Dartmouth’s Philosopher Remembered

By Jeffrey Hart

The recent gift to Dartmouth of Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey’s papers will greatly assist the further study of this important philosopher and one of Dartmouth’s greatest professors. Since most of his academic career was at Dartmouth, he did not have the graduate students who would carry forward his thought. What we need is a good introductory book about his thought, a summary of his major works, and an attempt to locate it in the tradition of philosophy. I am surprised that we lack a good one.

During my two years as an undergraduate at Dartmouth the more thoughtful students were excited by Professor of Philosophy Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. In fact, he was the only man on the faculty who mattered to me at all. And he still does.

His thought, indeed, was important to the theologian Paul Tillich, W.H. Auden, and many others. It was difficult, and highly original. Members of the Dartmouth philosophy department did not consider him a philosopher at all. The effect of his teaching on me was to complicate my naturalism. I don’t mean my interest in animals of all sorts which I developed early, fascination with their radical differences from us, yet creatures with consciousness and an unknowable view of the world. The naturalism Rosenstock undermined was a philosophy that held the natural world to be all that there is, nature of all kinds including the human as a part of nature. There is no actuality beyond that

During 1947 and 1948 Rosenstock’s classroom was on the second floor of Dartmouth Hall, a white colonial building that at one time had constituted the entire college. Rosenstock, that is what we called him, looked like the former German soldier he had been, of medium height, muscular build, erect and vigorous. His hair was white, and very German face was, there is no other word, beautiful. It was easy to imagine him as a soldier in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army, a soldier in a grey uniform and wearing a spiked helmet. He frequently brought into his lectures – discussions, really, with him the only speaker – thoughts about his experiences on the Western Front during the World War.

In particular, he stressed the importance he had had during the murderous battle of Verdun, a historic French fortress that the French army refused to yield no matter what the cost. During a lull in the battle, Rosenstock had ventured out into no-man’s land, when suddenly both sides opened up with thunderous artillery. Rosenstock took refuge in a shell crater. He felt a panic that had nothing to do with danger. He felt, he said, like a “naked worm.” He was cut off from the army, cut off from history, radically alone in the universe. Meaningless.

Karl Jaspers once defined existentialism as philosophizing “where you stand.” Where Rosentstock stood, or lay, was in that crater out in no man’s land between the lines at Verdun. From that nadir, meaning had to be created, or re-created. “History must be told,” he said repeatedly. History is to civilization what memory is to an individual, the source of identity, the constituting of a soul.

 

ii.


Often Rosenstock began a class, it would not really be correct to call these lectures, by citing some item from the day’s news. Or from history, American history or the history of Dartmouth College. “Gentlemen,” he would say with his German accent, “Gentlemen, Dartmouth College in 1847 was not Dartmouth College in 1900, and neither of those was Dartmouth College in 1947. Many acts of creativity went into the re-creation of the College, “the College, gentlemen, of which you are a part today. And you, gentlemen, are part of the creation of the Dartmouth of tomorrow.”

When he wanted to say something of particular importance he would begin, “Gentlemen . . . ”

I have said that he undermined my assumption or naturalism— in philosophy, empiricism — by showing that you cannot live that way. An empirical demonstration confirms what has already happened. But you continually make decisions the results of which have not yet happened, and when you make those decisions there is nothing to confirm. Naturalism and empiricism are in the past tense. The future is always possibility, good or bad. “In an experiment,” he said, “science repeats its readings several times. It follows that science lets only what is repeatable affect its statements. All unique processes are basically unsuitable for scientific observation.” He sometimes quoted Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

“That man, gentlemen, does not know the result of the choice he must make. He cannot check on the result that hasn’t yet happened. Our choices project us forward in our own histories. We make judgments, we may be prudent, but we act on faith. We create actualities that did not exist before.” His citing Robert Frost was particularly effective, because about fifty yards to the north of where we sat was Wentworth Hall, where Frost had lived during his abbreviated freshman year, and the thought of Robert Frost reminded us of what that man, once a freshman here, had himself created. He had not always been Robert Frost, the great poet, national and indeed world figure. Faith is the future, a projection. He would say, “Even a man who believes in nothing needs a girl who believes in him.” That one, in particular, hit home with us. Nietzsche was important to Rosenstock, and in more than one way. By 1947, certainly 1948, the tensions with the Soviet Union were approaching crisis intensity.

Rosenstock saw Nietzsche as a prophet we could oppose to Marx. Both had foreseen our epoch of revolutions and upheavals. “If Marx had been the only prophet,” he said, “then Communism might well triumph. But Nietzsche also saw what was coming. And so we do not need to become Communists.” Rosenstock’s idea of prophecy was not guesswork or magic, but the intellect and imagination that enabled such prophets as Marx and Nietzsche to understand the total experience of an epoch at its beginning. As against Christ, Rosenstock said,

Marx tried to found a Church on bread alone. He also saw Nietzsche as the prophet of individual creation as contrasted with Marxist collectivism, the superior individual as the result of heroic imagination.

 

iii.

 

We had two texts for this course, both by Rosenstock, The Multiformity of Man and The Christian Future: Or, The Modern Mind Outrun. I did not know it at the time, but Rosenstock-Huessy was Jewish and became a Christian as a young man. This was regarded as apostasy, and with no little bitterness, as I learned from a professor of religion who was also a rabbi. Yet the nature and basis of Rosenstock’s Christianity is not easy to pin down.

In class he did not discuss the important biblical texts upon which Christianity rests, for example St. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15. Nor did he attempt the metaphysics that goes beyond the knowable, the question that Heidegger would pose in his Introduction To Metaphysics, page one — why is there something rather than nothing? What was there before the Big Bang? Aristotle posited a prime mover.

Instead of exploring questions of that kind, Rosenstock dealt with Christianity as lived in history and in our personal experience. As he taught, “speech is the body of spirit,” and “You speak and I respond, and I am changed.” Or in his great work Out of Revolution, as he frequently said, “History must be told.” My old teacher Jacques Barzun said much the same thing, “Everything should be woven into the fabric of history.” Hegel did not come forward independently of history and say, “I have a philosophy of history.” That he did evolve a philosophy of history had antecedents.

And Nietzsche did not suddenly conclude, as he did in The Gay Science, parable #125: The Madman said, “We have murdered God . . . and smashed his lantern on the ground.” The Madman is what people call Nietzsche, and the lantern is the Enlightenment: Skepticism, empiricism, rationalism. Nietzsche did not mean that God once existed and no longer exists. He was making a cultural statement. And this parable (“murdered”) suggests Nietzsche’s complex relationship to the Christian God.

Rosenstock had immense respect for Nietzsche, a great prophet and also Rosenstock’s greatest challenge and opportunity.