irving babbitt

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.

The Cause of Evil

One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.

Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.

Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.

Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.

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.

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.