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Progressives lack imagination, and, in their desire to create a world made in their image, they can only mimic what they see with straight, sterile lines…

When considering that Thomas Jefferson delivered his first inaugural address in 1801—perhaps the finest statement up to that point in history on the dignity of the Western and Socratic project—and that Vladimir Lenin had the entirety of the Russian Revolution planned out by 1898, historian Christopher Dawson pronounced the nineteenth century the shortest century in world history. Given the radical change in thought from the universalism of Jefferson to the particularism of Lenin’s terror, Dawson made an excellent point. David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Dickinson and the other great thinkers of the eighteenth century had sought to discover and promote the universals that held all persons together in a community that transcended soil and time. Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and their counterparts in the following century persuaded exactly the opposite, closely examining particulars and declaring them universals. In almost every way, the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century fulfilled the most radical aspirations of the early moderns, undoing centuries of the Western project dating back to Miletus and, a bit later, Socrates. Just as thought became more and more compartmentalized—with each minor idea exploded exponentially—so life in the progressive era of the West became compartmentalized, departmentalized, deconstructed, divided, and parsed into ever-smaller units, each isolated from every other.

Only by recognizing this context of historical change over several centuries can one fully understand and appreciate the rise of the American and British humanists in the twentieth century: men such as Irving Babbitt, T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Christopher Dawson, and T.S. Eliot. Far from glorifying the human person, the humanists attempted to place man in his proper place, full of sin but also full of glory, sharing each with one another across time and space.

In his many writings trying to explain his own concept of humanism, Harvard’s Irving Babbitt frequently discussed the role of proportion and balance in a man’s thought, his soul (however defined), and his actions. By proportion, he did not mean simply Aristotle’s understanding of all things in moderation, though the two concepts are certainly related. Employing proportion and balance, Babbitt called on scholars to understand the universal and particular. That is, he warned us all against exaggerating one truth at the expense of, or in blatant ignorance of, other truths.

The scholar, the man of letters, and the academic must all pursue such balance, always being willing to be humbled not merely by the facts and ideas that contradict, but to expect—in full humility—to know when one does not know and when one cannot know.

As this should be true for a well-ordered and humane individual scholar, it should also be true of a well-ordered and humane culture and civilization. Though the Western project, as Babbitt understood it, had traditionally promoted a proper humanism, focusing on the faults as well as the glories of each person, the more recent trajectory in thought had tended toward the mass conformist and meaningless “humanitarianism.”

“A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and a desire to serve the great cause of progress,” he cautioned, “should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian and his creed may be designated humanitarianism.” Further, Babbitt argued, every modern American knew fully well what a humanitarian was—a “busybody with whom we are all so well familiar nowadays, who goes around with schemes for reforming almost everything—except himself.” Therefore, Babbitt continued, the humanitarian progressive sought to improve the world as a whole, failing to realize how complex and nuanced each human person is, while the humanist strove to reform merely himself, but only through discipline and a tempered judgment of himself and those immediately around him.

When a man barely understands himself, Babbitt knew, he had absolutely no business or justification to claim to know what was best for another.

Babbitt also worried that every major institution in the West stood against the humanist. The Christian church, whatever its many successes, promoted an irrational sympathy, negating reason and proportion. Governments, Babbitt lamented, really only understood imperialism and expansion, no matter what principles they professed in their public relations campaigns to their citizens. Universities had become so progressive in their denial of the liberal arts and their acceptance of departmentalization, professionalization, and electives that they could no longer serve their timeless function of protecting the universal.

As such, Babbitt claimed, he and his followers must be content not with advancing ideas in liberal education, but in preserving what little could be preserved for a future population more open and more willing to understand the traditional dignities recognized by the West and the Western project.

In one of his best moments of writing, Babbitt complained that the sacred word, humanist, had lost its power and its unique identity.

To make a plea for humanism without explaining the word would give rise to endless misunderstanding. It is equally on the lips of the socialistic dreamer and the exponent of the latest philosophical fad. In an age of happy liberty like the present, when any one can employ almost any general term very much as he pleases, it is perhaps inevitable that the term humanism, which still has certain gracious associations lingering about it, should be appropriated by various theorists, in the hope, apparently, that the benefit of the association may accrue to an entirely different order of ideas. We evidently need a working definition not only of humanism, but of the words with which it is related or confused—humane, humanistic, humanitarian, humanitarianism. And these words, if successfully defined, will help us to a further necessary definition—that of the college. For any discussion of the place of literature in the college is conditioned by a previous question: Whether there be any college in which literature has a place. The college has been brought to this predicament not so much perhaps by its avowed enemies as by those who profess to be its friends. Under these circumstances our prayer, like that of Ajax, should be to fight in the light.

If Babbitt saw much hope for the Western world, it would come only in an organized and self-conscious remnant of individuals and individualists (properly defined and understood as unique and unrepeatable centers of free will) who understood not just the errors of the world but who also had enough confidence to promote the good, the true, and the beautiful while being misunderstood, shunned, and, perhaps, even hated by the modern, progressive world. The true humanist, he feared, would find no comfort. As noted above, he could only, like Ajax, pray that he might find himself fighting in the light. This alone could prove comforting.

Progressives, after all, lack imagination, and, in their desire to create a world made in their image, they can only mimic what they see with straight, sterile lines. Such “sanitation” might be good for the body, but it would prove terrible for the soul and destructive of the mind.

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3 replies to this post
  1. “Further, Babbitt argued, every modern American knew fully well what a humanitarian was—a “busybody with whom we are all so well familiar nowadays, who goes around with schemes for reforming almost everything—except himself.”

    That a pretty good quote. And you could easily substitute “Progressive” in there as well. Plus, the term “Busybody” almost perfectly describes the likes of E Warren, H Clinton, B Obama, etc.

  2. Dr. Birzer – This was a helpful summation of Babbitt’s project. I am curious why you count David Hume as one of “the other great thinkers of the eighteenth century had sought to discover and promote the universals that held all persons together in a community that transcended soil and time.” My understanding of Hume is that his philosophy radically denied pretty much everything (radical empiricism leading him to embrace skepticism and advocate it). Have I misunderstood Hume? Or have I misunderstood why you would count him on the positive side of this dichotomy?

    Thanks,

    Josh Herring

  3. It is interesting Mr. Birzer that you begin an essay on Babbitt with Christopher Dawson’s idea of a short century from Jefferson to Lenin. I’ve been reading and pondering Dawson’s own critique of Babbitt’s thought in Dawson’s book Christianity and the New Age. As good as Babbitt is at revealing the faults of humanitarianism, Dawson, from a Christian perspective, very well analyzes the faults of Babbitt’s New Humanitarian thought by writing that Babbitt understood “…that humanism is only possible if we throw over naturalism and return to spiritual principles. But…he is unwilling to make a complete return to the metaphysical and religious foundations. He prefers a kind of spiritual positivism based on the accumulated moral wisdom of the great historic traditions-Greek, Buddhist, and Confucian. His desire to be “modern and individualistic and critical” causes him to shrink from committing himself absolutely to that which is eternal and universal.”

    While Babbitt’s critiques of Romanticism and humanitarianism are excellent, I wish Babbitt had become a Jesuit in disguise, as he accused Paul Elmer More of being, or at least a convert to More’s way of thinking of which you write in your essay here at TIC on More’s Christian Humanism. Babbitt had need of taking the critical spirit one step further by critiquing his own thought as not transcending enough the humanitarian perspective he critiqued and accepting Dawson’s “return to the metaphysical and religious foundations.”

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