, accessed October 24, 2016; quoted in Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, p. 247.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tonsor #8 -- 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 around 1920. Caroline playfully called it their "summer cottage."[2] 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 were the wingback chairs on either side of the hearth. Great stacks of books and papers formed columns around the left 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 spread sweet fragrance throughout 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.[3] 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.[4]

Tonsor added, "During the summer and on holidays our house is often full of children and grandchildren. They love the fireplace. I am certain that it creates part of the mystique of grandmother's house. Two things are my special province: the garden and the fireplace. To quote a line from Robert Louis Stevenson, 'Flowers in the summer, fires in the fall.'"[5]

"Yes," said Caroline, "and the fireplace always smokes. I suppose it does look mysterious!"[6]

Perhaps wanting me to feel at home, Caroline added that it had long been her husband's custom to invite students over for lunch.[7]

"Yes," said Tonsor. "Back in the sixties, Tom Hayden sat on that couch. He was improbably named, he told me, after St. Thomas Aquinas!" Tonsor waved off the thought as if he did not care one whit that Tom Hayden had sat on his couch.[8]

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."[9]

"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. In a professor's house, 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 more than 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."[10]

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."[11] With that arresting thought, Tonsor faded into the reflections of Haven Hall's glass doors.

So Tonsor was a "liberal conservative" who was happy to be called a "reactionary."[12] 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] "Summer cottage" is from Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 3; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery. "1920" is from Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 1; Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, pp. 2-3; and Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1; all three letters are in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.
[4] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 1.
[5] Tonsor to Regnery, November 17, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[6] Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017.
[7] 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.
[8] Tom Hayden died just weeks after I composed this conversation. See URL, accessed October 24, 2016.
[9] Tonsor to Regnery, August 3, 1987, p. 3.
[10] Lawrence Hutchinson Winnie, "Aegis of the Bourgeoisie: The Cochin of Paris, 1750-1922," 2 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1988.
[11] Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2.
[12] Gregory L. Schneider, "Tonsor, Stephen J.," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 862.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tonsor #7 -- 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 wondered if 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 scientific revolution and 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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 2 -- Confrontation with modernity

Haven Hall from the southwest corner of the Diag
There was a natural break in the conversation as we took the elevator to the fourth floor of Haven Hall. In the quiet of the ride up, I could hear Tonsor breathe with short, shallow puffs. Upon reaching his modest office, my initial impression was that his lair was not so much cluttered as entombed in books. It seemed that every square inch of his desk and table supported stacks of volumes leaning precariously against one another. Even the bookcases were filled two deep with books and I wondered how he kept track of the second row of books behind the first row since he couldn’t see them.

He invited me to sit in a wooden chair that creaked so badly it must have been Methuselah’s. From my perch I scanned the view out of the window. It faced due east onto the Diag. Suddenly it occurred to me that Tonsor literally had a front-row seat at the Sixties Revolution – he had witnessed SDS, Tom Hayden, the Hash Bash, streaking, and all the rest that the Big Chill generation brought us. Back in the day he must have felt like Margaret Mead.

Before I could ask him what he had seen on the revolutionary acres of real estate below his window, he reached for two thick books and handed them to me – the new two-volume collection of Acton’s essays edited by J. Fufus Fears for Liberty Fund. Through no fault of his own, I suddenly felt embarrassed. Those same two books had been given to me on my birthday three weeks before I’d moved from Colorado to Ann Arbor, but I’d flipped through them with superficial haste. Indeed, it seemed the operative word about my performance all morning had been “superficial.” I had hardly anything interesting to say about Lord Acton, Fr. Döllinger, or any other topic in the field I was undertaking to study. Out of fear that I was coming across as a pretender, I started looking for a way to end our conversation.
Aerial photograph of the Diag, looking southwest

Tonsor didn’t seem to notice. “Just essays in those two volumes,” he said. “Despite Acton’s gift for language, and despite his easy access to the printing press, he did not write books. I also do not write books. A collection of my essays came out more than a decade ago,[1] but I do not write books, per se.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Tonsor gestured to a stack of paper, “It’s the Everest of duties that fall to a professor: grading blue-books, marking papers, attending meetings, serving on committees, corresponding with other scholars – it’s more than the human frame can bear.”

Die Freuden der Pflicht,” I said. “The joys of duty.” It was a German expression in a Siegfried Lenz novel that I'd picked up during my Fulbright year in West Germany two years earlier. It was a relief finally to say something that Tonsor found apt and funny.

Feeling a little more confident now, I asked: “If you were to write a book based on your work in the archives, would it be the History of Liberty or something along those lines?”

"Acton," said Tonsor, "set out on the hopelessly quixotic task of writing The History of Liberty. To him the idea of liberty was the golden thread that tied together not just Western history but also, ultimately, all human history. The work was to range across 2,500 years, encompass numerous nations, and treat innumerable institutions -- political, religious, and social. And because he was by nature a skeptic, no secondary accounts would satisfy him. He himself was determined to visit every archive and do the original research himself." He paused and took a breath as though exhausted by the thought of Acton's audacity.

"It was a futile undertaking," Tonsor said, shrugging his shoulders.

Tonsor waggled his head in anticipation of the next thing he wanted to say. “In the end there are two kinds of historians, Mr. Whitney. Those whose topic grows until it encompasses the known universe, and those whose topic shrinks until all that's left are – bubbles. I try to negotiate a path between the extremes. The tortured course of liberty is certainly among my interests. But my focus is somewhat different. As an intellectual historian, my task is to understand modernity and to teach what I understand. As a cultural critic, my mission is to confront modernity – to sift it and test it.”

I was eager to ask follow-up questions about this, the most profound job description I'd ever heard. To confront, test, and sift modernity? I knew that his answer would be profound, but what exactly did it mean? I recalled discovering Tonsor one year earlier in the essay in which he described the transcendent purpose of civilization as ultimately a quest for truth, goodness, beauty, and even love -- the qualities that most dignified and humanized Home viator, man the pilgrim. Tonsor was a historian who believed that a civilization, although existing in time, could actually be a vestibule of eternity. But before I could ask, my professor preemptively slapped his knees to indicate that our conversation must draw to a close.

As I stood up to leave, Tonsor quickly added: "Mr. Whitney, read, if you have not already, Acton's essay, 'The History of Freedom in Antiquity'; also his essay, 'The History of Freedom in Christianity.' These short works will give you the germ of his projected History of Liberty."

I went away from our first face-to-face meeting feeling exhilarated and deflated at the same time. Exhilarated because I was now at the University of Michigan, launched on a grand adventure of the mind. Deflated because my conversations with Tonsor had amounted to a lackluster performance on my part. Speaking with Tonsor was not like conversing with my undergraduate professors. They feigned eagerness to hear what I had to say even when it was errant nonsense. It was different with Tonsor. It’s not that he was rudely dismissive. It’s just that you soon realized that you had better have your mind -- as he often liked to say -- "full of your subject." Otherwise, you couldn't keep up, and the encounter was less a conversation than an interview.

Walking out of Haven Hall into the humid, late-summer air of the Diag, I realized from these initial encounters that my self-esteem in graduate school was going to take a beating. I don't think Tonsor cared about self-esteem. His gifts were his erudition and seriousness of purpose. All right then: I'd be the student at the feet of the master. I had entered the intellectual equivalent of boot camp.
Looking south across the Diag, toward Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library

[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974).