Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tonsor #5, part 1 -- First Class: The Craft of the Intellectual Historian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I quote John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory [1935-1936], final paragraph:
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the general encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."
“Fifth and finally, I hope this lecture course in modern European intellectual history challenges you to 'know thyself' better. Not in the self-indulgent way of the therapy culture, but in a deeply humanistic way.

"In readings and lectures we will encounter a series of revolutions. More specifically, we will account for changes in European thought from the Enlightenment to the advent of Romanticism around 1750. From Romanticism we shall turn to positivism and then to the anti-positivist revolt in the 1870s. We shall consider the content of the determinative ideas in culture and society. And we shall also attempt to provide an explanation for the many ideological changes that occurred before, during, and after the French Revolution. There is heavy emphasis on the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism as well as on the emergence of Realism and Naturalism. As you grapple with each of these -isms over the next fifteen weeks, you will recognize yourselves and understand better where your own ideas, values, and beliefs come from.

"I hasten to add a caveat. It is well to remind ourselves that it is given to historians the possibility of seeing only a portion of the truth of the age they are studying. For all their great insights and achievements, our great historians remain children of their age. In our day they are typically bourgeois, liberal, and some denomination of Protestant. That their vision is partial and incomplete should not surprise us. That they are occasionally able to rise above some of the obscuring mists of their time is surprising enough.[2]

"There will be regular class discussions of the texts -- you can see that I've written them on the board. Your participation will constitute one-quarter of the grade. Your mastery of the material will also be evaluated by a midterm examination and by a final examination. Be sure to bring blue books on exam days.”[3]

The Paddington Bear: Stephen J. Tonsor (1923-2014)

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

“During our time together, we will challenge an idea that arose in the Enlightenment and attracted many apostles in the nineteenth century. It's the idea that history is the story of unending progress. Students today may think that it is, but it is not. Civilized men forever contend with barbarism. As a professor of mine used to say, quoting Virgil to the ordinary Illinois farm-boy and farm-girl types whom he taught, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum – things have tears in them.’”[4]

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

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



[1] In this classroom habit Tonsor followed his mentor. See his essay, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), ed. Gregory L. Schneider, p. 311.
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Albert Schweitzer and the Crisis of Protestant Liberalism," unpublished lecture, no date, p. 13. Tonsor was always denigrating his work. In the March 21, 1989, prefatory note to his colleague David Hollinger, he wrote about the lecture: "I am certain it will be a disappointment to you -- as it was for me." I am grateful to David Hollinger for mailing me his copy of this lecture of Tonsor's in early November 2016.
[4] Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 312.

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