Irving Babbitt

Democracy and Leadership, first published in 1924, still is in print at the end of a whole generation. This new printing indicates how little ephemerae found their way into the body of Babbitt’s writings, and how he foresaw, far more clearly than his opponent John Dewey, the great issues of the dawning era.

Now Dr. Hough is perhaps the most eminent friend of Irving Babbitt still with us; a leading Methodist clergymen, formerly dean of Drew University was himself among the most important of the “New Humanists” associated with Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. In his readable book, Dr. Hough describes the thoughts of five humanists, from the fourth century to the 20th: Aristotle, Cicero, Erasmus, Paul Elmer More, and Babbitt. To be one of so select a company is very high praise; but I believe that Babbitt deserves it. Dr. Hough establishes soundly Babbitt’s claim to the true succession of humanistic thought. John Dewey and his associates, in 1933, somewhat alarmed at the growing interest in their opponents, the American Humanists, made a rather embarrassingly disingenuous attempt to capture the word “humanism” by issuing what they called “The Religious Humanist Manifesto.”

Now Dewey’s friends, with a few exceptions, were not religious men; and when he himself was asked once, why he avoids certain religious overtones in his writings quite inconsonant with his naturalistic philosophy, he replied that to cut away at once the last vestiges of religious sentiment must wound some people unnecessarily; they must be accustomed more gradually to the divorce. Doubtless this was kind, but it was scarcely candid. The “humanism” which the Deweyites endeavored to create survives today as a kind of American league of militant atheists, under the patronage of an evident friend of Soviet–American amity, and they have let the word “religious” go by the board. Babbitt and his colleagues have won the battle, after all, and most men nowadays who are sincerely devoted to the humane disciplines would not question the validity of their claims the humanistic succession, however much they might disagree with Irving Babbitt on one point or another.

Babbitt himself was surprised at the fierce animosity his books provoked among naturalists and men of the Left; they seem to have recognized in him and in More their most intelligent and courageous opponents. This hatred, hardened into dogmas of negation, lingers on. In a recent number of Confluence, Mr. James T. Farrell denounced Babbitt as the arch–priest of “traditionalism”; but it was apparent to anyone familiar with Babbitt’s work that Mr. Farrell simply did not know what Babbitt actually believed. Mr. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., recently referred to that as the defender of the “genteel tradition” I do not know whether he has misunderstood Santayana, or Babbitt, but he certainly has a confused impression of one or the other. Mr. Peter Gay, in a review of the present writer’s Conservative Mind, declared with more forthrightness than prudence that Babbitt’s “essential vulgarity” was displayed by his attacks on the character of his opponents, notably Rousseau. Now, I do not know that it really is vulgar to attack the character of an adversary who is been dead for a century and a quarter, were that the private performance of a social philosopher really is irrelevant to his public professions; and besides, I advise anyone who honestly thinks that Babbitt is unfair to Rousseau to read the life of Rousseau by a most eminent liberal thinker, John Morley, who makes quite the same criticisms for quite the same reasons as Babbitt does. What is more to the point just now, however, is my suspicion that most such people who heap vituperation on Babbitt have not read Babbitt at all, but merely some hostile summary of his work in a book like Mr. Oscar Cargill’s Intellectual America, with quotations separated from their context.

For those who have read Babbitt, and know something of the man, is rather amusing to hear him described as “vulgar”: in truth, he was the antithesis of vulgarity. Not that he was a “Brahmin,” another silly charge sometimes made, in the same breath, by his enemies: he was a newsboy on the streets of New York, and a reporter in Cincinnati, and a cowboy in Wyoming, before he became a Harvard professor. But he lived with a high dignity that was reflected in his very dress, and loved and hated with prophetic vehemence, and disdained the easy success or popularity, and died with the fearlessness that had marked his life. Mr. Farrell makes the blunder of referring to him as “Dr. Babbitt,” repeatedly—out of an intended civility, I take it—when, really, no man was less Herr Doktor, Professor. Babbitt held the Germanic doctoral degree in merciless contempt, and fought with equal fervor against the degradation of the American College into a luxurious center for dilettante-ism and against the false specialization of the PhD. He was such a man as even a great University sees but seldom, a scholar suffused with the un-bought grace of life, a gentleman who feared neither the oligarch nor the mob. One may agree with him or not; but it is shabby to refuse him his due of admiration. Babbitt himself always rose superior to such jealousies.

To my mind, Democracy and Leadership is the best of his books; it is his only book that is chiefly political in nature; and it is one of the most important works on politics ever written in this country, worthy to be ranked with John Adams and Calhoun. Harold Laski, with a curious blindness to what Babbitt stood for, once remarked that Babbitt hated the rich because they were crass, and the poor because they were stupid and disorderly. Now Irving Babbitt, though he could hate when he thought a thing worth hating–and that with a positive splendor of abhorrence—never loved or hated classes in the abstract. He left that to the Marxists. What Babbitt upheld was the sense of duty in every walk of life, so that he was not afraid to denounce the Harriman’s or to denounce the flatterers of pure democracy. The theme of Democracy and Leadership is simple enough: democracy cannot exist without honorable leaders; but the indiscriminate flatterers of pure democracy are doing all they can to deny the very idea of a high leadership; and if they succeed, we shall be left not with a triumphant march toward democracy, but at the mercy of a host of squalid oligarchs. But for a discerning analysis of the nature and needs of democracy, Babbitt found it necessary to proceed upward from politicks to the realm of philosophy, and from the realm of philosophy to that of religion. Not that Babbitt himself ever solved to his own satisfaction the higher reaches of this problem: he never professed himself a Christian. His discussions of Work and of Will, nevertheless, lived political thought far above its usual utilitarian or empirical plane. “I myself,” he says of the problem of liberty and will, “I’ve been trying to come at this necessary truth, not in terms of grace, but in terms of work, and then on the humanistic rather than on the religious level. I am not so arrogant as to deny the validity of other ways of affirming the higher will, or to dismiss as obsolete the traditional forms through which this will has been interpreted to the imagination.”

In his chapter entitled “Burke and the Moral Imagination,” Babbitt observes that “the battle for prejudice and prescription and a ‘wisdom above reflection’ has already been lost. It is no longer possible to waive aside the modernists as the mere noisy insects of an hour, or to oppose to an unsound activity of intellect mere stolidity and imperviousness to thought—the great cattle chewing their cud in the shadow of the British oak.” If true liberalism is to be defended against false liberalism, Babbitt thought, a thorough going re-examination of the first principles of our society must commence. Babbitt’s terse book already has helped greatly to put such a movement of sober evaluation under way. Mr. R.H.S. Crossman, in the recent New Fabian Essays, points out how pragmatism served the Webbs and other Fabians well enough, until is proved totally insufficient before the great issues of the twentieth century, and they made the dread blunder of fleeing, for a system of ideas, to Marxism. Conservatives are going to find their variety of pragmatism—at least, we are told by Mr. C. Hartley Grattan and such people that the American conservative has been a pragmatist, thought I doubt it—similarly insufficient, if they have not so discovered already. Mr. H. Stuart Hughes, three years ago, wrote of conservatism as the negation of ideology. He is right; but true conservatism is not the negation of principle, I trust. Babbitt’s endeavor, like Burke’s, was to distinguish clearly between abstraction and principle. No one could profit more from reading him than the people who presume to judge him without the trouble of opening his books. With this new printing of Democracy and Leadership, they have their opportunity. And I hope that some of the people who confound ‘conservatism’ with aggrandizement and “the American standard of living” will read Babbitt on the menace of imperialism to complacent democracies.

 Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

[The above is taken, in whole, from: Russell Kirk, review of Democracy and Leadership (Babbitt) and Great Humanists (Hough), The Western Political Quarterly 7 (June 1954): 296-299.]

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email