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Volume 2, Number 1 (Autumn 1961)

The Achievement of Irving Babbitt

Milton Hindus

To define Irving Babbitt’s central view of life, from which radiate all his other views—of letters, of education, of society—I commence by quoting not his own words, but those of a different writer—one whom he would not have approved.

For in reading Bertrand Russell’s recent autobiographical volume Portraits from Memory, I encountered a passage—not without surprise—that seemed to me extraordinarily close to the views of Babbitt as I understood them, and which might serve as an epigraph to a study of Babbitt’s work. This passage occurs in a short sketch that Russell wrote of his friend Joseph Conrad. In Babbitt’s own terms, I had previously thought of both Russell and Conrad as philosophical “naturalists”—one a spiritual descendant of Bacon, the other as closely connected with Rousseau. Russell was concerned primarily with science, Conrad with sentiments. One was a utilitarian, the other a romantic. Certainly there were important differences, too, between them—Russell regarding himself as something of a radical, and Conrad being regarded as something of a conservative. But both men had been strongly contrasted in certain respects, to my mind, with Irving Babbitt.

Yet reality is hard to pigeonhole. Babbitt himself makes allowance for reality’s infinite gradations and complexities when he attaches reservations to his most ambitious generalizations. He indicates, for example, that though he is highly critical of Rousseau’s thought, which he calls sophistical, yet it is with only one side of Rousseau’s work that he deals; and that undoubtedly passages may be produced from Rousseau’s writings that contradict what Babbitt takes to be Rousseau’s main tendency and influence.

This passage which I am about to quote, therefore, is not offered as proof that either Russell or Conrad ever was a disciple of Irving Babbitt; but rather that his point of view (which is consciously distilled by him to its purest essence) entered as an element into their psychological composition. Here is Russell’s remark:

He thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break to let the unwary sink into fiery depths. He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline. His point of view, one might perhaps say, was the antithesis of Rousseau’s: “Man is born in chains, but he can become free.” He becomes free, so I believe Conrad would have said, not by letting loose his impulses, not by being casual and uncontrolled, but by subduing wayward impulse to a dominant purpose . . . Conrad’s point of view was far from modern. In the modern world there are two philosophies: the one, which stems from Rousseau, and sweeps aside discipline as unnecessary, the other, which finds its fullest expression in totalitarianism, which thinks of discipline as essentially imposed from without. Conrad adhered to the older tradition, that discipline should come from within. He despised indiscipline, and hated discipline that was merely external.

Though some of the images in which this passage is couched (for example, the one of the molten lava laying just beneath the brittle crust of convention) are highly charged emotionally and romantic, nevertheless the import of the passage is unexceptionable, I think, from Babbitt’s point of view and the remark about Rousseau is just such a one as he himself might have made. Both the tone and the content are analogous to those of Babbitt in Rousseau and Romanticism: “Though strictly considered, life is but a web of illusion and a dream within a dream, it is a dream that needs to be managed with the utmost discretion, if it is not to turn into a nightmare. In other words, however much life may mock the metaphysicians, the problem of conduct remains.”

The problem of conduct—this is unfailingly the central concern of Babbitt. On the matter of conduct, the world around Babbitt seemed to him to have gotten completely off the track, if indeed the world in general can ever have been truly said, with the exception of rare men, to have accepted or even understood the true nature of such a problem. With regard to ethics, the position of the ordinary man may perhaps be compared to that of a passenger in a crowded subway train at the height of the rush-hour. He is kept upright not by any conviction or virtue of his own but by the mere pressure of the bodies around him. He is passive as far as the moral life is concerned, rather than active. But it was exercise and activity (possible inwardly even in that state of contemplative repose which paradoxically may characterize the “athlete of righteousness”); it was convictions and principles that interested Babbitt. Without consciously held principles and convictions, the human being is little better than a brute. In an essay entitled “What I Believe,” Babbitt once summed up the quality that seems to have disappeared from our contemporary world:

Let us ask what it is that the modern man has tended to lose with the older dualism. According to Mr. Walter Lippmann, the belief the modern man has lost is “that there is an immortal essence, presiding like a king over his appetites.” This immortal essence of which Mr. Lippmann speaks is, judged experimentally and by its fruits, a higher will. But why leave the affirmation of such a will to the pure traditionalist? Why not affirm it as a psychological fact, one of the immediate data of consciousness, a perception so primordial that, compared with it, the denial of man’s moral freedom by the determinist is only a metaphysical dream.

Will is as much a key term in Babbitt as it is in Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. He devoted one of the appendices of his book book cover imageDemocracy and Leadership to this term alone. But it has a completely different meaning to him than it does to those philosophers. The difference is conveyed by the modifying adjective “higher.” Babbitt’s will is not primarily assertive—it is neither a blind will to live as it is in Schopenhauer (life as an end in itself, as an absolute, unquestioned value should be treated by Babbitt as agnostically as Socrates treats it at the end of The Apology: “To die and . . . to live. Which is better God only knows.”) nor is it a will to power as it is in Nietzsche. It is a will directed inwardly against the subject himself. It is a will to refrain, a will to check oneself. Babbitt is lavish in praise for the restrictive classical qualities of decorum, proportion, restraint, and measure and for the synonyms and translations of these qualities which he terms “frein vital” (in opposition to Bergson’s familiar “élan vital”) and “the inner check.”

An amusing story is told about a French auditor of one of Babbitt’s lectures at the Sorbonne who is supposed to have exclaimed in frustration at the end of it the equivalent of “What the devil does this fellow mean with his ‘inner check’?” Thereby this person showed (in my opinion at least, though the story is repeated by those wishing to discredit Babbitt—as if it were he who was to blame for the fuzziness of his key concept) that he himself was especially in need of understanding Babbitt’s message. I do not mean that he was wrong in challenging the author of a piquant phrase to supply a definition of it. No one is more strict in his demand for definition and clarity in the use of terms than Babbitt, and one of his main objections to the romantics is that they discourage every attempt at definition. But there is something in the tone of the question that indicates that the asker of it would not have stayed for an answer.

The French skeptic was simply testifying to the fact that, since he did not feel anything in himself which corresponded to the expression “inner check,” the words must be devoid of any real meaning. Yet the same kind of destructive criticism can be brought to bear effectively upon all philosophic terminology. Would that Frenchman, if he had been listening to one of Bergson’s lectures, have cried out just as impatiently: “Mais, que diable veut-il dire par cet ‘élan vital’?” I wonder! Perhaps he would. Yet the impertinent question is as unfair to Bergson as it is to Babbitt.

The answers to such unanswerable doubts are to be found not in any single sentence but in the writer’s work as a whole. Babbitt’s effort throughout his books is to supply a satisfactory meaning to the expression “the inner check”—parts of this effort may be detached from the rest provided that it is clearly understood that such a manner of approach to his meaning is only a makeshift. It is not by reasoning but by an immediate intuition that one approves or disapproves of the assurance of the pluralist philosopher (Bahbitt’s opponent) that life consists of “a perpetual gushing forth of novelties.” In the same way, one feels or does not feel immediately (or else disguises from oneself that one feels) the weight of Babbitt’s statement that in human life “there is always the unity at the heart of change.”

What Babbitt means by “the inner check” could be illustrated from the writings of many authors, sacred and profane, whom he quotes. There is, for example, that favorite personage of Babbitt’s, the Buddha, whose Dhammapada Babbitt spent years in translating and which was published after his own death. One of the striking verses of the Dhammapada reads as follows: “If a man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, and if another conquers himself, he is the greatest of conquerors.” And then there is the passage from John Milton which reads as if it were almost a translation of Buddha’s thought, though no doubt he achieved the same insight independently: “He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.”

It is the men who are able to learn and to transmit the profound and difficult lesson of self-conquest who become examples for the conduct of subsequent ages and not merely warnings (like those “bold, bad men” who have achieved historical notoriety). This is the true meaning of one of Babbitt’s sterling sentences which seem to me to have few equals in the literature of his time: “In the last analysis, what a man owes to society is not his philanthropy, but a good example.” That sentence appeared in an article entitled “The Breakdown of Internationalism,” published by the Nation in 1915. A corollary of this point of view is to be found in his book Democracy and Leadership: “My own objection to the substitution of social reform for self-reform is that it involves the turning away from the more immediate to the less immediate.”

A serious question with regard to Babbitt is whether, in preaching the archaic virtues of self-conquest and self-containment, he is motivated solely by the attractiveness of these ideals or by a perverse distaste for the expensive and aggressive (Babbitt calls them “imperialistic”) ideals which have taken their places among his contemporaries. To put the question still more bluntly—is he being stubborn on the subject of Rousseau and romanticism because he is himself so deeply romantic perhaps? Is he not responding to the impulse to shock in a new and unheard-of way by embracing convention instead of being at odds with it? Is he not in fact part of the movement that has gone so much further since his time to “revolt against revolt”? Is it not possible, as someone has suggested, that even the quality of moderation may be emphasized immoderately? Doesn’t Babbitt, in fact, himself belong with the type of enthusiast whom he treats so ironically in Rousseau and Romanticism “who recently went about the streets of New York (until taken in by the police) garbed as a contemporary of Pericles” but who was (according to Babbitt) “no less plainly a product of Rousseauistic revolt”? Wouldn’t this Periclean enthusiast perhaps have labelled himself, had he been asked to do so, a “classicist”?

I do not believe that these are easy questions to answer, although I believe too that an answer is possible which should not be discreditable to Babbitt’s reputation though it sees in him something which he was not sufficiently aware of in himself. He seems to me, in truth, to resemble his arch-intellectual-antipathy Rousseau in many ways. There are indications (in places he almost says as much himself) that Babbitt keeps hammering away at the themes of restraint, frein vital, inner check, proportion, decorum, and measure because he feels himself to be living—the more accurate expression of his feeling might be the word drowning—in a time when the anarchic freedom and license of the emotions are threatening to run away with us. Rousseau, on the other hand, thought himself to be living in a time when repressions and strait-laced corsetings of all kinds and especially of the natural feelings were building up to an explosion. Each was convinced that an important element of human nature was being neglected to the peril of humanity itself. Each responded to the needs of his time with a greater sensitivity to those needs than was to be found among his contemporaries generally, and each looked to the future to redress the wrong done to his reputation in his own age.

While Babbitt regarded the romantic view of life as fallaciously one-sided, he saw in its one-sidedness a reaction against the equally fallacious version of classicism which had preceded it. From this view follows his greater tolerance (at times, this amounts to genuine admiration—as in the case of Keats whom, despite certain reservations, he regards as so richly endowed a poet) for the earlier proponents of the Romantic view as distinguished from the later ones. To illustrate this aspect of Babbitt’s thought, we might compare his comments on Madame de Stael and on George Saintsbury. Madame de Stael’s critical writings are regarded by Babbitt as prize examples of “Rousseauistic enthusiasm” and some of the comments he makes on them are accordingly hard—e.g., “She was unbalanced and did not escape the Nemesis that pursues every form of lack of balance.” “Yet,” he adds in extenuation, “it may be said in her behalf that the half-truths on which she insisted were the half-truths that the age needed to hear.”

But no such justification exists in Babbitt’s mind for the epigones of Romanticism. A hundred years make an immense difference apparently in the history of any institution or movement. In the essay “Are the English Critical?” Babbitt writes: “Professor Saintsbury is going on repeating eagerly half-truths that might have been a useful counter-irritant a century or so ago to the current conventionality and lack of perceptiveness, but which are an encouragement to the men of today to fall in the direction in which they already lean, that is, to plunge still more deeply into anarchy and impressionism.” According to Babbitt, if the reader will forgive the pun, Stael was fresh but Saintsbury was simply stale!

The objection he makes to Saintsbury is one of the most serious he can make against an influential man—namely, that he flatters the conceit, indolence, and self-satisfaction of his contemporaries. This is such an easy thing to do. For example, he says in one of his essays: “Emerson transcended his time in important particulars, whereas President Eliot did little more than reflect the time in its main tendency. For forty years he pushed American education in the direction in which it was already leaning. His whole career illustrates the advantage of going with one’s age quite apart from the question whither it is going.”

The degeneration of romanticism since its obscure beginnings in the eighteenth century is summed up in witty fashion by Babbitt in The New Laokoon: “Judged by any standard Rousseau is a man of intellectual power, and he seems especially great in this respect when compared with Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand in turn appears an intellectual giant compared with Lamartine. Lamartine’s ideas begin to look serious compared with those of Hugo. Hugo himself strikes one as intellectually active compared with Paul Verlaine. Traces of cerebration may be discovered even in Verlaine compared with some of the later symbolists. In these last anemic representatives of the school we arrive at something approaching a sheer intellectual vacuum—the mere buzzing of the romantic chimera in the void.”

The decline in intellectual distinction and even in effort among the later representatives of romanticism probably accounts for their lack of realization that in repeating and embroidering upon worn-out formulas, they were merely taking the line of least resistance and not the one that was actually demanded by the deepest inner needs of their time. The idea that in any time there is a main tendency, which first has to be discerned in order to be evaluated, is an idea which Irving Babbitt has in common with his predecessor Matthew Arnold and with his successor, T. S. Eliot. An important sentence which Arnold liked well enough to repeat in two of his essays reads as follows: “Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort.” In one of Eliot’s best-known and most frequently anthologized essays, Tradition and the Individual Talent, we find him saying: “The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.” Similarly, in the very opening essay of his first collection, Literature and the American College, Babbitt has affirmed that “in an age as well as in an individual there are generally elements, often important elements, that run counter to the main tendency.”

Arnold, Babbitt, and Eliot are equally certain of the existence of a “main tendency,” of its importance, and of the necessity for analyzing it. This agreement itself I take to be something new in criticism, being the counterpart in literature of the historical and evolutionary way of regarding reality which increasingly dominated the thought of the nineteenth century and which is still so strong in our own time.

The feeling for “the main tendency” becomes a criterion for the judgment of men, forms, ideas. Emerson, for instance, according to Babbitt (despite the side of his work which recalls Rousseau to mind)

“remains an important witness to certain truths of the spirit in an age of scientific materialism. His judgment of his own time is likely to be definitive:

Things are in the saddle
And ride mankind.

Man himself and the products of his spirit, language and literature, are treated not as having a law of their own, but as things, as entirely subject to the same methods that have won for science such triumphs over phenomenal nature.”

Discovering, then, what he conceived to be the main tendency of his age and coming to the conclusion that it was a false and pernicious one, Babbitt set himself to oppose it as resolutely as Rousseau had set himself to oppose a very different tendency in the eighteenth century. Both Rousseau and Babbitt are men who dare—dare, that is, with full consciousness to move against all that is victorious intellectually in their own time. It was with reason, therefore, that in the first decade of the twentieth century when T. S. Eliot studied under him at Harvard, Babbitt was (according to Eliot’s reminiscence in the memorial volume Irving Babbitt: Man and Teacher published in New York in 1941) “considered an interesting, eccentric, and rebellious figure amongst the teaching profession, and his outspoken contempt for methods of teaching in vogue had given him a reputation for unpopularity.” In the half-century that has followed, partly due to that portion of Eliot’s own influence which has been exerted in the same direction as Babbitt’s, his ideas have come to seem less strange though they are still far from being dominant either in society at large or even in the academy, which might be thought the most fruitful soil for them to grow in, and perhaps they never will dominate.

But even those who have opposed Babbitt’s tendency most vehemently (for example, Harold Laski in his book The American Democracy in which he concludes his discussion with the sentence: “With Maistre he could have said that the executioner is the cornerstone of society!”), even Laski, I say, granted Babbitt the virtues of civic and intellectual responsibility: “With an obstinate courage he went into the marketplace to denounce with hot fury all the experiments, which his epoch attempted because they implied that there were no permanent standards . . .” Though the word fury is as ill-chosen as the comparison with Joseph de Maistre, the rest of the sentence is true—at the height of the public interest in the Humanist Movement in Babbitt’s later years in the 1920’s, he was called on to address as many as three thousand people at one time in Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Babbitt’s professed purpose was steadfastly to oppose to the inadequate ideas of his age what he took to be the wisdom of the ages. He labored diligently to make himself worthy of Goethe’s perfectionist advice and to bring to bear upon the aberrations of the historical hour the corrective supplied by the consideration of masses of universal history. He did this as objectively as he could and without rancor. Norman Foerster once recalled that in a quarter of a century of association with Babbitt he “never heard him speak maliciously of anyone.” His interest in ideas was too pure ever to become bogged down with personal resentments. If his objectivity was tempered at all, it was not by coldness and disdain, but by warmth and generosity. Foerster recalls that “he was constantly coming to the rescue of his enemies, pointing out that their errors must not be exaggerated nor their virtues denied.” In the measure in which he lived up to the high standards which he set himself, Babbitt doubtless will prove to be the beneficiary of the law he lays down in his book Democracy and Leadership: “A man who looks up to the great traditional models and imitates them, becomes worthy of imitation in his turn.”  

Milton Hindus (1916–1998), poet and critic, was professor of English at Brandeis University and one of the leading disciples of the late Irving Babbitt of Harvard, American humanist and champion of traditional education.

Posted: December 4, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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