“Philosophy of history is a concept coined by Voltaire,” Gerhart Niemeyer said to me in the spring of 1977, repeating the first sentence of his lecture, “The Loss and Recovery of History,” delivered at a Hillsdale College seminar a few weeks before and later published in Imprimis (October 1977). He went on to say that from the beginning “philosophy of history had an antitheistic character”; indeed, it was specifically anti-Christian, and in the hands of Voltaire’s successors Hegel and Marx and others “is a form of the loss of reality,” and thus the loss of truth.
This was heady stuff for a sidewalk conversation. We were across the street from Broadlawn, Hillsdale College’s presidential palace, then into the second semester of Gerhart’s six-year presence on the Hillsdale campus. He was explaining to me, a 37-year-old second-year associate professor of history (although in my 15th year of teaching), why Aristotle considered philosophy more noble than history as a field of study. It had to do with Aristotle’s conviction that philosophy, like poetry, could deal with the general or ultimate things, while history was limited to the particular. I had already learned that such conversations were normal for Gerhart on sidewalks, in automobiles, faculty offices, at cocktail parties, the dinner table, or anywhere else one might be with him. Although he never forced a difficult discussion, he rarely let a “teachable moment” go by.
The profound idea about the loss of truth that Gerhart awakened in me that spring day was not simply the rehearsing of a notion that was old hat to him. He said to his son in 1992 that “Eric Voegelin’s ideas, concepts, and new insights became, you might say, the main content of my work in the last fifteen or so years.” A year later (at age 85) he wrote “This Terrible Century” for the Intercollegiate Review, a remarkable synthesis (in about eight pages!) of the moral and philosophical disasters dumped upon the world since the year of his own birth in 1907. His comment to Paul and the essay point back to about the time he came to Hillsdale; so I had the great good fortune of being in his presence during a period when by his own reckoning his life’s work came fully together, when both the loss and the recovery of truth filled his heart and mind. Before I try to tackle the implications for a half-dozen productive years as a teacher of undergraduates, let us review the events and influences that inspired the “main content” of his work in the late 1970’s.
A Path Remembered: The Lives of Gerhart and Lucie Niemeyer (ISI Books, 2005) is a work of almost perfect piety, a loving, scholarly, magisterial biography, written with dignity and in agreeable prose by Gerhart’s very talented and grateful third son, Paul V. Niemeyer. Paul says that “sometime after Mother and Father’s conversion, Father began to integrate religion, philosophy, and political theory—gradually at first, but completely in the end.” These three were the trinity in Niemeyer’s scholarship and teaching. To the trinity one must add his marriage and family life, his move from Europe to the United States in the midst of crisis and chaos, the constant presence of music (“The makeup of their souls . . . included a thirst for music and art in their lives”), and Notre Dame as an institution in order to gain a full understanding of what Gerhart put into the classroom.
In more or less chronological order these elements combined in the Niemeyer mind and soul. First, his love and marriage to Lucie, the constant over the years 1931-87, almost 56 years until her death. What he lacked, says their son, she provided. One also infers from the biography that their spiritual partnership fully developed after their conversion to Christianity in 1943 and the blessing of their marriage in the Church. I have seen several marriages that define the work of scholars, but never one so deeply and clearly defining as the Niemeyers’.
Second, they abandoned Germany (never wanting or planning to do so; their family roots were deep) with the rise of Hitler in 1933. Eventually, they made their way to the United States and Prince ton University in 1937, after a pleasant transition in Spain: “I cannot imagine that any country has so impressed itself on our hearts and minds and souls as did Spain.” Pleasant, that is, until the utter chaos of the Spanish Civil War. Not being Jewish, the Niemeyers had nothing immediate to fear from Hitler. They despised him, and Gerhart’s mentor was the Jewish scholar Hermann Heller, whom they followed to Spain (and who died in 1933, devastating Gerhart). There was, in their hearts, nothing left for them in Germany or anywhere else in Europe. Despite the usual difficulties experienced by European intellectual refugees in finding American jobs, they adjusted to life in American universities rather easily and became citizens in 1943.
Third, Heller’s influence turned Gerhart away from the study and practice of law and into the less lucrative, chaotic—and more dangerous—field of political theory. Heller taught him to read classical political theory, and to read it carefully. Gerhart’s first major book came out of this relationship, a work on sovereignty and international law that contained the rigor but not the fullness of his later scholarship.
Fourth, while the Niemeyers were at Princeton (1937-44), they not only “settled” into American culture and academic life, but started to “make music in the house,” and experienced “the most meaningful event of their lives”—their conversion. Lucie came from a nonreligious family and was probably an agnostic. Gerhart had adopted a fashionable socialism and atheism at Cambridge in 1926, and maintained this typical German intellectual stance (“I felt that no really intelligent person could be a religious believer”) until about 1941. Thereafter, a sense of sin and suffering began to creep in; a need for what he would later recognize as grace, the desire to give the self up to something more important. He said to Lucie, “You know, I think we have to look into the problem of God,” to which she replied, “Yes, I’ve come to the same conclusion.” After much reflection together, Bible reading, and learning to pray, they joined the Church in 1943. Their love of beauty and the arts drew them to traditional liturgy, and they became Episcopalians in 1944. Many years later, shortly before arriving at Hillsdale, Gerhart was ordained a deacon, and in 1980 a priest in the Episcopal Church, in a moving and beautiful service attended by many of his students and colleagues from Hillsdale College. Athens joined with Jerusalem (in the Cross) to integrate everything he wrote and taught.
Fifth, after World War II Gerhart rigorously applied his deeper understanding of human nature and politics to the threat of communism. Indeed, he became one of the clearest analysts of all ideologies. In “This Terrible Century,” he said that “Ideology is the name for that kind of disorder which consists in substituting for philosophical questions about what is given a set of assertions about what is not given.” In other words, pure speculation of the mind that ignores the “constitution of being” and substitutes for it control by the human will. “Ideological adventures of the mind” produced totalitarianism, a “general slavery” that made politics into a form of perverted religion. Russell Kirk called it “demon ideology,” and the “drug of ideology,” an “alleged science of politics, dogmatic and often utopian”; “The ideologue . . . is one of Orwell’s new style men ‘who think in slogans and talk in bullets.’” In fact Kirk and Niemeyer were the two Americans most responsible in the 50’s and 60’s for dismantling, morally and intellectually, the ideological temptation and for separating it from conservatism, properly understood.
Sixth, and finally, Paul notes that “Father’s work became holistic, recognizing that disordered political thinking was manifested also in creative writing, art, music, and culture in general.” Although he had always been somewhat of a polymath, his “holistic” thinking emerged fully when he became an interpreter (but never a disciple, any more than he sought disciples of his own) of Eric Voegelin. Thus merged philosophy, history, political theory, literature, and the arts and sciences, in a mind and personality that were remarkably whole and clearly humble. Michael Henry, his student, has said (in a tone of awe) that Gerhart, “unlike many modern intellectuals,” was “spared the unfortunate ambition” to think new thoughts and to gather around him sycophants and sophisters: “His was more the mind of an archeologist, someone who humbly seeks to exhume, preserve, interpret, and transmit the buried knowledge and wisdom of the past.” In this sense he was profoundly conservative, but committed to explaining equally how that knowledge and wisdom had been lost, and how it can and must be recovered. “Our civilization is not in good shape,” he said. But sanity can be restored.
Recovery takes place in the human person. As much as Gerhart Niemeyer loved to write about loss and recovery, he knew that intellectual leadership begins in discussion. He was truly at home in the classroom, as he would have been in Aristotle’s Lyceum. Aristotle’s writings are class notes and lectures; Jesus never wrote down a word. Our teachers work best face to face. Nobody understood this better than Gerhart: Writes Paul, “In the end, if there has to be one thing for which Father is to be remembered, it will be as teacher. As teacher, he excelled.” This is true, but it is also the most elusive thing about a teacher for others to describe. Several of his students have tried, including a few who have gone on to distinguished careers in teaching themselves.
But let us consider further the context of the sidewalk conversation of 1977. I had requested an offer to Gerhart to teach part-time at Hillsdale, and was responsible both for negotiating with him what courses he would teach and for “suggesting” those courses to appropriate students. At first he volunteered even for our basic class, “Introduction to Politics,” but it quickly became clear that his energies were better directed at more advanced students. He settled into a course pattern I later learned was the culmination of his life’s work. Students who took the full sequence—and there were a few—had available to them an undergraduate version of the loss and recovery of truth as seen by a master teacher. He later said about his Hillsdale students, “[T]hey gave me the best they had. I had a wonderful relationship with these students.”
The courses were “Modern Political Ideologies,” “Reconstruction of Political Order,” “Communist Ideology I,” “Communist Ideology II,” “Russian Writers and Socialism,” “Western Writers and Totalitarianism,” “Seminar: Concept of Nature,” and “Seminar: Concept of History.” He taught each of them at least twice during his 13 semesters at Hillsdale, to between five and fifteen students. The college catalog noted that the readings were all “primary sources.” Three examples: “Russian” writers included Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn; “Western” writers were Joseph Conrad, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, George Orwell, Thomas Mann, Heimito von Doderer, Robert Musil, and Evelyn Waugh; “Reconstruction” authors were Bergson, Dilthey, Frankfort, Jaeger, Snell, Jonas, Lubac, Voegelin, “and others.”
I never heard one student complain, even about his notoriously strict grading (interestingly, he never awarded a D or an F); Angelo Codevilla later remarked (as his graduate student) that, “When some of us got A’s, we attributed it to professorial indulgence, or to divine grace.” Hillsdale students could all mimic his “wwrrronngg!” when an answer was less than precise. One beautiful young woman student dubbed him “Saint Gerhart,” which most others picked up. He once taught an entire class on communist ideology—or so it appeared to the other students—to a young man whose family was sufficiently close to power in his native West African nation that Gerhart felt a special obligation to engage in intellectual inoculation. Although his was normally a formal and formidable Germanic presence, one of his prize students (Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of Image) later wrote that in his description of “Thomas Mann’s own intense suffering over the fate of Germany, Niemeyer’s own suffering resonated in the classroom.” The formal man could also hug spontaneously, as happened to me on occasion. Germanic discipline, true empathy for his students and the authors he taught, rigorous attention to a wide range of texts, gentleness of spirit—all coexisted in his classroom with seemingly little effort on his part.
On the sidewalk, he gravely expressed to me his conviction that recovery begins in the minds and hearts of students as truths are brought out of them rather than fed in. He could say “wwrrronngg!” but not with a mean or condescending spirit. It didn’t mean “utterly in error” and certainly not “immoral” or “unjust,” nor did it imply a complete lack of discernment on the part of the speaker; rather, it was more like “awry,” or “disordered,” or “lacking the quality of careful judgement.” By questioning his students, forcing them to respond to a text or an argument, Gerhart felt that he could best help them to expose error and gradually to approach truth with the understanding that comes from self-discovery. This general method, which we often call Socratic, is really, he thought, exhuming our connection to the created order, digging back and reaching up, allowing us to see clearly what it is to live a fully human life in the image of God. I asked if we could not accomplish the same thing by telling a story that reveals truth. Yes, he thought, Solzhenitsyn sometimes did that—and others—but his-story is mostly limited by so much that is particular! One thinks here of John Lukacs’s dictum that “the principal task of historical thinking is the reduction of untruths.” Philosophy (or even poetry), Gerhart thought, stands a better chance at actually recovering truth. And so he would rarely lecture, except outside the classroom.
He also understood what Robert Frost called “education by presence”: “I favor the student,” Frost said, “who will convert my claim on him into his claim on me.” Almost all his students remark on his capacity for friendship. I spent much time and effort framing interesting questions that might make me worthy of his time and presence, but always I found that he converted those claims by anticipation into a generous exchange. In his desire to uplift the institution—the collegium—of which he was a part, he offered his services outside the classroom, humbly. At Hillsdale he took over the weekly Episcopal Wednesday noon prayer service, made it into a “deacon’s mass,” and delivered five-minute homilies unequaled in my many years of participating in such necessary spiritual interludes. His desire to support the high ideals of the schools to which he was loyal did lead, sometimes, to a certain gullibility. Convinced that Notre Dame football players were in every way worthy of their places in class, he was red-faced and chagrined when he discovered that Tony Rice, a prize recruit at quarterback who would lead the Irish to a national championship, could not meet the ridiculously low academic standards outlined by the NCAA. “Well,” he said, “we must make sure that Mr. Rice learns to honor his opportunities.”
Greg Wolfe also wrote, in The Good Man in Society (essays honoring their mentor by his former students, edited by Michael Henry and others), “an encounter with Gerhart Niemeyer is not merely a mental experience, but one which affects the whole person.” This wholeness is what made him a mentor and beacon in a world that is so lacking in light.
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