Politics & Policy

Irving Babbitt: The Primary Human Conflict Is in the Soul of the Individual

The founder of the New Humanism warned against the romantic view that free spirits are oppressed by society.

Liberalism, we hear almost daily now, is in crisis. In America and Europe, commentators have looked to the roots of the 500-year-old ideology to ask what made it suddenly so unpopular. In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen argues that liberalism has perverted our notion of liberty itself. Deneen suggests that we have forgotten an older definition of liberty: “the learned capacity to govern oneself using the higher faculties of reason and spirit through the cultivation of virtue.”

This depiction of liberty has marked similarities to the ethical philosophy of Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), the Harvard professor who influenced Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, Peter Viereck, and other conservative thinkers. Indeed, Kirk wrote that he felt “a strong sympathy of mind and character” with Babbitt and later in life acknowledged that, to a large extent, Babbitt “animated” his book The Conservative Mind. Eliot wrote in a similar vein: “To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position. . . . His ideas are permanently with one, as a measurement and a test of one’s own.”

Today, Babbitt is a figure hidden in the pre-history of the American conservative movement, but his ideas remain rich and relevant a century later. Unlike Deneen, Babbitt, though skeptical of modernism — the progressive unraveling of the institutions, conventions, and mores of the pre-modern era — did not condemn America’s liberal tradition or think that it was rotten at its roots. Babbitt claimed that he was a “thoroughgoing individualist” who was “irrevocably committed to the modern experiment.” As such, he might provide an alternative vision for those who, with Deneen, decry the modern understanding of liberty but do not want to toss quite so many of liberalism’s fruits out the window.

Irving Babbitt was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1865, the grandson and great-grandson of New England ministers. His father rebelled against that tradition, peddling an eccentric, transcendentalist spiritualism that left his family financially insecure and frequently on the move. In college, Irving Babbitt turned on his father’s beliefs. With the zeal of a convert, he espoused instead a rigid project of moral improvement.

After college, Babbitt continued his study of languages, before returning to Harvard as a professor of French literature. There he developed the “New Humanism,” a school of literary criticism, with his lifelong friend Paul Elmer More. Staunchly opposed to a “philosophically barren and joyless” modernism, the New Humanists followed in the intellectual footsteps of Edmund Burke and Matthew Arnold, seeking to buttress and rebuild literary standards on universal ideals of virtue and order.

To his students, Babbitt was a legendary teacher. Lovers of sentimental French poetry who arrived on the first day of class would find an impassioned Babbitt, willing to quote every book in the Eastern and Western canons to convert “romantically disposed students to the austerities of humanism.” A staunch generalist, Babbitt might as soon draw a lesson from the Confucian Analects or the Buddhist Dhammapada as from Aristotle.

So what was this “humanism”? Babbitt reacted against what he regarded as the twin evils of the modern era: Romanticism and utilitarian scientism. Like Deneen, Babbitt did not see them as opposed forces. Rather, they worked in concert to reduce humans — complex, multi-dimensional beings — to cardboard cutouts incapable of moral choice.

Babbitt’s fundamental view of the human condition was that the “higher will” waged a lifelong, internal “civil war in the cave” against the “lower will.” Modernity, he believed, tended to collapse the distinction between the two wills. That “man is naturally good and that it is by our institutions alone that men become wicked” is, he thought, the most dangerous belief, found in Rousseau’s Confessions. It replaces the true dualism of the “civil war in the cave” with dualism between man and society.

The Romantic soon discovers that a lack of restraint is a sure recipe for loneliness, though he has been promised emotional communion with his fellow beautiful souls.

This individual who sees liberty in the ability to follow every whim — someone whom Deneen would call a liberal, and Babbitt a Romantic — is drawn to a sentimental libertinism in which indulgent emotion is elevated over the hard work of becoming a good person. The Romantic wishes to see destroyed any laws and customs that might prevent him from doing all that his heart desires.

When human passions are released, however, writes Babbitt, “what emerges in the real world is not the mythical will to brotherhood, but the ego and its fundamental will to power.” The will to power often presents itself in palatable ways, replacing traditional notions of virtue with what Babbitt calls “a sort of parody of Christian charity.” The Romantic is drawn not to humanism but to emotional humanitarianism. Believing himself to be blameless, the Romantic locates the source of society’s evils in everybody else. The Romantic humanitarian, Babbitt argues, will always go around pointing out the specks in his neighbors’ eyes while a plank burdens his own. Rousseau, the chief example of this tendency, wrote a 500-page book on how to raise and educate children, after leaving five of his own to a foundling hospital.

The Romantic soon discovers that a lack of restraint is a sure recipe for loneliness, though he has been promised emotional communion with his fellow beautiful souls. When he finds that his philosophy is based on Arcadian unreality, his disillusion leads him to “drift towards a naturalistic fatalism.” Babbitt argues that the rise of science and sociology teaches man that he is entirely a product of his circumstances and incapable of individual moral improvement. Here, too, the lines are not drawn between what is good and what is bad within each human, but between the individual and the society that conditions him. Given the twin influences of Romanticism and scientism, Babbitt feared, “man is in danger of being deprived of every last scrap and vestige of his humanity,” since he “becomes human only in so far as he exercises moral choice.”

Here is where Babbitt’s positive project answers the problems presented by anti-liberal thinkers such as Deneen. Babbitt prescribed a life of ethical work, which he deemed the uniquely human pursuit. He suggested not a return to the traditional authority of, say, the Catholic Church but instead the composite doctrine of humanism. Humanism finds the middle road between naturalistic relativism and theistic dogmatism, in an empiricism drawing heavily from classical thought. “The supreme maxim of the ethical positivist is: By their fruits shall ye know them,” Babbitt explained.

His empiricism was not a mere ideology or idolization of the controlled experiment. Rather, he took into account the long-tested trials of human history. “The true modern is prepared to go no small distance with him in the defense of tradition,” he maintained. Echoing Burke, Babbitt noted that

a great civilization is in a sense only a great convention. A sane individualist does not wish to escape from convention in itself; he merely remembers that no convention is final — that it is always possible to improve the quality of the convention in the midst of which he is living, and that it should therefore be held flexibly.

Babbitt believed in the value of tradition — that it is an “imperfect image” of a “natural law” and that it acts “as a barrier to the unchained appetites of the individual.” Traditions reflect a higher truth, he believed, though he would not grant that any particular creed had absolute moral worth.

He strove to find a secular method of being “at once self-reliant and humble.” One ought to recognize, he advised, that a high standard exists and that one has not met it. This project of perpetual self-improvement involves the replacement of “social reform” with “self-reform, in which the individual attempts to encode character through habit, using the “inner check” to repress the passions.

Although this path to happiness begins with the individual, one of its rewards is meaningful relationships with others. The individualist will not achieve the ultimate communion promised by the Romantic poets, but he will be less solitary, because society thrives when its members act ethically. Conversely, the Romantic, who “neglects his ethical self and withdraws into his temperamental or private self,” is punished with “remoteness from other men.”

If liberalism has indeed left us ‘naked as individuals,’ then only a philosophy that re-empowers us as individuals will provide a path forward.

Romantic unsociability makes the collective project of politics difficult. This, indeed, is one lesson Deneen wishes us to draw from his book — that we must either rebuild our “little platoons of society” or submit the project of self-control to the state. Both Deneen and Babbitt believe strongly that either you can control yourself or the state can control you. This is a classic republican insight, one penned by John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville: A free society can thrive only if the citizens are virtuous. Like Adams, Babbitt emphasized the necessity of constitutional constraints on democracy, and like Tocqueville he advocated the continued survival of aristocratic leadership. However, he envisioned a meritocratic aristocracy of virtue, through which men could rise to the top by making themselves perfect “cities on the hill” of character.

So he favored a rigorous, humanistic education through which children would develop into upright gentlemen. Beginning with his first book, Literature and the American College, he participated actively in the curricular debates of the early 20th century, battling John Dewey, for example. Babbitt thought Dewey was training his students for anarchy. Rejecting Harvard’s replacement of its humanistic core curriculum with an elective system, Babbitt argued that “what is wanted is not training for service and training for power, but training for wisdom and training for character.” He wanted his students to learn to help themselves.

The paramount emphasis in Babbitt’s work was the possibility, indeed the imperative, of restoring the will toward self-improvement in individuals. To be truly humanistic, one must acknowledge “a power in the heart of the individual that may lift him above physical nature.” The great crime of Rousseau was to rob individuals of the knowledge and exercise of their higher nature, in a fatalism bound up in circumstance, temperament, and genius.

Babbitt counted on no outward authority — no church, no voluntary organization — for the motivation to self-improvement. “With those who still cling to the principle of outer authority I have no quarrel,” he explained in 1924. “I am not primarily concerned with them. I am myself a thoroughgoing individualist, writing for those who are, like myself, irrevocably committed to the modern experiment.”

And how much less outer authority is there to cling to almost a century later. Nonetheless, through intensive Socratic investigation, those who were “in danger of losing the truths of the higher will entirely” could regain access to universal truths, Babbitt hoped.

Though the task he presents is daunting, Babbitt has much to offer us. In a time of chaos, of feeling that the world is beyond your control, we know what we as individuals can and must do the second we lay down a book such as Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen attempts to diagnose and alleviate a feeling of powerlessness but leaves readers feeling more helpless than when they began. If liberalism has indeed left us, in Deneen’s words, “naked as individuals,” then only a philosophy that re-empowers us as individuals will provide a path forward.


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