As the leader of the American humanists, Irving Babbitt (1864-1933) stood solidly and forthrightly in the American conservative tradition of John Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne and drew upon the greats of world (not merely western) civilization for his arguments: Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Confucius, and Horace.
At least, this is how Russell Kirk has explained it through all seven editions of his magisterial Conservative Mind.
Never does Kirk even offer the slightest diffidence in his take on Babbitt. As the founder of American humanism, Babbit was as much a “sage of antiquity” as were any of the great men of history from whom he drew his inspiration. At a time when Kirk thought very little of orthodox Christianity, he professed himself Babbit’s disciple. From time to time, he even joked that he worshipped at the temple of Babbitt. The Conservative Mind, he told an audience in 1985, was as influenced by “Babbitt, as much as Burke”. This teacher of T.S. Eliot stood with Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Confucius, and Horace as one of the greats of world civilization, “one of the sages of antiquity,” Kirk claimed.
I must admit, I’m still intellectually divided over how much allegiance any 21st-century conservative should render to Babbitt. Again, admittedly, I’ve never been totally sure I’ve ever completely understood him. This might be entirely my fault. I’ve been reading him for nearly 15 years now, I’ve had the opportunity to teach his thought to Hillsdale students many times, and I’ve even sat at the feet of his greatest living disciple, Claes Ryn. Well, ok, we were sitting at a Liberty Fund square table, but you get the drift.
As the obituarist for the New York Times wrote in 1933: “Professor Babbitt was probably the leading exponent in America of ‘the new humanism,’ a philosophy which he admitted he could not defend in a few words.”
Three days later, a writer for the Times stated:
After long, austere, quiet labor as a scholar and thinker, the late Irving Babbitt was blown upon by a queer, unexpected blast of notoriety. The coast guards of Bohemia rose against him. Subjectivists, individualists, expressionists, exhibitionists, liberals and Heaven knows how many other little sects raved and roared. Columnists blazed with their serried columns. There was a very pretty quarrel about humanism, neo-humanism, anti-humanism, and what not. It is true that the humanists don’t agree among themselves. It is true, as some of Professor Babbitt’s opponents urged, that his own definition of it are not as clear as crystal.
One thing is abundantly clear, looking back at the writings in his own day: Babbitt inspired loyalties as fierce as the hatreds of those who dreaded him.
Certainly, his critics abounded! Such diverse figures as Albert Jay Nock (who should’ve known better, frankly), Edmund Wilson, and Sinclair Lewis offered serious challenges to his ideas. Indeed, Sinclair Lewis’s wife in the 1920s, Dorothy Thompson, who would, by the 1930s, become one of the most famous journalists in the world, once commented, when she was in the hospital at the time her baby was born, that reading an article by a Humanist “was worse than having the baby.”
Nock claimed that the Humanists emphasized human will at the expense of human passion. Additionally, Nock believed, the Humanists gave too much credence to the power of culture and possessed too much faith in a natural aristocracy.
The famous literary critic, Edmund Wilson, dismissed Paul Elmer More (and, by association, Babbitt) as an “old-fashioned Puritan who has lost the Puritan theology without having lost the Puritan dogmatism.”
But, his students (most famously, T.S. Eliot) revered him. One student remembered that Babbitt despised ideologies of any kind—but especially in America, which, he thought, should be the ultimate anti-ideological power in the world. Thus, an ideologue in America was essentially little better than a turncoat and a traitor to a proper vision of the founding:
Such threads were the social warp, and he wished them, instead of being broken after the modernistic fashion, to be rewoven into a firmly modern pattern; particularly in America, where there was special opportunity for just such a pattern and special danger without it. ‘Pestiferous’ was his word for American visionaries who naively echoed the subversive doctrines that had grown so noisy in older countries by way of reaction from old entrenched habits. Those doctrines when transferred into new and mobile America were, he often exclaimed, ‘thoroughly pestilential.’ He ridiculed the ‘imported notion’ that the chief danger of modern America was moribund conventionalism. Radicals who cherished that notion stirred him to raucous mirth; which would subside into a gentle chuckling when his mind turned to the opposite sect, hidebound respectable persons. These pestered him considerably; but they were not ‘pestiferous.’ ‘Of course,’ I heard him say more than once, before I noticed the same epigram in his writings, ‘where there is no vision the people perish, but where there is sham vision they perish even faster.’
Further, the same student wrote that Babbitt wished “America would retain the moral robustness of the Anglo-Saxons while leaving behind their insular arrogancy.”
Another student remembered, somewhat charmingly, that “Babbitt always measured men by character more than by intellectual prowess and brilliancy.” Indeed, moral fibre mattered far more than raw intellect to the man.
Additionally, “Originality for originality’s sake he looked askance at, and virtuosity was with him almost a term of reproach, a sort of juggling dexterity in tossing up three or four ideas in the air a the same time.” Real originality (and patriotism, interestingly enough) came from those who understood their place in a line of descent. They should look to their elders not as antagonists or fools, but as exemplars and with immense gratitude.
Though T.E. Hulme was establishing (or, more accurately, reviving) a similar set of thoughts in England, Babbitt should be credited with founding what was often called “American humanism” or the “New Humanism”—an attempt to reclaim what had been lost in the nineteenth-century whirligig that loved the particular aspect of a thing over the universal connections of one thing to another.
Just as we always remember Chesterton with Belloc and Belloc with Chesterton, we must do the same with Babbitt and his closest friend, Princeton University’s Paul Elmer More. After Babbitt’s death, More attempted to explain what the two had meant by “humanism.”
The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament; the greatest virtue is the opposite of this, the awakening from sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will. The last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples was an exhortation to practise this virtue unremittingly.
Humanism, at its core, meant to know and restrain one’s self, much in the way Cato the Elder and Cicero had pleaded with Roman republicans to behave. Few members of any society have appreciated being told to restrain themselves. Despite his own agnosticism, Babbitt was essentially a modern-day Jeremiah. And, just as Jeremiah was both loved and feared, Babbitt was both loved and feared.
Babbit the Man
Just as with my great friend and brilliant department chair, Mark Kalthoff, Babbitt was born in Dayton, Ohio.
At an early age, he fell in love with the classics. “How he came to his love and mastery of Roman and Greek poets, I do not know,” More remembered. As More put it, “the taste was born in him. The astonishing fact, as I look back over the years, is that he seems to have sprung up, like Minerva, fully grown and fully armed.”
Reading, memorization, and study were never enough for Babbitt, however. Purely for the experience of it, he spent some time among New York street gangs, and he worked for some time on a relative’s ranch in Wyoming. Out West, he amused “himself by pulling a retiring rattlesnake out of its hole by the tail and whirling it around his head.”
Recognizing his rather eccentric genius, Harvard University wanted him as a full-time professor, but the classics department rejected him as a member. The modern language department did want him, however, and he became a professor of French literature, a subject he barely respected. Indeed, he was rather open about his bitterness. “I once heard him, when an instructor in French,” a student recorded, “say to the chairman of his department that French was only a cheap and nasty substitute for Latin.”
While at Harvard, he had very small classes. They usually met around a seminar table.
He came in with a bag bursting full of books, and took out a handful of notes which he arranged around him…Began to sway in his chair, then leaped out upon one of them and poured a barrage of criticism upon some doctrine or some line of poetry, ‘to cast o’er erring words and deeds a heavenly show’. Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, Milton, etc…He deluged you with wisdom of the world; his thoughts were unpacked and poured out so fast you couldn’t keep up with them. You didn’t know what he was talking about, but you felt that he was extremely in earnest, that it was tremendously important, that some time it would count; that he was uttering dogmatically things that cut into your beliefs, disposed derisively of what you adored, driving you into a reconstruction of your entire intellectual system. He was at you day after day like a battering ram, knocking down your illusions. He was building up a system of ideas. You never felt for a moment that he was a pedagogue teaching pupils. You felt that he was a Coleridge, a Carlyle, a Buddha, pouring out the full-stuffed cornucopia of the world upon your head. You were no longer in the elementary class. You were with a man who was seeking through literature for illustrations of his philosophy of life. You were dealing with questions on the answer to which the welfare of nations and civilizations depended. He himself seemed to know the right answer and was building a thoroughfare of ideas from the Greeks to our own day. You went out of the room laden down with general ideas that he had made seem tremendously important….He related for you a multitude of separate and apparently disconnected tendencies to the great central currents of thought. You carried away also a sense of the need for immense reading. He had given you theses about literature, about life, which you would spend a lifetime in verifying.
He was a powerful, if not popular, philosopher.
The man who presently entered the room and seated himself behind the desk was of big frame slightly stooped. The face was craggy, the jaw obtrusive, the voice vibrant, the gestures quick and angular. And certainly when he spoke he laid down the law; but not as though the law were his own. It belonged to humanity, so he made one feel; it had been enacted by the parliament of history and he was a clerk announcing it. He did so in tones full of its importance but empty of his own. I had known many professors who were modest because they were mild, and some who were not modest because they were professors. But Babbitt was neither mild nor officious. The moral laws were for him too clear, urgent, and fateful to permit of gentle circumspection in the announcing of them; but also they were so transcendent as to belittle his office.
Babbitt was rather above the average height, powerfully built, with the complexion of radiant health. But it was his eyes that caught and held one’s attention. They were of a dark, not pure blue, and even then, though of a luster that dimmed somewhat in later years, had in repose the withdrawn look of one much given to meditation. He had a way of gazing downwards or forwards or anywhere rather than into the face of his interlocutor, in a manner which could never be described as timid or shifty, but which gave often the impression of remoteness, as if the individual before him were lost in some general view of life or some question of fundamental principles which might be occupying his mind. But if the unlucky individual thought to escape into that remoteness from the consequences of a rash statement or logical fallacy, he was likely to be caught up by a swift direct gland that seemed to shoot out tentacles, as it were, into his very soul. At such moments that restless energy of Babbitt’s which was wont to work itself off in walking or by pacing back and forth as he talked, would appear to be gathered together, holding his body in an attitude of tense rigidity.
A physical fitness nut, long before the wider culture had embraced such things, Babbitt either ran (all times of day or night) or walked vigorously (2-3 hours a day), depending upon his mood. Somewhat infamously, Paris police even chased him once, assuming him a robber when found running through the city at midnight.
Babbitt even made his students run or walk with him during “office hours.”
So many wonderful things have been written about Babbitt’s mind and thought—his understanding of the Natural Law, his defense of the liberal arts, his attacks on Rousseau. Reading Babbitt or reading about Babbitt, one almost always pictures a severe and austere man, a Roman Stoic ready to behead those who misbehave while on the march.
But, like Kirk and other 20th century conservatives, Babbitt was an eccentric, armed with both a brilliant mind and a personality to match. While it’s very much worth remembering the thought, it’s also worth remembering the man.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.