Was it coincidence? Fate? Providence? I could not know what it meant at the time. Yet September 27, 1986, would be my first encounter with the mind of Stephen Tonsor…

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


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

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


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

As the evening closed in, I felt the disconnect between the mountains and the monographs—a gap between the enchantment of the setting and the chore of the essays. Was I really in the mood to focus on the task at hand? But as I slowly turned the pages and scanned for “great ideas,” I was not disappointed. A number of writers seemed to embrace not just a scholarly but a civilizational mission. One passage in particular resonated. It was from 1958:

The historian must look beyond facts to meaning, purpose, and direction. Meaning, purpose, and direction—they are not apt to emerge in the parochial study of one culture, one civilization, or one religious tradition. It is only when the historian makes the comparative method the tool of his studies that he can move beyond the provinciality of national, class, and religious prejudice. The meaning of Western civilization emerges only when it is confronted by another civilization. It is in these dramatic historical confrontations that the meaning of culture, civilization, and religion emerges. It is in these confrontations, too, that cultures and civilizations are enriched and expanded. It is through this process that every period of crisis is a period of hope, that the periods of cultural dissolution can be, and frequently are, periods of great innovation and harbingers of a new cultural era. We have been grievously and justly broken, but if such eyes as mine are worthy to foresee the divine meaning, the divine purpose, then we have been broken only to be made one.


Stephen Tonsor

I read the passage a second time. My thought became suspended in the rarified atmosphere of a civilizational as well as a continental divide. The author was comfortable with contrast, paradox, and tension. Turning back to the top of the essay, I was keen to know who wrote this historical manifesto. His name was Stephen Tonsor.[1] When the essay was published, almost three decades earlier, Tonsor was a 34-year-old instructor at the University of Michigan. He described the transcendent purpose of civilization as ultimately a quest for truth, goodness, beauty, even love—the qualities that most dignified and humanized Homo viator, man the pilgrim. Here was a historian who wrote with the conviction that a civilization, although existing in time, was actually the vestibule of eternity.

With Tonsor’s essay in my hands, my mind strained to recall what I had written about truth, goodness, beauty, and love on a sheet of paper that I kept folded in my collection of Great Books back in Fort Collins. It had been prompted by a class in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks that I had taken with Dr. Jan Benson:

Truth is about being. It is knowing what really is.

Goodness is about doing. It is acting in a way that helps others and yourself thrive.

Beauty is about attracting. It is moving irresistibly toward good things. Think of how we gaze at a sunrise. Beauty thus serves to feed the soul as hunger serves to feed the body.

Love is about connecting. It is uniting our soul with what is true, good, and beautiful.

As the fire burned down and my energy waned, I picked up the journals at my feet. The photocopy of a manuscript had slipped out of one of them. Curious, I picked it up and saw that there was no author’s name on the front page. But the title, “Conservative Pluralism,” led me to a surprising and serendipitous find:

“The summer of 1953 was an exciting summer. My wife and I and our two small children spent that summer, as we had spent the previous two summers, atop a 10,000 foot peak in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho as employees of the Forest Service watching for forest fires. One cannot imagine isolation much more complete. And yet, in that isolation, we heard the echoes of the great events transpiring in the world below the serene altitude we inhabited….

“One day that summer I hiked four miles and four thousand feet down to the road to meet the ranger and pick up a month’s accumulation of mail. My mentor, Joseph Ward Swain, a distinguished historian of antiquity, had clipped various articles and reviews which he thought might be of interest to me and had sent them on. Among those clippings and articles was a review which had appeared in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of May 17, 1953, of a book by a young historian at Michigan State University, Russell Kirk.”[2]

This manuscript, whose opening scene was a fire lookout on Ruffneck Peak, was written by Stephen Tonsor. Not just any manuscript but this manuscript fell to the floor at my feet. Was it coincidence? Fate? Providence? I could not know what it meant at the time. Yet September 27, 1986, would be my first encounter with the mind of Stephen Tonsor. And these two men, Stephen Tonsor and Russell Kirk, would soon cross my path and I would walk with them for a crowded hour. Indeed, they and the tension between them would be decisive in my intellectual formation over the next several years.

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Paraphrase of a passage from Stephen Tonsor’s review of Christopher Dawson’s book, The Dynamics of World History, in “History and the God of the Second Chance,” Modern Age (spring 1958): 200-01.

[2] “Conservative Pluralism — The Foundation and the Academy,” typed manuscript. The manuscript itself is not dated, but Tonsor’s letters to Henry Regnery on September 8, 1981 (p. 4) and September 25, 1981 (p. 1), referred to the lecture by title and event organizer, the “Presidents’ Club,” and indicated that the lecture would be delivered on September 25, 1981. Letters are courtesy of Alfred Regnery.


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