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.

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