Rauner Acquires Rosenstock-Huessy Papers

By Benjamin M. Riley

It is always difficult to assess the impact of someone only a short time after his life is over. That said, it is what we do as a people, and indeed must do if we are to evaluate what things mean to us. While it is better to reserve judgment for later generations, it is impossible. Faced with a choice between attempting to evaluate things before the necessary period of context and reflection emerges or refusing to evaluate them entirely, we must take the former as our only recourse.

So it is with trepidation that one approaches the subject of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Only fifty or so years removed from the legendary Professor of Philosophy’s retirement, it is far too soon to fully evaluate his place both at this College and in the world abroad. Yet, the process must begin somewhere, and what better place for it to begin than here at Dartmouth? Rauner Special References Library, that great temple of obscure knowledge, has most recently received an incredible cache of Professor Rosenstock’s personal correspondence and decided to make it available to the public. What better time, then, to begin the long and unending process of evaluation?

A few disclaimers are in order, though. First, there is an incredible amount of information to sift through, enough that entire books could be written on it. As such, there is certainly nothing presented here that might be deemed a comprehensive view. That task is better left for someone whose sole occupation is the subject. Second, I am merely a college student, am limited in my ability to assess the social and philosophical implications of Professor Rosenstock-Huessy’s work and life. Despite these two limitations, however, I intend to provide a view into the life and thought of a man who profoundly shook the Dartmouth community. My research owes much to Dr. Norman Fiering, an historian and former student of Professor Rosenstock-Huessy’s, who has dedicated himself to preserving the legacy of the great teacher.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was born in 1888 in Berlin to a secular Jewish family. His father was a banker of considerable means; his mother stayed home to raise the children. This arrangement encouraged his education and he took strongly to languages, becoming fluent in many of the major European tongues. At the age of 18 he converted to Christianity, joining the Lutheran Protestant Church. Following graduation from secondary school, he pursued the study of law at Zurich and Berlin, and was granted a doctorate of law from Heidelberg. He then became a professor of law and history at Leipzig, marrying his wife in the intervening years. He served in the German Army during World War I, seeing active duty on the Western Front.

Following the war, he opted to go into industry rather than return to academia, and spent four years with the Daimler Motors Company. While there he sought to educate his fellow employees and offered courses for blue-collar laborers. This emphasis on adult education would reappear later in his work at Camp William James. He then returned to academia, taking a position permanently at Breslau teaching legal history.

Upon the emergence of the Nazis, Rosenstock-Huessy resigned his position at Breslau and immigrated to the United States. He took a position at Harvard in German Studies, but did not stay long, finding the environment uncomfortable — he often mentioned God in his lectures and the faculty at Harvard, many of whom were of a Communist persuasion at the time, disliked this greatly. Thus, in 1935 he came to Dartmouth, appointed as Professor of Social Philosophy. He taught at the College until his retirement in 1957. In the years of his professorship at the College, he penned numerous books on Christianity, European revolution, and sociology. His wife, Margrit Huessy, died in 1959. Following his retirement and the death of his wife, he continued to write and guest lecture around the world, all the while residing in Norwich with his next lifelong companion, Freya von Moltk, who herself just recently passed.

Of special concern to me, and all those associated with the College, is the time Professor Rosenstock-Huessy spent here at the College, lecturing undergraduates just like every other professor. Rarely has Dartmouth employed a professor of such magnitude and as such, I was curious to understand what it was like for the Dartmouth community to have a professor of Rosenstock-Huessy’s stature lecturing in its presence.

To learn more about the man, I contacted Dr. Norman Fiering, who shared with me his recollections of the many classes he took with Professor Rosenstock-Huessy at the College. Fiering is the President of the Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy Fund and the Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy Society, a newly formed branch of the Fund. Dr. Fiering’s personal accomplishments are myriad: within the scope of this piece, he is first a former student of Professor Rosenstock-Huessy’s with much to share about the professor’s place at the College.

Rosenstock-Huessy was a divisive figure, to say the least. He was loved by some students for his unbelievable breadth of knowledge and hated by others for the way he taught. He was a domineering, assertive, generalizing and — perhaps most frustrating for students — rambling lecturer. He would often speak for an hour straight, pausing only if a word escaped him, knowledge pouring forth from his mouth.

For all the respect students had for him, many were disheartened by the constant attacks on their character that were part and parcel of Rosenstock’s lectures. A man with tremendous vision and scope, Rosenstock often found himself disgusted with the lives that his students led, and he was not afraid to let them know. Furthermore, his lectures, which were filled with digressions, often frustrated students, leaving them wondering which material should be noted on their pages and which should be left to float in the ether.

Despite this, Dr. Fiering maintains that the ‘boys’ (as you know, Dartmouth was not yet co-ed) never dismissed him as an outright crank due to how evidently learned and intelligent he was. I can believe it. Though the professor often comes across as cantankerous, the scope of his knowledge mitigates any ill will. His lectures mention Gerhard Groote, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph McCarthy, prohibition, the Methodist Church, and of course Jesus Christ. The remarkable thing is how he is able to tie all these seemingly disparate men and thoughts together. His lectures are like an elaborately patterned scarf being knit – one cannot see coalescence until it is complete. That is why, for as many students disliked him, his classes were always enrolled with dozens of men. 

The faculty viewed him much the same way. Some were friendly while others were offended by his views and methods. He was “respected, but not necessarily liked” by his fellow academics, and many found his disregard for academic conventions loathsome. By the middle of his academic career he had done away with footnotes in his texts, blatantly disregarding the established rules of academic writing. He was a major reason for the abnormal strength of the Philosophy Department at the time, however, and for that reason was at the very least tolerated.

Ultimately, Rosenstock was uneasy with his position in the America, and may very well have felt disrespected. He had been a professor at some of the finest universities in Germany and was forced to leave these posts due to the rise of Nazism. He seemed to feel that Dartmouth was, as Mr. Fiering put it, “in the sticks,” and he most certainly was displeased by the fact that Dartmouth was comprised solely of undergraduate students. Most of the elements of college life at Hanover that people cite as the reasons for their love of Dartmouth were exactly why Rosenstock was never entirely happy here.

But what of the actual classes he taught? In my limited time, I decided to focus on a single course he taught in both 1954 and 1956, entitled “The Circulation of Thought,” as it seemed the most appropriate to the modern issues we face as both college students and a nation at-large.

Before delving into the content of the lectures, let me first note the style. Listening on tape to the Professor lecture was one of the most captivating experiences of my academic life. Rosenstock lectures with such vigor and force that one cannot help but be enthralled. As Dr. Fiering said, “one could feel that he was taken by the spirit.” He simply speaks and speaks, yet the ear and mind never tire of what he says — he is far too interesting, far too evidently brilliant for that to occur. According to Fiering, the professor managed to lecture for an hour at a time in this manner with only a single standard note card of thoughts as reference. A true giant in the classroom, it is easy to understand why so many of Rosentock’s former students are still devoted. Listening to him is almost a religious experience, and being there must have been even more so.

The first point that Rosenstock made in the course is that man must make himself superior to logic. That is, man must make himself the master of his own environment, just as mammals control their internal temperature through their metabolism. He insisted that man must be able to engage in different periods of thought — there are times when man must be consumed by thought and other times when thought must be the least of his concerns. He compared thought to a guest in one’s house: while it may have the run of the place, it is still subject to the will of the owner, that is, the mind.

Further, it is not nearly enough to be in control over one’s thoughts. One must constantly dredge one’s thoughts to root out those that are not worthy. He noted that even mighty Dartmouth College must be dredged every fifteen years, and he chastised the boys in the classroom for relying too heavily on Baker Library as the source of all knowledge.

But mere thought was not enough for Rosenstock, who said, “at times a thought must grip you with such power that you do something about it.” He preached action based on thought, provided that the thought is your own, for if you decide against thinking for yourself, you will surely be ruled by foreign thought. This, he said, is how men like Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy find themselves in power. The exhaustion of spirit resulting from World War II left the world empty, he said, and consequently America was “in for tremendous mental diseases because we do not drench [sic] thoughts.” He foresaw the coming of an age where television put ideas into the heads of people and epidemics of thought ran rampant.

This apocalyptic mood runs through his lecture. But hope remains. He urges the young men in his classroom to think of every thought as one grain or seed that might be sown to fruition. Even if the success rate is one in a million, that is enough to change the world and create. Rosenstock desires creation above all — he is a Christian and wishes to see the Word made flesh. Why does he tell his students that they must dredge their minds, control their thoughts? So that they may one day go forth and create.

And this was not all talk. Rosenstock was instrumental in the creation of Camp William James, a voluntary labor camp that allowed people of means to be trained as future leaders of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The camp, attended by a mix of Dartmouth and Harvard students as well as local Vermonters and natives of New Hampshire, was Rosenstock-Huessy’s attempt to inculcate the talented youth of this country with the idea of making their words flesh. He famously said, as paraphrased by our own Jeffrey Hart, that “the goal of education is to form the citizen. And the citizen, is a person who, if need be, can re-found his civilization.” Camp William James was Rosenstock’s physical manifestation of that idea. He sought to meld these young men into citizens, so that, were the circumstances to arrive, they could think, and later act, to create civilization again.

In a time of great upheaval in the American university system, and especially at Dartmouth itself, let us ask ourselves: are we students are being educated in a way that would allow us to re-found our civilization were it to crumble? There’s no particular answer to that question, but it certainly warrants some reflection.