Monday, December 12, 2016

Tonsor #19 -- Bryn Mawr

At the conclusion of the fall semester in 1987, I accepted my brother's invitation to spend the holidays with his family in New Jersey. After the feasting and festivity of Christmas Day, I wanted to do some networking on the East Coast. Since I was within an hour of the headquarters of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Bryn Mawr, I headed out for the City of Brotherly Love to visit the organization that had conferred the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship on me. I'd arranged a meeting with the man who had led ISI in some capacity for 35 years, E. Victor Milione. He had served as executive vice president and then as president of ISI from 1953-1988. We arranged to meet on Monday, December 28. As I drove into town, waves of sleet and snow were rolling eastward across the Delaware River Valley, and I thought of George Washington's treacherous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

Emanuel Leutze, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

I found Milione alone in a darkish office on the Main Line; the space felt more like an old-fashioned law firm than a salient for the defense of Western civilization. He was an elfish man with bright eyes and a quick intelligence, and we were able to talk for more than one hour about his philosophy at ISI and about my graduate advisor and his place in the conservative movement in America.

From my opening question about the evolution of ISI, he became quite animated: "At ISI we throw ourselves into the battle of ideas. Whether it is the mission of the university, or the American experiment in ordered liberty, or the contest between faith and unbelief, or the crises of the twentieth century with its totalitarian threats and nihilistic philosophies -- we confront these challenges at the level of ideas. We must win the battle of ideas.[1]

"What exacerbates the crises nowadays is the tendency to forget. What with all the glittery distractions that bombard us, we tend to forget the historic foundations that made our civilization possible. But imagine what would happen if we forgot -- I mean really forgot -- if teachers quit teaching and preachers quit preaching; if no one played Bach; if no museum exhibited Michelangelo. Why, in just one generation we'd devolve into barbarians tearing down the intricate edifice of our civilization with all its beauty and strength. So the central task of our time is what the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson called "enculturation." Our aim must be to encourage each new generation of young people to learn, better than their fathers, that our heritage must be studied, understood, nurtured, and transmitted."[2]

"Now, your graduate advisor Steve Tonsor understands how important enculturation is. He's been a great ally of ISI. I've worked with Steve probably for three decades now. He is unpredictable, which makes him interesting. You never know what is going to emerge from that fierce intellect of his!"

"You're not talking about his Philadelphia Society address last year?" I asked with bemusement.

E. Victor Milione (1924-2008)
"That was a corker," Milione chuckled, "but the surprise doesn't end there. Take his view of America. Here we sit, just a few miles from Independence Hall. Steve's take on the American Revolution has the most interesting way of combining opposing ideas. On the one hand, he argues that the rebellion changed everything. Like Gordon Wood, he see our Revolution as the first major break with the pattern of rule by monarchs and hereditary nobles. They had governed according to principles derived from divine right, reason of state, and traditional and customary usage. Rejecting those principles, America's revolutionaries substituted in their stead republicanism and a rational politics based upon the self-interest of the citizenry.[3]

"On the other hand, Steve argues for the Founding's continuity with what came before. Along the lines of Russell Kirk, he maintains that by 1776 the American Revolution was already centuries old. I commend to you the essay he wrote on the American Bicentennial -- I just had occasion to reread it myself. In the piece he argues that the War of the Revolution was waged in the name of a conservative appeal to rights won and cherished -- rights that many of the American colonists believed had been usurped and violated by London. They were fighting to restore their traditional rights as Englishmen. It is difficult to believe that those articulate spokesmen of the American cause were insincere when they appealed not just to the revolutionary break from Britain, but also to the ancient, hard-won rights of free men.[4]

"In fact, I remember Steve telling me that it was precisely this conservative devotion to liberty which made, and still makes, the American Revolution the most radical political movement of the modern era.[5] How many scholars can pull off combining 'conservative' and 'radical' in the same thought?" Milione wondered, laughing.

"How is life in Ann Arbor? Last I heard, there were not many conservatives in that particular grove of academe."

"It's been intense, like intellectual boot camp. Maybe I'm lucky, but the professors I have at Michigan are really good. A few graduate students from the East Coast confess they haven't had much contact with conservatives in higher ed. I guess for them, talking to Tonsor is like a visit to the circus, where they can gather around the biological rarity at the freak show. I get the feeling that he is avoided by the more liberal students. They don't enroll in his classes."

"What a shame -- the loss is theirs. We conservatives who sit around the fireplace, sipping Scotch and smoking pipes and talking about Russell Kirk, are hardly crackpots. Characters, yes, but extremists, no. Steve once told me about the time the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, went to the University of Michigan to give a campaign speech. It was when he ran as a write-in candidate for president in 1964. Rockwell began by saying that everywhere he spoke, fights broke out. I don't think the cultural conservatives could be accused of inciting any riots! Our weapons of choice are ideas." 

"Yes -- Professor Tonsor certainly holds his own. When challenged, he gives as good as he gets. Since arriving in Ann Arbor, I've been slowly navigating his view of conservatism, doing frequent soundings as I go. He defies stereotypes, but his political philosophy seems to fit best in the 'liberal conservative' tradition that Russell Kirk writes about in The Conservative Mind -- especially the section of the book that is devoted to Cooper and Tocqueville and that tips its hat to Burke and Acton.[6] What confused me at first is that this term, 'liberal conservative,' is not one that I've encountered outside of Kirk or outside of my conversations with Professor Tonsor.[7] He outright told me that the 'liberal conservatives' are his kind of people.[8] It seems that his vision of conservatism differs from that of the traditionalist wing in that he more readily accepts, rather than rejects, the tension between the two sources of authority in Western civilization -- classical Christendom and the modern Enlightenment. You can see it in the way he grafts what is conservative in the American Founding to what is liberal in the American Revolution. It's really quite brilliant the way he pulls the opposing ideas together."

SJT's mentor in political philosophy, Frank Meyer
"And you can bet Steve is brilliant enough to pull it off," Milione said. "I see Steve as a fusionist influenced by the work of his late mentor, Frank Meyer.[9] About the time Steve was becoming a self-conscious conservative, around 1955 or 1960, the house that conservatism built was in disarray. There were cracks that went right through the middle of the foundation. Off in one wing were the libertarians -- Nock, Hayek, Chodorov -- who championed freedom as the highest good, and along with it minimal government and the sanctity of the individual. Off in another wing were the traditionalists led by Kirk, Weaver, and Nisbet, men who championed the need for transcendent order, especially in the revolutionary modern age when so much was in flux anthropologically, philosophically, ethically, and spiritually.[10]

"Frank had a vision. He wanted to pull these two factious wings of the conservative house into a well-integrated family. He made the case that freedom needs order if it is not to devolve into anarchism or libertinism, and that order needs freedom if it's not to devolve into authoritarianism or antiquarianism. Frank saw America's founders as the original fusionists because they believed in the need to leaven a manly freedom with an organic moral order. While our nation's founding documents are relatively silent on the subject of virtue -- the notable exception being the Northwest Ordinance with its Article Three -- they do present freedom as the ultimate political goal. But freedom needs a complement -- the helpmates of religion, morality, and knowledge -- as that same article suggests. Our founders taught that citizens must use their freedom to choose virtue in the public square. And because virtue requires man's free will, it should not be compelled by government or by force. Indeed, by definition virtue cannot be compelled because, obviously...."[11] Milione looked at me intently.

"Yes," I jumped in. "There is a passage in Mere Christianity in which C. S. Lewis writes: "If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give us humans free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."[12]

"Lewis nailed it!" Milione said with enthusiasm: "Unfortunately, Frank didn't succeed in renovating the house that conservatism built. He had a pugilistic personality and got in fights with Russell Kirk and other leaders in the movement. We conservatives, like any big sprawling family, were as fractious at the end of his life as we were when he started his fusionist project. Nevertheless, Steve's political philosophy is heavily indebted to Frank. I think Frank's fusionism is a good way to understand Steve as a 'liberal conservative,' since the former is preoccupied with political freedom and the latter is concerned with the organic moral order. They are a necessary unity in any free society."

"It's courageous of him to use the word 'liberal' in his self-description since the word has become a term of opprobrium," I said. "But I think the reactionary in him wants to reclaim the old idea of liberal, Lord Acton's idea of liberal. And it explains why Professor Tonsor quotes Walt Whitman's lines in "Song of Myself" where he speaks of containing multitudes and even celebrates the fact that he contradicts himself.[13] He is radically open to every good experience or tradition that shapes the character of a man and a civilization. Professor Tonsor is quite insistent that the conservative must discern the inevitable tensions that arise among powerful ideas. It's a messy process; it doesn't allow for the tidiness of the ideologue's design. The civilizational mission of the "liberal conservative" is in the very label, with its tension. It is to work for the organic accommodation of opposites -- freedom and virtue, liberty and order, natural aristocracy and equality, the individual and community, the profit motive in the free marketplace and those values that cannot be commodified. I see Professor Tonsor as the champion of a method of political philosophy and historical interpretation that one might call the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. He comes the closest to saying as much in his essay on "The Conservative Search for Identity."[14]

"Yes, that's one of Steve's seminal essays. As I recall, Frank commissioned that essay in a 1964 collection, What Is Conservatism?[15] That's where Steve grapples with paradox, tension, and opposites, just as Meyer did. And to bring it back to this place, Philadelphia: For as much as he is a champion of order, Steve never loses sight of the freedom at the center of the American experiment. By putting liberty at the center of the American political order, the American revolutionaries served notice that they would not be distracted or deflected from its pursuit by other political, social, and economic objectives. Whatever the merits of equality or social justice, ethnicity or nationality, established religion or high culture -- if any of those pursuits interfered with liberty, or deflected the citizenry from the pursuit of liberty, they were eventually rejected. As a result, over the past two centuries, the world has witnessed the way in which liberty has permeated and revolutionized every aspect of American society. From the way in which we greet strangers to the way in which we pray, the most common and ordinary activities of our daily lives have been transformed by an ever greater participation by free men and an appeal to the sanction of their opinion.[16]

Frank S. Meyer's most read essays
"Especially modern notions of the state have changed as a result of the American experiment. Under the impetus of the idea of liberty, the state stood on the sidelines of the public arena and left the game to be played by individual men, voluntary associations, and corporate groups. Most Americans have believed that what the state necessarily does poorly, individuals and voluntary associations can do better. Ideally, the supreme achievement of revolutionary liberty is 'the withering away of the state.'[17] That was the idea that launched Ronald Reagan on the road to the White House," Milione added, laughing with irony. "I think we will need a succession of Reagans if we are ever to see that happen."

As my visit with Milione wrapped up, he did something as gracious as it was unexpected. He led me to a room with stacks of books that ISI had either published or carried under its banner. "It's Christmas. Why don't you take some books back to Ann Arbor?"

He gave me a largish box and told me to fill it with the books I needed for my library. Due to Vic Milione's kindness, I got to celebrate a second Christmas in a place called Bryn Mawr.

*     *     *

Late in the afternoon, as I was leaving Philadelphia and approaching the Delaware River, the snow and sleet stopped. I pulled into a filling station to warm myself up with hot chocolate. As I stood waiting for the drink to cool, I kept feeling the pull of a nearby phone booth. There was a question I had to ask....

"Professor Tonsor, I am just leaving Philadelphia after having a great visit with Vic Milione, who sends his regards. I have just one question. I think I know the answer but I still have to ask it. You and I have talked about the West's 'inner dialogue' that informs your liberal conservative worldview. It's the dialogue between its two sources of authority -- classical Christendom in which our faith and morals are rooted, and the modern Enlightenment in which our science and our secular peace in a pluralistic world are rooted, preeminently in America. When these two sources of authority clash and cannot be reconciled, you stand with...."

That's the call I wanted to make and the question I wanted to ask. But I hesitated. And then the moment passed, and I was back in the car crossing the Delaware. On the drive back through the bare ruined choirs of the Jersey countryside, I hardly noticed the scenery.


[1] T. Kenneth Cribb, "William F. Buckley Jr. and E. Victor Milione," Intercollegiate Review (fall 2008); at URL
[2] Cribb, "Buckley and Milione," Intercollegiate Review; at URL
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution: An Act of Conservation, ed. Stephen J. Tonsor (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975), p. ix. Tonsor was credited by the president of AEI, William Baroody, with "conceiving and guiding the project ... a crucial factor in its success."
[4] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. ix.
[5] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. ix.
[6] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1985), pp. 185-224.
[7] Confirming my hunch that the term, "liberal conservative," is rarely used are two volumes that thoroughly assess the postwar conservative movement in America. One is the great compendium of the movement, American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006); and George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American since 1945 (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008). Neither has an entry or section devoted to the term, "liberal conservatism." I believe Tonsor's use of the term was influenced by his first encounter of it in 1953, when he was exposed to Kirk's The Conservative Mind.
[8] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[10] Various articles in American Conservatism flesh out the line of argument. See, e.g., "Milione, E. Victor" (by Lee Edwards); "Meyer, Frank S." (by Kevin Smant); "Fusionism" (by E. C. Pasour Jr.); "Libertarianism" (by David Boaz); and "Traditionalism" (by Mark C. Henrie).
[11] Smant, "Meyer, Frank S.," American Conservatism, p. 571.
[12] C. S. Lewis, "The Shocking Alternative," Mere Christianity. Thanks to Darrin Moore for this reminder.
[13] Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservatives Search for Identity," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[14] Tonsor, "Conservative Search for Identity," Equality, pp. 247-49.
[15] There are two editions. Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," What is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964); republished (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2015), pp. 161-84.
[16] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, pp. ix-x.
[17] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. x.

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