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.

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