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.

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