Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Goethe I


To the chagrin of one who'd spent practically his entire life in America's sunbelt, that first winter in Ann Arbor was brutal: The sun didn't shine. From my neighbors I learned it hardly ever came out in winter. Between Thanksgiving and Easter, Michiganders might as well have been living in the gray exile of northern Siberia.

But this Saturday morning the sun did shine and, feeling extra energy, I decided to go to the Library Book Sale. Tonsor had told me about this venerated local institution held every Saturday morning in the basement of the downtown Ann Arbor library. He suggested it would be an inexpensive way to build up my professional library. 

I cannot forget the way he intoned: "If you are serious about pursuing history, Mr. Whitney, you must have two things: self-discipline and a personal library."[1] 

It was serious business, the Library Book Sale. Patrons including many grad students lined up before the 9 AM starting bell, grocery bags in hand, quivering, ready to do combat with the other patrons to snatch up $1 hardbacks. The naked displays of bestiality put even my dogs to shame.

Tonsor already had a collection of 10,000 books.[2] He went to the Library Book Sale not to expand his professional holdings but to buy picture books for his grandchildren. That was sweet. And sure enough, on this Saturday morning he and Caroline showed up after the initial throng had charged the basement.

Goethe spent virtually his entire
adult life writing Faust,
from 1769-1832, a span of
more than 60 years.
We hailed each other from a distance but stuck to our work because patrons elbowed their way to the front if you showed any distraction or weakness. After about a half hour of jockeying, I'd managed to fill two grocery bags and queued up to pay. The Tonsors were right behind me. When he saw that I had picked up Goethe's Faust, his eyes lit up through his thick glasses.

"That is a very fine edition, Mr. Whitney. I hope you profit by it as much as I have. Every morning I start my day reading Goethe and the German missal."[3]

Caroline added with a good-natured chuckle: "Yes, Stephen starts his day reading about the Devil in us, then steels himself to do battle with the Devil in us the rest of the day!" 

"That's true," Tonsor said with a quick gust of laughter. "The Devil is part of us all, as is the angelic. As Goethe said, Wo viel Licht ist, ist starker Schatten. Where there is much light, there is stronger shadow."[4]

"Goethe -- every morning," I said, making sure not to sound incredulous.

"Every morning," he repeated with barely suppressed pride. "To have spent a long life reading the poet is a beautiful thing. I am reminded of what Goethe himself said to his friend, Eckermann: 'I am like one who in his youth has a great deal of small silver and copper money, which in the course of his life he constantly changes for the better, so that at last the property of his youth stands before him in pieces of pure gold.'"[5]

Goethe's words provided an apt segue to pay the cashier for our books. On the way to the exit, Tonsor lavished more praise on his idol: "Goethe, it has been said, was 'by far our greatest modern man' -- the last great classical writer of European civilization, as Virgil was the last great classical writer of ancient Rome. He grasped the tragedy of the modern age, perceiving that the very civilization we have created is Faustian. That's why Matthew Arnold called Goethe the most helpful thinker of modern times -- the thinker who, more than any other, interpreted the modern world to itself."[6]

Whoa! These were superlatives that make you lean into a speaker, especially if he's your dissertation advisor. Here I had been studying European intellectual history yet did not know of Goethe's world-historical importance. How had I missed it? 

Often in conversation with Tonsor, I worried that I did not know enough. Now, on yet another topic -- Goethe -- I was going to have to move out of the shallows and into the depths. It helped that I was discerning a pattern in Tonsor's thinking when it came to the confrontation of modernity: In his head he communed with a circle of the dead dominated by Goethe, Acton, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Parkman -- cosmopolitans and liberal conservatives all. 
I couldn't think of anything to say that matched the profundity of Tonsor's observation about Goethe. So I resorted to the cheapest currency of conversation, autobiography: "I had the opportunity to study a bit of Goethe in my German classes back at Colorado State, but I didn't read him at all when I lived in Germany, which I now regret."

"That is to be regretted," Tonsor said disapprovingly. Caroline's sympathetic instinct kicked in and she frowned at him: "Maybe Gleaves had other things he needed to read!"

"When in Germany, one should read Goethe," Tonsor said firmly, determined to win the point.

"Well, I hope to correct my negligence now," I said. "I had a great German professor guide us through The Sorrows of Young Werther in the original. But I'm afraid I'll have to undo some of the instruction I received from the English professor who taught us Faust. One of the last Old Marxists in the academy, Dr. Bates presented Goethe's tragedy as a critique of the admen on Madison Avenue -- the capitalists who manufacture, manipulate, and multiply consumer desires -- desires that can never be satisfied. People are just so many consumers who have the potential to become addicted to shopping. Bourgeois life is the endless desire for never-ending stuff. The Marxist Mephistopheles, it turns out, is a very dapper adman, nothing at all like the horned Devil of medieval folklore." 

Tonsor grunted. "Vulgar Marxists: Johnny-one-notes who bleach all the color out of life! To see Goethe's Devil as a glorified adman makes even the demons howl with scorn. Mephistopheles is not on Madison Avenue. He is on Main Street. He is on the Diag. He is you!"[7]

"Really, Stephen!" protested Caroline, her frown returning. She looked at me sympathetically.

Tonsor dismissed her: "I don't mean my comment to be taken personally. It's the universal message of Goethe's Faust."

"You'll have to tell me what it means," I said with a forgiving grin.


When we walked out into the sun, things had warmed up a bit but none of the snow on William Street was melting. My professor didn't seem to notice the cold. Now that he had the opportunity to talk about Goethe, he started breathing in little puffs as his mind revved to a white heat. I had been around Tonsor enough to know that he saw his confrontation with modernity through the lens of a few great authors: Tocqueville, Acton, Burckhardt, Parkman -- they informed his approach to intellectual history. Now, out on an icy Ann Arbor sidewalk, I was about to learn how to see modernity through Goethe's gimlet eye. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832),
Germany's greatest humanist and one of Stephen Tonsor's
most important guides to comprehending,
confronting, sifting, and testing the modern world.

"Goethe," Tonsor said -- and once the name escaped his mouth, Caroline saw a lecture coming and escaped back into the library -- "Goethe is like quicksilver. Just when you think you get him, he slips away. That is the quality of all great poets. As you know, Goethe's Faust was Western civilization's most brilliant poem after Milton's Paradise Lost. Because of his singular achievement, Goethe stands in the same relationship to the modern age as Shakespeare does to the Renaissance, Dante does to the Middle Ages, Virgil does to ancient Rome, and Homer does to ancient Greece. To come to an adequate understanding of modernity, one must retrace the steps along the trail blazed by Germany's greatest poet.

"And what should I look for along that trail?" I asked.

"The prophet who interprets modernity to itself," he said with assurance. "The humanist who challenges the assumptions of the twentieth-century. The tragedian who cautions modern man to tame his civilization's Faustian spirit."

"Goethe" continued Tonsor, "grasped the modern psyche in all its maddening complexity -- its tangle of complementarities and contradictions, its tensions and frustrations, its desires and aspirations. His integral humanism challenges the reductionist that one always encounters in the ideologue -- whether that ideologue is your Marxist professor who sees man only as a materialistic consumer on the make, or the Gnostic who hates man's very flesh.

"Goethe helps modern readers understand that this complexity is both the glory of our humanity and the source of our woe. You see it in Faust, who is ever desiring. Because of his desire to know, he mastered all the branches of knowledge and tried to find the key that would unlock the secrets of nature, without success. His infinite desire clashed with his status as a finite creature, someone who was both an angelic beast and a beastly angel, and therefore limited."

"Faust," I ventured, "seems to be on a quest like that of Aldous Huxley, who also sought self-transcendence beyond the ordinary boundaries of nature. Like all mystics, he wanted to find out what's on the other side of the door."[8]

"That is a very interesting point you bring up," Tonsor responded darkly, and the tone in his voice made me immediately regret my digression. "Despite what his legions of epigones may think, Huxley's hallucinatory escapades did not unlock the secrets of nature -- they were too personal, too subjective, too silly. Recall that on his 'trip' he grew terrified of his own lawn chairs! Huxley learned the hard way what we all must, that it is not for human beings to see what is on the other side of the door, not in any objective, communal, universal sense. The hippies never learned that private revelation, like copulation, should stay in the dark." 

Tonsor's unexpected exclamation mark made me laugh.

Egged on now, he continued: "Huxley's friend, Thomas Mann, wrote a scathing private review of Huxley's book. In it he observed that mystical experience does come to some, for reasons we cannot plumb, and each religion tries to order such experiences. But chemical mysticism? For a middle-aged man to encourage young people to experiment with psychedelic drugs is both scandalous and stupid."[9] 

The digression into Huxley's experiments with mescaline was working Tonsor up into a lather, and he was practically breathless as he spat out one last insult: "It's obvious that Huxley for all his intelligence turned out to be as dumb as Faust. What a pity. Brave New World is such a fine book." 

"Now," Tonsor said, mission accomplished with the insult, "all human beings should be able to identify with Faust's existential frustration. We are not totally at home with the beasts because we have too much reason, too much spiritual aspiration, to live like an animal. Yet we are not totally at home with the angels because we have a body with a body's desires -- too much earthiness, too much libido dominandi. So we are neither the one thing nor the other but something in between -- now pulled up toward Heaven, now pulled down to the dust. The conflicts between the two cause us considerable dis-ease and misery, to the point that we feel alienated even from ourselves. 

"Caught in a cobweb of desires, we can never find any peace. We want to love, but are smacked down by selfish desires. We want to be altruistic, but once our motives are unmasked we just play for the crowd's applause. We want to possess the light of knowledge, but at every turn encounter the darkness of unfathomable mystery. It goes the other way, too. We go on a binge of buying at the mall, or of sexual debauchery in the bedroom, and before long we have to stop either because of physical exhaustion or because our conscience pricks us to stop. We are constantly reminded that we are an in-between creature who can never settle, never be satisfied, never be happy.[10]

"Man," I said chiming in, "the biped who walks the Earth not with four legs but with two so that he can look up at the stars. Still, he's an animal. It's reminiscent of Paul's theology in the New Testament where he writes of the never-ending battle between our animal and spiritual selves --"

"What I do, I do not understand" said Tonsor, breaking in. "For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate."[11] 

"And that reminds me," I said, "of a brilliant metaphor that captures man's material and spiritual complexity. I think it was the Catholic humanist E. I. Watkin who pointed out that man's contrary desires are symbolized by the Cross, which is made both of the horizontal crossbeam that points out toward creation as well as the vertical post that points up toward Heaven --"

"And down toward Hell," added Tonsor quickly. 

"And down toward Hell," I duly added. "So, applying Watkin's metaphor, we could say that this in-between creature, man, belongs exclusively to neither the horizontal nor the vertical; that the two principles are hardly ever harmonized; so the resulting tension between them creates constant dissatisfaction, conflict, and misery."

"Yes, Watkin's metaphor captures the reality of the human condition," said Tonsor in his definitive way. "The Christian would point out that the horizontal clash with the vertical is ultimately reconciled by Christ's death and resurrection: the great consummatum est[12] -- It is accomplished -- which gets us back to Faust's striving soul, his Tätigkeit: activity, exertion, movement. One could see Faust as an allegorical figure for modern man, never resting, feverishly chasing down the false remedy, vainly trying to quench unquenchable desires."  


"Yes," continued Tonsor after a brief pause, "Goethe's genius commands our attention still, for he early comprehended the psychological and historical implications of modernity. By that I mean Goethe understood modernity's relationship to man's inner conflict. He observed that modernity has dramatically expanded the possibilities of our horizontal experience but not of our vertical existence. The past five hundred years have seen spectacular developments in the horizontal possibilities of our lives, brought about by a succession of world-historical events -- the Age of Exploration, Commercial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and French Revolution. Each promised man a more satisfying life on the horizontal plane of his animal existence. Each stoked the flames of his desire -- for more territory, more purchasing power, more command over nature, more self-knowledge, more economic growth, and more self-determination. But where during the past five centuries were the corresponding ethical or spiritual advances? The existential gap between monumental material advances on the one hand, and perceived spiritual stupor on the other, perfectly frames the modern problem that so many of our elite thinkers experience. 

"Thus in Faust we see a profoundly important truth: None of the spectacular material advances of the past five centuries really satisfies the longing in the human heart. Not a one. We fulfill one desire only to feel a stronger desire take its place. There's no end to it, only frustration. The only remedy to the addiction to desire comes in the final scene of the play, when Goethe pulls the curtain back and surprises his audience with what is really going on. It is the rather traditional Christian rendering of the Final Judgment. 

"Now, this interpretation is controversial -- it goes against the usual glosses on Faust, that it all takes place within the bounds of nature. But if you think about it, the Prologue in Heaven is above and beyond nature. The Final Judgment is above and beyond nature. The paean to the Virgin Mary at the very end is above and beyond nature. The two wagers Mephistopheles makes -- first with God and then with Faust -- only make sense in an afterlife that is above and beyond nature. What is at stake is Faust's eternal soul. If Faust loses the wager, he forfeits his soul and goes to Hell. If he wins the wager, he is assured of salvation and goes to Heaven. I defy anyone to explain the meaning of the play strictly in terms of nature, without reference to the transcendent above and beyond nature. 

"To reinforce this point, look at one of the most telling structural elements of the tragedy: the link between the end of Faust I and the end of Faust II. Both direct our attention to Faust's lover, Gretchen. During the last critical moments of Part I, when we wonder if Gretchen's soul will be damned for drowning her newborn, she is assured of salvation. This corresponds to what happens during the final critical moments of Part II, when Faust's soul is hanging in the balance: Gretchen offers intercessory prayers from Heaven on behalf of Faust's soul. It is at this point that the play pivots -- pivots from being a human tragedy on Earth to a divine comedy in Heaven. 

"With this pivot Goethe is making a profound statement to modern man. Scientific discovery is not enough. Enlightenment rationality is not enough. Romantic desire is not enough. Technological progress is not enough. Utopian dreams are not enough. To cope with tragedy, modern man needs to learn that progress on Earth is chimerical, often illusory. Men pursue their technological wonders and utopian schemes without truly understanding the costs -- because we are limited. With every step forward something good is left behind. Tragedy always stalks progress.  

Mephisto, by Mark Antokolski (1884)
"Given man's complex anthropology and the developments of the last five centuries, we can now better appreciate Goethe's Devil, Mephistopheles. He is not like the medieval Devil who is alien to you and me. Rather, Goethe's Devil reminds us ... of us ... because he is us. Goethe's genius was to pull Mephistopheles out of the breast of his very own readers, that part of ourselves that is lured by the excitement of material possibilities: the physical sensations, recurring pleasures, and unleashed animal desires. And as the representative of the animal in us, Mephistopheles makes a bargain with God. Mephistopheles wagers that he can get Faust to feel so completely satisfied with his earthly nature, that the good doctor will forget his spiritual origin that connects him to God. Mephistopheles wagers that Faust will busy himself so completely on the horizontal plane that he will neglect, abuse, and forget the vertical plane. Mephistopheles wagers, in other words, that Faust will become thoroughly modern -- and dehumanize himself.

"Now you see why Goethe's Faust is so prophetic: Modern man has been seduced by his growing material power to dehumanize himself.

"You will note that the nature of this wager is quite different from that found in the Book of Job. In the Old Testament, Job must lose all things on the horizontal plane in order to gain what is necessary on the vertical plane. By contrast, in Goethe's Faust the protagonist will gain everything he wants materially but lose it all spiritually -- until the very end. At the end it is clear that Faust cannot save himself. Despite all he does, he cannot save himself. It is only God's mercy that saves him." Tonsor paused, looked me straight in the eye, and enunciated each word slowly: "Is this not a very spiritual message for post-Enlightenment Europe?

"Mephistopheles represents something else that would resonate in the husk of a Christian culture. When called upon to explain who he is, he declares, Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint -- I am the everlasting 'No,' the spirit who always denies. My purpose is to undo the work of creation. 

"But, as we see at the end of the drama, Mephisto is the one who is denied. He fails because he does not fully understand what a man is. No matter how intense are the earthly, sensual desires of a man; no matter how tempting the wealth and power and worldly successes he might achieve; they can never leave a man entirely satisfied. There is always the desire for more. And perhaps that is what makes Faust always raise up the earthly thing to the heavenly plane. It's because man, in his maddening in-betweenness, nevertheless has conscience, imagination, and the spark of the divine. He has the capacity to combine his contradictions and make something better of them. So, for instance, Faust cannot just have sex with Gretchen and be content with the physical satisfaction of the act; he has to raise the experience to a higher level and fall in love with her!

"For all these reasons, one can with justification say that Faust defines the modern human being.[13] And the word "Faustian" defines the civilization we call Western. It was Oswald Spengler who, reading Goethe, discerned the distinctive character of Western culture: It was Faustian because of the way it inspired the striving soul to engage in unceasing efforts to conquer nature -- including human nature. But it's a roll of the dice. 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 characterizes the modern world."[14]

Tonsor's words hit me like a blast of wind. But there was no time to linger. Caroline, who had checked out a book, was emerging from the library. 

As the game clock ran down to zero, Tonsor wasted no time wrapping up: "Make no mistake: Goethe was no orthodox believer -- he did not give a full act of faith to the God of the Christians. But his Faust teaches us what the loss of Everyman's faith in the transcendent would mean to the Western spirit, much as Nietzsche would do, even more forcefully, several decades later. With the arrival of the modern age -- which supplanted the Age of Faith and along with it medieval scholasticism and Renaissance Platonism -- Western man crossed a threshold that has given him abundance on the horizontal plane of his bestiality, yet poverty on the vertical plane of his spirituality. Grasp this existential fact, and you have the key that unlocks so much that has vexed man during the last five centuries. As the years pass, the distance between modern man's seduction by the horizontal and his memory of the vertical only widens. It is that existential gap that goes far to explain why modern man in his dissatisfaction chooses to be distracted by his newfound Promethean capabilities -- whether to use the state to extend his power, or to use violence to eliminate the other, or to use ideology to justify his exquisitely refined hypocrisy."


At this final thought Tonsor offered Caroline his physical support so that she would not slip on the ice -- just as he'd offered me his intellectual support so that I would not slip on ideology. 

As the couple said goodbye, I hurried down William Street toward the bus stop, aware of the cold wind on my face and feeling that Goethe might have correctly diagnosed my poverty and misery. 



[1] This advice parallels that of Fr. James V. Schall, at URL  

[2] Ann Tonsor Zeddies conversation with GW, East Grand Rapids, MI, June 17, 2017.

[3] Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, MI, July 7, 2017.

[4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Götz von Berlichingen, Act 1, 1773.

[5] Eckermann was to Goethe as Boswell was to Johnson. See Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe, December 6, 1829, trans. John Oxenford, Kindle ebook ed., loc. 6636.

[6] Matthew Arnold, "A French Critic on Goethe," Mixed Essays, quoted by Helen C. White, "Matthew Arnold and Goethe," PMLA, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 1921): 438.

[7] Paul A. Bates, ed. Faust: Sources, Works, Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969).

[8] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954.)

[9] Thomas Mann letter to Ida Herz, March 21, 1954; from Mann's Letters, 1948-1955 (Frankfurt, Germany: Fischer, 1955), p. 332; in Donald Watt, ed., Aldous Huxley (London: Routledge, 1975), p. 394.

[10] Reminiscent of Tonsor's interpretation of Faust is Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, trans. David Dollenmayer (New York: W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2017), ch. 33.

[11] Paul, Romans 7:15, New American Bible translation.

[12] John 19:30, Latin Vulgate translation.

[13] Cf. A. N. Wilson, "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans: They Gave Us Goethe and Bach," Independent, July 12, 2008, at URL 

[14] 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.

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