Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Equality


After we finished lunch and began the walk back to campus, Tonsor broached a related topic. "You'd be interested in a book I'm working on, Mr. Whitney. It's about equality. Remarkably, there has been no systematic historical exploration of the idea of equality in recent times. This, despite the ridiculous overproduction of monographs! Yet historians have failed to provide an account of the development of the idea of equality. I argue that this notion -- equality -- has provided the key signature of the modern world. No idea has played a larger role in the history of the past two or three centuries than that of equality."[1]

"When it comes to equality," I said, "it seems everyone nowadays embraces some form of trickle-down Marx." 

"Very true," Tonsor said with a gust of laughter. "Now, insofar as the historian can discern, inequality characterized all civilizations in the past. In fact, if one were to argue that the experience of history constitutes a prescriptive norm, then one must confront the fact that the great bulk of human experience constitutes an argument against equality. Until the eighteenth century nearly all men regarded inequalities of wealth, status, and power as in the nature of things, an unalterable given. That changed sometime in the eighteenth century. Witnessing the American and French revolutions, men in substantial numbers questioned inequality from the standpoint of political and social justice.[2]

"Roughly speaking, equality is to the modern age what freedom was to the early modern age. As you know, freedom -- freedom of thought, speech, religion, politics, economics, national independence -- stamped nearly all important historical struggles from the Reformation to the French Revolution and beyond. We are still under freedom's spell. But at some point after the French Revolution, equality eclipsed even freedom as a value and now plays a larger role than ever in our debates, polities, and aspirations."[3]

As I listened to this, I thought of how Tonsor's precis might be one of those powerful summations that are a graduate school game changer.  

My professor continued: "As you know, I advise my students to be alert to historical development. By historical development I mean neither the ideological distortions that you see in the Hegelian dialectic, nor the Whig notion that the 'past is prologue,' nor the nationalists' chest-thumping, nor the Marxian scheme that imposes a theory of scientific inevitability on the historical record. That's not history. That's a one-size-fits-all ideology. Rather, I want students to explore historical development empirically. I want them to order their thinking in a disciplined manner, which means, first, examining the symbolic record men have left behind and, second, basing their interpretation on the canons of reason, logic, and evidence."

Tonsor's advice to students was about as succinct a statement as I'd heard of the normative method that had been developed by historians over the last two centuries. Actually that method was the subject of an important book I had been encouraged to read, That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick.[4] 

I also appreciated that Tonsor did not confine exploration of the past to "the written record" as so many historians did, but to "the symbolic record" since he himself liberally used art, iconography, music, and architecture in his intellectual history and cultural criticism. 

"In the case of equality, the development has been exceedingly complex. The idea is more convoluted, has meant more different things, has undergone more transformations, than just about any other idea in the modern age.[5] Would you agree?"

"I would!" I said, excited that Tonsor was sharing his book proposal with me. "There are so many different ways to interrogate the idea of equality because there are so many different arenas in which the struggle for equality has taken place. It's been humankind's running struggle, I suppose, since Hammurabi and Moses. The priests -- they have to define what religious equality looks like. Are all human persons equal by virtue of having souls and being created in the image and likeness of God? The judges -- they have to work out what the equality of all persons under the law looks like. The politicians -- they have to determine political equality through norms like one man one vote. The entrepreneurs -- they must seek economic equality by eliminating barriers to entering the marketplace and obstacles to growing their businesses. The social theorists -- they come up with redistributive policies like guaranteed income and school vouchers to give every disadvantaged family a ladder up." 

"You are referring to Milton Friedman," observed Tonsor. "One of our most creative thinkers on the right when it comes to the problem of equality and the related idea of equity. And then there are the abstract philosophers who continue to spin out their ethereal theories. They can be interesting and not altogether unproductive. But it's important to note that when a philosopher like John Rawls writes about equality, he is only ratifying changes that have already occurred in a Sitz im Leben, in a real historical and cultural context."[6]  


"What I find especially fascinating is the distance between all the paeans to equality -- by the political scientists, philosophers, Marxist theorists, and historians -- and the absence of equality in the world as we find it. As you know, works dealing with the organization of human society tend to divide into how society is, or how it ought to be: into descriptive or prescriptive treatments. So: Machiavelli in The Prince wrote descriptively; Plato in the Republic wrote prescriptively. Christopher Jencks in Inequality wrote descriptively; Huxley in Island wrote prescriptively. But no author can claim to have found true equality in our civilization. Is this not strange? In a day when demands for equality are at an all-time high, when the rhetoric of equality is at a fever pitch, when the promise of equality is a staple of political life, the fact is that while certain kinds of equality have increased over the past two centuries, there is, overall, little enough by way of genuine equality.[7] 

"Muhammad Ali seeks more political and economic equality. But he is who he is and earns what he earns because of a peculiar combination of genetics, metabolism, training, and opportunity that can only be described as extraordinary. No amount of political or economic equality can suppress that fact.[8]

"And so it is that our experience of individuals and of society is not the experience of equality but rather the experience of the most intense and pervasive inequality. And yet the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence asserted that 'all men are created equal.' Surely there is a contradiction in American political theory in particular and in Western political theory as a whole between prescriptive and descriptive social and political analysis. So we must ask, what exactly does the clause mean? Did it mean the same thing to Thomas Jefferson as it did to the son of a hardscrabble farmer in south-central Illinois named Abraham Lincoln?[9]

"The idea of equality is central to understanding the American experience. It is the fundamental idea that lies behind the American Revolution and the extraordinary society we in America have created. More important still, the idea of equality has transformed not only the political life and society of the United States but also the life and society of the world.[10] 

"Yes, the notion of equality has been the single most potent revolutionary force the world has ever seen. Over and over again in the course of the past 200 years, mankind has defied tradition and status, blood and accumulated usage, in the hope of regenerating and recreating society. More often than not these revolutions have ended in failure and even a diminution rather than an increase in equality."

"Thus confirming Orwell's quip," I said, "that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?"

"Yes," Tonsor chuckled. "Orwell's mordant wit gets straight to the heart of the matter: Ideologues have been manipulating the idea of equality for two centuries now. Still, it is equality that has provided the dynamism, the moving force that has energized modern history. The great liberal and leftist revolutions of the past two centuries have all been made in the name of equality."[11] 



[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "A Few Unequal and Preliminary Thoughts," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 63-65.

[2] This statement stretches the chronology found in J. B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (Kindle ed.), p. 8; Bury's book is favorably cited by Tonsor and informed some of his thinking on the subject. See Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[3] Again, this statement stretches the chronology found in J. B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought, p. 8. See Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 65.

[4] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[5] Tonsor, "A Few Unequal," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, p. 63.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid., p. 64.

[8] Ibid., p. 65.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 68.

[11] Ibid.

Tonsor: American History: The South


Jesse Jackson received a surprisingly high
percentage of the white vote when he ran in
Democratic primaries and caucuses in 1988.
In Michigan he easily won the Democratic caucus.
Jesse Jackson made a remarkable run for the presidency in the early months of 1988 -- two decades before America would elect its first black president, Barack Obama. Michigan played a significant role in the ascent of the civil rights leader: After he won the Democratic caucus with 55 percent of the vote, Jackson for a brief time was the Democratic front-runner since he had the most pledged delegates. Whatever their politics, many voters recognized that it was a significant threshold for an African-American to cross.[1]

Tonsor was cynical about this historic moment. When I joined him and Caroline for lunch a few days after the caucus, he dismissed the result: "Jesse Jackson's showing in Michigan is a fluke and he won't win -- he can't win. America is not ready for a black president. To cite that great expert, the comedian Don Rickles: 'Last year we said things can't go on like this, and they didn't -- they got worse.'"

He chuckled, but I was not feeling the vibe. Because of recent conversations among my circle of acquaintances and friends, the topic hit an irritating boil that was ready to pop. In my agitation I hardly noticed that the ever-gracious Caroline set a plate of hot food before me.

"Well," I said, "I was born and raised in Texas and also spent part of my childhood in New Orleans, and I find it interesting how many Northerners think they're experts on the South. Some of our colleagues on campus have expressed dismay that Jackson is racking up primary victories below the Mason-Dixon Line, and not just with the support of black voters. He's winning with significant white support, too.[2] I am starting to think that Northerners don't want to give the South any credit for overcoming the burden of its history." 

My Texas drawl was subtly surfacing in my speech, as it often did when I spoke about my childhood home at any length or with any passion. Tonsor sat squarely in his chair, looking at me through his thick glasses with that sphinx-like expression of his. I had no idea what he was thinking -- maybe he had never heard my Texas accent before -- but I raised the ante in an effort to get him to play his hand.

"I've been surprised by the prejudice against the South on campus," I persisted, "and by the condescension toward Southerners. Yesterday one of our department's star grad students said that a Southern accent knocked ten points off a speaker's IQ. 

"But I'll tell you what I think after living in the North these past several months: When it comes to race relations, I think the North needs the South to be its scapegoat. Look at how Northerners are always calling out the South for being racist. But notice that they bring out their fog machine to obscure the truth and hide their own racist past."

Tonsor, I perceived, began to shake his head but I could not tell whether it was in agreement or disagreement. 

"Don't you think," I repeated with growing heat, "that a lot of Northerners use the South as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from their own legacy of racism -- whether it's Brown University capitalizing on the New England slave trade, or it's Indiana reviving the KKK after World War I, or it's Detroit being the most segregated city in North America? Aren't both sections of the country stained with the blood of America's original sin. It's always easier to look at the splinter in the other fellow's eye than to deal with the splinter in your own. I don't think the North is in any position to lecture the South when it comes to race."


Caroline and Tonsor fussed with their food. They were uncharacteristically quiet. It suddenly occurred to me that I was violating their hospitality. Here I sat at the table of two Northerners who were feeding me and who likely sympathized with my complaint. But I had a burr under my saddle, and my heated and defensive rant was not conducive to friendly conversation. The irony was not lost on me that I was acting in a very un-Southern way; my mother would have been mortified. Apologizing, I looked for a way to change the subject.

"You are just expressing your Southern pride," said Tonsor with understanding. 

"It just shows that you feel comfortable enough with us to say what's on your mind," added Caroline kindly.

"Thank you for saying that," I said. "As you can probably sense, I feel more conflicted than ever. It's not as though I can return to the South and fall into the old conversations. I cannot act as though I haven't learned things. Maybe the Dunning School is not the last word on the subject."

Columbia University historian William Dunning
For Caroline's benefit, and for mine too it turned out, Tonsor elaborated, "Mr. Whitney is referring to one of the most influential historians in U.S. history, William Dunning. During the Gay Nineties and early twentieth century he left his mark on the first generation of university-trained doctoral students who wrote on the Reconstruction era, and their work would influence the interpretation of Reconstruction for a hundred years. [3] His intellectual genealogy is also worthy of note. He himself was German trained -- by the extreme nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke, a historian who is best handled with tongs. After returning to the U.S., Dunning established himself at Columbia where he was a teacher of Carlton J. H. Hayes, who was a teacher of Joseph Ward Swain, who was a teacher of mine."[4]

"So your professional genealogy descends from Dunning?" I queried, wondering whether I had just stuck my foot in my mouth.

"I would be a mutation," Tonsor said sarcastically, "for I am much more in Lord Acton's line of descent and have never considered myself part of Dunning's so-called school. But it is important to know who he is. Dunning notched his gun by slaying apologist after Northern apologist of Reconstruction. Not surprisingly his legacy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the South is quite enthusiastic about him. He and his doctoral students at Columbia did painstaking archival research to demonstrate how much the Radical Republicans hurt the former Confederate States of America. There was much of value in their findings, for they help us understand why the South resents the North to this day. On the other hand -- a stained hand, no doubt -- in retrospect he is considered a racist. People think his work extended the shelf life of Jim Crow and made black disenfranchisement respectable. Today, as you can imagine, his shade is persona non grata at the American Historical Association, which is ironic considering he was one of its founders.

"I also mentioned Lord Acton whose reflections are to the point. It is my considered judgment that Acton was the most knowledgeable foreign observer of American affairs in the nineteenth century. His writings on America are not much read nowadays because he supported the South in the Civil War. Yet I urge you to read his long essay on what he called the Second American Revolution; it's published in his journal The Rambler, and it's misleadingly titled, "Political Causes of the American Revolution." Acton was no defender of chattel slavery -- not at all like Calhoun who wrote of slavery as a 'positive good" -- yet he believed the federal system of states' rights was critically important to upholding freedom and curbing the enlargement of the national government, not to mention the expanding tyranny of the president. The South, Acton believed, was fighting for liberty, for progress, and for civilization.[5] And while he believed that most great men were bad men,[6] he sympathized with the tragic pathos of Robert E. Lee, who felt duty-bound to defend his homeland against invasion. He wrote to Lee following his surrender, 'I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.'"[7]

I silently noted the irony that Acton wanted to uphold freedom in the states that supported slavery but, feeling that I had been combative enough already, kept the observation to myself. 

"For me," I offered instead, "there's no going home to the same South. I see it differently now. I'll always love my family, of course, and the flavors, smells, and scenes of my childhood, but I've had to rethink what I learned in childhood -- about race, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, all of it. I mean, my generation is probably the last to see Southerners stand when the band strikes up Dixie! Even my view of Lincoln has taken a 180. Several members of my family thought he was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution. They could never speak his name without gnawing their hand over his invasion of the South. They have a point. But then you travel. You read. You talk. You reconsider. It takes time to come to terms with the South's mixed legacy." 


"You are dealing with a tangle of myth, memory, and the politics of nostalgia. Because the Civil War is the American Iliad,[8] it is constantly being refought in the public memory. Much is at stake, for myths make meaning, meaning makes politics, and politics make myths.[9] It will take time, but you will find a way to come to terms with your Southern legacy," Tonsor said, and added, in a softer register: "Maybe it's harder for Texans because of the pride Texans have in the Lone Star State. But with time and perspective you will sort it out.

"I have a similarly complicated relationship to my home, the Great River Country of south-central Illinois, with its large horizons, its prairie panoramas, and its riparian woodlands. The Land of Lincoln," he added with a mischievous grin. I smiled back at him, for we had reversed roles. In dialogue he was more likely to be the edgy one with the chip on his shoulder; I the patient listener. Today we got to see things from the other side of the fence.

Lincoln Hall, where Illinois's history department once was housed. The
edifice looks like a Roman temple dedicated to a "god," Abraham Lincoln,
whose bust is in the alcove at the end of the lobby.
"I was raised on Lincoln," said Tonsor. "He was everywhere in my childhood. After World War II, when I attended Illinois -- a land-grant university whose founding was owed to Lincoln's support for the Morrill Act -- I encountered his words every day, literally. The history department was then in Lincoln Hall, a building that was designed to look vaguely like a Roman temple to a god, and in this case the god was Abraham Lincoln. As you approach Lincoln Hall from the Main Quad, you can look up at the entablature which girds the top of the building and see a Bartlett's worth of Lincoln quotations."

"The hall is a veritable shrine to Lincoln," added Caroline. She looked at her husband and said, somewhat tentatively: "There must be three dozen quotations of the President, and a bust in the lobby." 

"Yes." Then, turning to me he remarked, "I have mixed feelings when I return home, to south-central Illinois. Caroline and I usually drive back to Jerseyville over the Fourth of July to be with family. But there is always something depressing about going back. So many people there have never reached for more than a very average life. Meaningful conversation can be tough slogging. Most of what they know about the world comes from lowbrow television shows. But these are my people and it's home.

"So I understand your attachment to place, as well as your very complicated relationship to Texas and the South. It's similar to my complicated relationship to south-central Illinois. The irrational attachment to place is one of the things that makes us human. Alas, the importance of place is often overlooked in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Ann Arbor. Here reign the deracine."



[1] R. W. Apple Jr., "Jackson Wins Easily in Michigan in Surprising Setback to Dukakis," New York Times, March 27, 1988, at URL "; R. W. Apple Jr., "Jackson Is Seen as Winning a Solid Place in History," New York Times, April 29, 1988, at URL 

[2] E. J. Dionne Jr., "Black and White: How Jesse Jackson Made History While Losing Wisconsin, New York Times, April 10, 1988, at URL; E. J. Dionne Jr., "Jackson's Share of Votes by Whites Triples in '88, New York Times, June 13, 1988, at URL

[3] For a more recent treatment of the state of the historiographic debate over William Dunning and his legacy, see The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, ed. John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, Foreword by Eric Foner (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[4] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Joseph Ward Swain," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 312.

[5] 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).

[6] Lord Acton letter to Mandell Creighton, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Kindle edition), chap. 9, loc. 4880.

[7] Lord Acton letter to Robert E. Lee, November 1866; quoted by Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty."

[8] This expressive allusion was used by the University of Chicago professor Richard Weaver in "Lee the Philosopher," Georgia Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (fall 1948): 297. Previously it was the title of a book that was published when Tonsor was an undergraduate: Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman, The American Iliad: The Epic Story of the Civil War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947). 

[9] A similar formulation was offered by the Berkeley historian T. J. Stiles, "We Need a New Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe," History News Network, August 27, 2017, at URL 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tonsor: Catholicism: Integrated Humanities Program


Between the decision to become Catholic and my formal reception into the Church, the ardor that propelled my conversion stalled and my spirits took a nosedive. Insecurity about my career resurfaced. For the previous several years, when I thought about what I ought to do with my life, I visualized myself teaching at a college where I could do some good for the students, the college, and the culture. I thought the best means to that end was graduate study in a good history program since that would maximize my development and opportunities. That's why I ended up at Michigan studying under Stephen Tonsor.

Although I am not the type to wear my religion on my sleeve, I still needed to process how the conversion might alter my work: Should I aim to teach in a secular or Catholic college? What if my only job offer were from an ideologically grounded college? Would my faith become an issue in graduate research and teaching? Would my conversion put off professors in a position to help my career along?

A voice in me asked: What would you do if you were not afraid?

To allay my concerns, I sought out my Doktorvater and soon-to-be-godfather, Stephen Tonsor. He did not pull punches, and the following dialogue would turn out to be important to my career.


"Okay," I said, finding Tonsor in his office at the appointed hour, "here I am at Michigan, trying to figure out the extent to which my conversion might inform my work, particularly my approach to history."

Tonsor nodded but, uncharacteristically, did not respond right away. 

I then introduced an idea that I thought would give Tonsor and me grist for conversation: "I am looking for models of what I should or should not do next. When I lived in Colorado, a professor told me about the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. I wondered how three professors -- Dennis Quinn, John Senior, and Frank Nelick -- got away with creating a Catholic 'Great Books' program at a public R1 university. They believed that there was such a thing as truth and that the academy should offer students an integrated approach to the search for the truth.[1] But the dean and most of the faculty were skeptical. They accused the program's founders of being part of an 'international conspiracy' that required narrow sectarian teaching, religious indoctrination, brainwashing, and proselytizing.[2] Even Catholics were charging the IHP with providing a safe-house for potentially schismatic Catholics who followed Archbishop Lefebvre who by then was in open defiance of the Pope.[3] All this happened little more than a decade ago and it makes me ask: How self-consciously 'Catholic' can or should a Catholic scholar be?"

Tonsor answered: "You are asking the necessary questions -- I'd worry about you if you didn't -- and regarding the IHP I can certainly argue for the defense. 

"It's true: The Integrated Humanities Program was a political failure. Yet its founders were courageous visionaries willing to stick their necks out[4] at a time when the centrifugal forces in our society were tearing all semblance of coherence in higher education to shreds. Those were years of campus unrest, the Kent State shootings, and radical curricular experimentation.

"So Quinn, Senior, and Nelick came along and had a vision of restoring the humanities on campus. They wrote beautifully of recovering the liberal arts, of inspiring wonder, of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.[5] They were antimodernists and Thomists who challenged the modernists and pluralists at KU. Predictably, the antimodernists and Thomists could not gain the support of the modernists and pluralists.[6] Within ten years, KU's faculty killed the IHP in a democratic vote. That should surprise no one: A democracy killed Socrates, and a majority vote condemned Jesus to death.

John Senior, a Catholic convert and one of the three founders of the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas.
Image at URL

"It became a national story. Some would charge that KU's dean, a jesting Pilate, was determined to kill the program from the start. Not only did he ask the Thomists, 'What is truth?' He handled the death sentence quite clumsily. A committee scotched the program by bureaucratic maneuvering that would strip IHP faculty of their power of initiative. Asked whether they could accommodate such an arrangement, I recall Dennis Quinn saying, 'I refuse to kiss the hangman'; and John Senior saying, 'I won't participate in my own execution.' Basically KU mandated that the integrated search for truth be disintegrated.[7]

"So, yes, by one measure the program was a political failure; it could not survive in a public R1 university. But by another measure it enjoyed some academic success. During the few years of its existence, students voted with their feet; they flocked to the program by the hundreds.[8] The classical readings, learned discourse, stargazing, and integral view of reality made them alive to a much richer intellectual life than the ordinary fare. It inspired them to wonder about the truth, goodness, and beauty that are revealed in creation. These were Olympian achievements on Mount Oread.[9]
KU is built atop a considerable hill called Mount Oread. Image at URL

"Perhaps an even greater success occurred in the realm of the spiritual, as evidenced by the number of Catholic conversions and vocations the IHP inspired. The spate of spiritual conversions was a notable outcome[10] -- and it doomed the program. Quinn, Senior, and Nelick were reviled, envied, and feared; victims of their own success. Or should I say martyrs?"

I was eager to jump in: "What does it say about the intellectual ecology of the academy these days that Catholic scholars cannot thrive if they take religion seriously?"

"It's a fallen world filled with struggle," Tonsor said forcefully. "Are you surprised?"

I did not want to come across as naive since Tonsor felt disdain for the Pollyanna type.[11] I decided it was prudent not to continue that line of thought but just to let him keep talking.

"In the modern age," observed Tonsor, "there is a running battle over our most fundamental beliefs. Ours is a society where few men live in the house in which they were born; few live in the landscape which was their homeland. S
cience has transformed the values and technology has transformed the conditions of life. Religion, the essence of changelessness, remains the last redoubt against modernity. Not surprisingly, faith has become a battleground between those who would surrender to transience and those who would defend the permanent things. For the latter, it's a fierce and rearguard battle. As Henry Adams remarked, we have long since entered the era when 'whirl is king.'"[12]


Suddenly Tonsor switched gears: "The IHP appeared at the wrong time and in the wrong place."

I looked at him quizzically. "What do you mean?" After his capable defense of the program, I was now unsure what he actually thought.

"Despite my high regard for Quinn, Senior, and Nelick; despite all their program's attractive strengths; there were legitimate reservations. I'm not talking about the jaundiced critics who accused the IHP of being part of an international conspiracy. That's an old anti-Catholic canard and it is shameful that Ph.D.s trained in the most sophisticated research methods would, without evidence, say such an absurd thing.

"A moment ago I argued for the defense. Now I shall argue for the prosecution." In using this method, Tonsor was tipping his hat to the primary method of the liberal arts -- from Socrates to the medieval scholastics to Lord Acton -- to examine all sides of an question. It was high irony on Tonsor's part -- to critique a traditional liberal program by applying the traditional method of the liberal arts -- but it effectively set up the point he was about to make. 

"We must ask: Were the three professors advocating too strongly for Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas?[13] Did they exclude competing views to the detriment of the students' education? I heard that the professors frowned on students asking questions,[14] which is inexplicable because teaching students to ask questions in the dialectical pursuit of truth is the sine qua non of a liberal education. To stifle questions in the humanities is problematic. Students do need to learn the range of debate when it comes to the perennial questions. They do need to know how to engage in rigorous dialectic with their professors and with each other. It's what puts the liberty in a liberal education. The freedom to shape one's informed worldview: that freedom is what keeps one's mind from being servile. 

"Add to these concerns additional ones -- for instance, that the students had 24 semester hours of freshman and sophomore humanities courses with just those three professors who all had the same Thomistic worldview. It's understandable that people of good will had questions. It was not only the pluralists who questioned whether the program served the best interests of the students.

"You see, the syllabus came out of the pressed-flower school of liberal education --" (He paused at my laughter.) "It relied too heavily on a set of premodern 'Great Books' which is not always the best way to initiate students into the modern intellectual problems they will face. Maybe the radio addresses of C. S. Lewis capture the students' imagination more than, say, the summas of Thomas Aquinas.[15] The teacher must be flexible. 

"In addition, the program's ahistorical approach to those 'Great Books,' its failure to give students adequate context, seriously hinders the enjoyment of reading them for the first time. I mean, how can you tackle Virgil's Aeneid or Dante's Inferno without a map, without knowing where to place the historically conditioned worldview of the people threaded through the story? This was also the design flaw in Mortimer Adler's set of 'Great Books of the Western World.'[16] It was ahistorical to a crippling degree, which is why no one reads them; in most houses the volumes just sit on bookshelves like knick-knacks. 

"Also, there was the program's attitude to modernity -- how it taught or, rather, did not teach students to engage modernity. The modern project is exceedingly problematic, but not everything about modernity is morally evil, intellectually misguided, and psychologically alienating. We are called to confront -- not just to reject outright, but to confront -- modernity: to test it and sift it and prove it. It's sometimes the most modern of authors who help us do that. While Goethe did not believe in transcendence the way a thirteenth-century Thomist did, I would defy anyone to do better than Faust for exploring and understanding the tragedy of the modern spirit.

"Now, I do not know John Senior personally, but after he converted to Catholicism in the early 1960s[17] he adopted an extreme position in his rejection of modernity -- rather too extreme, in my view. He apparently has a low opinion of Vatican II and attends Mass at Society of Pius X chapels.[18] His antimodern theology spilled over into the IHP whose assigned readings pretty much stopped at the year 1300 AD.[19] Well, time did not stop in 1300 AD. 

"And that leads to my final point: Not one of the teachers who founded the IHP was professionally trained in history. Their approach was largely literary and philosophical; by their own admission they "taught in the poetical mode";[20] Now, after I returned from the war I was a serious student of poetry and in fact considered becoming a poet.[21] At Illinois I took many philosophy courses and came close to pursing a philosophy Ph.D. I have great respect for my colleagues who are "lovers of wisdom." But poets and philosophers are sometimes tempted to take historical shortcuts. They do not work hard enough to understand the philosopher's cultural context and the development of ideas over time. I look skeptically on the work of people who inadvertently create wrinkles in time because doing so distorts the narrative of what really happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen. Then the danger is that the poet and philosopher are presenting something that looks more like propaganda than history. 

"Being antimodern is romantic and quixotic but it can be misguided if it's the sole exposure college students will have to the humanities. If you do not adequately prepare your students to confront the modern age -- if their minds are not truly engaged when they approach Goethe, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud because the well has already been poisoned -- then you are doing your students a great injustice. It takes courage to confront modernity, but students in the liberal arts have to get a sense of its complexity. They must be taught to test and sift the modernist authors in order to discern the truth, goodness, and beauty in their writing -- or in the debates provoked by their writing. 

"So, as much as I admire the integrity of Quinn, Senior, and Nelick; as much I as prefer to root for Catholics on the home team; I did find problems with the Integrated Humanities Program, serious problems that would have made me reluctant to lend it my unqualified support had I been at Kansas in the 1970s."[22]

As I listened to this pro et contra, I was surprised by how thoroughgoing Tonsor's criticism of the Integrated Humanities Program was. Although a devout Catholic who attended Mass faithfully, he could not support fellow Catholics when he thought their love for the thirteenth century shortchanged students who had to learn to confront modernity. In the years to come, I would learn other surprising things about his view of the Church. He was certainly Catholic -- but not the Catholic of my projections.


Tonsor wanted to be done with discussing the IHP and go directly to the point I was raising. "You will have to find your own way to come to terms with your conversion and your career. I cannot tell you how to do it.

"But I say this: If you believe that God is ultimately the author of all truth, then you will not be afraid of searching for truth wherever it might be found. Diamonds have been discovered in dunghills. The Catholic humanist knows this to be so and is not afraid to explore places outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Keep this assurance in mind -- it will always be the bridge between your faith as a Catholic and your work as an historian."

A eureka moment, this. Tonsor's words, which threaded through my mind like lightning in the night sky, supplied a therapeutic shock. His thought reminded me of something he had written in another context, a beautiful passage I had read in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in 1987 when on the journey to Ann Arbor. There he had written that it was important to "conceive of truth as God's own to be cherished and loved for His sake."[23] If I remained focused on pursuing truth, I should never again feel agitated about the relationship between my religion and my work. They would forever be organically connected.

It was a lovely thought -- meditation on which was cut short by a practical consideration: "What about the methodological gatekeepers who guard the ramparts to the profession? They do not speak of God as the ultimate author of truth, and they would roll their eyes if they heard me do so."

"Again, I cannot tell you how to negotiate history's gatekeepers. I could have done a better job myself. You must find your own way.

"But I have never counseled Catholics to retreat into the comforts and isolation of the Catholic ghetto. No, we Catholics should take our distinctive Catholicism into the WASP world, into the humdrum of the secular world, and engage. We should engage not just for our own sake -- since one cannot be a good Catholic without doing so -- but also for the sake of the world.[24] 

"In coming years you will find yourself trying to integrate two things: becoming a true humanist and a well-formed Catholic. The two are closely related. Our priests, poets, artists, and scholars in the humanities are entrusted in a special way with our patrimony. The humanists are the great conservators in every age. They live from the tradition even when they live against the tradition. They are the historical memory of mankind and because they are, they guarantee to us our humanity. Without the humanists, our culture would shuffle about, aimlessly, like an Alzheimer's patient without memory.[25]

"Unfortunately a disheartening trend has been under way for several years now. Too many humanists are committing treason. Recall the term made famous by the French novelist and philosopher, Julien Benda, who wrote of the 'treason of the intellectual.' The treason of the intellectual, the treason of the humanist, occurs when he refuses to fulfill the role to which he has been called: he trades the contemplative life for the active life.[26] It's a bad deal -- bad for himself and bad for his culture. 

"What's behind this treason, you might ask? It is politics. The intellectual has abandoned his calling because he has been beguiled by politics. In our day some trace the beguilement to the Reagan presidency. After Nixon and the Watergate scandal, good people turned away from politics. But Reagan came onto the scene. He was a charismatic figure and successful leader -- so successful he put the romance back into politics and seduced conservative intellectuals away from their calling. Now the humanist is making political activism and the manipulation of power his calling."[27]

I was taken aback by this charge against the Reagan revolution. I had assumed that Tonsor, a thoroughgoing conservative and stalwart Republican, was a big fan of Reagan's. 

"It is simple arithmetic," he said. "The more humanists abandon the academy, the fewer there remain to teach. It's not just the conservative movement that is damaged when our humanists put on a blue suit and red power tie and go to Washington; it's the culture, the humanities, our universities. But there are other and more important things for the humanists to do. In times like these, perhaps the ivory tower is the best defense against barbarism."[28] 

"But," I countered, "if the academy is becoming hostile to humanists, doesn't it make sense that a lot of them would want to work in a sympathetic administration?" 

"So then what? Do we abandon the field? If there is to be a Catholic intellectual life, then Catholic humanists will have to stand up in the academy; humanists who have the courage to join battle; humanists who are unabashedly, unselfconsciously, unapologetically Catholic.[29]

"The situation is not hopeless. The intellectually formed Catholic already has the makings of the good humanist. That's because Catholicism has a vision of the wholeness of man which is essential to the humanities. If we ought, as Lord Acton cautioned the historian, always to look for the cloven hoof, then we also ought to look in every man for the divine image: a comprehension of body and soul, of the real and the ideal, of nature and grace, of necessity and freedom, of sorrow and joy, of creatureliness and divinity, of all the contradictory and complementary elements which we as men find in our natures. There is no better antidote to ideology than the Catholic vision of the wholeness of man."[30] 

"There's your hermeneutic of dynamic tension again," I said with satisfaction. 

He growled and waved the thought off with irritation. 

"I must also say this: Professors Quinn, Senior, and Nelick got at least one of the fundamentals right: Education must be integral if it is to be successful. Our partial truths cry out for completeness, while our experiences need the confirmation and affirmation which derive from the experiences of others. Truth is always catholic, error always sectarian and subjective. Consequently community is always essential to the discovery and communication of truth. Because this is the case, we must, if we take the question of liberal education seriously, see that our colleges and universities are genuine communities and not simply a congeries of buildings housing atomistic students and alienated professors, each in his own bubble doing his own thing.[31]

"You are a Catholic humanist in formation. You seek what Jacques Maritain called 'integral humanism.' Leave off taking cues from the despairing and decadent culture of our times and with the aid of the Holy Spirit proceed to make all things new -- whatever you encounter -- be it in scholarship, imaginative literature, music, art, architecture. In all such endeavors you have a charge to keep. Doing nothing is not an option. For we will never recover harmony, dignity, clarity, and beauty until we discern once more the wholeness of man.[32]

"So be that person at the seminar table and speaker's podium who resists the ideologues who would reduce man to pure matter like the Marxists or pure spirit like the Gnostics. Be the integral humanist who sees man in all his marvelous and vexing complexity. Ecce homo! Or with Shakespeare say, 'What a piece of work is man!' This is why we study the humanities, to know thyself and our kind. Therein lies the path to becoming more fully human, because when we look into the depths of the human person, we also discover intimations of our God."


It did not seem that Stephen Tonsor was going to show me how to handle the methodological gatekeepers of our profession. It was disappointing, but I did have the other members of my committee to consult.

Perhaps Tonsor was teaching me something more valuable than how to dodge the methodological gatekeepers. On the bus ride back to North Campus, I reflected on his intellectual style. He delighted in keeping his interlocutors off-balance. Whether our conversation was about politics or religion, poetry or intellectual history, I found him sometimes delightfully, sometimes maddeningly, sometimes inscrutably unpredictable. Here I had thought he would endorse the IHP because it was one of the boldest experiments yet in integral humanism in a public university. Yet he had thought through his reservations. He could not be shoehorned into the little box a lot of people tried to put him in (an antimodernist, Catholic, conservative box). I accounted his unpredictability a good thing. It did not arise from the lack of first principles -- au contraire. Tonsor's surprising answers to my questions arose out of his fierce intellectual integrity, his utter resistance to the groupthink of the herd, and his wonderful way of testing and sifting modernity in order to detect truth, goodness, and beauty wherever they could be found, even in modernity.

I realized that
, even after almost three years of study with him, I still did not know this man, Stephen Tonsor. But what a guide for the perplexed he was!

What would I do if I were not afraid?


[1] Deb Reichmann and Daniel L. Reeder, "In Search of the Good Guys," Kansas Alumni, vol. 77 (April 1979), p. 1; Robert K. Carlson, "What Price Truth? Death by Administration," Crisis Magazine, January 1, 1995; at URL

[2] "College Assembly Votes to Do Away with IHP," Kansas Alumni, vol. 77, no. 8 (June 1979): 2-3; Carlson, "What Price Truth?" Crisis; at URL See also the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1973, document titled "Petition Concerning Re-evaluation of PIHP," March 26, 1973; also box 1, folder 1977, document by Dennis B. Quinn, "Education by the Muses," September 13, 1977, p. 1.

[3] Sharon Mielke, "College Program Suspect," United Methodist Reporter, no date found, p. 3. See also John Senior's own writing about "the threat of excommunication hanging over us who attend Mass at Society of Pius X chapels," in John Senior, "Recalling Why They Resisted: Dr. John Senior's Classic 'The Glass Confessional," in The Remnant, June 1, 2016; at URL 

[4] There have been numerous tributes to the founders of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, especially to John Senior. See, e.g., Philippe Maxence, "John Senior: In Piam Memoriam," Crisis Magazine (April 5, 2012), at URL; Dwight Longenecker, "John Senior and the Restoration of Realism," The Imaginative Conservative (April 26, 2017), at URL; and Patrick Martin, "A Tribute to John Senior," originally posted in The Catholic Thing (April 9, 2009), reposted by the Catholic Education Resource Center, at URL 

[5] See, e.g., University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1977, Dennis B. Quinn, "Education by the Muses," September 13, 1977, pp. 1-6.

[6] Reichmann and Reeder, "Good Guys," Kansas Alumni: 2.

[7] "College Assembly Votes," Kansas Alumni: 3. 

[8] "Old IHP Courses Thrive," Kansas Alumni, vol. 79 (November 1981); Longenecker, "John Senior," at URL In addition, there are abundant student testimonials in the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folders 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981.

[9] Again, see the abundant student testimonials in the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folders 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981; also see Carlson, "What Price Truth?" Crisis; at URL

[10] See the short biography of one of the program's most accomplished converts, Bishop James Conley, whose academic mentor and Catholic godfather was John Senior, at URL Again, see Longenecker, "John Senior," at URL

[11] Ann Tonsor Zeddies conversations with GW, East Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 18, 2017, and June 17, 2017; also Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, Michigan, June 28, 2017.

[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Haunted House of the Human Spirit -- an Editorial," Modern Age (fall 1985): 291.

[13] For KU faculty who were already hostile to the IHS, the final straw would have been John Senior's book, The Death of Christian Culture (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1978). Published when the IHS was on its last legs, the book was an unsparing attack on modernism and a vigorous defense of a medieval scholastic school of philosophy known as Aristotelian-Thomistic Realism.

[14] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Liberal Education: Courses or Questions?" in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), pp. 94-96.

[15] Tonsor, "Liberal Education," in Tradition and Reform in Educationpp. 94-99.

[16] For the ahistorical approach of the program see p. 2 of "IHP: An Outline," in University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integral Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1980s. The unnamed author -- likely IHP founder Dennis Quinn -- states in the document: "The lectures do not deal with what is commonly called 'background,' historical, anthropological, archaeological, economic, or social. Little attention is given to dating, authorship, or problems of text or translation."

[17] Andrew Senior quotation in the sidebar, in John Senior, "Recalling Why They Resisted: Dr. John Senior's Classic 'The Glass Confessional," in The Remnant, June 1, 2016; at URL

[18] To see why it is regarded as both extreme and controversial to attend Mass at Society of St. Pius X chapels, see URL

[19] Tonsor was exaggerating to make a point, for he was not a big fan of the "Great Books" approach to a college education, most of whose volumes were written in premodern times. Recall that Tonsor's field of expertise was not classical, not medieval, but Modern European Intellectual history. He always wanted his students to grapple with important modern books. In my research on the IHP in the University of Kansas Archives, I found the original syllabus and saw that most of the books assigned were indeed "Great Books" written prior to about 1700 but, in fairness to the founders, there were still numerous selections from the modern age that the students were required to read when the IHP was designed to be a four-year program. See Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder ND, 
"A College of Integrated Studies" (1970), pp. 4-5.

[20] Again, for the ahistorical approach of the program see in the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integral Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1980s, "IHP: An Outline," p. 2. The unnamed author -- likely IHP founder Dennis Quinn -- states in the document: "The lectures do not deal with what is commonly called 'background,' historical, anthropological, archaeological, economic, or social. Little attention is given to dating, authorship, or problems of text or translation." For the passage in which one of the program's founders says they "taught in the poetical mode," see Dennis B. Quinn, "Education by the Muses," September 13, 1977, p. 1, in the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1977.

[21] Caroline Tonsor conversations with GW, Chelsea, MI, June 28, June 30, and July 7, 2017; also Caroline Tonsor email to GW, July 5, 2017. Tonsor's statement was not idle reminiscing. He and his future wife Caroline (nee Maddox) met at the University of Illinois Poetry Club, where the young combat veteran produced a number of fine poems that Caroline later assembled in a chapbook. Much of their courtship revolved around their close reading of modern poets -- Goethe, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot. Moreover, after Tonsor finished his undergraduate degree at Illinois, one of his best friends, fellow war veteran Jackson Cope, offered to set Tonsor up in his house in Columbus, Ohio, so that Tonsor could write poetry without worrying about paying the rent. Ann Tonsor Zeddies conversation with GW, East Grand Rapids, MI, April 18, 2017; and phone conversation with GW, July 7, 2017.

[22] For a critique of the IHP by a historian at KU who was in direct confrontation with the IHP founders, see James E. Seaver, "Remarks to the College Assembly," February 20, 1973, in the University of Kansas Archives, Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, series 63/1, box 1, folder 1973.

[23] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Tradition: Use and Misuse," Modern Age (fall 1964): 415.

[24] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Idea of a Catholic University," in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), p. 210.

[25] Tonsor, "Haunted House": 292.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Tonsor, "Idea of a Catholic University," p. 210.

[30] Tonsor, "Idea of a Catholic University," p. 212.

[31] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Redefining Liberal Education, Modern Age (summer 1972): 273.

[32] Tonsor, "Idea of a Catholic University," p. 212.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Goethe III


After the bus returned me to the North Campus, I ignored all the books I'd brought home except Faust. Tonsor had gotten my attention when he said he read Goethe every morning; regarded the Weimar poet as a worthy "mentor and model"; and paraphrased Matthew Arnold to the effect that "Goethe was by far our greatest modern man ... the thinker who, more than any other, interpreted the modern world to itself."[1] 

At this point the distinction between literary criticism and literary history seems apt. The former is about literature that endures by raising questions with which each new generation wants to grapple. The latter is about literature that raised questions with which the author's generation wanted to grapple.[2] Given its critical reception generation after generation, there is no doubt which category Goethe's Faust is in. Let's grant that it was a masterpiece when it came to interpreting the modern world to itself. Yet that was then, in the modern age. We were all postmoderns now.[3] To what extent did the drama continue to have the poetic power to interpret the present, postmodern age to itself? 

That was one question. Another was what Goethe and Faust can teach us about what came before postmodernity. Surely the drama's power is revealed in its critique of modernity -- especially in Faust's encounter with Philemon and Baucis. This old couple from ancient Greek mythology was made famous by Ovid in Metamorphoses. Goethe appropriates the story to make a moral point about Faust's "Faustian" ambition to transform a coastal wasteland into the world's breadbasket. To do so will require flexing modern technology's muscle to reclaim the land -- and also evicting the lovely Philemon and Baucis, known for their sacrificial hospitality, from their humble cottage. The eviction is carried out by thugs who kill the old couple. By showing us Faust's totalitarian ambition and absolute power over Philemon and Baucis, Goethe seems to be confronting modernity for its arrogant and ruthless quest for "progress"; by extension he seems to be criticizing modernity for killing off the West's classical heritage, symbolized by Philemon and Baucis's deaths. These two damning indictments of the modern spirit proved prophetic. 

Also, in interpreting the modern West to itself, how did Goethe navigate Western civilization's two competing sources of authority, Christendom and the Enlightenment? The poet witnessed in his life (1749-1832), on the one hand, the mythic power of Christendom; on the other, the rational force of the Enlightenment; and they were in dynamic tension with one another. While Faust was informed by elements of both -- both Christendom and the Enlightenment -- Goethe was taken in by neither. He was not a fan of the institutional churches Protestant or Catholic, nor did he swallow the Enlightenment hook, line, and sinker. Yet it is precisely his critical distance from these two competing sources of authority that made him such an interesting commentator on them in isolation and in relation to one another. Examining that dynamic tension in Goethe was one of the ways Tonsor wanted me to confront modernity. Consider:

Christendom looked back to the past and carried the burdens of history with humility; the Enlightenment looked forward to the future expecting to muscle mankind toward ever brighter social conditions (the aspiration of the great reclamation project). 

Christendom redeemed man's failures in time by raising them to a higher spiritual plane; the Enlightenment achieved redemption by shaking off the burden of history. The aim was to learn from mankind's past failures. And the Enlightenment did -- perhaps a little too glibly, a bit too arrogantly -- confident that its way would lead to a better world than any of the alternatives. 

Christendom could be pessimistic about change. The Church knew that with every advance in the name of progress, something of great value was lost; progress was stalked by tragedy, so Christendom emphasized continuity. The Enlightenment in its optimism believed otherwise: It emphasized change as necessary to betterment here on Earth. 

Indeed, wasn't Faust a tragedy so long as it embraced the Enlightenment's secular values, seen most poignantly in the great reclamation project's ruthless treatment of Baucis and Philemon? Wasn't it in fact a comedy (in Dante's sense) when it embraced Christendom's transcendent values, which assured the salvation of Gretchen's and Faust's souls? 


Before talking to Tonsor, I thought I knew Faust enough to be conversant. As an undergraduate, I was taught the conventional modernist interpretation: that Faust unfolds entirely within a naturalistic setting; that the symbolic spiritual characters at the beginning and end of the play are just that -- symbolic -- allegorical references that do not upend the "natural supernaturalism" that tied Goethe's worldview together.[4]

After talking to Tonsor and reading several critical essays in the book I brought home, it was apparent that I knew Faust hardly at all. How could I? Goethe tells us he conceived of Faust in his twentieth year and revised it up through his eighty-second year. It is the work of a lifetime, the monument to his genius, and at the same time maddeningly difficult. "Incommensurable" is how he himself described the drama. Perhaps it is telling that Goethe described his work as "fragments of a great confession."[5] A confession of what? Perhaps it is even more telling that he described Faust as "an evident riddle" that would "delight men on and on and give them something to work at" -- itself a Faustian project if ever there were one.[6]

And now I find myself laboring over the riddle that has preoccupied generations of scholars. My first question is whether Faust challenges modern readers with a binary choice -- a stark "either-or": either the naturalism of the neopagans who emerged from the Enlightenment, or the transcendence of earlier generations of Jews, Christians, and Renaissance Neoplatonists? 

But then I realized that was the wrong question. Integral humanist that he was, Tonsor was teaching me to reject "either-or" thinking and instead embrace "both-and" thinking. This hermeneutic of dynamic tension was consistent with the tradition of the humanities, which foster widening circles of interpretation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of ideologues. So when it came to FaustGoethe invited modern audiences to judge the characters and plot in the light of both Enlightenment values and Christendom's values. Goethe seemed to be shining the light of the transcendent onto the secular modern project, wanting his audience to deal with both. 

A strictly naturalistic interpretation of Faust is contradicted by the internal evidence of the play. In the text are unreconciled tensions that should open us up to explore the ambiguities and ambivalences in the modern project. From the beginning of Part I to the end of Part II, Goethe uses images, iconography, ideas, and language that affirm not just the naturalistic, but also the transcendent -- even a kind of Renaissance Neoplatonism -- which might serve to link the naturalistic and transcendent elements together.

This interpretation, I hasten to add, does not rely on Goethe himself believing in transcendence and Renaissance Neoplatonism. True, Goethe worked on the play for some six decades, from the start of the Urfaust in 1769 to the final revision of Part II in 1832, so all manner of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas made their way into the work. We know, moreover, that the young Goethe was fascinated with Renaissance Neoplatonism, Protestant mysticism, and alchemy. But our interpretation of the play need not rely on any of these biographical nuggets. Rather we should ask: What do we see with our own eyes? What does the internal evidence of the drama say about the relationship between the natural and transcendent?

Goethe pushes his audience into an encounter with the transcendent in the very first lines, at the beginning of Part I, and he drives his audience higher and higher into the transcendent with images, iconography, ideas, and language at the end of Part II. Thus a close reading of Faust supports Tonsor's integral humanistic interpretation of the play -- a "both-and" hermeneutic that weaves together the contrary threads one finds in the immanent and transcendent, time and eternity, secular and sacred, Earth and Heaven, creation and God.

Other "both-and" tensions that Goethe invites us to explore are the Enlightenment vis-a-vis Romanticism, classical pagan Greece in tension with medieval Christian Europe, and premodern beliefs alongside modern skepticism.

Goethe was a great poet, in no small part, because of his keen awareness of these tensions and conflicts, these ambivalences and ambiguities, that characterize the human estate. The fact that this complexity informs his treatment of the characters and worldviews in the play is precisely what appealed to Tonsor. 

Goethe's ambiguous Faust reminds me of Shakespeare's similarly ambiguous Hamlet, where the characters' conflicting values cannot be painted over or easily reconciled.[7] To ignore the ambiguity and tension in Goethe's drama is to do violence to the play by forcing it into the straitjacket of ideology -- which in the humanities is the equivalent to committing a capital crime.


In the face of all the authoritative naturalistic readings of Faust, the burden is on the integral humanist -- a humanist who looks at man as both a material and spiritual being -- to look at the evidence afresh and see if a compelling case can be made for both matter and spirit in the work. Tonsor nudges me in the direction of integral humanism, which searches out the relationship between the naturalistic and the transcendent in images, iconography, ideas, and words. When it comes to Goethe's Faust: 
  • We see the transcendent in the fact that the play has an omnipotent God -- a personal God who oversees the cosmos and the afterlife. He must approve Mephistopheles's proposal. Thus it is not a play that will make atheists feel reassured about denying the existence of God.  
  • We see the transcendent in the fact that the characters have souls. Naturalism would contest the idea of an immaterial soul, arguing that science has yet to discover a soul that can be separated from consciousness at death. But the worldview of the play counters naturalism with an older anthropology. That anthropology sees a desiring soul whose eternal destiny is determined, not so much by the actions in this life, as by a kind of Final Judgment at the gateway to the next.  
  • We see the transcendent in the character of Mephistopheles, the Devil whose two-fold purpose is to undo the work of creation and to negate man's belief in the transcendent. More specifically his goal is to steer man's striving soul away from God, the source of his being, to the endless pursuit of material, worldly, pseudo-satisfactions. No doubt, many nineteenth-century readers would have read Faust with St. Augustine somewhere in their heads, who famously wrote: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."[8] 
  • We see the transcendent in the first wager, the one between God and Mephistopheles, over Faust's soul. It is treated as a prize of incalculable value. Mephistopheles and God would not contend over Faust's soul if the stakes were merely over corruptible, finite matter as opposed to an eternal spirit.  
  • We see a hint of the transcendent in the suggestion that the soulless and nihilistic Mephistopheles is inferior even to the alchemically created little man, the Homunculus, born from a test tube.[9]  
  • We see the transcendent in the images, iconography, ideas, and language of the Prologue, which takes place in Heaven, as well as in the conclusion, which returns to Heaven. The play's bookends do not present merely a symbolic Heaven because a merely symbolic Heaven would rob Faust of its drama. If the action in the end is just symbolic, why should we care?    

 I also wondered about Goethe calling his play a tragedy. If the reader confined himself to the naturalism that dominates most of the play, it would indeed be a tragedy. In naturalistic terms the story of Faust does not end well. In naming the play, I think Goethe was following his idol, Shakespeare. The Bard signaled that his play was a tragedy if the title was the main character's name: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello. Thus Goethe titled his play Faust to signal that it is a tragedy, which is true if one follow's only Faust's natural life span.

But as readers know, the play's real meaning is not revealed within Faust's natural life span. At Faust's death, God in his mercy intervenes, tricks Mephistopheles, and arranges for the angels to snatch Faust's immortal soul away from certain damnation. What was a tragedy in its naturalistic setting becomes a comedy in the cosmic setting -- a comedy because it has a happy ending for the main character of the play.

The fact that Faust reveals itself, in the end, to be a comedy is a powerful argument for the transcendent. Nothing Faust does can make this unexpected turnabout happen. It is entirely God's doing. The surprising final scenes are a rebuke to the naturalists who have fallen short of understanding the fullness of reality.


Now, when it comes to transcendence, Faust does not just lead modern audiences into the foggy heights. No, the transcendent is detailed in sharp relief. I would argue that it is a syncretic transcendent that combines concepts found both in traditional Catholicism and in Renaissance Neoplatonism.  
  • We see Catholic traces in Gretchen's intercessory prayers. The reader encounters her in Heaven, praying for Faust's soul in exactly the way Catholics through the ages have been taught that the communion of saints prays.  
  • We see Catholic traces in the allusion to a very traditional Purgatory. Goethe's Purgatory with its hosts looks a lot like Dante's holy mountain in the Purgatorio. Its purpose is to be a school of virtue and holiness for the soul, to prepare the soul to encounter a transcendent God in a transcendent Heaven.  
  • We see Catholic traces in play's insinuation that the socialists and progressives strive for perfection on Earth in vain. Utopian schemes cannot remake human nature. Technology cannot conquer the evil in the human heart. Such measures always fall short of the true progress a society could theoretically achieve. In light of Faust's land reclamation project near the end of the play, the messages seems to be that real, lasting progress only takes place in the soul of one who has struggled to become holier on Earth and who finishes the work in a spiritual Purgatory that prepares his soul for Heaven.  
  • We see Catholic traces in the last lines about "Eternal Womanhood" that "draws us on high" -- surely an allusion to the Virgin Mary.  
  • We see Catholic traces not directly in an encounter with Jesus, but indirectly by the presence of his holy believers in Heaven. By this indirection, Goethe was less likely to offend the modern sensibilities of his readers.

Thus far we have seen how the internal evidence in Faust reveals several interesting things. The play does not support a strictly naturalistic worldview; nor an anti-theistic worldview; nor even an anti-Catholic worldview. Rather, the play is set in a complex cosmos of Goethe's creation, a syncretic vision that is characterized both by immanent nature and by transcendent spirit. As we have seen, the latter seems vaguely informed by Catholic dogma and doctrine, even though Goethe was not a Catholic. 

As surprising as the Catholic allusions may strike some readers, perhaps even more surprising is the Renaissance Neoplatonism worked into the play, like yeast kneaded into flour.
  • There are frequent references to illumination -- from candles to the sun -- that the Neoplatonists are known for. 
  • Also in the course of the play, Faust learns that in this life he will never behold the Absolute (the sun) directly, but only through the mediation of the world. This is the meaning of the famous scene when Faust sees the sun's light refracted into all the colors of the rainbow. 
  • We see the Neoplatonism, finally and most convincingly, in the Mystic Choir's last speech of the play. "All that passes is only a parable." Could Goethe be any clearer? Reality is most fully encountered in transcendence, in Heaven, in the Neoplatonists' sun. It is least fully encountered in earthly things that are distant from the sun. 

The critics who argue that the play takes place strictly within a naturalistic world need to explain the transcendence, Catholicism, and Renaissance Neoplatonism that infuse the work, especially at the end. "All that passes is only a parable." This line of verse can only mean that the symbolism in Faust flows not from the material world to a symbolic spiritual world, as is frequently argued -- not at all. The Neoplatonic symbolism in Faust flows in the opposite direction -- from the real spiritual world to the symbolic natural world.

Thus no arrangement in the material world -- no Utopia, no commune, no social engineering, no project to perfect a man or a people -- can fulfill the striving soul. In fact, any such effort is likely to corrupt the striving soul.

Tonsor had told me that morning: "It was Oswald Spengler, reading Goethe, who discerned the distinctive character of Western culture: It was Faustian because of the way it inspired the striving soul to engage in unceasing though ultimately unsuccessful effort to conquer nature -- including human nature. For when the godly myth of love is displaced by the demonic myth of power, there is a near certainty that the consequences will be disastrous. And yet that precisely is the mythic displacement which increasingly characterizes the modern world."[10]

A profoundly wise insight, this.


So even though Faust is about an increasingly naturalistic West, it is not ultimately a naturalistic play, despite what most critics say. Ninety-nine percent of the action may take place in naturalistic, indeed Romantic, settings, but the reader must account for the one percent of the play that is transcendent and that gives the play most of its meaning -- even if it offends modern sensibilities.

Now, I do not wish to carry the spiritual argument to absurd lengths. The tragedy does not mirror the Catechism; it would not be compelling if it did. It does not rubber stamp Christian dogma; it's fiction and it shouldn't. It is not a picture of Renaissance Neoplatonism; it would lose its relevance it if were. But -- this was Tonsor's point -- a fair reading of Faust should not alienate people persuaded by a Neoplatonic cosmology or a Christian worldview.

Would it be absurd to wonder whether Goethe's was studying Catholic doctrine at the end of his life, when he was composing the final scenes of the tragedy? Was he meditating on the final scenes of his own life? Would it be a stretch to suggest that Goethe was taking one of the most important sets of readings in the liturgical cycle, about God's mercy for all human beings, and applying the lesson to Faust? Many commentators have been disturbed by how easy it is for Faust's soul to be saved at the end of the play, considering what a self-centered, unethical man he has been throughout most of the work. Our sense of justice may justifiably be offended. But scripture has declared that "God's ways are not man's ways."[11] At a crucial turning point in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah declares that God's mercy is not just for His Chosen People, Israel, but for all human beings.[12] There is a similar turning point during the ministry of Jesus, when he shows mercy to two despised foreigners, the Canaanite woman and her daughter, over the protests of his disciples who want to send them away.[13] Finally, the apostle Paul confirms these turning points in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. The message is: God is the God of all; not of some, but of all human beings, "that he might have mercy on all."[14] I would be interested in searching through the writings that Goethe left behind in 143 volumes plus to see if this interpretation has merit.     


I learned three important things from Tonsor today:

First, as a passionate reader of Goethe, who was his "mentor and model," Tonsor has carefully examined the internal evidence of the document as well as considered its external context. The most literal, commonsense reading of Faust leads one to see both naturalistic and transcendent elements -- the complete cosmos in all its complementarities and contradictions. Thus the play is about as anti-ideological as can be.

Second, perspective matters. It determines the assumptions that are brought to the primary sources as well as the questions that are put to them. If you see the play only through a naturalistic lens, your interpretation will be radically limited -- different from what you will see if you allow for both naturalism on Earth and transcendence in Heaven. The "both-and" approach is the integral humanists' way.

Third, Tonsor is the type of scholar who will not be corralled with the herd. In fact, in his stubborn independence he is a lot like Goethe. If you closely read the end of Faust Part I and Faust Part II, you cannot help but see its creator swimming against the current of modern thought. Goethe was a challenge to his age, a sign of contradiction. It was as Matthew Arnold said: He interpreted the increasingly materialistic modern age to itself, and did so by warning us not to forget the abiding spiritual drama of man's existence.

How bold! Such a thing could only have been crafted and pulled off by a genius. "Goethe was by far our greatest modern man ... the thinker who, more than any other, interpreted the modern world to itself."

Now I think I am beginning to believe it.

Dante's Purgatorio (Canto 27), by Gustave Dore


[1] The sources for each of these statements are found in the earlier dialogue but for convenience are repeated here. For the observation that Tonsor read Goethe every day, see Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, MI, July 7, 2017. On the comment that Goethe was Henry Regnery's and Stephen Tonsor's mentor and model, see Stephen J. Tonsor, "Henry Regnery," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 322. For the paraphrase of Matthew Arnold, see Arnold, "A French Critic on Goethe," in Mixed Essays, quoted by Helen C. White, "Matthew Arnold and Goethe," PMLA, vol. 36, no. 3 (September 1921): 336, 338.

[2] Carolyn Heilbrun's distinction cited by Elizabeth Vandiver, "Foundations," Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, 2nd. ed. (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2004), p. 7.

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 304.

[4] Goethe, Poetry and Truth, Part II, ch. 7; quoted by Jane K. Brown, Goethe's Faust: The German Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 29.

[5] Goethe quoted in Susan Sage Heinzelman, "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe," Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, 2nd. ed. (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2004), lecture 60, p. 392. 

[6] The term comes from the classic study that Tonsor assigned in the first semester of History 416: M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

[7] Goethe's idol, Shakespeare, wrote tragedies that explore the ambiguity of the human condition. On Shakespeare's stage, life is not black and white but gray and grayer -- unending clashes of unreconciled values and opposing beliefs that introduce much misery into the human condition. See Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967).

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book 1.

[9] Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Eckermann, trans. John Oxenford, conversation of December 16, 1829, in the Kindle ebook edition, loc. 6657.

[10] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Use and Abuse of Myth," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 184.

[11] Isaiah 55:8; Romans 11:33-35.

[12] Isaiah 56:3-8.

[13] Matthew 15:21-28.

[14] Galatians 3:28; Romans 11:1-32.