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Irving Babbitt

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Illustration by Michael Hogue

For conservative thinkers the past 15 years have been a season of self-assessment. In moods of disenchantment, anger, and even betrayal many have staked out positions differentiating their views from what today commonly passes for “conservatism.” In 2004 Patrick J. Buchanan published Where the Right Went Wrong, a work that, like much of this literature, targeted neoconservatism—his subtitle was “How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.” In 2003 Claes Ryn’s America the Virtuous indicted the radical conservatives of recent decades and judged them to be the “New Jacobins.”

The most helpful contributors to conservative self-examination have also explored an intellectual genealogy. At the same time that they have condemned a wayward and dangerous Right, they have also looked for roots. They have sought to measure the ascendant “conservatism” they disparage in the light of an older conservatism. That investigation has led in many cases back to Edmund Burke. Long venerated by conservatives in Europe and the United States, the 18th-century Irish-English statesman, critic of the French Revolution and defender of the American, has acquired a new currency in the conservative press. Evidence abounds. David Brooks spoke for many in 2007 when he declared, “Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke.”

Yet Burkean conservatism has never sat easily with the conditions of American life. Whereas Europe provided conservatism with history and tradition, the United States emerged as a “nation without a past.” That overstates things, but the quest for roots, stability, continuity, and tradition has never been simple here. Our inherited ideology and normative American values embrace individualism and freedom, democracy and equality, flux and change, mobility and relocation. We have never looked to church and seldom to state for a location of authority or for a sense of nationhood. In short, all the fixtures of an idealized organic society, so important to European conservatism, have found barren soil here.

But the interest remains. And no one made the effort to describe an American Burkean conservatism more energetically than Irving Babbitt. A fresh look at this conservative humanist might assist those who look for a Burkean corrective to today’s ascendant Right.

Conservative Humanist

Babbitt was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1865. He traveled widely in Europe as a young man and became especially attracted to Spain, at a time when many Americans viewed that country with opprobrium. Babbitt graduated from Harvard College in 1889 and returned there for graduate work in 1892. He kept his ties to Harvard the rest of his life, beginning his teaching career in 1894 when he joined the Romance Languages Department. His scholarship focused on literary criticism, with excursions into other subjects—especially higher education, politics, and religion. His major works include Literature and the American College (1908), The New Laoköon (1910), The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), and Democracy and Leadership (1924).

His work came to be identified with a school of thought called the “New Humanism.” As defined by Babbitt and Princeton critic Paul Elmer More, this movement in criticism gained popularity in the late 1920s, culminating with a manifesto, Humanism and America, in 1930. Babbitt was a legendary teacher at Harvard, dazzling students with the wisdom of the world. Those who sat in his classroom included Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, and T.S. Eliot, who called Babbitt and More “the two wisest men that I have known.” Those who have since claimed his mantle include Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, and George Will.

Babbitt had a quarrel with modern intellectual life and culture. Convinced that the West had lost the sense of sin and misplaced the source of evil, he urged their recovery. All of his views derived from his understanding of human nature. He described two warring principles in human beings: an expansive impulse that seeks liberation from all constraints and a controlling force that exercises discipline and restraint, what Babbitt called the “inner check.” We have thus a “higher” and a “lower” self, always in contention for mastery of the individual.

Babbitt’s writings scour the range of literature and philosophy from the Greeks onward in search of a moral center that could supply the stabilizing effects of the higher self. But he wrote during what seemed to be the age of the lower self, defined by the barbarizing currents of romanticism and naturalism. Those ideologies had discredited universal standards, loosened culture and society from their moorings, and bequeathed to us a world where “whirl is king.” Now, said Babbitt, “the central problem for modern man is how to live in a universe with the lid off.”

Romanticism, especially in the fashion of Babbitt’s bête noir, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, posits an innocent human nature—“born free and everywhere in chains”—and accuses society of creating the misery that afflicts us all. Naturalism, in contrast, depicts man as the reflex agent of external forces, biological or environmental, that overdetermine his behavior. Both views violate human duality and thus relocate the problem of evil away from an innocent human nature. These reinforcing ideologies, Babbitt believed, had deprived modern man of any inner check. Bereft of the constraining forces of a genuine humanism, he had built a civilization at once emotionally indulgent and mechanically driven.

Babbitt’s life mostly reflects the work of a cultural critic. But that criticism and his frequent forays into the political scene contributed significantly to the development of American conservatism. For years he battled social reformers, utopians, controlling humanitarians, and all manner of collectivists. His followers embraced Babbitt’s humanism as the corrective to a leftist progressivism. So it is an arresting thought that in the United States today Babbitt might see the most serious threats to his humanism coming from many who proclaim so vociferously the cause of “conservatism.” We might see why this is so by looking at four prevailing strands of conservatism: “imperialist” conservatism, “populist” conservatism, “libertarian” (or “anti-statist”) conservatism, and “religious” conservatism.

Imperialist Conservatism

Babbitt wished to impose on states the same standards of behavior that he prescribed for individuals. Nations, too, must identify and exercise their higher selves; they must relate their ideals and traditions to an ethical center that functions in a restraining manner and act accordingly in their dealings with the rest of the world. For nations as well as individuals can easily succumb to romantic habits of egoism and innocence, reinforced all the more dangerously by naturalism’s worship of material power. They lapse into self-flattery; they search for and celebrate the attributes that mark their historical, cultural, or racial distinctiveness.

The cult of nationhood, Babbitt believed, translates into expansion, aggression, and imperialism. He judged nationalism “the most dangerous of all the sham religions of the modern age.” Under nationalism, the building blocks of a proper conservatism—the vital traditions by which individuals find their higher selves—become detached from their location within a common humanity and leave only chauvinism. There follows inevitably, he believed, an imperialist outreach. But a just state, Babbitt wrote, will always “mind it own business.” It will serve the world not by its commercial ambitions or by the imposition of its ideals but, in the manner of all true leadership, by its example.

Babbitt saw America failing this test, and he recoiled from Woodrow Wilson’s “hypocritical intervention” in Mexico in 1916 and his conduct in World War I. “More than any other recent American,” Babbitt asserted, Wilson has “sought to extend our idealism beyond our national frontiers.” Wilson’s “humanitarian crusading” served mostly, Babbitt believed, to mask American will to power and the commercial expansion that attended it.

Commentators left and right have seen a neo-Wilsonian tilt in recent American foreign policy. Gary Dorrien in his book Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana supplies documentation aplenty to illustrate this turn. Babbitt would have no trouble recognizing the rhetoric of democratic idealism that often accompanied expressions of America’s interventionist. Charles Krauthammer took to the pages of the New Republicin 1991 to urge that the United States lead a unipolar globe, “unabashedly laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” Some neoconservatives, like Joshua Muravchik, directly linked Ronald Reagan to Woodrow Wilson and had high praise for “the global trend of democratization” they both promoted. American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan provided occasion for these sentiments, and the Project for the New American Century the Weekly Standard advanced them forcefully.

On the other hand, conservative critics of American interventionism, like Irving Babbitt before them, often made their case along Burkean lines. Pat Buchanan thus saw in the neoconservative prescriptions a source of endless trouble. We would be interfering, he said, “in the affairs of other nations whose institutions are shaped by their own history, culture, traditions and values, not ours.” This foreign policy, he insisted, wasn’t conservatism at all. Claes Ryn made that point emphatically and quoted from Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership in doing so.

Populist Conservatism

For a long time populism was overwhelmingly associated with the Left—consider William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, Huey Long, Charles Coughlin, Henry Wallace. But with Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s populism took on rightist causes. Since then we have seen Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and now Sarah Palin.

Populist politics is always anti-elitist. It always exposes the well-placed and privileged insiders whose access to power and influence makes victims of the masses of ordinary Americans. McCarthy pointed his accusing finger at the Ivy Leaguers who ran the State Department. George Wallace mocked country-club socialites, bureaucrats, and the federal judges whose desegregation decrees trumped the preferences of local residents. In turn, neoconservatives in the 1970s and 1980s found their bogeyman in the “New Class”—academia, the media, the unelected judiciary, the entrenched Washington bureaucracy.

Ronald Reagan liked to explain why he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. He asserted that “the intellectual and political leadership of the Democratic Party changed. The party was taken over by elitists who believed only they could plan properly the lives of the people.” Reagan had a point, to be sure. But when the future president at the same time spoke for ordinary Americans—“the ones who fight the wars; drive the trucks and raise the kids; the farmer and the fireman, craftsmen, and cop”—he employed a rhetorical strategy heretofore mostly associated with the Left. Republicans had learned, however, that the surest way to discredit an opponent was to label him “elitist.”

Irving Babbitt looked at democracy with thorough skepticism. He located in it the expansionist tendencies of society’s lower self, dangerously fueled by romanticism’s notions of innocence—its faith in natural man and an uncorrupted “people”—and naturalism’s hedonistic drive. Every social system must find a principle of self-control, Babbitt insisted, and democracy has the least capacity to provide it. The notion that wisdom somehow lies in the intuitive sense of the majority at any time, Babbitt wrote, “should be the most completely exploded of all fallacies.”

He would find familiar the populist and demagogic rhetoric that characterizes so much conservative political speech today—but he would not have expected it to come from conservatives. In his own time he decried the drift toward what he called a democracy “of the radical type,” represented by reforms that implemented the referendum, the recall, the initiative, and the direct election of senators. All signified to Babbitt an underlying faith in the democratic will. Babbitt saw in this “plebiscite democracy” only concession to the shifting emotions of the crowd.

Babbitt did not abandon democracy, however, nor did he endorse any substitute for it. His colleague More wrote against the familiar refrain that the cure for democracy is more democracy. The cure for democracy, More insisted, “is better democracy.” Babbitt agreed. He titled a chapter in one book “Democracy and Standards.” Repeatedly he cited the necessity for critical judgment and distinctions in all things. Leadership, he argued, should fall to individuals who have won the battle of their own souls, who exercise the inner check, who find themselves at home in the higher tradition that counterbalances the sentiment of the moment and the emotion of the hour.

Democracy, Babbitt always urged, does not need the natural person; it needs the improved individual. In the end, he believed, only one thing can save democracy—the “aristocratic principle.” His words anticipate the lines from Peter Viereck, author of Conservatism Revisited in 1949. “Democracy,” Viereck wrote, “is the best government on earth when it tries to make all its citizens aristocrats.”

Libertarian Conservatism

The airwaves today reverberate with anti-government animus. “Tea Party” protests denounce national healthcare and other massive federal programs. These conservatives venerate Reagan’s maxim that “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Indeed, modern conservatism has effected a remarkable amalgam: a populism that is for private enterprise and against activist government.

Anti-statist conservatism gains some approval from Babbitt. “I stand for the individual,” he once said. He strongly defended the rights of property. He distrusted the reformer and the humanitarian who look to government to force their agendas on a reluctant populace. Babbitt always warned that those who are most anxious to save us are also most anxious to control us. Babbitt judged the moral crusader, readily equipped with a Rousseauistic “kiss for all mankind,” to be the most intemperate of personalities, ruled by an unyielding emotional expansiveness and authoritarian will.

Here Babbitt was in accord with elitist libertarians like William Graham Sumner, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock. He shared their distrust of the crowd’s conformist passions: “For he conscience that is felt as a still small voice [of God] we have substituted a social conscience that operates through a megaphone,” he said. He found this impulse all the more threatening when the state became its instrument.

Babbitt did not believe that society could save itself by reform at the bottom. “All reform must start at the top,” he prescribed, among the leadership classes. He contended that in a perfect world, where all citizens had secured the inner check, the ideal government would be anarchy. But he had no faith in any such realization. More painfully yet, Babbitt had no faith in America’s existing leadership. He saw mostly greed and dishonesty among the wealthy classes and little of the aristocratic principle. He wanted this elite to be models of “moderation and magnanimity.” One has no difficulty imagining how Babbitt would judge today’s Wall Street.

His views here may suggest how badly conservatism today needs an effective philosophy of government. He liked to quote Burke: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” With the complexities of today’s world, this prescription sounds very abstract. Babbitt tried to evoke a Burkean and Disraelian sense of the state as repository of the national history and tradition; but he had little to say about government and what it should do. Ultimately, he simply opted for liberty, and praised the work of the American Founders “as one of the greatest blessings that has ever been vouchsafed to any people.”

Religious Conservatism

From John Winthrop and the Puritans to Ronald Reagan, religion has helped define America’s identity and role in the world as a “shining city upon a hill.” It has also inspired reformers, from abolitionists to anti-abortionists. However varying their causes, moralists have wanted to get America right with God.

Babbitt stands apart from all these associations. He considered himself an empiricist and like to say he “would meet the positivists on their own ground.” He would appeal to the dual nature of the human personality as a matter of observation. He refused to acknowledge religious dogma or ecclesiastical authority as legitimate. He would defend humanism, “positive and critical,” without appeal to anything supernatural.

To be sure, Babbitt did have much respect for religion, which he believed serves best, and most properly, as a form of spiritual discipline, a corollary of the inner check. Like many conservatives from Burke on, he valued religion and church for their restraining influences. “Christianity,” Babbitt wrote, “has actually done much to curb the expansive lusts of the human heart, and, among other lusts, the lust for power.”

In his own day, however, Babbitt saw religion reflecting the errant side of modern culture. Much of it, he thought, had fused with an expansive sentimentalism to produce the Social Gospel and an indiscriminate humanitarianism. Babbitt was also sensitive to how readily the human will seizes any universal truth and makes it an appendage of the ego.

Religion, when called into the service of political causes, elicited Babbitt’s protest. He accused William Jennings Bryan of making a “mawkish mixture of the things of God and the things of Caesar.” He made the same charge against Wilson. Babbitt selected for his disapproval two prominent figures of American liberalism. Today he might have found the God-language of conservatives just as objectionable. President George W. Bush’s disclosure that “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq” would have seemed repellent to Babbitt.

Recovering the Right

Irving Babbitt does not by any means supply conservatism with its last word. Nor does Burke or any other thinker. Babbitt represents a kind of highbrow conservatism whose focus yields a record of cultural and intellectual commentary. Others of the type include George Santayana, H.L. Mencken, Ralph Adams Cram, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Russell Kirk. This school is notable for its cultural attainments—but also for its lack of concrete policies. One would like Babbitt to offer a richer social or political application of his ideas. In discussing the justice, for example, he appealed to Aristotelean standards as applicable only to the balance of forces within the individual. Babbitt did not extend the discussion into plausible social considerations— racial justice, for instance.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, there emerged a new tendency on the American Right that did look to social science in taking the measure of political life. Neoconservative outlets like The Public Interest utilized empirical data that raised profound skepticism about the reform agenda of the “Great Society.” A wider review of such first-generation neoconservative literature might show that much of it reinforces the humanism of Babbitt and other literary conservatives. Such a review might have diminished the strife between “neoconservatism” and “paleoconservatism,” by showing how the best elements of the traditional Right and social-science Right might have much in common. One illustration must suffice.

In 1979 Jeane Kirkpatrick published her influential essay “Dictatorships & Double Standards” in Commentary. Harshly judging the foreign policy of the Carter administration, she maintained that the United States should not be seduced by the liberal-sounding democratic rhetoric of revolutionary movements and should continue to support traditional allies, even if they be counted as authoritarian states. She warned that we should not look to world historical forces moving on the putatively irreversible path of modernization—toward liberal democracy, secular rationalism, material improvement, social equality, etc.—and think ourselves peculiarly situated by history to assist in this movement.

“Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary discipline and habits” to achieve such progress, Kirkpatrick wrote. We ought not “to force complex and unfamiliar political practices on societies lacking the requisite political culture, tradition, and social structure” to mimic our very different history. And we cannot, she insisted, be “the world’s midwife to democracy.” Irving Babbitt would wholly concur. The architects of the Iraq War would not.

Therein lies the problem. Many observers—for instance Sam Tanenhaus in his 2009 book The Death of Conservatism—have perceived a dangerous disconnection between today’s Right and its richer intellectual past. Much recent conservative writing possesses a dogmatic quality—a metaphysics of the marketplace and the absolutism of “American exceptionalism.” But this mentality does not describe historic conservatism, which could serve to moderate this dogmatism. Conservatives of all people ought not to be detached from their own tradition. It is time to reconnect, and Irving Babbitt would be a good place to start.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of The American Conservative and is reprinted here with their gracious permission.

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