W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt

W. E. B. Du Bois and Irving Babbitt are not frequently associated with each other. Du Bois’s thought has exerted its influence most profoundly on the American political left. Irving Babbitt, on the other hand, was a conservative thinker whose influence extends throughout twentieth century conservatism. In spite of their obvious differences, however, Du Bois and Babbitt shared in common a focus upon the necessity of liberal education for the development of individuals, and, particularly, leaders, who would preserve and perpetuate culture.

With these ends in mind, Du Bois introduced his idea of a “Talented Tenth” who were fit to receive the highest levels of training and education and, afterwards, to lead their respective communities. The liberal education this Talented Tenth would receive would prepare them “by study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past” to assume the mantle of leadership in the confrontation of the mass of people with the “inevitable problems of civilization.” For that purpose, “the foundations of knowledge . . . must be sunk deeper in the college and university if we would build a solid, permanent structure.”

Similarly, Babbitt urged colleges to focus in their curriculum upon those books which are expressive of “what is permanent in human nature” so that the student may draw upon the wisdom of the past in the confrontation with contemporary problems. As in the thought of Du Bois, this education in the “sifted experience of generations” is linked in Babbitt’s thought to a notion of an educated elite particularly fit for leadership. In his Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt argues in favor of an “aristocratic principle” which alone can act as a “check to the evils of an unlimited democracy.”

Babbitt and Du Bois also, however, depart from each other in some substantial ways in their vision of this liberally-educated aristocracy. “The ascent of rare merit from the lower to the higher levels of society,” writes Babbitt, “should . . . always be left open.” Citing the British Enlightenment conservative Edmund Burke, Babbitt asserts that men should be judged “not by their hereditary rank, but by their personal achievement.” Neither Burke nor Babbitt, however, provides any program by which those at the lowest levels of society should be able to rise to the top, while acknowledging that “it is hard for the manual worker to acquire such virtue and wisdom for the reason that he lacks the necessary leisure.” Babbitt adds, in addition, that those men of “merit” who would rise from the lower levels of society to the higher must “be required to pass through a severe probation,” providing no indication to why this should be so or, if it is to be so, why it should not be so for the sons of those already at the top of society.

As Du Bois points out in his Dusk of Dawn, however, those with power are never eager to renounce it nor even to share it. And, although “many assume that an upper social class maintains its status mainly by reason of its superior culture,” more often than not the upper class is able to “maintain its status because of its wealth and political power and in that case its ranks can be successfully invaded only by the wealthy.” It is, therefore, necessary to secure some measure of “equality of opportunity” for all so that Babbitt’s imagined manual worker has the ability to rise in the first place.

In this way, Du Bois’s thought offers a more complete approach than Babbitt’s because Du Bois’s thought is better grounded in the realities that average individuals face. While Babbitt imagines a theoretical manual worker who might, through some intensive trial of his ability, be able some day to rise, Du Bois, on the ground, sees the many lives of potential and possibility that have been crushed through the failure of those already on top to offer opportunity to those below. In Dusk of Dawn, he records the words of a mother in Harlem, lamenting that her otherwise “bright” child is forced to attend the “Harlem schools” which are filled with “dirt, noise, bad manners, filthy tales, no discipline, over-crowded” and where “the teachers aren’t half trying.” Even more poignant is the story of Josie in the Souls of Black Folk. While searching for a job as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee during his summer break from his studies at Fisk University, Du Bois met and briefly taught this twenty-year-old woman who, he says, “longed to learn” and to rise, but had been denied the opportunity because of the circumstances into which she had been born. Years later, when Du Bois returned to the small town he had taught in, he found that Josie had died young without ever leaving. Babbitt’s failure to take account of Josie and those like her is a damning error of omission in his thought which the thought of Du Bois is able to obviate.

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, http://www.constitution.org/sps/sps01_1.htm (accessed 24 March 2013).

Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.

Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.

8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.