Undoubtedly trying to shock many of his readers—most of whom understandably associated him with radicalism in poetry and the Bloomsbury group in London—T.S. Eliot exclaimed rather baldly in the late 1920s, “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.”
While his comments on religion and politics must have somewhat perplexed and disappointed his Harvard undergraduate mentor and the founder of American Humanism, Irving Babbitt, he must have been mightily pleased to see Eliot identify himself as a classicist. Indeed, it was Babbitt who first encouraged Eliot to reveal to the world his newfound Christianity, hoping that such a leap would not reflect poorly upon himself. Eliot, Babbitt thought, should come clean so as not to confuse the views of the two men.
Though he wrote only a few books, Babbitt spent his writing career railing against romanticism, which he identified with the radical teachings of the eighteenth-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His most explicit criticisms of Rousseau appeared in his book, naturally entitled Rousseau and Romanticism: “At bottom the war between humanist and romanticist is so irreconcilable because the one is a mediator and the other an extremist.”
Critically, for Babbitt, romantics tended to believe that nature acted upon the human person through inspiration and ecstasy rather than allowing the human person to choose freely. “The beautiful soul does the right thing not as a result of effort, but spontaneously, unconsciously and almost inevitably,” Babbitt explained. “In fact the beautiful soul can scarcely be said to be a voluntary agent at all. ‘Nature’ acts in him and for him.” In the heat of emotion, he continued, the romantic succumbs to passion rather than reason. As such, paradoxically, the romantic who surrenders himself to the throes of nature actually does nothing but reveal his grotesque egotism. In this egotism, Babbitt noted, sounding very much like a precursor of Russell Kirk, the romantic breaks the bonds of community, thus creating an individualism in which “the generations of men can no more link with one another than the flies of a summer.” The result, in addition to the loss of real community, is the leadership of the half-educated man.
To understand the particular craving that is met by Rousseauistic idealism one would need to go with some care into the psychology of the half-educated man. The half-educated man may be defined as the man who has acquired a degree of critical self-consciousness sufficient to detach him from the standards of his time and place, but not sufficient to acquire the new standards that come with a more thorough cultivation. It was pointed out long ago that the characteristic of the half-educated man is that he is incurably restless; that he is filled with every manner of desire.
In the whirligig of confusion and disorder, figures such as William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche understandably, if lamentably, arose. In Babbitt’s understanding, the two most important men of the modern era were Rousseau and Edmund Burke. While Rousseau led men to revolution and insanity, Burke led humanity in the opposite direction. While both men possessed imagination, Burke’s imagination moved beyond mere fancy. “The imagination must, to be sure, be supreme, but it should be an imagination disciplined to the facts,” Babbitt wrote in his 1924 book, Democracy and Leadership. “If the imagination is not present, the facts will not be unified; they will remain inert and isolated.”
At the time that Irving Babbitt was concluding his career, Christopher Dawson was just getting started. He read Babbitt thoroughly and considered him a great intellect, even if wrong on numerous issues. Dawson challenged Babbitt most openly in his 1931 book, Christianity and the New Age. Dawson believed that Babbitt’s humanism resembled little more than an old-fashioned and high-toned Protestantism, but, unlike Protestantism, it rested on nothing permanent and, therefore, would prove fleeting.
One area in which the two men specifically disagreed was on the issue of romanticism. In direct contrast to Babbitt, Dawson argued that the rise of Romanticism, whatever its excesses and failings, served as a historical moment in Western Civilization only equaled to and by the rediscovery and recovery of Greek philosophy and art during the European Renaissance of the early modern period. In the late eighteenth century, mostly due to Edmund Burke’s philosophical works, Romanticism was born, re-discovering the gothic beauty of the Roman Catholic Middle Ages. As such, Dawson argued, Romanticism successfully saved Christianity—in thought and art—from the utilitarianism and rationalism of the eighteenth century. As with the Renaissance, in which the humanists did not mimic or mock classical Greece, but shaped it to fit the needs of European society, so too did the Romantics take the best of medieval Christianity and fit it to the needs of early-nineteenth-century European society. In the process, Dawson believed, the Romantics discovered “a new kind of beauty.” Excess, however, was not limited to the Romantics. Yes, the Romantics had their Shelleys, but they also had Coleridge and Wordsworth. Just the same, the humanists of the Renaissance had their Campanellas, but they also had their Petrarchs.
Burke began Romanticism with his treatise, On the Sublime and the Beautiful, and the most important Romantics to follow in this tradition, according to Dawson, were Joseph De Maistre, Novalis, and William Blake. The latter probably most shocked Dawson’s readers, as orthodox Christians tended to place Blake in the category of the diabolic. Yet, Dawson claimed, Blake was so bizarre and so unorthodox that he actually came full circle back to a form of orthodoxy. What did these three men following Burke have in common? They were all, according to Dawson, prophets. In particular, de Maistre possessed the “spirit of a Hebrew prophet;” Novalis longed “to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness;” and Blake as a prophet had a deep understanding of how “historic events” mixed with the eternal.
Whether we as conservatives embrace classicism or romanticism, whether we see the divisions in the modern world as did Rousseau and Burke, or whether Babbitt or Dawson had it right, might seem rather esoteric. Interestingly enough, however, we can judge these things probably better than either man, simply because we have the advantage of a century on each. So, dear reader of The Imaginative Conservative, may I suggest two exercises for all of us? First, put Mozart’s Great Mass in C on the sound system, while reading Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy. Second—perhaps on the following evening—put on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and read The Prelude by William Wordsworth.
Which is better? Does it matter?
I thank the Good Lord I can enjoy both.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.