Friday, September 2, 2016

Tonsor #4, part 1 -- Orientation in the Clements Library; a conversation on education and the tragedy of Ignaz von Döllinger

Actually I smelled him before I saw him. Making my way through a crowd of strangers, I smelled what vaguely reminded me of wood smoke that had escaped from a fireplace. A fire? In August? In a rare books library? As I scanned the ornate room for the hearth, I saw him standing nearby, a square block of a man, big-chested, with a headful of gray-white hair that made his black-rimmed glasses stand out all the more. As we shook hands I was reminded that Jeffrey Hart likened Tonsor to a pit bull. Or was it a Rottweiler?[1] All the more reason that I was surprised by the lack of a firm grip – he seemed dismissive of the formality. In those first moments of greeting, I put it together: It was he who was redolent of wood smoke. Even in late August, his tweed coat held smoke the way a sponge holds water. The effect was to make him seem out of place.

What Tonsor said next alerted me to the personality trait that made his conversation so engaging. He liked to drop something provocative, even outrageous, into his remarks, like a chef sprinkling habañeros onto a steak. “The timing of this morning’s orientation works well. My wife Caroline is off attending a family reunion. I was spared attendance, which is better for everyone concerned. Her family holds tenaciously to opinions which are vague, ill informed, and often wrong, but which are infinitely dilated upon. The thought of an afternoon of those views gives me a headache and makes me dizzy.”[2]

William L. Clements Library

Tonsor gestured to the rare books and manuscripts that filled the Clements Library. "I think Acton would have liked it here. He loved nothing better than the dust of crumbling paper."[3] 

We sat down to endure an hour of orientation. When one of the speakers approached the podium, Tonsor leaned toward me and said, “He is a good man but a ponderous speaker. Every word he utters weighs a pound."

The highlight of the morning was the presentation by the renowned labor historian, Sidney Fine, who spoke with some enthusiasm about the variety of archival resources in southeast Michigan. At the conclusion of the hour, Tonsor invited me to accompany him to his office in Haven Hall. He was echtes Deutsch, he explained, and preferred to walk everywhere.

Clements Library from South U.

Leaving the library, I put to Tonsor the first logical question that came to mind. “Since our two phone calls, I've been curious to know if you wrote either your master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation on Lord Acton?” 

“I wanted to. When I went back to school I was already a combat veteran and had seen things -- graduate school was not a caper. I shared Acton’s moral vision and wanted to write my dissertation about his projected history of liberty, but Gertrude Himmelfarb beat me to it.[4] I was at Illinois, and she was up the road at Chicago. After consulting my Doktorvater, Joseph Ward Swain, who happened to be a devotee of Acton,[5] I changed course and wrote about the next best thing, Acton’s remarkable teacher, Döllinger, and the Munich Circle that he led along with Baader and Görres.[6]

At these references I felt a bit helpless because I had never heard of this troika of German heavyweights – Döllinger, Baader, Görres – and didn’t know what to say except something that vaguely sounded like “Oh.”

Tonsor, ignoring his new student’s helplessness, continued: “It was one of the fortuitous accidents in Acton’s life that he was denied admission to three Cambridge colleges. They turned him away because he was Catholic. But filled with brilliance and promise, young Johnny Acton sought out university study abroad. Through the connections of his mother, Lady Granville, he landed on Fr. Döllinger’s doorstep."

Lord Acton, Lady Granville, Fr. Döllinger? It was starting to sound like an Agatha Christie novel.

“Acton and Döllinger would become one of the most famous mentor-protégé duos of the nineteenth century, not unlike Dr. Johnson and Boswell in the previous century. Acton would come to know Döllinger better than anyone else. He lived in Döllinger’s house for six years, regarded him as a father, and was closely associated with him for four decades. After Munich, Acton projected a multi-volume biography of his mentor and friend. Sadly, like all the other books in his head, it was never written.”[7]

Feeling a knot in my chest, I helplessly nodded, not knowing how best to carry the conversation forward in sync with our steps. I was not used to feeling insecure in intellectual company. For help I anxiously scanned the town-and-gown vista presented by South University Avenue.

Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890)
Tonsor, never slow on the uptake at such moments, veered to a related subject: “Education is under the best of circumstances a wise or fortuitous choice of masters. There can be no genuine education without the generous and dedicated master.[8] And Acton was extremely fortunate in his discovery of Döllinger. This, in spite of the fact that Döllinger was said to have the gloomiest face of any priest in a Good Friday procession!”[9] Tonsor waggled his head and laughed at this chestnut.

“Because Acton’s ideas were so closely identified with those of Döllinger, someday I should like to tell you more about their Munich Circle. We forget nowadays that, in the nineteenth century, Döllinger was the only Catholic historian who possessed a truly international reputation. Alas, his story has withered like dry grass. After he was accused of heresy, he chose to surrender his Catholicism rather than compromise his integrity as an historian. Posterity gives him little credit for falling on his sword. Few historians have been so widely influential in their lifetime yet so thoroughly forgotten after death as Döllinger.[10] He was a figure even more tragic than Acton.”

My curiosity piqued, my adventure launched, I made a mental note to create a simple outline of this neglected genealogy in intellectual history: 

Döllinger > Acton > Swain > Tonsor > ?

[1] John J. Miller, “University of Michigan Professor Stephen Tonsor Has Died,” January 30, 2014; at URL, accessed August 30, 2016.
[2] Stephen Tonsor, letter to Henry Regnery, June 28, 1987, p. 1.
[3] Stephen Tonsor, Foreword, Lectures on the French Revolution by Lord Acton, 1910 edition republished by Liberty Fund (Indianapolis, 2000); Kindle edition, loc. 24.
[4] The book that grew out of the dissertation was Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952). Previous to that, in 1948, Himmelfarb also edited an collection of Acton's writings. Her work provided invaluable insights to Tonsor as he was doing graduate work on Acton and Döllinger. I am indebted to Himmelfarb for the early reconstructions of conversations with Tonsor. Much of his working knowledge of Lord Acton came from his reading Himmelfarb back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was in graduate school.
[5] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 313.
[6] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Ignaz von Döllinger: A Study in Catholic Historicism,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1955.
[7] James C. Holland, The Legacy of an Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 1997), Kindle edition, loc 99. See also Stephen J. Tonsor, “Lord Acton on Döllinger’s Historical Theology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 20, no. 3 (June-September 1959), p. 329.
[8] Tonsor, Introduction, The Legacy of an Education by James C. Holland, loc. 35.
[9] URL, accessed August 20, 2016.
[10] Tonsor, “Lord Acton,” Journal of the History of Ideas, pp. 329-30.

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