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.

Historical causation

In his discussion of the factors in historical causation, Christopher Dawson identified four primary factors, “(1) race, i.e., the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e., the geographic factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e., the economic factor,” and, finally, (4) “thought, or the psychological factor.” Each of these factors has received some special emphasis at some epoch in the history of thought on historical causation. It is Dawson’s unique contribution to the field of thought on historical causation, however, to highlight the psychological factor as the decisive factor in the movements of history, as the human factor which unites and, in a sense, governs and directs the others.

Race, or the genetic factor, is the factor of historical causation which has received the greatest emphasis in the modern era, though it is by no means unique to the modern era. Aristotle, for example, says of “the poets” that “they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.” It was in the modern era, however, that race came to be identified by certain thinkers as the most central aspect of historical causation. The most extreme forms of the position which places race as the central determinative factor in historical causation have largely collapsed under the weight of the atrocities these theories have led to. For example, Alexander H. Stephen’s theory of the natural servility of those of African descent became an ex post facto justification for the existence of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. The most infamous example is the theory, generally associated with the Nazis but adopted more widely by eugenicists of various political stripes near the turn of the 20th century, of a malignancy transmitted via the blood of particular ethnic groups, an idea which counts the Holocaust among its consequences. Although undue focus upon the genetic factor in historical causation has largely been discredited through its own horrendous consequences, this theory has returned with renewed vigor in unexpected places, as among those who argue that an innate predisposition toward certain sexual behaviors implies the necessity of social acceptance of said behaviors.

A panicked reaction against the consequences of the racialist theory of historical causation has led to a renewed emphasis upon the two other material factors, the geographic and the economic. The geographic factor undoubtedly has the longest pedigree of the two. In his History, for example, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, linked the origins of Egyptian culture, including their language and religion, to the geography of the land they inhabited and its environment. One of the most popular of the modern reiterations of this ancient idea of geographic determinism is that of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel. In his 1997 book and eponymous 2005 television documentary series, Diamond sets out to answer a question put to him by a native of New Guinea, though perhaps more succinctly articulated nearly a century prior by W. E. B. Du Bois in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa?” In the wake of the racialist ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Diamond merely frantically replaces one set of material factors (genes) with another (geography), arguing eloquently but not persuasively for an exclusion of the human factor from the central position.

The economic factor of historical causation is of a decidedly modern origin. Its origins are contemporaneous with the rise of race to prominence as the central factor in historical causation. Unlike race, however, the economic factor has maintained its popularity as a material explanation for historical causation to the present day. Its most well-known and vociferous exponent, Karl Marx, argued that “the life-process of society … is based on the process of material production.” Having fixed economics as the final definitive factor in historical causation, Marx proceeded to dismiss all other aspects of a society, including its religious and political systems, insisting that far from possessing any causative or explanatory power they themselves were merely the derivative products of the economic factor. Marx’s explanation of all history through economic factors proved convincing enough to win over a great many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who, fairly late in his life, attempted to answer his question through applying the Marxist theory of material dialectic to race relations in the modern world.

Like the racial and geographic theories, however, Marx’s theory of economic causation in history reduces history to the merely material. Positing race, geography, or economy as the central causative factor in history displaces human life and its unique features, rational thought and spiritual insight, from their due place of centrality. This reduction to the merely material is largely a modern phenomenon. Even among those ancient thinkers who identified material factors of causation, there was rarely an outright exclusion of the human factor. Plato, for example, in his Laws, placed what is perhaps an undue emphasis on the geographic factor in his contention that a city near a “sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country” requires “some mighty saviour … and lawgivers more than mortal, if … [it] were ever to have a chance of preserving … [itself] from degeneracy and discordance of manners.” Yet even in this statement of the great effect of the geographic factor upon a state, Plato evinces a belief in the human factor of a “mighty saviour” and “lawgivers more than mortal” as the most decisive factor in the shaping of a people’s history.

It is precisely such great men whom Christopher Dawson pointed to as the most important factor in historical causation, reminding the modern world that it is not so much man who is subject to the material factors of race, geography, and economy, as it is man who works within the confines of these factors to reshape them and create new and great cultures. “Behind every civilization there is a vision,” he writes in his Progress and Religion, “a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or which may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker.” Underlying historical causation, says Dawson, creating and giving impulse to material factors is the human factor. Behind every great movement in history one will not find, if followed to its roots, a gene, a mountain, or an exchange of goods. Instead, one will discover the human will.