Modernism Humanism

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.

T. S. Eliot on Religion and Humanism

In his short essay “Religion Without Humanism,” published in Norman Foerster’s 1930 book Humanism in America, T. S. Eliot argues that humanism is an essential supplement to religion. There is, he says, a “danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.” This danger, he claims, is twofold. On the one side is the extreme of a “petrified eccleciasticism” and, on the other, the extreme of “modernism.” The former Eliot identifies with the “narrow and bigoted” reactionaries of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the latter with the “hypocritical and humanitarian” faction of the same Church. Without humanism, religion “produces the vulgarities and the political compromises of Roman Catholicism” as well as “the vulgarities and the fanaticism of Tennessee” in the Protestant churches.

Eliot’s argument, unfortunately, suffers from his failure to define his terms. His failure to define the term “humanism” is, in this essay, apparently intentional. “As I believe I am writing chiefly for those who know or think they know, what ‘humanism’ means,” he writes, “I have not in this paper attempted any definition of it.” The definition which Eliot implicitly provides, however, seems to contradict the definitions which the humanists whose essays are published in the same volume provide.

Eliot, for example, implies that humanism and religion are in some ways mutually exclusive, humanism behaving as a sort of loyal opposition to religion. He identifies humanism, for example, with “criticism from without” religion as well as “infidelity and agnosticism.” His greatest fear for humanism, he goes on, is that it “should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.” Within Eliot’s notion of humanism as a force external to religion which, through its criticism of religion, prevents religion from decaying into enthusiasm on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other is the clear, if implicit, understanding that the two, religion and humanism, cannot coexist within the same person. One cannot, after all, be both internal to religion and external to it, and the humanist, at least vis-à-vis his humanism, in Eliot’s account, must be in the latter position.

Irving Babbitt, however, in his essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” seems to assume the opposite position. He argues, for instance, that “the man who sets out to live religiously in the secular order without having recourse to the wisdom of the humanist is likely to fall into vicious confusions.” He goes on to write, “It follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” From this point of view humanism can be seen as possibly, though not necessarily, internal to religion in that the Catholic is capable of adopting and applying humanistic principles while remaining a faithful Catholic. This is patently incompatible with Eliot’s view of the relationship between humanism and religion.

In addition to his failure to define humanism, there is the further trouble of Eliot’s failure to define religion. While the former absence of definition is, according to Eliot, intentional, the latter seems, rather, wholly unintentional. While it is clear that Eliot has in mind a specifically, if ecumenically, Christian cultural milieu, he does include among his references to the potential failures of religion without humanism “the communion of saints in Tibet.” This reference to the decadent theocracy of Tibet under the Buddhist lamas, of course, widens the scope of the word “religion” as it is being used by Eliot in this essay. It also, however, complicates the term due to Eliot’s failure to provide a definition for it. There is, after all, an important distinction between the tenets of Buddhism and the beliefs which must be adopted by the committed orthodox Christian. This distinction is, in turn, such that, if the humanist is, as Eliot claims, to play the role of critic, the career of the humanist where Buddhism is the predominant religion will inevitably be quite different from the career of the humanist whose primary religious relationship is with Christianity.

Eliot’s failure to define both humanism and religion in an essay about the relationship between the two creates significant difficulties for his argument. Even so, however, Eliot’s view of humanism as the loyal opposition to religion provides a valuable perspective on the usefulness of disbelief and the unbelievers who espouse it even within an otherwise religious society. Without the voice of doubt, as Eliot says, the power of religious authorities nearly inevitably degrades into pomposity and the importance of faith into an unquestioning and stifling dogmatism.

Defining Humanism

When attempting to define humanism, the most obvious and immediate reference point is undoubtedly the humanists of the Renaissance. It was at this time that the very word “humanist” entered the English language, apparently under the influence of the Italian coinage umanista, meaning “student of human affairs or human nature,” attributed to the Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto. In this use, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, “the original notion appears to be ‘human’ as opposed to ‘divine,’ that is, a student of the human achievements of the pre-Christian authors and philosophers, as opposed to the theological studies of the divines.” A humanist, then, is one whose interests and studies are focused in the world of the productions of the human mind.

It may further be extrapolated from this concentration on the achievements of mankind that the humanist is concerned with providing human answers to human problems. In his book on the World of Humanism, Myron P. Gilmore describes the Renaissance humanists as “an aristocracy of the intellect, the first apostles of the salvation of society by the use of human reason.” The otherworldly orientation of the Middle Ages has certainly been exaggerated. It would, therefore, be an exaggeration to emphasize too greatly the Renaissance humanists’ departure from the earlier, ostensibly more theologically inclined thinkers of the medieval period. There was, however, a definite trend toward a greater faith in the abilities of human reason that is evident in humanist thought. According to Paul Tillich, for example, it was precisely the “detached scholarly attitude toward the contents of the Christian faith” engendered by the Christian humanism of Erasmus which led to his conflict with Martin Luther.

Yet the existence of such a perspective as the “Christian humanism” of Erasmus is evidence that the humanists’ faith in human reason need not necessarily exclude the Christian’s faith in the revelation and workings of God. Writing of his early twentieth century revival of humanism, Irving Babbitt argued that “humanism . . . may . . . work in harmony with traditional religion.” Babbitt reasons that humanism is a supplement to religion, perhaps even a necessary one given the predominance of secularity in the modern age. While “it is an error to hold that humanism can take the place of religion” and “religion indeed may more readily dispense with humanism than humanism with religion,” says Babbitt, humanism serves religion in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important way in which humanism can act as a supplement to religion is in forming a conduit by which individuals of various faiths can meaningfully interact and cooperate on matters of shared concern. Babbitt notes that “the Catholic Church has . . . been well inspired in rounding out its religious doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle and other masters of the law of measure.” The phrasing Babbitt uses here is perhaps questionable, as the medieval Catholic philosophers were not so much “rounding out” Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy so much as they were allowing that philosophy to form the non-Christian foundation upon which the Christian faith could build and thereby bring human knowledge to completion. Babbitt is right to assert, however, that because of this addition of Aristotle’s philosophy to the particulars of Catholic doctrine “it follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” For cooperation between two groups to take place, there must be a certain shared foundation of ideas and interests. The “humanistic level,” to use Babbitt’s terminology, acts as that shared foundation for the Catholic and the non-Catholic as well as for the Christian and the non-Christian more generally in its emphasis on the good of mankind and the ability to human action to achieve this end.