Monday, July 31, 2017

Tonsor: Introduction: Second Call -- The Tragedy of Lord Acton

In late July, shortly before loading a 20-foot U-Haul and moving to Ann Arbor, I phoned Tonsor again, seeking his advice about which professors to look up once I was at Michigan. Then I broached a topic from our first conversation that I hoped to resume: Lord Acton as a giant of modern intellectual history and cultural criticism.

“Professor Tonsor, our last conversation sparked me to read an essay in which Acton said that liberty is more about morals than about politics and --"

Tonsor jumped right in: “Acton said that liberty is so holy a thing that God Himself was forced to permit evil that liberty might exist.[1] Think of it this way, Mr. Whitney. Animals live in the realm of necessity. Human beings also live in the realm of necessity – we have to bend to gravity and answer the need for food and water – but we live in the realm of freedom, too. A person’s dignity, a person’s nobility, resides in his using freedom to act morally. A person can only act morally if he is taught the difference between right and wrong and is free to choose between good and evil.
Lord Acton (1834-1902)

Tonsor paused. I could hear him breathing now. It follows that a primary aim of education is to learn how to exercise liberty within the bounds of the moral life.[2] A primary aim of politics is to preserve liberty as the organizing principle around which the other values in society must be ordered.[3] And a primary aim of historical research is to chart man's enduring efforts to decrease the realm of necessity and increase the realm of liberty. In Acton's mind it all coheres.

That précis, I thought, was brilliant. The man speaks in perfectly formed paragraphs.

“Acton thought the historian should be a hanging judge?" I ventured.

“The most severe hanging judge,” said Tonsor, punching the word severe. “He was fond of saying that a man’s life must be measured against its low-water mark, the one act of evil that outweighs all good.[4] Let a man criminate himself. History is better written from private letters than from public chronicles.[5]

“Acton’s reputation as a hanging judge was undoubtedly helped by the fact that he had a better nose for gossip than almost any other Victorian.[6] Gossip was the oxygen the Victorian Age inhaled. It should be said that historians in every age have inclined their ear to gossip. Take Suetonius, Procopius, or Boccaccio. People read such authors to be titillated by Eros and to satisfy their curiosity about the mechanics of sex.”

It was reassuring for me to hear references to authors with whom I was familiar (but it surprised me to hear him speak of the mechanics of sex). As an undergraduate back in Colorado, I had read Suetonius, the Roman author of Lives of the Caesars, a masterpiece of gossip parading as history, a smutty collection of the scandals surrounding the first eleven Roman emperors. Likewise I was familiar with Procopius, the Byzantine historian who wrote not just official chronicles of the Emperor Justinian but also the sordid Secret History, which is full of invective against the members of the royal family. No one knows how true these accounts are, but they are good reads to slip into a stack of monographs – like the mayonnaise between slices of dry bread.

Tonsor continued: “The people who are drawn to the salacious details in Suetonius and Procopius are the same people who read TV Guide. You will not find them grappling with Acton. Yet he is the model of rectitude when it comes to historical research and writing."

Cambridge University Library
TV Guide? I smiled at Tonsor's sarcasm -- he brandished his weapon of choice skillfully.

“During Acton’s lifetime," he continued, "the discipline of history was flowering because of the archives that were opening up all over Europe. Acton himself took part in this flourishing. He donated a thousand boxes of his own notes and research to the Cambridge library. I’ve gone through a good many of the documents to examine everything from his morals to his methods.[7] It’s staggering to trace all the directions his mind went. When it came to advising historians attempting to write history, Acton's advice was, Don’t! Instead visit Purgatory![8] It was his way of getting scholars to understand the arduous journey they were about to embark upon. I hope, Mr. Whitney, that you have also prepared for the journey."

I had, but did not feel like saying so since Tonsor had served on the committee that admitted me. Perhaps in the pause Tonsor sensed I was at a bit of a loss, so he continued to dilate on Acton's advice: “History done well requires almost superhuman talent and effort. In the first place, Acton charged researchers to be open to evidence that does not fit the thesis; to turn over every last stone and get multiple perspectives if they want to know what really happened in the past. In so many words he cautioned against what the social scientists call ‘confirmation bias’; his notes recall a scene in Dante’s Paradise, in which St. Thomas Aquinas warns the Pilgrim that 'opinion -- hasty -- often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind.'[9]

One of Gustave Doré's exquisite prints made for Dante's Divine Comedy

            “In the second place," Tonsor continued, keeping my mind on the stretch, "Acton charged historians to make out a better case for the other side than they are able to make out for themselves.[10] Cultivate the ability to drive the prosecutor’s case into a corner, and with equal skill to drive the defense’s case into a corner. Transpose the nominative and accusative and see how things look then![11]

“Acton did not suppose that the strenuous effort to understand both sides would lead to the exoneration of murder, injustice, and deceit. Not at all. Out of his elementary sense of decency and justice, he demanded that the historian administer a fair trial. But a trial there must be.[12]

“So,” I asked, “how did Acton square the scientific view of history then emerging with his insistence on moral judgment in historical writing?” I was not idly asking the question to linger on the phone. As an apprentice historian, I really needed to understand.

“You mean the old fact-value debate,” said Tonsor firmly, “the modern divide between objective facts that can be universally verified and subjective values that vary from person to person and from culture to culture. For Acton, the distinction was not so cut and dried. When it came to historical narrative, it was not ‘either-or’ but ‘both-and.’ Both the facts uncovered in the archives, and the moral assessment of human behavior. They were both the stuff of history, properly understood. Acton approached history this way because, like most Victorians, he believed in a universal natural law that could be apprehended by reason and enforced by conscience. This belief enabled him to sidestep differences in doctrine presented by the Axial Age religions. The main thing was to understand the ethical commands common to them all. The prohibition against murdering the innocent, the obligation to follow one’s informed conscience, the Golden and Silver rules – these universal commands to man’s conscience formed the basis of his moral judgments. It is probably accurate to infer that Acton’s moral reasoning was more informed by Kant than by Jesus.”[13]

Karl Jaspers's term, "Axial Age," describes the brilliant spiritual leap
humankind took around the world some 2,000-2,500 years ago.

“So," I pressed, "Acton would regard the universal commands of conscience sort of like ‘value facts’? In other words, because the Golden Rule is universal among the world’s major religions, it is tantamount to a fact? By extension, if I am pulling all of this together, it means that the most basic requirement of freedom is the right to obey the commands of conscience, to do what one ought. Or, as John Adams said, liberty is a power to do as we would be done by.”[14]

“Yes,” Tonsor said with emphasis. “To do as we would be done by.”

“Now,” Tonsor continued, “nobody ever accused Acton of being a saint in his personal life. Goodness is as far from sanctity as cleverness is from genius. Acton was personally cloaked and choked by the moral law as one might be squeezed into a suit of armor two sizes too small.”[15]

I did not know exactly how to understand the analogy, but I went on to ask whether Acton struggled with the Church.

Pio Nono (Pope Pius IX): no fan of Acton's
“Indeed! And the Church with Acton! In Acton the hierarchy confronted a petulant son, especially when it came to the doctrine of papal infallibility. Acton had a mischievous side -- he enjoyed tweaking the lion in his den, so Pio Nono was no fan of his. Acton was especially disliked by Ultramontanist toadies who prostrated themselves before the pope and scurried at his every twitch. Acton was a devout Catholic, to be sure. But he was not passionately Catholic. I’ll take the thought a step farther. The absence of religious enthusiasm may have been what made Acton tolerable to be around. He was the one you wanted to sit next to at dinner parties.

“And yet, despite his cosmopolitan ease in conversation, despite his wit at soirees, Acton was probably a very lonely man. He didn’t suffer fools. And his absolute moral stances, his implacable judgments, invariably separated him from other men. A liberal Catholic, he was too liberal for the Catholics and too Catholic for the liberals. He criticized his mentors. He broke off friendships. He quarreled bitterly with the Church hierarchy. Technically and morally, he was probably right in most of his quarrels. But whatever satisfaction he derived from being right must have been offset by the isolation he inflicted on himself from being self-righteous.[16]  

“Acton is the prophet who foresaw our times. He anticipated the dangers of statism. But ironically he is now a setting star – passé and remote. This, it must be said, is a tragedy of his own making. It’s a mystery why he never wrote his planned magnum opus, The History of Liberty – the book he was meant to write. Everyone around him waited years for the work to appear, but it never did and posterity is the worse for it. The History of Liberty has been called the greatest book never written.’[17]

"The greatest book never written"

“The irony is that Acton had already written it in his head. He had penned thousands of pages of notes brimming with material for the book. I’ve seen the material myself.[18] But, reaching the end of his life, he realized he would not compose the work and donated all his research to Cambridge, all his notes that fill literally a thousand boxes. He had to settle on the hope that some enterprising scholar would eventually come along after his death and compose the history of liberty he failed to write. Those boxes are a feeble commemoration of a brilliant mind, a sad testimonial to the tragedy of wasted labor.[19] Socrates, Jesus, Mohammad, Charlemagne – they could pull off going unpublished; Acton could not.”

I listened in silence to this remarkable lesson on Lord Acton and tried to be comfortable with the pause that ensued. But my mind would not be still. What with his dizzying erudition, Tonsor had given me much to ponder. I had never heard a teacher speak in this manner before.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 255-56; Acton's view is line with that of Edmund Burke, who said as much when he wrote, in 1790, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist.” Thanks to Professor Bradley Birzer for reminding me of Burke's quotation.

[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. 11.

[3] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, pp. 255-56.

[4] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2015), Kindle edition, Ch. 8, loc. 4138. Himmelfarb's book was particularly helpful in reconstructing Tonsor's and my first conversations on Lord Acton.

[5] Lord Acton, letter to Mandell Creighton, at URL, accessed August 26, 2016.

[6] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 104.

[7] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 125.

[8] Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg (Lord), “Advice to Persons about the Write History,” at The Imaginative Conservative, at URL, accessed August 26, 2016.

[9] Paradiso, Canto 13: 118-20, trans. Allen Mandelbaum.

[10] Acton quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, “Faculty Diversity and University Survival,” in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle: Open Court, 1974), p. 155.

[11] Acton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg (Lord), “Advice to Persons about the Write History,” at The Imaginative Conservative, at URL, accessed August 26, 2016.

[12] Tonsor, “Faculty Diversity and University Survival,” in Tradition and Reform in Education, p. 155.

[13] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy by Holland, loc. 23.

[14] John Adams, Works, vol. 10; quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway Edition, 1985), p. 100.

[15] Tonsor, Introduction, Legacy by Holland, loc. 23.

[16] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 125-148.

[17] L. M. Phillipps, Europe Unbound (London, 1916), p. 147n.; quoted by Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 114.

[18] Caroline Tonsor interview with GW, Chelsea, MI, March 15, 2017. Ms. Tonsor spoke of a different era when it came to research. She said that the "Xeroxed documents" from the Cambridge University library arrived in Ann Arbor on a continuous roll that she had to divide up with scissors. See the resulting monograph and detailed references in Stephen J. Tonsor, “Lord Acton on Döllinger’s Historical Theology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 20, no. 3 (June-September 1959), pp. 329-52.

[19] Himmelfarb, Lord Acton, Ch. 1, loc. 114.

Tonsor: Introduction: First Call -- 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 retrieved material from the Anderson Room at Cambridge, 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 aperçu, 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’ve 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.