At the heart of humanism in each of its various historical instances is the attempt to locate and cultivate what is essentially and universally human. This humanistic impulse runs throughout Western thought and has come to the fore several times, including in the ancient Greco-Roman humanists and in the Christianized humanism of the Renaissance. The New Humanists of the early twentieth century may be the most recent occurrence of the emergence to the fore of this humanistic impulse.
As Irving Babbitt, the leader of the American New Humanists, explained in his 1930 essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” humanism stands opposed to “the perception with which the modernist is chiefly concerned . . . of the divergent and the changeful both within and without himself.” The humanist rather seeks after what is true and unchanging of all mankind in any age. He seeks to discover “the something in his nature that sets him apart simply as man from other animals and that Cicero defines as a ‘sense of order and decorum and measure in deeds and words.’”
This things that distinguishes humans from all other created things is, in addition, according to the humanist, that which must be cultivated within man. “‘Nothing too much,’” says Babbitt, “is indeed the central maxim of all genuine humanists, ancient and modern.” If the sense of proportionality is the distinguishing characteristic of mankind, it is precisely this sense which must be cultivated for humans to attain to the fullness of their nature and, therefore, to attain the telos of human life and the satisfaction that arises from such attainment. And this sense of proportionality is to be applied in every aspect of human life, including not only its obvious applications in the arts but also within the realms of the practical and of the ethical. It is, or should be, the guiding principle of human life, according to the humanist.
This leads the humanist to the support of an aristocratic principle in society and government, of the sort described by Plato. Those who are able, through the combined powers of intellect and will, to put this guiding principle into action are those most naturally fitted for leadership. As Babbitt explains in his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership,
A man needs to look, not down, but up to standards set so much above his ordinary self as to make him feel that he is himself spiritually the underdog. The man who thus looks up is becoming worthy to be looked up to in turn, and, to this extent, qualifying for leadership.
Importantly, this standard cannot be imposed from without but must be cultivated within. The work of a society is to clear the way for those with the ability, not to force such a standard upon the populace as a whole. In fact, says Babbitt, “the multitude of laws we are passing is one of many proofs that we are growing increasingly lawless.”
One reaches—or at least looks to—this “humane standard,” according to Babbitt
by a knowledge of good literature—by a familiarity with that golden chain of masterpieces which links together into a single tradition the more permanent experience of the race; books which so agree in essentials that they seem, as Emerson puts it, to be the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman.
While there is both a great deal of truth and a great deal of reflection of the past humanistic traditions in this statement, it presents, however, something of a departure on the part of the New Humanists from earlier instances of humanism which is problematic for its claim to embody the humanistic spirit. As Bernard Bandler II points out in his 1930 essay “Paul Elmer More and the External World,” More, a close associate and follower Babbitt, “considers himself a follower of Socrates; but though he may agree with many of Socrates’ conclusions, in his life and writings he has ignored the methods which Socrates employed and the medium in which he worked.” Bandler cites More’s acquisition of wisdom through solitude rather than in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace as well as More’s focus on knowledge derived from books rather than personal experiences of others, both contrary to the style of Socrates. One might also, however, cite the conservatism of both Babbitt and More as a departure from the forebears which they claim for themselves.
While both Babbitt and More offer harsh criticism for the great bulk of modern literature as indicative of moral degradation, neither accounts for the similar accusations leveled against each successive generation of authors and thinkers in history. While there is certainly a sort of “golden chain” of commonality that runs throughout the history of literature, there is as much—perhaps more—that changes within it from generation to generation and even within a single generation one finds authors and thinkers of equal merit whose ideas differ one from another—and often in essentials. The moralism and nostalgic conservatism of the New Humanists seems hardly in keeping with the spirit of earlier brands of humanism on this point. These distinctly modern attitudes, in fact, seem to be distinctly modern aspects of this most recent emergence of the humanistic spirit in modern times.