True Ethical Humanism
This reprint of the best-known work by Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) is a sturdy addition to Transaction’s Library of Conservative Thought. When it was initially published in 1919, it was recognized by discerning readers as the landmark it has since become. The New York Evening Post (in the days before it became a tabloid and was still worthy of its founder, Alexander Hamilton) said of it: “As a study in comparative literature, this work is beyond question the most thought provoking yet produced in America.” The New York Times granted that “it is stimulating, witty, supported by a vast erudition.”
It was reprinted successfully in 1955 in an edition which turned up on many a college reading list, including my own courses at Brandeis University. Now, once again, some seventy-five years after its first appearance, it is a handsome paperback, introduced by a major fifty-four page essay on Babbitt by Claes G. Ryn. To me, Babbitt seems just as fresh and readable as I remember him to be, and even more pertinent and on the mark than he must have seemed to readers in the year following the Armistice which ended The Great War (as it was known for a long time). The reason for its increasing rather than diminishing relevance is unfortunately that the rebelliousness of the world, not merely against the wisdom of the ages, but against all common sense, has progressed so much farther since then. Scott Fitzgerald’s flappers and gangsters strike one as curiously diminutive compared to their sinister successors.
Of course, Babbitt, from the start, had not only admirers but brutal critics as well. The most caustic of these named by Dr. Ryn were Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway. Sad to report, it is the negative opinions that have prevailed among those for whom such names carry weight and authority and who have not troubled to re-examine the evidence for themselves.
Such persons are now presented with another opportunity for independent judgment, and it is to be hoped that some of them may avail themselves of it. The primary burden of persuasion in reopening the case must be borne by Babbitt himself. No one who is not impressed with the soundness of his substance and the attraction of his style is likely to be convinced by the enthusiasm of Dr. Ryn. But to those willing to suspend their skepticism or to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, his thoughtful and informative introduction should prove highly valuable. He helps us when he places Babbitt in the context of his educational examples at Harvard. There was to be a world of difference between Babbitt’s approach to literature and that of such a celebrated near-contemporary as George Lyman Kittredge (1860–1941), whose “year-long course on Shakespeare provided the students with large amounts of miscellaneous and detailed biographical and literary information but almost no insight into the humane significance of Shakespeare’s plays.” Kittredge had made his reputation by a notable contribution to the study of English literature when he identified in detail the hitherto shadowy figure responsible for translating and compiling the Arthurian romances, Sir Thomas Malory. That was what scientific philology, according to the prevalent German model, was supposed to do. As for the meaning of literature for the conduct of life, that must be left to the individual student (newly “empowered” by the elective system, which had taken the place of the classical curriculum) and to other disciplines, like philosophy, which were open to him.
Much more to Babbitt’s taste as a teacher was one he encountered in his study for the master’s degree at Harvard in 1892, Charles Eliot Norton, whose “course on Dante, unlike so many Harvard courses, did not avoid ethical and spiritual issues [and] confirmed Babbitt’s high regard for Aristotle.” Of course, Babbitt appreciated keenly philologists like Sylvain Lévi, with whom he studied the Pali dialect of Sanskrit in Paris, but that was because it gave him a tool with which to grasp the early Buddhist scriptures, which became of central importance to him in his understanding of the world and its philosophical, religious, and even political problems (Babbitt was particularly impressed with the Buddha’s injunction against all discussion of politics in the monasteries).
Dr. Ryn supplies the reader with a luminous summary of what might be called Babbitt’s civic contribution to the American dialogue. “Babbitt dreads the prospect of a society in which sociopolitical busybodies invoking ‘service’ meddle in everybody else’s life while neglecting man’s primary moral task, improvement of self. Domestically, sentimental humanitarianism would greatly expand government to carry out various allegedly benevolent schemes. Internationally, it would lead us, as in the case of President Woodrow Wilson, to moralistic crusading. Both at home and abroad the advocacy of service masks a grasp for power. It signifies the drive of the imperialistic ego to throw off restraints. No limits need be placed on a self that seeks the good of mankind. The new virtue does not, like the old, aim chiefly at control of self, but at control of others. One of the themes of Babbitt’s analysis of Rousseau and romanticism is the glaring, but in Babbitt’s view entirely predictable, discrepancy between stated ideals and actual behavior.”
Such a passage contributes to our understanding of Babbitt’s citation of a passage in the correspondence of Edmund Burke, which comes close to being an epitome of Babbitt’s own ethical and religious views:
[The French philosophes] explode or render odious or contemptible that class of virtues which restrain the appetite. These are at least nine out of ten of the virtues. In place of all this they substitute a virtue they call humanity or benevolence. By these means their morality has no idea in it of restraint or indeed of a distinct or settled principle of any kind. When their disciples are thus let free and guided only by present feeling, they are no longer to be depended on for good and evil. The men who today snatch the worst criminals from justice will murder the most innocent person tomorrow.
It is little wonder that the names of Babbitt and Burke should be coupled together by The British Weekly, which said in a review of Babbitt that “for anything comparable in knowledge, passion and gravity, we have to go as far back as Burke.” It is appropriate for them now to serve as piers of the great span of conservative thinking over two centuries.
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: January 6, 2013 in Best of the Bookman.
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America’s Protestant Roots in History and Theory
Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005)