Monday, October 2, 2017

Tonsor: Western Civ: Socrates

Following is my revised lecture on Socrates. It was originally composed when I was a graduate student under the tutelage of Stephen Tonsor at the University of Michigan.  

The core idea: Socrates offers a compelling answer to the question of how to be happy and live a good life. 

I. Introduction to Socrates

One of the reasons that I am a humanist and not a social scientist is that I believe individual human beings can be leaders who make a difference and even change the course of history. One intellectual leader who changed the course of human thought was Socrates. Although he lived 2,400 years ago, he remains a sure guide for the perplexed to this day. He took up the question thoughtful people in the ancient world asked and keep asking to this day: How can I be happy and live a good life?

The answer Socrates offered might surprise many people nowadays because it has nothing to do with having a great career, accumulating awards, or owning things. For Socrates, the key to being happy and to living a good life was to love wisdom above all else. Loving wisdom leads us to act with relentless virtue and to seek the unvarnished truth. 

We know, for example, that we cannot be happy if we act badly and are plagued by a guilty conscience. Instinctively we sense a connection between virtue and happiness.

Socrates also knew that there were social consequences to the quest for wisdom. Because moral and intellectual discipline is so hard, because the "long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery" never ends,[1] citizens might begin to question their faith in democracy, for citizens must learn to govern themselves before they can presume to govern others. 

II. A Giant of the Earth

In a recent Time magazine survey of the most consequential human beings who have ever lived, Socrates ranks 68th. That may not sound spectacularly high until you realize that he is 68th out of 107 billion people who have ever lived.[2] When expressed mathematically -- 68/107,000,000,000 -- Socrates peers down on us like a giant of the earth (because of course he is).

It's perhaps surprising that he ranks so high. In the first place, Socrates did not leave behind any of his own writings. We only know this enigmatic man through the observations of others -- Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aristotle -- and these sources are hardly in agreement about the man. 

Moreover, Socrates did not do the things that get most people into the history textbooks. He never founded a religion, never founded a nation, never led an army, never held high office, never discovered a new world, never wrote an epic poem, and in fact did not leave us one word in his own hand. He had no career, no money, no school, and likely held public office only once, and then only briefly. He was a man of simple habits who spent most of his waking hours roaming the streets of Athens in search of people who might teach him something important.

What Socrates did have was a keen intellect that he generously shared with students. Through his students, especially through Plato, this lover of wisdom became one of the most consequential human beings who ever lived.

III. Three Contexts

Historians and biographers like to write of the "life and times" of a person. Framing a biographical narrative in its broader context helps readers see things that might otherwise be missed. There are at least three important contexts that help us understand what it was like to be Socrates.

First is the fifth century BC, a time of remarkable synchronicity throughout Eurasia. Along with Socrates in Athens, there also lived at this time the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Persia, and some of the great Jewish prophets in the Middle East including Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, and Esther. Countless millions of people down to the present day have been inspired by these religious and philosophical leaders, a few of whom never wrote a word. So important was this era to the moral and spiritual development of humankind that the philosopher Karl Jaspers put the fifth century BC at the center of the "axial age," which saw human history turn. 

Second is the Greek intellectual revolution that occurred not just in Athens but in Ionia in Asia Minor. There arose a number of thinkers who today would be called scientists, as they did not resort to the gods to explain what happened in nature but instead used reason to search out what caused earthquakes, storms, seasons, and the proliferation of life. Socrates was not a systematic philosopher. He did not use reason as the pre-Socratic philosophers did, to investigate nature and propose a comprehensive view of the cosmos. Rather, he used reason to explore man's search for the good life, the way ethicists might today.

Third is the Golden Age of Athens. This flowering of culture occurred after Athens won a war against the superpower of the day, Persia -- not once but twice (490 and 480 BC). Socrates lived through most of the Golden Age. But the splendor of democratic Athens faded rather suddenly when she and her allies began fighting their fellow Greeks, the Spartans and her allies, in the devastating Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which exhausted every polis that got caught up in the conflict. The last five years of Socrates's life coincided with a terrible time in Athens. The war had ended, but there were recriminations over who made Athens lose both the war and the peace. An annoying gadfly who was critical of the Establishment made himself an easy target to swat.

IV. Life of Socrates

Historiographically we cannot avoid the "Socrates problem." Because this gadfly did not himself leave behind any writings, our portraits of him have been colored by others. It turns out the sources lead to two divergent views of the man. 

On the negative side, the comic playwright Aristophanes poked fun of Socrates as a silly but dangerous fellow who was always putting the wrong ideas in people's heads; he was just another sophist. For a fee he would teach students how to be clever and confound his listeners, making the worse argument look better and the better argument look worse. Other detractors were angry that Socrates tore down the authority of the greatest democrats of Athens during the postwar years when the polis desperately needed stability. Because Socrates challenged the status quo, he was thought to be impious, a revolutionary who created new gods. Crowning all these reasons was the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth and thus the future of the weakened city-state. The dastardly Alcibiades had been his student, after all.

On the positive side, Socrates was veritably worshiped by his pupils Plato and Xenophon, who wrote of his sterling character, unimpeachable integrity, and relentless pursuit of virtue. They also admired the fact that their teacher was a skeptic of all received opinion when it came to the Big Ideas -- justice, virtue, piety, love, knowledge, and other notions. Because Socrates was a brilliant conversationalist, he attracted many youth who felt he put the romance in the search for wisdom: The "long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery,"[3] according to Socrates, was the most noble thing we human beings undertake.

Historians will never be able to reconcile these two different views of Socrates. But based on Plato's early dialogues and other source material, the following is what we can say with some degree of certainty:

He was born in Athens in 470 BC. His name means "master of life." His father Sophronicus was a stone mason. His mother Phaenarete was a midwife. Later in life, Socrates would compare himself to a midwife: as a midwife mastered the skill or art of delivering babies, so the lover of wisdom mastered the art of giving birth to the truth.

For the first forty years of Socrates's life, it was glorious to be an Athenian. The recent defeat of the Persians from the east gave the upstart democrats in the West the confidence and energy to unleash their talents. The result was the Golden Age. All through Socrates's childhood and early adulthood, Athens was experiencing a great cultural flowering on the way to becoming the freest, most advanced civilization in the world. 

Despite all the beautiful statues sculpted during the Golden Age, Socrates did not fit the physical ideal of the Greek man. The sometime stonemason was short, stocky, and ugly. 

Instead of spending his life plying his trade, Socrates was intent on pursuing wisdom. What was knowledge? Opinion? Virtue? Vice? There was no consensus in ancient Greece. Perhaps most striking of all were the irreconcilable teachings of Parmenides and Heraclitus. The former saw reality in terms of being; the latter, in terms of becoming. Faced with these contradictory doctrines, Socrates managed to hold both in dynamic tension. This fact is critical to understanding how his mind worked. Socrates was no ideologue. His accommodation of irreconcilable intellectual tensions led to his trademark skepticism and love of paradox.

The turning point in Socrates's life came when his friend, Chaerephon, went to Delphi to consult the Oracle of Apollo there. The priestess, who was inhaling hallucinatory vapors, told Chaerephon that Socrates was the wisest of men. When Chaerephon later reported this delphic utterance to Socrates, the humble stonemason didn't believe it. He hardly felt wise and he certainly fell short of fulfilling the delphic command to "know thyself." From that point forward, Socrates's mission in life was to determine whether the oracle about his wisdom were true. He went about Athens, in the agora and the neighboring workshops of craftsmen, questioning the smartest people he could find; citizens who, by reputation, were considered wise. What he discovered is that people know lots of things badly.

Somewhat late in life Socrates married Xanthippe. She was thought not to have a good temperament and was referred to as a shrew. Her husband did not prioritize breadwinning. Socrates apocryphally said of marriage, "By all means marry. If you marry well you will be happy. If you don't marry well you will become a philosopher!" He also urged restraint when criticizing other people's marriages: "No one but the husband and wife knows where the sandal pinches."

In the Apology Socrates tells us that he and Xanthippe had three sons. At 70 years of age, he reported having a son who was almost grown and two other boys who were considerably younger. That means he started having children after the age of 50.

The second most important woman in his life was apparently Diotima, who he claimed taught him everything he knew about love. I have no idea what that really means and shall leave his mysterious reference to her to your imagination.

For most of Socrates's early years, life in Athens was good. Then came the Peloponnesian War, the devastating civil war from which Greece never recovered. In the conflict Socrates fought on the side of the Athenian alliance against the Spartans and their alliance. He was what Americans would call a "grunt," a heavily armed infantry soldier or hoplite. 

Up to the age of 70, this combat veteran, Socrates, would have no doubt felt pressure to remain in fairly good physical condition because it was expected that men could defend their polis. Nevertheless, he was showing signs of old age at his trial.

Despite physical limitations, Socrates walked the talk. He did not scold others for failing to exercise temperance and self-control while excusing himself from the same rigors. He had the capacity to endure Herculean physical discomforts for others' sake. One story relates how he gave his sandals to a fellow hoplite who was suffering in the snow. Socrates, barefoot, endured the ordeal cheerfully and without complaint. 

Socrates always consumed wine in moderation and never got drunk. This trait may be one reason that he was able to resist sexual advances and never be seduced. In Plato's Symposium, the reader gets the idea that Alcibiades had a crush on Socrates and tried to seduce his teacher on numerous occasions, without success. Indeed, Socrates urged people to keep romantic love in proper perspective. A much better outlet for the heat of passion is to pursue truth and virtue, wisdom and beauty -- relentlessly pursue them like a man in love. Ultimately he argues that the most worthwhile endeavor a human being can undertake is the arduous search for wisdom, for wisdom is the foundation of the good life.

Socrates was a self-described gadfly who believed it his duty to sting Athenians with their own hypocrisy and smallness of soul. But he did so with a wonderful sense of humor, often ironic and self-deprecating, sometimes cutting and sarcastic. His funny way of questioning authority attracted an estimable following among the youth of Athens.

Among Socrates's students, as we have seen, was Alcibiades, who was no democrat and who led a naval expedition to ignominious defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Guilt by association was counted against Socrates in the tough years following the war. The relationship with Alcibiades and other critics of democracy no doubt hurt Socrates at his trial.

Since Socrates was relentlessly virtuous, the cowards who wanted to take him down had to fabricate charges. Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon accused Socrates variously of atheism, of believing in gods not sanctioned by the state, and of corrupting the youth of Athens with his own idiosyncratic religious beliefs. Socrates was brought before a court. After listening to the testimony of both sides, the jury voted 281 to 220 to convict the old man and sentence him to death. 

About one week after his trial in 399 BC, Socrates drank the cup of poison hemlock in jail, the victim of judicial murder. Soon he became renowned as a martyr for wisdom. 

After the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the trial and execution of Socrates is arguably the most famous case of judicial murder in world history. Like Jesus he is a supreme example of someone who lived by his principles, even unto death.

In the popular imagination Socrates is usually remembered for two things: for saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and for drinking the cup of poison hemlock at his judicial murder. As we have seen, the two are connected: The Establishment, feeling the sting of Socrates's rebuke after years of war, made him the scapegoat for its incompetence and troubles.

V. Philosophy of Socrates

Despite his humble origins, Socrates became a man for the ages. He is justly considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. Even his name is significant, dividing an ancient era in two: the pre-Socratics and what followed.

To be a philosopher in the original, literal sense is to be a "lover of wisdom." Socrates was most definitely that. He was not an academic philosopher in the way we understand the term today; he did not earn degrees or pursue a university career or write articles for peer-reviewed journals. Rather, he was profoundly curious and largely self-taught, and that made him an original. 

Socrates did not create a cosmology or metaphysical system, as many of the pre-Socratic thinkers had. Rather, he pursued the definitions of terms that he believed were essential to living a good life -- piety, justice, virtue, truth, goodness, beauty, love. To define a thing well is the prerequisite to understanding it.

Socrates distinguished himself from two types of public intellectuals in his day, the sophists and the pre-Socratics. Despite being accused by Aristophanes of being a sophist, Socrates actually had no respect for their ilk. For a fee the sophists taught the sons of the wealthy how to use rhetoric and emotion in self-serving ways. Sophists considered it sport to manipulate people out of their convictions, power, or wealth. In democratic Athens, these cunning men focused on manipulating others instead of doing the hard work of reforming themselves.

Socrates was also different from the pre-Socratics. These "scientists" in Asia Minor were doing something new, searching out natural explanations for phenomena that had previously been explained by myths since time out of mind. As pioneering as these thinkers were, Socrates did not show much interest in them. He did not devote his energies to learning from nature; nor from history. He focused rather on how to live the good life in the polis he loved. He said his "teachers" were his conscience (his daemon), the men of Athens, and a woman named Diotima. He learned both by listening to his daemon when it warned him away from doing or saying something; and by conversing with the citizens of Athens, putting questions to them, to see in what ways they spoke in error and in what ways truth. 

In the pages of Plato, Socrates's conversations tended to follow a pattern. 

1. Socrates would approach a respected citizen or recognized expert in some area -- say, the law. Whom he approached was important. The person had to command social respect. Socrates did not want intellectually to "punch down."

2. He would open the conversation by saying he wanted to learn more about some Big Idea -- for example, justice -- because he was not wise when it came to knowing what it was. He'd profess ignorance about the Big Idea, the what of the conversation.

3. Socrates would then ask basic questions about the idea of justice to see what the expert would say. Usually the first round of questions would try to establish a philosophically sound definition that always and everywhere applied, one that did not admit of any exceptions. But because Socrates was a skeptic, no answer offered by his interlocutor ever settled the matter. Every so-called answer just led to more questions. Such dialectical conversation is potentially never ending -- but that is the point. It is hard work to name (and define) things rightly.

4. Never-ending inquiry was just what Socrates sought. Listening carefully to his interlocutor, Socrates would always hear problems with the conventional definitions. Socrates would engage in cross-examination (Greek elenchus) during which he would point out the holes in the expert's definition, or explain why an illustration might be inadequate or an analogy fallacious. At no point in the process would he nastily accuse his interlocutor of being poorly educated -- au contraire. Often he was flattering. But the irony was rich, for the conversation would hold a mirror up to his interlocutor's mind and reveal that the interlocutor was not as educated as he thought he was. Socrates simply let his interlocutor's own words convict him of his ignorance. 

For the Establishment, it was maddening the way Socrates inadvertently humiliated prominent citizens. But it was precisely these democratic leaders who were responsible for the disastrous Peloponnesian War and irreparable decline of a great polis. The result was not good for Socrates: He made enemies in the Establishment and this would prove critical at his trial. Remember, he either implied or told people to their face that "the unexamined life is not worth living." That would be taken as an insult. His persistence in saying such a thing led, when he was seventy years old, to 280 of 501 jurors sentencing him to death by drinking poison hemlock.

In sum, we can say of Socrates the philosopher:  

He wanted us to know the truth to the extent that conversation, reason, and elenchus could uncover it (the concern of epistemology).

He wanted us to listen to our conscience and to behave in a relentlessly moral manner (the concern of ethics).

And in the polis he wanted to live in a community that pursued the good life, the virtuous life (the domain of wisdom), because that is the greatest thing men and women can do. 

VI. Impact of Socrates

To the everlasting chagrin of his enemies, death did not silence Socrates. He would continue to teach, generation after generation, wherever we encounter the Big Ideas -- of philosophy, of liberal education, of the good life. We get an idea of the scale of Socrates's long-term impact when viewing the Renaissance painting by Raphael, The School of Athens
In his great painting, "The School of Athens," Raphael places Socrates among the figures at the top of the steps.
The gadfly is in the olive robe several figures to the left of Plato and Aristotle, who are conversing.
Why do you suppose Raphael paints Socrates with his back to Plato and Aristotle? 

Decisive for Socrates's future impact was the fact that his pupil, Plato, worshipped him. As Henry Adams observed, there are two ways we impact eternity: One is by having children; the other is by teaching. And did Socrates ever impact eternity by teaching Plato. Plato would memorialize Socrates in some three dozen dialogues. Alfred North Whitehead would say that all subsequent philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato.

Socrates is not only a founder of the liberal arts tradition in the West. Scholars who have studied him are finding ever stronger links to a number of later giants in the canon. There is evidence, for example, that Shakespeare wove Socrates's teaching into Timon of Athens. "Shakespeare's genius," writes Darly Kaytor, "is at least in part due to his uncanny ability to transform [Socratic] wisdom into fully realized dramatic action."[4] 

Socrates was a master of irony, of the distance between what seems to be and what is. Socrates often strikes the pose that he knows less than everyone else, when it's quite clear from his conversations with Athenians that he knows more than anybody else. He doesn't go around pounding people over the head with his superior knowledge. Rather he lets others arrive at that conclusion after trying to answer his questions. 

Shakespeare was likewise a master of irony, the distance between what seems to be, and what is.[5]

Some 24 centuries after his death, Socrates continues to inspire teachers and thinkers because of the scenes from his life and the way he teaches us today. Again and again in Plato's dialogues, we see that Socrates perfected the art of dialectical conversation with its keen listening and close questioning. Because of his skepticism toward "conventional wisdom," because of his ability to question every easy answer, he is the "patron saint" of both teachers and students who enjoy drilling deep into a topic in the classroom. He is a permanent rebuke to the sophist, a rejection of the person who can make the bad seem good and the good seem bad. Socrates stands for truth.

Indeed, Socrates's life -- his witness, unto death, to truth and virtue -- would make him a hero to all who value a liberal education. A liberal education is that which befits a free human being. This point is worth elaborating. The value of a liberal education is not just that it imparts certain skills -- deep reading, critical thinking, clear communication, and analysis of complex problems through the lenses of different disciplines. 

Above and beyond these admirable skills, a liberal education should impart critically important values -- the values Socrates taught by example. His life is a testament to the proposition that "one becomes free only through a long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery, generally under the tutelage of those more in possession of the requisite excellences" than the students are. These, then, are the ultimate values of a liberal education: truth and goodness, virtue and beauty, wisdom and the lifelong quest to know.

So I end on the question that concerns us in this class: Does Socrates deserve to be a role model for your generation? Should precious hours in Western Civ 101 be devoted to teaching future lawyers, engineers, and business leaders who this gadfly was, what he taught, and why he was martyred? I believe so, and my confidence is reinforced every time I reread Plato's Apology and the other early dialogues that tell us about Socrates's life. In Plato's exquisite portrait of his teacher you will come face-to-face with a great human being -- a hero of the liberal arts who implores us to value what is best in us. 

What do we value?

Hopefully we value our conscience. When it comes to conscience, Socrates speaks of the importance of listening to and obeying that inner voice, that "still small voice" that urges us to do the right thing. 

Hopefully we value our character. When it comes to character, Socrates implores us to guard this most precious possession of ours through the relentless pursuit of virtue. You don't sell your soul for a quick buck.

Hopefully we value our knowledge. When it comes to knowledge, Socrates prompts us to seek the truth no matter where it might lead, even when it hurts or confounds. 

Hopefully we value witnessing to others. When it comes to witnessing, Socrates shows us how a besieged man nevertheless exhibits the courage to stand up to malicious accusers and a corrupt society. 

Hopefully we value the democratic way of life, but with due caution. When it comes to democracy, Socrates challenges some of the givens of our day -- above all, our unquestioning faith in popular sovereignty. Today we keep a scorecard on the progress of democracy around the globe and think of democracy as one of the great achievements of Greek civilization. That's why all democratic leaders like a photo op atop the Acropolis, with the Parthenon as the backdrop. But Socrates was pessimistic about democracy, a critic of mass rule. In Book 6 of the Republic (by Plato), Socrates has a conversation with Adeimantus in which he compares democracy to a ship. Out at sea, with a storm on the horizon, who do you want to captain the ship? Just anyone? Or do you want someone who is well trained in piloting and navigation? Letting citizens vote without a proper education is as irresponsible as letting just anyone sail from port without a chart or training and experience as a captain. Now, Socrates would be tried by a jury of 501 of his peers and unjustly convicted and executed. This is not the way a free government should operate. A free government is only sustainable if citizens can govern themselves. Socrates patiently revealed, through conversations that held a mirror up to fellow citizens, that they did not sufficiently understand such basic concepts as justice, piety, virtue, truth, and goodness when applied to themselves. Yet they presumed to govern others?

Do we presume to govern others?

Our nation needs the gadfly's sting right here, right now, to rouse us from the complacency in our soul and the corruption in our society. 



[1] This discerning phrase is from R. J. Snell, "Betraying Liberal Education: A Response to President Paxson of Brown University," Public Discourse, October 2, 2017, at URL  

[2] Since the original lecture was composed some three decades ago, I felt it important to update the historical ranking in light of the world's larger cumulative population. See URL About the survey: "Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams.... When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value."

[3] Snell, "Betraying Liberal Education."

[4] See Darly Kaytor, "Shakespeare's Political Philosophy: A Debt to Plato in Timon of Athens," at URL

[5] URL

Friday, September 15, 2017

Tonsor: US History: Washington, DC


I was having a beer with a couple of other graduate students. We were looking out onto State Street, enjoying the warm air and kibitzing about our classes during Week One at Michigan. The man across the table swilled his beer and then said, with apparent satisfaction, "There are no more conservative professors in Ann Arbor."

"Oh, that's not true," I shot back. "I had lunch with him."

Rackham Graduate School at U of M
That comeback may have gotten a laugh, but it pointed to a real problem: the anemic state of ideological diversity among academics in 1987. Not just at Michigan but across the nation, faculty in the social sciences and humanities were overwhelming liberal and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Political diversity was noticeably absent in Rackham Graduate School, the home unit of history graduate students at the university. Tonsor informed me that he knew of only one other professor in U of M's history department who voted Republican, and with more than 60 profs, our history department was arguably the largest in the U.S.

I hasten to add that, although the other profs I would encounter at Michigan were liberal, my experience in Ann Arbor was not as horrid as what was being reported on many American campuses. Perhaps I chose my classes wisely and had a little luck, but my profs were fair. They challenged but never docked me on ideological or religious grounds, nor did I sense there was ever a political litmus test to win grants or earn good grades. David Hollinger, Raymond Grew, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Tom Tentler, David Bien, Kathleen Canning, Jim Turner, Victor Miesel, Linda Neagley -- I never saw them politicize history in their lectures, classrooms, or seminars. Indeed, it was they who taught me that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity.


The next morning, a Tuesday, I arrived at Tonsor's office in Haven Hall to tell him about an upcoming trip that would require me to miss one of his classes. He was not yet in for office hours, so I looked at the material he'd posted on his door. You can tell a lot about a person by what they post on their door. What caught my eye was a cartoon from the New Yorker. It showed a baseball scorecard of two teams, the Realists and Idealists. In each of the nine innings, the Realists had scored a run or two, while the Idealists had been shut out. Yet the final score was Realists 0, Idealists 13. It made a good laugh all the better knowing who posted the cartoon on his door.

"Hello, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor as he neared his office. I was beginning to learn his tone of voice, that note of deliberation characteristic of his greeting. It was as though he awaited the unwrapping of a pearl. As he flopped his satchel down on the desk, I sat briefly to tell him about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC, in observance of Constitution Day. I could tell that he was genuinely pleased for me, as I had won first place in a national essay contest on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Visiting the monuments to American leaders and ideals is de rigueur, of course, but at this stage in life I prefer the art museums -- the Corcoran, National Portrait Gallery, and American Art Museum. I do not linger outside in the shadows of all those cold marble exteriors, but stay as long as possible inside our temples dedicated to art. It is where I find 'emotion recollected in tranquility.'"

"Speaking of marble," I said, "I'm excited to make a pilgrimage to the Jefferson Memorial, but I was wondering if you knew of a memorial to John Adams."

"Yes, but it's not in marble. It's in the parchment of the Constitution of 1787. As you know, Adams was not in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. He was in London. But he had drafted the oldest extant constitution in the U.S., the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and his intellectual architecture provided the scaffolding for the framers in Philadelphia.

"An interesting study in contrasts, Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson told Americans what they wanted to hear. Adams told Americans what they needed to know."[1]

I looked at Tonsor quizzically.

"All Americans," he replied, "tend to look at the nation either as disciples of Jefferson or as disciples of Adams. To the Pollyannas, Jefferson wrote what they wanted to hear, that we were a good and exceptional people. He was sunny, optimistic, a philosophe of the Enlightenment, a Republican as radical as Paine, an ideologue in sympathy with the Jacobins who really did think all men were more or less equal at birth. His Lockean intellectual and moral formation made him emphasize not nature but nurture. It was experience and institutions that shaped the man. This is why he put such great emphasis on reform and education, even on the necessity of bloody revolutions to make institutions more enlightened.

"Adams, on the other hand, was the spokesman for us skeptics with a tragic sense of life. He was dour, pessimistic, a man of Augustinian temperament, though doctrinally a Unitarian. In his eyes America was not exceptional for the reason that Americans were just as evil, covetous, and lecherous as people anywhere else in the world. Constitutionally a Burkean, Adams revered the achievement of the British Constitution and Common Law to forestall ambitious men grasping at power. Through observation he concluded that men were not equal at birth, and thus he believed nature more powerful an influence than nurture. He had great fear that American democracy would descend into demagoguery, disorder, and decline. The passage of time has vindicated him.

"Were Plutarch alive today, he might have made an interesting study in contrasts between Jefferson and Adams. Such a study would invite Americans to decide who got it right, or whether either got it fully right. For myself, I am much more inclined toward Adams than toward Jefferson. In fact, I am occasionally told by his biographers that I am temperamentally and intellectually similar to Adams. He understood history and human nature better than Jefferson did. But what about you, Mr. Whitney? Are you not more -- ?"

"I honestly do not yet know," I said, sensing that Tonsor was about to indict me for being more Jeffersonian. "I have a lot more reading to do. At this point I know more about Jefferson and like thinking about him as a person. Adams is less approachable to me -- too dark and excitable."

Tonsor sat silently in his chair like a block of marble, looking at me with expressionless eyes. I felt judged.


After an awkward moment Tonsor admonished me: "Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City. It's where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement -- well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington."[2]

Now that -- that last sentence -- illustrates how Tonsor tossed out seemingly effortless aperçus that left me vexed. I was under the impression that conservatives were enjoying their heyday with Ronald Reagan in the White House. Before I could ask for elaboration, he returned to the matter at hand, and said that we could arrange to discuss the material in History 416 that I'd miss. That was considerate of him -- not every professor was so accommodating.

On my way out the door, I remarked with a smirk that Cassirer's Philosophy of the Enlightenment was as tough as its billing.

With an arch smile and a waggle of the head, Tonsor replied, "Among intellectual histories of the Enlightenment, it's Moby Dick. There are easier whales to harpoon, but they wouldn't be as much fun to pursue."



[1] This formulation is also Gordon S. Wood's in talks and in Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin, 2017), Chap. 1.

[2] Even though he enjoyed access to the art and to the Library of Congress, Tonsor did not particularly care for Washington, DC. In one of his letters he wrote upon his return from a two-week stint in DC, "I am so pleased to be home. Washington is not my place ... however kind everyone was to me." Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tonsor: America: Liberal or Conservative at the Founding?


A heavy overcast settled over the Huron Valley. Expecting a cold rain at any moment, I sought shelter in Haven Hall. My hope was to intercept Tonsor coming down from his office, then to accompany him on the walk across the Diag to class. I had the proverbial "deep question" for him. Seeing him emerge from the elevator in his Paddington Bear hat, I greeted him and after pleasantries put my subject before him:

"Professor Tonsor, I am interested in how you think about the American founding. A political philosopher I'm reading says that America was the product of the Enlightenment, meaning that it was founded as a classical liberal nation. According to this view, conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's 'right wing,' pushing for freer markets in a free-market system and smaller government in a federal system. American conservatives are thus not like European conservatives who, in reaction to the French Revolution, sought to restore the ancien regime with its monarchy, mercantilism, and three orders. Since that old-world conservative tradition never existed in the U.S. after the founding, what we call 'conservative' on this side of the Atlantic looks much different from conservatism in Europe. Do you think that conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's right wing and nothing more?"

Tonsor responded: "The question, as you ask it, is not well framed. It tries to make the founding an 'either-or' event: liberal or conservative? But the interpretive methods that characterize the humanities encourage us to think not in terms of 'either-or' but in terms of 'both-and.' Complex events elicit divergences of interpretation. Note that I use the plural, "divergences" of interpretation. Given human incomprehension, it is rare to have just one interpretation that is intellectually sufficient.[1]

"Were we all liberals then? Were we all liberals in 1776 and 1787? That's what you're asking. From the viewpoint of the political philosophers who see the founding as the outcome of debate during the Enlightenment, we were liberal. But is there another way of reading the Founding? Taking in the longer perspective of Western civilization, we might ask: Were we conservative in any sense that is prior to and separate from liberalism? And the answer to that question is, yes, most definitely, if you consider the founders' inheritance from the ancient world and Christendom." 

I said, "That longer perspective is what Russell Kirk achieved in The Roots of American Order."[2] 

"There are many who have looked at the American founding in a longer perspective -- Wilson Carey McWilliams, for instance.[3] But since you are taken with Russell Kirk's argument, Mr. Whitney, I'd like you to elaborate."

Oh, my. I was taken aback when Tonsor suddenly lobbed the question back to me -- it was unusual for him to do so. But since I was the one who had just teed up Kirk's Roots, I had to run with it. The ideas in The Roots were once considered mainstream in the academy,[4] and I had read the book with enthusiasm before moving to Ann Arbor. But in the 1980s the book was hardly ever referenced much less taught in American and Western civ surveys. This presented problems for a graduate student. In the company of the methodological gatekeepers in Michigan's history department, it was best not to cite Kirk's Roots since his thesis was considered out-of-date at best; and racist, sexist, classist, and elitest at worst.

Taking a deep breath I said: "There is truth in the claim of the political philosophers. Since we were the first nation established in the modern age, our political economy was liberal from the start. In the first place, we didn't have a feudal or mercantile economy. We had a modern free-market system that owed much to Adam Smith and the Enlightenment. 

"Second, we didn't have a feudal or absolutist monarchy. Instead we had a mixed constitution that was the result of enlightened reflection [5] on liberal philosophers like Locke and republican thinkers like Montesquieu; the resulting federated polity balanced the primacy of the individual (seen in the liberalism of the Bill of Rights) with the primacy of civic virtue (seen in the republicanism of the Northwest Ordinance, Article III), and did so within a framework of innovative checks and balances to thwart the tyranny of the majority (seen in the Constitution of 1787). 

"Third, we didn't have a social order that looked like the ancien regime with its aristocratic privileges, noble titles, and laws upholding primogeniture. Traditionalist European conservatives -- Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Pio Nono -- hated what we were. They condemned 'Americanism.' Our natural aristocracy renewed itself each generation in a relatively mobile society where most could rise due to merit and a little luck. So, yes, in all these fundamental ways, we were not a conservative European nation but a modern liberal one that owed its founding institutions mostly to the Enlightenment."

"Fine, but is there another way of reading the founding?" asked Tonsor in his laconic way.

"Yes," I said, "there's also truth in the claim that our founding was conservative -- deeply conservative in ways that were prior to and separate from liberalism. Our modern liberal roots, strong as they are, do not tell of deeper roots still. America's deeper cultural roots are revealed in our unwritten constitution, our habits of the heart, and our syncretic worldview -- a fusion that holds in dynamic tension the living traditions of ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, as well as medieval London."

"I'm surprised," said Tonsor, "that you stop at medieval London. Remember that Protestant and Catholic thinkers were engaging the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Archbishop Fenelon, Bishop Berkeley, John Locke, John Witherspoon -- they sifted the Age of Reason in light of what Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London had to teach.[6] Out of that dynamic tension, out of that struggle between those who argued for continuity and those who argued for change, emerged the Founders' syncretic worldview. The intellectual leaders of the American founding -- Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, Wilson -- stood atop the pinnacle of that worldview." 

One thing about my conversations with Tonsor: He always kept my mind on the stretch. There was no resting with him. I had never read any Dickinson or Wilson and in fact did not know that they were intellectual leaders of the founding.

"Dr. Kirk," I said, "does speak to our moral and spiritual formation. When Americans go to church or temple on Sunday, we are walking into the space inspired by premodern, illiberal religions that originated in the Near East between two thousand and three thousand years ago.[7] In theory liberalism is neutral when it comes to religion. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to believe in the God of the Christians or the God of the Jews. Yet Judeo-Christian moral norms and spiritual comfort have been a cornerstone of our culture from the start."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "To paraphrase Tocqueville: 'I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious indifference and complete political freedom. I am inclined to think that if he lacks faith, he will be a subject. But if he believes, he has the chance to be free.' Liberalism, he thought, cannot exist in some theoretical cultural vacuum. It needs religion to prop it up."[8]

Sucking in a larger breath, I said: "Another example Dr. Kirk explores comes from our intellectual formation. When young Americans read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others who inform our defense of reason and discourse, they are entering a space inspired by premodern, pre-liberal philosophies that originated in the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago.[9] Liberalism does not mandate what must be taught. It tries to be value free when it comes to knowledge. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to pursue the ancient classics that originated prior to and separate from liberalism. Yet we know that deep engagement with the 'great books' expands the competence of citizens to assess the human condition and to judge current events."

Tonsor weighed in: "So it seems that, in addition to religion, liberalism needs the interior reflection encouraged by the humanities to prop it up." 

"I think so, yes," I said in agreement. "Still another example in Kirk comes not from the Anglo-Saxons so much as from medieval England after the Conquest. Liberals would like to take credit for many of the developments that have contributed to ordered freedom in the modern age -- the common law, stare decisis, Parliament, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other individual rights that were later adopted by liberalism.[10] In truth, they cannot. There was no -ism called liberalism when these rights and innovations appeared in the Middle Ages. Yet their absence today would be unthinkable in liberalism's public square."

Tonsor objected: "Stop right there. Using the term, 'public square,' is such a banal descent into cliche."[11]

"Okay," I said, trying to disguise my pique. Unfortunately, I was becoming used to Tonsor's gratuitous criticism of the way I said things. At the same time, I figuratively slapped my forehead since the word "okay" also made him peevish. If ever I wanted to drive him nuts I could say: "The public square is okay." 

It was probably a good thing that I did not have time to dwell on Tonsor's peevishness since we had mounted the stairs and were entering the classroom. I was proud of myself for making the case that classical liberalism could not fully account for the American mind. Using Kirk, I had pulled back the curtain on our founders' deeper conservative roots -- evidenced by the living traditions they embraced from Semitic Jerusalem, Mediterranean Athens, cosmopolitan Rome, and Germanic London. Conservatism was not just the right wing of classical liberalism but something much richer.


After Tonsor slapped his satchel down on the table at the front of the class, he came back to the desk into which I was settling. "You know, Mr. Whitney, we must talk more about The Roots. It's a beautiful work in conception but a flawed work in execution."

My professor's words reminded me of something I'd read between Fort Collins and Ann Arbor the previous summer. At the beginning of the road trip to Michigan I had grappled with Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'"[12] and it occurred to me then that his 1975 essay might be a critique of Kirk's 1974 book. Both were written in anticipation of America's bicentennial celebration, and both sought to plumb the meaning of the American experience. 

Tonsor's thesis was that the American founding revitalized Britain's governing principles and thus could be seen as a conservative event. However, in the process of revitalizing Britain's governing principles, the American founding also unleashed the ideas of liberty and equality to an unexpected degree. After 1776, the empire of liberty would spread as never before. Also after 1776 and especially after the four Civil War years culminating in 1865 -- what Lord Acton called "the Second American Revolution"[13] -- the empire of equality would spread as never before. The American founding, paradoxically, was just as much an act of revolution as it was an act of conservation. Looking back, Kirk had focused on the American founding as a fusion of the living traditions of four old cities -- Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. Looking forward, Tonsor saw the American Revolution as a launchpad that took man's aspiration for more liberty and more equality to new heights. It was both-and: both a conservative and an innovative event; both a stroke for liberty and a stroke for equality.

Given my admiration for both men, I needed to come to terms with the tension between Kirk's and Tonsor's interpretation of the founding era. Each in his own way seemed to sound the right note. Could their notes be harmonized? The Roots was one of my favorite works of history, plumbing the subjects I liked to think about most. It played no small part in my decision to pursue graduate studies in history. The Roots was also an important work since it preserved an interpretation of American history that was important to keep alive, somewhere, anywhere, in the postmodern academy that dismissed it amid a swarm of deconstructing "narratives." But Tonsor's insight was also critically important to understanding how America became the country she was. Could I keep the thought of both men in dynamic tension? 

Kirk published the Roots in 1974 in anticipation
of America's bicentennial celebration.


[1] Tonsor thought that the most difficult problems of modern history did not usually involve what happened but why it happened. Rarely was there just one correct interpretation of why a historical event or movement occurred. Sifting a variety of interpretations was thus a fixity in Stephen Tonsor's thought. He demonstrated appreciation for different interpretations in one of his first publications after graduate school, when he assembled and compared then-current interpretations of Nazism: Stephen J. Tonsor, National Socialism: Conservative Reaction or Nihilist Revolt? (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1959). The pamphlet is in a series called "Source Problems in World Civilization." In a statement that serves as the foreword, the publisher explains that the task of the historian "is essentially one of selection ... for it is only through selection that knowledge can be arranged in meaningful and usable patterns." Tonsor's pamphlet is a selection of the most compelling interpretations of the philosophical and ideological roots of Nazism. Tonsor concludes: "Perhaps the variety and contradiction in the four major interpretations of National Socialism [in this pamphlet] suggest the difficulty involved in reaching conclusions concerning any historical event or movement. Moreover, these are only four among many interpretations.... If the judgments of [conflicting students and historians] are sometimes ambiguous or slow in coming, perhaps the fault lies in mankind's incomprehension rather than in history's opaqueness." (pp. i, 26, 27).

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1974). 

[3] Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). This award-winning book treats some of the same themes as Kirk's Roots and Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" but precedes them both.

[4] For an earlier statement of Kirk's basic thesis, see the address by the former president of the American Historical Association, Carlton J. H. Hayes, "The American Frontier -- Frontier of What?" December 27, 1945, American Historical Review, vol. 50, no. 2 (January 1946): 199-216, at URL 

[5] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, 1 and 9, 1787. 

[6] For a recent study of the traditionalists' confrontation with the Enlightenment, see Ulrich L. Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[7] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 2, 5.

[8] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Et tu, brutish?" Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1979, p. B36.

[9] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 3-4.

[10] Kirk, Roots, chap. 6.

[11] Both Tonsor and I were alluding to a recently published book by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" Modern Age, vol. 19, no. 2 (spring 1975): 136-45.

[13] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty: America in Acton's Thought," Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: First Class: The Joy of the Intellectual Historian


Thursday, September 10th, couldn't come fast enough. It was the first day of the semester. I had been living in Ann Arbor since August 4th and was eager to start academic work.

Throughout the morning, fog and thunderclouds moved through the Huron River Valley. Although the Diag looked gloomy under a dark canopy of trees, the outermost branches of the honey locusts showed hints of the yellows soon to come under crisp autumn skies.

I arrived in East Engineering early to find a good seat for my first class at U of M: History 416, Tonsor’s Nineteenth-Century European Intellectual History. I still could not believe my good fortune to attend such a storied class. I took my place three rows back from the lectern. For the next few months, this was the space in which I would learn the most about the public Tonsor, both as a teacher and intellectual historian.

The vibe at Michigan
An affable fellow a few years my junior sat down to my left. He sported a tee shirt with a familiar slogan on campus: “Harvard, the Michigan of the East.” “Have you ever taken Tonsor before?” he asked.

“No, this is my first semester at Michigan. I get the impression we are going to learn a lot.”

“He may look like the Paddington Bear but he’s got a reputation,” the student said with a shake of his head. “He’s been known to kick trash cans at faculty meetings that don’t go his way. And when a feminist challenged him in one of his classes, he said to her face that her soul was as filthy as the floor she walked on.” My eyes inadvertently dropped to the floor. I had put myself through Colorado State University as a janitor, so I knew filth on floors.

With those two episodes in my head, I saw the barrel-chested Tonsor walk into the classroom looking vaguely harried. His head was thrust forward, and his mouth was open from walking fast and ascending the stairs to the second floor. His eyes appeared to recede behind thick lenses. He carried a brown satchel, well worn and scarred, out of which he took several books and a handwritten lecture on lined, yellow paper. I would learn that it was Tonsor’s habit to lecture from scripted notes, each topic contained in its own manila folder.[1] His final warm-up routine was to write the authors and titles of important books on the chalkboard. On this first day he wrote the following:

Roland N. Stromberg, European Intellectual History since 1789 (third ed.)
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment
M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism
Hegel, Philosophy of History
J. S. Mill, On Liberty
Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, and Wagner

These were the seven books the class would read during the semester. I took note of the balance of materials: three original sources, three secondary works, and one textbook for good measure.

At 9:30 a.m. sharp, Tonsor began his lecture in the most inadvertently humorous circumstances I’d ever seen in a classroom: “Do not think,” he said importantly, just when a jackhammer started to pound away outside the window…. “Do not think,” he repeated more loudly to the jackhammer's rat-a-tat-tat…. Then, drawing himself up, he bellowed, “Do not think that it is I who am speaking to you. No, it is the Voice of History.”

East Engineering
No, actually it was the Voice of the Jackhammer. At least that’s what most of the 40 students in the class must have been thinking.

Tonsor glared at the window, fixated on the construction work on East Engineering. “You really should go to the university administration, protest this intolerable racket, and demand the refund of your tuition!”

Some of the students shifted uneasily in their chairs; others tried to laugh. His burst of temper reminded me of my father.

Composing himself, Tonsor thrust his head forward over his yellow pages of handwritten notes and resumed: “I quote Ernest Renan, one of the most interesting apostates of the nineteenth century. He abandoned the priest’s cassock for the historian’s gown. But more on the apostate Renan later.

“This course in modern European intellectual history will challenge you in fundamental ways. First, the content is more abstract than the material you've encountered in other history courses. By focusing on beliefs and knowledge, values and symbols, ideas and ideologies, we shall explore what is unique about human beings -- our capacity to imagine, to reason, to deliberate, to develop ideas -- capacities that sharply differentiate us, in kind, from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“The noisome squirrel that invades my garden has a social order; he has a sense of territory; he communicates with other squirrels; he builds nests; he mates; he eats and is eaten -- by me when I've had enough of his mischief. But there is no evidence that he thinks abstractly about his relationship to himself, to other squirrels, to the world, or to his creator. He exists in the realm of necessity, not of freedom. No matter how refined his instincts, he is incapable of creating, modifying, rejecting, or transmitting abstract ideas. He has no notion of authoring 'A History of Squirrels.'

“The second way this course will challenge you is to see that ideas change; they develop. They are not static but have a rich arc within the larger human adventure. If you were to write the history of squirrels, the story of their lives 10,000 years ago would be the same, in all the essentials, as the story of their lives today.

“Not the human story. From the drawing of cave paintings to the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of civilization forward, our way of life, our language, our society, our military technology, our economics, our politics -- all have changed, profoundly, many times over. All things human change because we think about them, criticize them, grow bored with them, and imagine something different that might make life better. The history of ideas, especially since the transition to modern times, is also one of dramatic change. It is sometimes hard for students to grasp, but what you think of liberty in 1987 is not what French revolutionaries thought of liberty in 1793. What you think of equality today is not what coffeehouse Marxists thought of equality in 1848. What you think of the Constitution on its two hundredth anniversary is not what citizens thought of the Constitution two centuries ago.

"The third challenge is related to the second. Because you are going to become more aware of changes in human thinking, I hope this course encourages you to break out of your familiar, limited way of seeing things. History is a core discipline of a liberal arts education precisely because it frees you from the fallacy of presentism, the belief that you should judge the people of the past by the standards of the present. In this history course, you will be urged to develop the habit of sympathetic identification with those who lived in the past; to try to put yourselves in their shoes; to understand them on their terms, not yours; to comprehend their way of thinking, not yours. Otherwise, once you fall back into your conceptions of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, you cease to think historically. You lack perspective, and without perspective, your worldview is impoverished."

Tonsor then turned to the board and wrote in large letters, “Einfühlung.” “Einfühlung,” he said slowly, “is German for 'sympathetic understanding' -- one of the most important concepts in the study of history, and we shall recur to it often.”

He resumed reading from his notes. “The fourth way this course will challenge you is to see that it's the changes in the way we think that make other changes possible. We shall discover that changes in the mind often precede changes in society, the economy, politics, military strategy, and so forth. Changing the way people think is one of the most revolutionary things you can do. If a people think Copernicus describes reality better than Ptolemy does, and change their mind about astronomy; if a people think Newton describes reality better than Aristotle does, and change their mind about physics; if a people think Darwin describes reality better than Genesis does, and change their mind about life on earth; if a people think Lister describes reality better than Galen does, and change their mind about medicine; if a people think Madison describes reality better than Plato does, and change their mind about politics; then that people will create a different world than would have existed otherwise.

"I also hope that you will learn to see the intended and unintended consequences of ideas. The Enlightenment went far to dethrone divine revelation and, in its place, enthrone experimental science. The philosophes did so thinking that reason was a better guide to reality than the faith and obedience called for in Genesis. But Pascal observed that the heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend. Sometimes man is moved to think and act in a way that is contrary to the dictates of reason or conventional wisdom. When John Dalton formulated atomic theory, he saw its useful applications but never dreamed of 'the bomb.'

“We can see how ideas have consequences in a contentious matter before the American people today. Our Constitution does not interpret itself. Whether your senator votes to confirm Judge Robert Bork, President Reagan's nomination for the Supreme Court, depends in part on whether he believes in a strict or loose interpretation of our fundamental law. Each of these interpretations has consequences.

"I quote John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory [1935-1936], final paragraph:
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the general encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."
“Fifth and finally, I hope this lecture course in modern European intellectual history challenges you to follow the Delphic inscription, 'know thyself.' Know thyself, not in the self-indulgent way of the therapy culture, but in a deeply humanistic way.

"In readings and lectures we will encounter a series of revolutions. More specifically, we will account for dramatic changes in European thought from the Enlightenment to the advent of Romanticism around 1750. From Romanticism we shall turn to positivism and then to the anti-positivist revolt in the 1870s. We shall consider the content of the determinative ideas in culture and society. And we shall also attempt to provide an explanation for the many ideological changes that occurred before, during, and after the French Revolution. There is heavy emphasis on the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism as well as on the emergence of Realism and Naturalism. As you grapple with each of these -isms over the next fifteen weeks, you will recognize yourselves and understand better where your own ideas, values, and beliefs come from.

"I hasten to add a caveat. It is well to remind ourselves that it is given to historians the possibility of seeing only a portion of the truth of the age they are studying. For all their great insights and achievements, our great historians remain children of their age. In our day they are typically bourgeois, liberal, and some denomination of Protestant. That their vision is partial and incomplete should not surprise us. That they are occasionally able to rise above some of the obscuring mists of their time is surprising enough.[2]

"There will be regular class discussions of the texts -- you can see that I've written them on the board. Your participation will constitute one-quarter of the grade. Your mastery of the material will also be evaluated by a midterm examination and by a final examination. Be sure to bring blue books on exam days.”[3]

The Paddington Bear: Stephen J. Tonsor (1923-2014)

In these first few minutes I noted that Tonsor pronounced certain words the way Catholics from south Saint Louis do. His “or” sounded like “are”; his “for” like “far”; his “order” like “ardor.”

“During our time together, we will challenge an idea that arose in the Enlightenment and attracted many apostles in the nineteenth century. It's the idea that history is the story of unending progress. Students today may think that it is, but it is not. Civilized men forever contend with barbarism. As a professor of mine used to say, quoting Virgil to the ordinary Illinois farm-boy and farm-girl types whom he taught, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum – things have tears in them.’”[4]

Once Tonsor settled into his lecture, he commanded the room. I thrilled at his rhetorical strategy, which was a study in definition. He laid before us the key terms of the course, elucidating on “nineteenth century,” “modern,” “European,” and “intellectual history.” The most memorable image in this first half hour of the lecture was borrowed, he explained, from his most influential professor at Illinois, Joseph Ward Swain. “The study of history is like driving a car, in reverse, at night. Looking through the rearview mirror, you can only see a narrow section of a dimly lit road already traveled. What is more, the farther back you go, the dimmer the light. Holding that analogy in mind, you will understand why even the most rigorous research must be wedded to the imagination. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, there is no good history without imagination.”


I was writing furiously, using the shorthand system that I had taught myself as an undergraduate and capturing every syllable I could. Relief came in the form of a fascinating digression when a woman raised her hand.

"Yes," Tonsor said with a note of impatience that would have done Professor Kingsfield proud. 

"I'm having trouble with the notion of intellectual history as a discipline. Isn't it hard to prove anything that you can't see and touch? I mean, you mention the importance of imagination, but how can a historian document another person's imagination?"

"Through the symbolic record the other person leaves behind," said Tonsor, "through music, art, architecture, sculpture, poems, novels, essays, and letters. Tell me: Have you ever written a letter to a friend that expresses your feelings? Neither you nor your friend nor anyone else could see the emotions, per se, but they burned inside you and you found a way to express them symbolically, in the words you composed. Don't you think your friend understood the non-material thoughts and feelings you expressed symbolically? 

"I want the class to take note of the important question this young lady raises. History is not like the physical sciences that apply reason to the sensate physical and chemical world, a world of necessity. Nor is history like the social sciences that apply statistics to human characteristics and behavior as though we were only a herd animal. Are you not more than a herd of cows?"

The class laughed.

"No," said Tonsor, "history does not preoccupy itself with the realm of necessity nor with the ethology of herds. It is neither a natural science nor a social science. Rather, history is a humanistic inquiry. It seeks to understand man as he exists in the realm of freedom: the way he sees the world, the choices he makes, the efforts to satisfy his will. What is more, h
istory seeks to decipher the symbolic ways we have created meaning and imparted wisdom over time -- through music, art, architecture, reading, conversation, study, research, and writing. It follows that history is an exploration of the temporal depths of culture. It seeks to comprehend the way tradition, order, and continuity are in tension with disruption, disorder, and change. Yet another way history is a humanistic inquiry is that it respects the individual human person and the difference one person can make. When the historian is writing biography, he tries to get inside his subject's thoughts, feelings, and imagination."

"But," the woman persisted, "tell me more about how the historian studies thoughts, feelings, and imagination? They are not visible to the senses."

"Listen," said Tonsor, showing more energy now that he was challenged, "what we cannot see is often more powerful than what we can see. Do your parents love each other?"

"Yes," the woman said, wondering how the conversation would turn.

"While you can see both of your parents, you cannot see the love between them, per se. Right? But you infer their love by observing the way they have committed to one another, speak to one another, care for one another, help one another, write little love notes to one another, and enjoy each other's company. It is love, yes? You know it is love, right, even though you cannot see the thing directly?" 

"I suppose so."

"Love -- like beauty, truth, goodness, friendship -- exists in our consciousness; it is relational; the Platonists and theologians would say it first inhabits the very mind of God. It is not something to be measured on a physical scale but rather is apprehended by our feelings, our mind, our soul, our illative sense.[5] That is what makes it transcendent -- it is above and beyond the sensate world and yet can be inferred by its effects in the sensate world.

"Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously put the matter this way: 
Nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven...."[6]
I was reminded of the words of a hymn:
Eye has not seen, ear has not heard
What God has ready for those who love Him.[7]

Our introduction to intellectual history.
After this exchange, Tonsor tried to whet his students’ appetite for the first text we'd cover -- a doozy of a read -- Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. I don't know how persuasive he was with most of the undergraduates -- they were not exactly kittens discovering the bowl of cream. I'd wager he spoke over their heads. But he was clear and direct.

“If you are like the thousand or so students who have preceded you in this class, then you will find this first reading difficult. This is a good thing -- you would not learn if it were not difficult.” Tonsor added, sotto voce, “Herr Doktor Professor Cassirer will no doubt cull the less serious scholars from the class.” The sarcasm in the word “scholars” seemed to reverberate as much as the jackhammer had.

It’s true. Cassirer's Enlightenment was even more intimidating than our professor. At home that night I would discover that it was the most difficult book I had yet encountered in my academic career.[8] On second thought that's not true -- it couldn't hold a candle to college calculus. Cassirer was, more precisely, the most difficult author I had yet encountered in the humanities. Importantly, in this first lecture Tonsor used Cassirer to demonstrate one of the things intellectual historians do: They clothe naked ideas in their biographical, historical, social, cultural, and philosophical finery.

Among the highlights from Tonsor's heavy-hitting first lecture:

“In the book you will learn about the original Enlightenment project in the eighteenth century. In the author you will learn about a reconstituted enlightenment project in the twentieth century. The link between book and author will help you understand the continuity and change of Enlightenment ideals over three centuries.” I thought: This is brilliant pedagogy. Tonsor is assigning a book that is unsurpassed in the secondary literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, by an author who was himself a primary source in an attempted twentieth-century enlightenment.

Nazi Germany (1933-1945)
"Hear the gravamen of Cassirer's brief. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt the sense of doom, the fracturing of civilization in the modern age. It was evident in two world wars; in the incompatible -isms that proliferated; and in the antihuman philosophies that propagated. British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey captured the spirit of the age: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.' It was in this dark age -- yes, this dark age -- that Cassirer pondered whether the Enlightenment project, chastened and renewed, might not help civilization come through the crisis. The fact that the project did not entirely succeed tells us something important."

Then Tonsor tried to convey the romance of intellectual history -- an important undertaking because, by the 1980s, intellectual history was passé and took a back seat to social history“It may surprise you to learn that bookish scholars can be heroes. But I tell you that Cassirer was a hero. In an atmosphere of decline and fall – first of Weimar Germany then of the Third Reich – he sought to preserve the best of German civilization: the liberal, humanistic Germany built up by Kant, Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and other leaders of the Aufklärung. After the catastrophes of World War I and the twenties, he watched the Weimar Republic weaken and become susceptible to the Nazi takeover. Yet he was not passive in the face of the rising irrationality and violence. Writing The Philosophy of the Enlightenment with urgency in the early 1930s, he sought to fortify Weimar’s cultural immune system to resist Nazi ideas and symbols. He and other intellectual leaders did not succeed in stopping Hitler, of course, and Cassirer even took the fall of the Weimar Republic as a personal defeat.[8] Yet his work would assist Germany in its odyssey back to civilization following the world wars. That’s one reason why The Philosophy of the Enlightenment remains an exemplar to this day. You don’t know whether you, too, may someday be called to serve your fellow man in this profoundly important way. In Cassirer you might find a heroic model of intellectual and moral courage.”

“Cassirer wrote about the Enlightenment at the University of Hamburg, an unlikely place for a renascence of anything resembling enlightened thought. The poet Heinrich Heine said that Hamburg, a city of merchants, is where poets go to die."

“Although he was a contradiction to his age, Cassirer was an important cultural thinker prior to his death in 1945, and he remains so now. Cassirer came of age when modern philosophers had dug a Grand Canyon between the sciences and humanities. Peering into the vast rift between these two ways of knowing, he conceived the improbable task of building a bridge that would once again link the two rims of this philosophical canyon. We must give Cassirer credit for his audacious attempts to reconcile physical nature with the human spirit, the exact sciences with the arts, the objective with the subjective, reason with passion, analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy. In the fractured modern age, he was a reconciler. To integrate all knowledge was one of the great Enlightenment projects; the goal of all the great humanists. Cassirer, arguably the greatest German humanist of his generation, was uniquely qualified to revive the Enlightenment project. Even if the project ultimately failed, his ambitious effort to unify the sciences and the humanities – to reunite the knowledge and truth on both sides of the epistemological canyon – was a heroic effort to restore the cultural unity of the West.”

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
Tonsor next said he hoped we'd find ourselves “arguing” with Cassirer during the entire course, from the first class to the last. “Ernst Cassirer was part of the revolt against Auguste Comte and the array of positivist ideas that were so influential in nineteenth-century Europe.[10] Positivism confines itself to the data of the senses and of experience. If you are an atheist, you are probably a positivist. Cassirer argued that the stakes of the anti-positivist revolt to Western civilization were high: If positivism went unchecked, if there were no anti-positivist revolt, then man would eventually regard himself merely as a material being. His free will, his moral agency, his spiritual life – all would suffer. This is an internal argument that each of you must also settle. And you thought that intellectual history would be dry!”

The lecture took a personal turn when Tonsor told the class he read Goethe every day. Indeed, it was his regular reading of Goethe that helped him understand Cassirer. For Cassirer was also devoted to Goethe and read him religiously.

"Each morning, as I dress," Tonsor seemed moved to reveal, "I read a passage from Goethe. It is from the book, Mit Goethe durch das Jahr, and I am much struck by his writing and his wisdom. It is odd, this relationship with a man so long dead. Yet he has become very familiar to me."[11]

Permit me to use this thought to push the fast forward button three decades, to 2016, as I write these reflections on my years in Ann Arbor. It has been a delight to discover a resurgence of interest in Ernst Cassirer. Young scholars have recently written several excellent books that argue for his centrality to twentieth-century intellectual history. Stephen Tonsor was one of only a handful of intellectual historians who stressed Cassirer's importance back in the 1980s.

Among these young scholars is Edward Skidelsky whose important 2008 book on Ernst Cassirer reminded me of Tonsor's first lecture in History 416. Like Tonsor, Skidelsky discusses how Goethe was resurrected at the end of World War II as the lost hero of a former Germany, an enlightened, liberal, humanistic Germany. It was no accident that Weimar was chosen to be the home of the first German Republic following World War I – it was Goethe’s home as well and thus highly symbolic of the promise of German humanism. Also after World War II, the historian Friedrich Meinecke proposed public readings of Goethe as a form of national reeducation after the Nazi years. German intellectual leaders like Cassirer looked to Goethe to recall Germany to the ideals of the Enlightenment and to its humanistic promise.[12]

A passage Skidelsky quotes by Cassirer’s wife, Toni Cassirer, is particularly apt:
The Greatest
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

“His interpretation of history; his feeling for nature; his ongoing endeavor to broaden his outlook, to extend his knowledge to almost all fields so as to strengthen his judgment and guard it against all one-sidedness, to free it from the influence of parochial experience, to distance it from the events of the day – all this derived from Goethe. His firm faith in the value of human personality, his longing for form and harmony, his abhorrence of violent destruction – both of his own ego and of the surrounding world – his loathing of ideological, political, and religious slogans – in short, everything that constituted the essence of his being, came from Goethe. I learned to understand Goethe through Ernst and Ernst through Goethe.”[13]

Could this quotation about a scholar's immersion in Goethe get at something in the core of the professor standing before us?

Exactly one minute before class was to end, Tonsor wrapped up. Cassirer, he intoned in his peroration, was one of the giants of twentieth-century intellectual history. Of Jewish parentage, his early grounding in the liberal arts prepared him for graduate study in history, literature, and philosophy, which he would skillfully integrate throughout his career. Many of his best works, including The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), were written in Weimar Germany, at the University of Hamburg, where he also supervised young Leo Strauss’s doctoral dissertation – another seminal thinker in the intellectual community I was learning about. Cassirer's warning against dismissing Enlightenment thought, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, made the book as poignant as it was significant. Because he was Jewish, he was part of the diaspora out of Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933. “Central and eastern Europe,” concluded Tonsor, “never recovered from the diaspora and attendant loss to culture.”

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)


[1] In this classroom habit Tonsor followed his mentor. See his essay, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), ed. Gregory L. Schneider, p. 311.

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Albert Schweitzer and the Crisis of Protestant Liberalism," unpublished lecture, no date, p. 13. Tonsor was always denigrating his work. In the March 21, 1989, prefatory note to his colleague David Hollinger, he wrote about the lecture: "I am certain it will be a disappointment to you -- as it was for me." I am grateful to David Hollinger for mailing me his copy of this lecture of Tonsor's in early November 2016.

[4] Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 312.

[5] John Henry Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Ascent (London: Burns, Oates, 1874), Chapter 9, pp. 266ff.

[6] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Ancient Sage," ll. 36-37.

[7] Marty Haugen's hymn is drawn from Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:9.

[8] To provide context to Tonsor's lecture on Cassirer in History 416, I am most indebted to and grateful for the background information and insights provided by Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[9] Skidelsky, Cassirer, pp. 212-13.

[10] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 1.

[11] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, p. 3; in GW's possession courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[12] Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 76.

[13] Toni Cassirer, Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981), p. 87; trans. and quoted by Skidelsky, Cassirer, p. 240.