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Volume 22, Number 1 (Autumn 1981)

An American Classic

book cover imageDemocracy and Leadership
by Irving Babbitt.
Foreword by Russell Kirk,
Liberty Classics, 1979, 390 pp.

Claes G. Ryn

The appearance of a new edition of Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (first published in 1924) is one sign among many that interest in this controversial thinker is growing markedly. Several scholarly studies related to his work have been published in recent years, and not long ago his Rousseau and Romanticism was reissued. A systematic reconsideration of his contribution is long overdue. Not only is Babbitt an important thinker, but an examination of his ideas will make possible a better understanding of American intellectual history in this century. One of the best kept secrets of that period is the influence Babbitt has already exerted.

Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) was a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard, but the breadth of his mind defied academic boundaries. A legendary teacher of awesome learning, he influenced deeply a large number of young men who were to make their own reputations, among them T. S. Eliot, Austin Warren, and Walter Lippmann. Warren refers to Babbitt in the classroom as “an experience not before encountered nor ever to be forgotten.” The admiration and affection of students and others is reflected in Frederick Manchester’s and Odell Shepard’s collection of memoirs, Irving Babbitt: Man and Teacher (1941).

Babbitt questioned the dominant intellectual currents of his own lifetime. In Democracy and Leadership, as in other works, he criticizes what he calls the naturalistic movement in modern Western society. He distinguishes between two aspects of this movement, letting Francis Bacon exemplify its mechanistic and utilitarian side and Jean-Jacques Rousseau its sentimental side. Both ignore the need to order human life with reference to a transcendent ethical principle. The utilitarian and sentimental dispositions are frequently joined in the same individual. A common modern political type is the lover of humanity, basking in self-approbation, whose benevolence expresses itself in calls for social engineering. But, according to Babbitt, no amount of sentimental “love” or sociopolitical activism can substitute for a lack of real moral character. Stressing the tension in man between higher and lower potentialities, he views genuine love and charity as the fruits of an often difficult self-discipline in the individual soul. Social reform can sometimes aid but never replace moral self-improvement and education.

[W]ith the present trend toward “social justice,” the time is rapidly approaching when everybody will be minding everybody else’s business. For the conscience that is felt as a still small voice and that is the basis of real justice, we have substituted a social conscience that operates rather through a megaphone. The busybody, for the first time perhaps in the history of the world, has been taken at his own estimate of himself.

Real social harmony rests ultimately on the exercise of a higher will in man. This will is Babbitt’s much-debated but poorly understood “inner check.” He means by this term the transcendent good reaching into the lives of individual men and drawing them toward a common center. In specifically Christian language, the inner check corresponds to grace or love. But this higher will, Babbitt argues, does not have to be taken on faith or on the authority of tradition. It is a matter of immediate experience which can be judged by its fruits.

Societies aspiring to be civilized must instill in their citizens a sense of the enduring good to which the impulse of the moment can be ordered. A rich cultural life serves this purpose. An “inner working” of this kind must not be neglected in favor of attention to a merely utilitarian “outer working,” such as the economic efficiency displayed in the marketplace. All societies, but especially those wishing to maintain a popular government, need citizens educated toward appreciation of the higher values of civilized life and leaders particularly distinguished in the same respect. To inspire and sustain the higher potentialities of human society, Babbitt gives a central place to the training of what he calls “the moral imagination.” This highest form of the imagination, most fully developed in the great poets and artists, penetrates to the heart of human existence, giving man a sense of the elevation and happiness of morally ordered experience. In its attempt to grasp what abides in the midst of change, it draws upon the great examples of the past. But it does so creatively and goes beyond tradition in its application of the cultural heritage to new circumstances. Babbitt contrasts this type of imagination (in the moderate traditionalism of Edmund Burke) with the radical and primitivistic dreaming of Rousseau.

Contrary to Rousseauistic belief, a people throwing off all traditional restraint unleash in themselves, not some original goodness, but the arbitrary and destructive ego. Hobbes and Nietzsche are correct in regarding the will to power as a pervasive human drive. Under the influence of a perverted demagogic leadership, a democratic people lacking in moral discipline will soon exhibit a ruthless imperialism. In 1924 Democracy and Leadership predicted the catastrophes soon to befall mankind.

Babbitt believes that liberalism has contributed greatly to Western culture. But he insists that the emphasis upon the freedom and uniqueness of the individual must be carefully integrated into a philosophy that recognizes the nature of man’s moral predicament. Sound “aristocratic” liberalism regards freedom as a necessary means to a higher end. But a liberalism that rejects all inhibiting and formative standards brings into being an offensive and potentially tyrannical egoism and ends up destroying both individual freedom and political liberty. Democratic majorities refusing to put checks on their appetites and resenting legal and other obstacles to the realization of their wishes soon make their form of government impossible.

Democracy and Leadership is packed with ideas. The tremendous scope and erudition of Babbitt’s mind, together with his tendency to compress his analyses, can perhaps give an ill-prepared or unwary reader the impression that his various points are loosely argued or loosely connected. Some academics may be similarly misled by his effortless and unpretentious command of his subject. But a careful study of Babbitt’s arguments, preferably within the context of his work as a whole, reveals a highly disciplined and penetrating mind. His ideas do not always have the precision that one associates with a technical philosophical treatise; nevertheless they are the proper object for such philosophical interpretation and elaboration.

The reactions to Babbitt in the early decades of this century were often highly emotional and irritable. One gathers that he had hit his opponents where it hurt. But in spite of the intensity of the opposition to him, which involved many of America’s most influential intellectuals, Babbitt has influenced the American mind. Some of his ideas were absorbed, though usually without attribution, by individuals who had been his critics. He also found many scholarly admirers of stature in later generations, among them Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, the former Harvard president Nathan Pusey, and, more recently, the journalist George Will.

Babbitt has been a decisive, if little noticed, influence behind American ethical and cultural conservatism in the last thirty years. But perhaps the most telling sign of his continuing presence is the thinly veiled hostility which has greeted attempts over the years to take a new look at his ideas. Half a century after his death, people knowing little or nothing about Babbitt seem nevertheless to know that a condescending attitude toward him is in order. Judged by this persistent ban, the dominant spirit of the time continues somehow to recognize in him a special threat to itself. In the excellent foreword to the new edition of Democracy and Leadership, Russell Kirk suggests that Babbitt will survive the attacks of the Zeitgeist. Indeed, Kirk regards it as likely that Babbitt’s name will “loom large among thinking people in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and longer than that.”  

Claes G. Ryn is chairman of the Department of Politics at The Catholic University of America, and the author of Democracy and the Ethical Life (Louisiana State University Press).

Posted: August 12, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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