Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tonsor #2 -- To hone one mind against the gritty stone of another

This book by George Nash is the history
of the movement in which
Stephen J. Tonsor played a central role.
On the dust jacket of the first edition (1976),
Tonsor's photograph is in the lower left corner.  

My first conversation with Stephen Tonsor occurred on a mid-April morning in 1987. I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado, and had recently received the acceptance letter to study history at the University of Michigan. So I was eager to introduce myself to the man who was to be my graduate advisor for the next five years plus. With some nervousness I placed a long-distance call to his home from my crowded kitchen table: nervous not just because of the anxiety produced by a major life transition, but also because of what my colleague Gregory Wolfe said about the Michigan professor. “Tonsor,” he warned, “is old-school German. He can be a mite prickly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Remind me to tell you what he said at the Philadelphia Society last year.”

Although I had braced myself for possible unpleasantness during this initial phone call, the conversation with Tonsor went well. The handshaking over the phone soon done with, I told Tonsor that I had received a Weaver Fellowship and was honored to be in a position to study under his direction. I'd be moving to Ann Arbor in the late summer. 

He had enthusiastic words for my future home. "I occasionally spend a few weeks away from home, and I must say that rediscovering Ann Arbor after a short stay elsewhere is always a very pleasant experience for me. It really is a marvelous and unique community. It is so manageable. I am able to walk nearly everywhere I wish to go. It is vibrant and filled with elegant shops and restaurants. Even the bookstores continue to proliferate. I have the feeling sometimes that Ann Arbor is like Athens must have been in the years between Aristotle and the closing of the pagan schools by Justinian. Great university towns always have a very special character."[1]

After this happy thought, I asked Tonsor who the most influential historian in his life was. His answer made me appreciate his way with words, his way of seeing things.

“To hone one mind against the gritty stone of another,” Tonsor observed, “is the surest path to intellectual excellence.[2] It’s against the gritty stone of Lord Acton, Tocqueville, Parkman, Burckhardt, and sometimes Dawson that I’ve learned the most.

Lord Acton: a giant in intellectual history
“It was in graduate school, under the wise direction of my dissertation advisor, that I discovered Lord Acton.[3] It may sound funny to put it this way, but I had an experience similar to that of Marx, who locked himself in a dank room and refused to come out until he had read everything Hegel had written. After three weeks he emerged into the light, rubbed his eyes, and proclaimed, ‘I am a Hegelian.’[4] More than a century later, I ensconced myself in the Anderson Room at Cambridge and read Lord Acton for days on end, and emerged an apprentice of Acton’s thought. I liked the cut of his jib compared to that of most historians who are over-educated stamp collectors.”

Tonsor gave a deep-throated chuckle – it was the first time I heard him laugh. “You probably do not know this,” he said, “but Lord Acton’s family on his mother’s side claimed they were related to Jesus. Apparently there was a Semitic ancestor of the Dalbergs who became a Roman soldier and was stationed on the Rhine.[5] If you are going to fabricate a lineage, you might as well start with the Father Almighty. But tell me, Mr. Whitney, what have you read of Acton?”

Trying to ingratiate myself in this first conversation, I replied that I’d found it difficult to lay hands on Acton’s books. (That’s because he didn’t write books, but I didn’t know it yet.) I noted, nevertheless, that I had looked up one of Tonsor's articles about Acton in The Journal of the History of Ideas, and that it was at the top of my "to read" stack by my desk.

“That article is not very good,” Tonsor said. “But Acton, on the other hand, Acton I hope will soon be in your ‘re-read’ stack. Recur to his essays often and he will repay you generously. He is one of the most important Liberal historians and moralists you will encounter, indispensible today because he was the first great modern thinker to aim his firepower at statism. Acton’s resistance to Leviathan did not discriminate. He was opposed equally to authoritarian, socialist, and democratic regimes[6] – anywhere the state had become a ravenous, ungovernable beast. Nor was he a friend of nationalism which, in his day, was everywhere coopting the state and leading Europe down the road to ruin. The nation, said Acton, is responsible to Heaven itself for the evil acts of the state.”[7]

In these opening words on Acton, I was processing two things that didn’t square. First was Tonsor’s dismissal of his own early article. Was it false modesty or did he mean it? Second was a word that Tonsor used; it seemed incongruous for a conservative to lavish high praise on his “Liberal” idol. I asked for clarification.

Making a stand for the right to follow one's conscience.
“Acton,” said Tonsor, “was a Liberal in the most original and meaningful sense of the term: that of upholding the individual’s right to follow his conscience. A Liberal in Acton’s mold believes that the claims of conscience are superior to those of the state. This philosophical principle is derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage and it informs the Liberal’s politics. Political rights, he taught, proceed directly from religious duties, and these are the true basis of Liberalism.[8] Hardly a liberal today professes it anymore, at least not in the U.S. where all the liberals have become statists, but in Victorian England it was a commonplace, a Whig’s article of faith.

“In addition to his intellectual significance, Acton was one of the most fascinating human beings of the last century. As one of his biographers, Gertrude Himmelfarb observed, he was an anomaly in many worlds – a Catholic in poor standing with the hierarchy, a politician without portfolio, an historian who didn’t write books, and for most of his adult life a scholar without academic rank.”[9]

I took note that Tonsor used the old-fashioned “an historian.”

“Like every giant he aroused the envy of lesser men who were eager to pick the meat off his ribs. Nevertheless, he remains a colossus of intellectual history and cultural criticism. It’s been said of Acton that he knew everyone worth knowing and read everything worth reading.[10] Even those who suffered harsh treatment at his hands climbed atop his shoulders to declare his genius.”[11]

“Intellectual achievement and social skills,” I offered. “A rare combination in the academy.”

“Nothing illustrates your point better,” said Tonsor, “than his conversational style. At the dinner table Acton could speak with his children in English, with his wife in German, with his sister-in-law in French, and with his mother-in-law in Italian.[12] He was said to possess the most powerful memory of his generation. A friend reported that he could retain two octavos a day.”[13]

Two what? I asked myself. Since we weren’t speaking in person Tonsor couldn’t see me stretch the phone cord to the corner of the kitchen to grab my American Heritage dictionary and look up “octavo.” It means 16 pages. I had the feeling that urgent searches were going to be the new normal for the next few years at Michigan.

Eager to say something meaningful, I ventured that I wanted to find out what led up to Acton’s profound remark that “Power corrupts –”

            Before I could finish Tonsor interrupted. “Let’s get the quotation right, Mr. Whitney. What Acton said to Mandell Creighton was, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’[14] How right the pessimistic Acton was. Our weary old world has furnished innumerable examples of corruption, especially since Machiavelli released government from the restraint of law.[15]

Acton always looked for the cloven hoof.
            Pope Sylvester II and the Devil.
“Acton always looked for the cloven hoof. History, he said, is the disclosure of guilt and shame.[16] Because he had searched out the dark corners of man’s past, nothing surprised him. It was said that speaking with Acton was the nearest one could approach divine omniscience.[17] Tonsor expressed mirth at this aperรงu, and I heard him laugh in little gusts and voiceless puffs.

After a moment Tonsor interrupted the pause. “Small talk eludes me, Mr. Whitney. I loathe chitchat. What is more, too many academics drown their students in a deluge of verbiage and cant. But I hope you will come to visit regularly during office hours. As I said at the beginning of this phone call, conversation is one of the most important aspects of education. To hone one mind against the gritty stone of another is the surest path to intellectual excellence.”[18]

Thus the phone call ended and the teaching began. I found this unusual first conversation with my “prickly” advisor gritty enough. Already we were talking about a great nineteenth-century historian, the first principles of a European Liberal, and what it all meant to an American conservative. Scarcely did I realize how this brief sketch of Lord Acton would parallel much of what I would learn about Tonsor himself – a difficult man who was a contradiction to his age.

Stephen J. Tonsor about the time he was first studying Lord Acton.

[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, pp. 2-3; letter in GW's possession courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, The Legacy of an Education, by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper no. 11, 1997); Kindle edition, loc. 34.
[3] For the reference to Swain’s admiration for Acton, see Stephen J. Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 313: “Swain was a devotee of Lord Acton.”
[4] The story is also told in Lloyd Kramer, lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx," in European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2001).
[5] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty); Kindle edition, Ch. 1, loc. 170. Himmelfarb's book was particularly helpful in reconstructing Tonsor's and my first conversations on Lord Acton.
[6] A. Walter James, “John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1st Baron Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.
[7] This paraphrase of Acton is a slight modification of the direct quotation in James, “Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.
[8] This paraphrase of Acton is a slight modification of the direct quotation in James, “Acton,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed August 26, 2016.
[9] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3922.
[10] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 104
[11] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3932.
[12] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 114.
[13] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 104.
[14] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 9, loc. 4880.
[15] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 4005.
[16] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 4138.
[17] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 412; quoted by Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 8, loc. 3932.
[18] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy, by James C. Holland, loc. 34.

*     *     *


If you’re not had a chance yet, please make sure you check out Gleaves Whitney’s series of essays, reminiscences, and vignettes regarding his graduate school advisor, Stephen Tonsor.
Though more or less forgotten now (as so many of the greats of the last century have been), Tonsor once stood rather high within conservative thought.
Whitney’s relationship with his mentor was not always calm, but it was certainly always sharp.  He is now on a long and fascinating journey exploring exactly what that relationship meant and what his advisor signified to him and to the republic.
Don’t miss this excellent series Whitney is writing.  There’s nothing he does that is not critically important, but, even by his always exacting standards, Whitney is producing some thing innovative, artistic, and moving.
~Bradley Birzer, professor of history, Hillsdale College; on his Stormfields blog, September 15, 2016

Gleaves, your reflections on Tonsor are what you were meant to write, I think. They are quite beautiful, sometimes disturbing, always interesting.
~John Willson, professor emeritus, Hillsdale College; in a Facebook post to GW, October 24, 2016.

I listened to a podcast where you spoke about Tonsor. I liked his fierce intellect before, but now I'm even more intrigued by his life and career.
~Seth Bartee; Ph.D. in intellectual history, Virginia Tech; in a Facebook message to GW, November 16, 2016.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Stephen Tonsor #1 -- Prologue and first encounter

At the start of a new academic year, I am inaugurating this series on the most critical phase of my education as a historian. Almost three decades ago I began graduate school in the history department at the University of Michigan. It turned out to be intellectual boot camp. This and subsequent posts are creative reconstructions of the many fascinating conversations I had with my graduate advisor. They are reimagined from my notes, his public essays and private letters, the articles and books that we read together, and interviews with people who knew him. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn a lot from Stephen Tonsor. He had a fierce intellect. Under his influence I learned not only about history, not only about his civilizational mission to confront modernity, but also -- almost unintentionally -- about myself.

*     *     *

Long's Peak from a meadow below Twin Sisters.
The old family cabin where I was spending the weekend was at an elevation of 10,000 feet. It stood astride a spur of the Storm Pass Trail that led hikers into Rocky Mountain National Park. I timed my stay to occur in late September because, at that time of year, Colorado delivers spectacular autumn days. Over the Continental Divide the sky was the fathomless blue of gothic stained glass. The aspen trees had turned into a shimmering luminescence, as though each were made of cascading yellow diamonds. In my 360-degree view from the long slab of granite in front of the cabin, I had a panoramic view of Long's Peak, Twin Sisters, and Estes Cone -- all cloudless and serene. Surely this day, September 27, 1986, I was witness to earth's greatest crescendo of yellow and blue.

That morning I set out on a short hike to a meadow frequented by elk. After taking some photographs of a fine bull, I returned to the cabin and split lodgepole pine logs into firewood to help my relatives prepare for the coming winter. The languid afternoon hours were cut short when the sun dropped behind the granite wall of Long's Peak, and the rapid cooling hastened my retreat inside to build up the fire I had banked that morning. My back muscles ached from swinging the axe, but my mind felt sharp and alert.

Aspen trees in late September
This particular Saturday evening was dedicated to something I had planned all week. Sitting by the fire, I took out the journals I'd thrown into my backpack -- old copies of Modern Age and Intercollegiate Review that a former English professor, Loy O. Banks, had given me. In 1984-1985, I had completed my Fulbright year in West Germany and had spent a summer in Oxford. Now it was time to consider graduate school in earnest. Was a historian out there who would be a good fit?

As the evening closed in, I felt the disconnect between the mountains and the monographs -- a gap between the enchantment of the setting and the chore of the articles. Was I really in the mood to focus on the task at hand? But as I slowly turned the pages and scanned for "great ideas," I was not disappointed. The writers seemed to embrace not just a scholarly but a civilizational mission. One passage in particular resonated. It was from 1958: 
The historian must look beyond facts to meaning, purpose, and direction. Meaning, purpose, and direction -- they are not apt to emerge in the parochial study of one culture, one civilization, or one religious tradition. It is only when the historian makes the comparative method the tool of his studies that he can move beyond the provinciality of national, class, and religious prejudice. The meaning of Western civilization emerges only when it is confronted by another civilization. It is in these dramatic historical confrontations that the meaning of culture, civilization, and religion emerges. It is in these confrontations, too, that cultures and civilizations are enriched and expanded. It is because of this that every period of crisis is a period of hope, that the periods of cultural dissolution can be, and frequently are, periods of great innovation and harbingers of a new cultural era. We have been grievously and justly broken, but if such eyes as mine are worthy to foresee the divine meaning, the divine purpose, then we have been broken only to be made one.
I read the passage a second time, then a third. My thought became suspended in the rarified atmosphere of a civilizational as well as a continental divide. The author was comfortable with contrast, paradox, and tension. Turning back to the top of the article, I was keen to know who wrote this historical manifesto. His name was Stephen Tonsor.[1] At the time he wrote the passage, almost three decades earlier, he was a 34-year-old instructor at the University of Michigan. He described the transcendent purpose of civilization as ultimately a quest for truth, goodness, beauty, even love -- the qualities that most dignified and humanized Homo viator, man the pilgrim. Here was a historian who wrote with the conviction that a civilization, although existing in time, could actually be the vestibule of eternity.

With Tonsor's essay in my hands, my mind strained to recall what I had written on a sheet of paper that I kept folded in my collection of Great Books back in Fort Collins. It had been prompted by a class in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks that I had taken with Dr. Jan Benson:
Truth is about being. It is knowing what really is.
Goodness is about doing. It is acting in a way that helps others thrive and helps yourself thrive, in the Aristotelian sense of betterment.
Beauty is about attraction. It is what makes us move irresistibly toward good things. Think of how we gaze at a sunrise. Beauty thus serves to feed to soul as hunger serves to feed the body.
Love is about connecting with what is beautiful and true and good.
As the fire burned down and my energy waned, I picked up the journals I had tossed at my feet. The photocopy of a manuscript had slipped out of one of them. Curious, I picked it up and saw that there was no author's name on the front page. But the title, "Conservative Pluralism," led me to a surprising and serendipitous find: 
"The summer of 1953 was an exciting summer. My wife and I and our two small children spent that summer, as we had spent the previous two summers, atop a 10,000 foot peak in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho as employees of the Forest Service watching for forest fires. One cannot imagine isolation much more complete. And yet, in that isolation, we heard the echoes of the great events transpiring in the world below the serene altitude we inhabited....
"One day that summer I hiked four miles and four thousand feet down to the road to meet the ranger and pick up a month's accumulation of mail. My mentor, Joseph Ward Swain, a distinguished historian of antiquity, had clipped various articles and reviews which he thought might be of interest to me and had sent them on. Among those clippings and articles was a review which had appeared in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of May 17, 1953, of a book by a young historian at Michigan State University, Russell Kirk."[2] 
This manuscript, whose opening scene was a fire lookout on Ruffneck Peak, was written by Stephen Tonsor. Was it coincidence? Fate? Providence? Not just any manuscript but this manuscript fell to the floor at my feet. I could not know what it meant at the time. Yet September 27, 1986, would be my first encounter with the mind of Stephen Tonsor. And these two men, Stephen Tonsor and Russell Kirk, would soon cross my path and I would walk with them for a crowded hour. Indeed, they and the tension between them would be decisive in my intellectual formation over the next several years.

Stephen Tonsor on how he discovered Russell Kirk --
in the Rocky Mountains

[1] Paraphrase of a passage from Stephen Tonsor's review of Christopher Dawson's book, The Dynamics of World History, in "History and the God of the Second Chance," Modern Age (spring 1958), pp. 200-01.
[2] "Conservative Pluralism -- The Foundation and the Academy," typed manuscript. The manuscript itself is not dated, but Tonsor's letters to Henry Regnery on September 8, 1981 (p. 4) and September 25, 1981 (p. 1), referred to the lecture by title and event organizer, the "Presidents' Club," and indicated that the lecture would be delivered on September 25, 1981.