Character and Culture: Essays on East and West, by Irving Babbitt, with a new Introduction by Claes G. Ryn
Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, by Richard M. Weaver, with a foreword by Russell Kirk
Two modern American teachers and critics who can now be honored as Sages and, indeed, included among the Sacri Vates, are Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Richard Weaver (1910-1963). One who in any way studies two recently reissued books, Babbitt’s Character and Culture (originally titled Spanish Character and Other Essays) and Weaver’s Visions of Order, will need very little convincing as to the appropriateness of the sapiential ascription. To read these two books again, or even for the first time, is to make contact with men of vision who are quintessentially men of wisdom. Perhaps at no time of our history do we have more urgent need for wisdom than now. For the wisdom we gain here is both salvific and restorative; it enables us to climb the ladder of illumination. Babbitt likens this process to “the ascending path of insight and discrimination”; Weaver describes it as the need to “have something ascending up toward an ultimate source of good.” This moving upward requires strenuous effort, and its rewards are to be found in the higher experiential contexts of what is self-cleansing and self-disciplining.
Moral indolence and apathy, both Babbitt and Weaver stress, are forces of gravity that need to be quelled if one is to fly beyond the nets of naturalism and temperamental excesses. Such ascent, Babbitt stresses, is an intrinsic part of the “aspiration to rise above the impermanent.” He sees this entire process in the light of individual maturity and growth, and especially as to how this process relates to the making of individual character. Also emphatically aware of individual character, Weaver examines individual character in direct relation to the larger cultural map, to what he designates as “the discriminations of a culture.” It can be said that Babbitt addresses first and foremost the problem of man, of individual character and destiny; Weaver, the problem of culture – “the cultural crisis of our time.” To make this particular contrast is not to lessen Babbitt’s larger civilizational concerns, even as his magisterial book Democracy and Leadership (1924) will thoroughly indicate. Still, in Babbitt the voice we hear is mainly that of the teacher speaking to his students. “For Babbitt’s service as teacher,” Austin Warren writes of his Harvard mentor, “transcended his doctrine.” If Babbitt begins with anthropos, and Weaver begins with paideia, both ultimately meet in absolute allegiance to humanitas, which in the end allies them in their search for aristeia of character and culture.
Of Weaver, Russell Kirk remarks, with characteristic pungency and insight: “Meant to expose and restrain the illusions of our century, his books and his teaching were instruments for action.” He goes on to say that, for Weaver, order was an “austere passion: the inner order of the soul, the outer order of society.” These words could equally apply to that great conservative mind in the earlier years of the twentieth century, Babbitt. Neither Babbitt nor Weaver ceased to seek after principles of order in a century of disorder. For Babbitt the Great War of 1914-1918 emblematized the symptoms and portents of modern disorder, even as he, an admirer of Aristotle, goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary architect of the scheme of disorder in the modern world in the form of unchecked romanticism. For Weaver, World War II unmasked the spirit of disorder, and he, an admirer of Plato, goes back to William of Ockham (1285-1349) as a progenitor of disorder in the form of nominalism. To view Babbitt and Weaver together, in continuity, so to speak, is to view two visionary thinkers deeply concerned with the order of a humane civilization and the order of human character. In their conjoining perceptions and interpretations of the rhythm of disintegration and the schism of the soul they centered on the crisis of modernism as a crisis of disorder.
What especially ties together these two thinkers is their defense of the idea of order as it affects the personal realm and the socio-cultural realm. And what both sought to find as a coalescing force in the two realms was the element of stability, or that integral metaphysical force which checks the impulse of disorder that never ceases to assault life. Their writings, whatever the differences in style and in specificities of emphasis, are responsive to the virtue of character–the character of man, the character of culture, the character of the polity. For them character signifies discipline of responsibility, the moral sense and burden of responsibility, to be more exact. And for them such discipline predicates a categorical need for standards in direct relation to what Babbitt calls an “enduring scale of values” and a “clear-cut scale of moral values.” No modern American critics have been more aware of an interdependent need for discipline and standards than Babbitt and Weaver. Babbitt views this double need in terms of man’s discovery of the path that leads to human growth, maturity, edification. Traveling on this path mandates effort and choice of direction, or as Babbitt cogently describes it in one of his essays, “Interpreting India to the West” (1917):
On the one hand is the ascending path of insight and discrimination. Those who take it may be termed the spiritual athletes. On the other hand is the descending path towards the subrational followed by those who court the confused reverie that comes from the breakdown of barriers and the blurring of distinctions and who are ready to forego purpose in favor of “spontaneity”; and these may be termed the cosmic loafers.
Weaver, in his own vision of order, is writing along these same lines of thought, with respect to the principle of distinction, when he declares: “In order to have meaningful status we must have something ascending toward an ultimate source of good.” In ancient times, it was Plato who viewed the need and possibility of standards in the light of what he called the problem of the One and the Many. Once again, Babbitt is to the point here: “Unless there is something that abides in the midst of change and serves to measure it, it is obvious that there can be no standards.” Babbitt and Weaver were to indict the arch tendency in modern times as the tendency to drift in centerless, undisciplined, anarchic ways. In this tendency Babbitt saw the manifestation of disorder in the form of anarchy, and Weaver, in the form of presentism. And for both disorder was rooted in what Weaver perceived, in words that echo those of Babbitt, as “the confusion of categories” and indifference, or hostility, to “transcendental ideas”:
… the greatest weakness of a function-oriented culture is that it sets little or no store by the kind of achievement which is comparatively timeless–the formation of character, the perfection of style, the attainment of distinction in intellect and imagination. These require for their appreciation something other than keen senses; they require an effort of mind and the spirit to grasp timeless values, to perceive the presence of things that extend through temporal span.
Clearly, Babbitt and Weaver were reacting, with intense and total concern, to the main issues of contemporary life as expressed in literature, politics, education, and religion. And on these issues they spoke out candidly, consistently. In many ways they were diagnosticians of modern social order in rapid and mindless retreat from a faith in first principles and first causes–in “the law of the spirit,” “the law of measure” steadily being supplanted by a “new dualism based on the myth of man’s natural goodness.” Babbitt and Weaver associated this retreat with the forces of aggressive anarchy and revolution assaulting the foundations of Western civilization, and especially its humanistic tradition. These forces, secular and gnostic, as well as decadent and ideological in orientation and intent, conspire to bring about, in Weaver’s words, “the progressive demotion of man.” These are precisely the forces that now embody the nihilism that pervades the basic categories of life and discards all semblance of the truth of the inner life. Babbitt and Weaver rendered in their own particular eras the ongoing stages of modern disequilibrium and deorientation which have now reached a point of no return. In their rendering of what Babbitt sees as a modern world “treading very near the edge of sudden disaster,” one hears the prophetic voice crying out with the urgency and the fearlessness that belong to the ethical prophet’s mission.
We hear this voice in the final paragraph of the final essay, “The Reconsideration of Man,” in Visions of Order, Weaver speaking here with genuine vatic intensity about culture as an intermediary between man and his highest vocation, which he also reminds us is a matter of spirit:
There is always in a cultural observance a little gesture of piety, a recognition that there are higher demands on man along with the lower. While culture is not a worship and should not be made a worship, it is a kind of orienting of the mind toward mood, a reverence for the spirit on secular occasions.
And in Babbitt, too, the prophetic voice can be heard with equal intensity of attention to what Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel has called “the application of timeless standards to particular situations” and “an interpretation of a particular moment in history.” Babbitt writes:
As for the typical modern, he is not only at an infinite remove from anything resembling renunciation, but is increasingly unable to accept the will to refrain of anything else on a basis of mere tradition and authority. Yet the failure to exercise the will to refrain in some form or degree means spiritual anarchy. A combination such as we are getting more and more at present of spiritual anarchy with an ever-increasing material efficiency–power without wisdom, as one is tempted to put it–is not likely to work either for the happiness of the individual or for the welfare of society.
As teachers in the highest moral and civilizational sense, Babbitt and Weaver believed in the education of the whole human personality–intellect, character, mind, and soul. (Babbitt’s first book, Literature and the American College , argued forcefully for what Claes Ryn, in his discerning introduction to Character and Culture, calls a “reinvigorated humanistic curriculum and discipline as a way of reversing the decline of Western life and letters.”) To the very end of his life and career, Babbitt’s preoccupation with educational issues never wavered. And, no less than Babbitt, Weaver argued vigorously the case for humane letters. In a celebrated essay, “Up from Liberalism” (1958-1959), he wrote in words echoing Babbitt’s own, “[O]ur education will have to recover the lost vision of the person as a creature of both intellect and will.” “Gnostics of Education,” the longest essay in Visions of Order, and inspired by Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1952), conveys the essence of Weaver’s educational thought and views.
Both in Babbitt’s and in Weaver’s writings, educational problems have an intrinsic bearing on their major ideas and thought. Their opinions are directed not only to their students in the classroom but also to their auditors at large. Their own teaching experiences doubtlessly helped to inspire and even define their educational thought, even as they treated educational issues as a significant part of the modern cultural scene. What they witness in the realm of education inevitably affects, even molds, their view of society and culture, and, of course, the human condition in the modern age. And what they have to say about education, whether diagnostic, censorial, or corrective, is clear and direct, singularly constructive and not cynical. In their educational ideas one finds the saving qualities of measure, prudence, humility. It is the teacher as sage who discourses here, guided in lecture and text by a sense of proportionateness and by a need, in Babbitt’s words, “to glimpse the total symmetry of life and with reference to this symmetry to maintain some degree of poise and centrality.” And here, too, one has the privilege of listening to a true humanist, in contradistinction to our modern specialists, the Napoleons of solution, with their overemphasis and glitz.
Babbitt and Weaver illustrate a common concern and a common witness to the crisis of education in the twentieth century and the accelerating diminution of human values and humane learning. Babbitt largely examines the causes of educational malaise; Weaver is responding to effects. Their writings on education constitute a united front against what Russell Kirk speaks of as the decadence of higher learning in America. In their discernments we have an astonishing portrayal of the theories and movements that have contributed to our educational plight, today epitomized by anarchic and nihilistic conditions at all levels of American education. Babbitt’s essay on “President Eliot and American Education” (1929) remains indispensable testimony for anyone who seeks to understand some of the basic reasons why American education has been floundering for many decades now. One will want to reflect on what Babbitt has to say, with such a timely ring of truth and perception, in these representative observations:
The humanitarian idealism based on the faith in progress will be found on analysis to be either utilitarian or sentimental. Practically, in education as elsewhere, a utilitarian and sentimental movement has been displacing traditions that are either religious or humanistic.
In the absence of humane purposes, what has triumphed is the purpose of the utilitarian. A multitude of specialties … has taken the place not only of the selection of studies in the old curriculum but of the selective principle itself. Education has become increasingly miscellaneous and encyclopaedic.
At the bottom of the whole educational debate … is the opposition between a religious-humanistic and a utilitarian-sentimental philosophy. This opposition, involving as it does first principles, is not subject to compromise or mediation. Those who attempt such mediation are not humanists but Laodiceans.
Babbitt’s indictment of a raw and uncivilized pragmatism afflicting education returns us to his endorsement of Matthew Arnold’s contention that our democracy is too much concerned with quantity and not quality. American democracy has obviously chosen to enforce, in an imperial manner, quantified reductionisms in the shape of what Babbitt calls “naturalistic disintegration,” as part of the effort to legislate equality and uniformity. And a sham liberalism, as Babbitt reminds us in Democracy and Leadership, by not distinguishing between moral and material progress, has misled modern man to place ironclad faith in organization, efficiency, machinery: in short, in utilitarian and utopian schemes that have now emerged in the adulterated metaphysics of a New Morality and a New Age. Inevitably, these schemes produce the momentum of subversions that affects the educational realm. Weaver addresses these subversions in his essay “Gnostics of Education,” updating Babbitt’s earlier critical testimony by giving to it a more current garb and idiom. That is to say, he helps take Babbitt’s testimony beyond pragmatism by bringing it into contact with an educational system now being ally annexed by those he dubs “radical doctrinaires and social faddists.” Weaver, in other words, provides us with a picture of educational dissimulation, in extremis, as it advances from pragmatism to ideology.
For Weaver, as for Babbitt, the central function of education is twofold: to form character and to preserve culture. But this function, he asserts, has been seriously impaired by the growth of progressivist educational philosophy in the hands of “revolutionaries” and “in the form of a systematic attempt to undermine a society’s traditions and beliefs through the educational establishment.” These revolutionaries, he goes on to say, have a vision of a “new future” totally unlike and even hostile to the past. They seek, above all, to nullify a vision of order that Weaver associates with the classical and Judaeo-Christian patrimony of the West. Among the aims of these revolutionaries he counts the methodical erasure of a common body of knowledge, of accepted truths, of standards, of authority as the most crippling. The following observation, written more than thirty years ago, and strikingly reechoing Babbitt, underlines Weaver’s perception of the kind of ideology that today dominates educational thought and practice: “The student is to be prepared not to save his soul, or to inherit the wisdom and usages of past civilizations, or even to get ahead in life, but to become a member of a utopia resting on a false view of both nature and man.” Weaver connects this modern subversive educational movement by way of historical descent with the Gnosticism of the first and second centuries A. D., the main goal, then and now, being to restructure humane values and concepts in terms suited to an “enlightenment” that boasts of being above creation, and that also avows that the material universe in and of itself is the real source of evil. The educationists of the new order, Weaver contends, parallel the Gnostics of antiquity in promulgating “a kind of irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.”
The Rousseauism of Babbitt thus assumes in Weaver the shape of Gnosticism; the consequences for both are epitomized in disorder. Certainly what Weaver has to say in the following statement regarding the deification of man and the radicalization of the whole system of ethics into something that becomes categorically man-centered has definitive parallel, in language and in thought, in Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism (1919):
The Gnostic belief was that man is not sinful, but divine. The real evil in the universe cannot be imputed to him; his impulses are good, and there is no ground for restraining him from anything he wants to do …. By divinizing man, Gnostic thinking says that what he wants to do, he should do.
Present-day Gnostics of education, Weaver further observes, and again further confirming Babbitt’s views, reject the existence or relevance of any moral absolutes as these affect and determine rightness from wrongness. Modern educationists, hence, show little or no regard for an existent reality, but rather for “the mastery of methodology’’–for the technique and the technicism that currently hold sway in educational agenda. What Weaver is obviously criticizing is exactly the modern temper, and process, that Babbitt saw as the shifting of a value-system increasingly controlled by the metaphysicians of the Many who have defeated the metaphysicians of the One; who have defeated, in short, the acceptance of what must be a central premise in grappling strenuously with the problem of the One and the Many that Babbitt describes in these words: “if there is no principle of unity in things with which to measure the manifoldness and change, the individual is left without standards and so falls necessarily into anarchic impressionism.”
In his examination of modern education, in particular, and of culture in general, it can be said, Weaver traces the consequences of what happens to the human world when there is no principle of unity and, in turn, no standards. He singles out in the process of what he depicts as “the dark night of the mind” the effects of unlimited democracy, about which Babbitt has trenchant things to say in his essay on “The Problem of Style in a Democracy,” composed originally as an address to The Academy of Arts and Letters, November 10,1932, included in Character and Culture. Weaver argues that “When democracy is taken from its proper place and is allowed to fill the entire horizon, it produces an envious hatred not only of all distinction but of all difference.” This argument, though in a more contemporary vein, continues Babbitt’s argument that “Another and far graver error is to seek, like the equalitarian democrat, to get rid of the selective and aristocratic principle altogether. The cult of the common man that the equalitarian democrat encourages, is hard to distinguish from commonness.” Any reflecting on the following sentences in the chapter “Democracy and Standards,” in Democracy and Leadership, should remind one that Irving Babbitt and Richard Weaver finally speak in one voice:
The democratic contention that everybody should have a chance is excellent provided it means that everybody is to have a chance to measure up to high standards. If the democratic extension of opportunity is, on the other hand, made a pretext for lowering standards, democracy is, insofar, incompatible with civilization.
Babbitt and Weaver focus on John Dewey’s extensive role in the “denigration of the intellect,” and see in his exaltation of activity over thinking a ruinous departure from the great body of traditional knowledge and the wisdom of the race. Babbitt sees Dewey’s influence in a national tendency among educators to insist on “the doctrine of service” at the expense of culture and civilization, and of character and the inner life. Weaver sees Dewey’s impact on educational theory and policy as one that above all discards the significant place of the concepts, signs, and symbols through which man has created cultural achievements. The results bring about an extreme and expansive secularization and with it the arrogant dismissal of moral, spiritual, and religious principles, especially as these inhere in the virtue of piety and the role it plays in “the discipline of the negative,” as Weaver expresses it and then goes on to add, again evoking Babbitt’s thinking and idiom: “Effective education often demands the rigorous suppressing of a present, desultory interest so that we can focus on things that have a real, enduring, and sanctioned interest. Indeed, this is identical with the act of concentration.” In remarkably prophetic ways, then, Babbitt and Weaver perceived not only the growing eclipse of excellence throughout American education, but also the breakdown of authority. This process of decomposition, which Weaver connects with “the substitution of fantasy for historicity,” and which Babbitt was to connect with revery, “this imaginative melting of man into outer nature,” is quintessentialized in Weaver’s picture of the teacher in America under incessant and heavy attack:
… the teacher is not to be viewed as one in authority commissioned to instruct, but as a kind of moderator whose function is merely to conduct a meeting. Especially resented is the idea that the teacher has any advantage of knowledge or wisdom which entitles him to stand above his students. This would be a recognition of inequality, and equality must reign, mat caelurn!
Inevitably Babbitt and Weaver are reproving the tissue of political ideology as it afflicts not only American character and culture, but also the organic conception of man and his world. Political ideology becomes, in effect, the haven of “the enemies of the permanent things.” Man, Babbitt and Weaver insist, may be classified as a political animal, but political activity is not his nor his culture’s highest expression, or as Weaver declares: “He [man] is also a contemplative animal, and a creature with aesthetic and cultural yearnings. His very restlessness is a sign that he is a spiritual being with intimations about his origin and destiny.” Character and Culture and Visions of Order have, in effect, the power of reminding us that Babbitt and Weaver wrestled unceasingly with the primary questions. They particularly lamented Americans’ growing submission to what Babbitt terms a “cheap contemporaneousness,” and what Weaver designates as “the belief that only existence in the present can give significance to a thing.” This belief inevitably denies the place of memory as that which, Weaver submits, “directs one along the path of obligation” and keeps “us whole and consistent in opposition to that contrary force which is dissolution.” Here, too, Babbitt’s words are equally pertinent: “If the individual condemns the general sense, and trusts unduly his private self, he will have no model; and a man’s first need is to look up to a sound model and imitate it.”
“It is the critic’s business,” Babbitt writes, “to grapple with the age in which he lives and give it what he sees it needs.” These words best define the critical calling not only of Babbitt but also of Weaver, and underline the courage a true critic needs to establish a moral ethos in examining life, literature, and thought. Babbitt and Weaver never deviated from their critical calling, even as their writings show a centrality and a consistency that invest their standards and outlook with an integrity of purpose and vision. To the dignity of literature they join the dignity of criticism. What will most impress readers of these two books is the moral seriousness and responsibility, as well as the moral measure, which Babbitt and Weaver record in their writings, and which in turn make them profoundly credible as critics who have something important to say about the human condition, and inevitably to say something of value about the “war in the cave,” that unending struggle in man between good and evil. No less than the moral imagination, moral criticism has the capacity to make men and women better in their cities in that special context Babbitt apprehends when he stresses that the indefinite future progress of humanity is unequal in importance to the immediate definite progress of the individual.
The problems that Babbitt associates with “the present contagion of commonness” and its impact on cultural life are problems that Weaver addressed remedially. For Babbitt the loss of a sense of proportion, especially as seen in the unchecked growth of specialization, constituted a severe crisis of culture inherent in the crisis of modernity. And for Weaver the loss of historical consciousness is tantamount to his fear that persuasive speech, as an “ethics of rhetoric,” is to be displaced by mere communication. Both critics speak as one in rejecting what Weaver calls “the principle of pure relativism for cultures.” And both are profoundly aware of a modern world that, through its machine culture, has fallen into idolatry. “But the road away from idolatry,” Weaver observes, “remains the same as before: it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man and for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.”
What best reconciles letters and life? This question much preoccupied both critics, and both emphasized the role of the ethical faculty in judging cultural forms. Truly ethical art is at once imaginative and decorous, Babbitt insisted, noting in Rousseau and Romanticism that
The presence of the ethical imagination whether in art or life is always known as an element of calm …. But it is only with reference to some ethical centre that we may determine what art is soundly recreative, in what forms of adventure the imagination may innocently indulge.
Weaver is no less insistent on the need for ethical apprehensions of social-cultural creations and forms that are imposed but that are not worth the cost and have no real validity:
So it is that when a culture falls to the worshipping of the forms it has created, it grows blind to the source of cultural expression itself and may engender perverse cruelty. The degeneration may take the form of static arts, of barbarous legal codes in defense of conventions, or the inhuman sacrifice exacted by a brilliant technology. At some point, its delight in these things has clouded over the right ethical and other determinations of life.
Modern Western culture and society, Babbitt and Weaver agreed, can be increasingly identified by its tyranny of forms, equipped with a new language and new clothes, and driven by an oppressive bureaucracy and a new technology. For both critics, Americans’ easy acceptance of and subservience to these reifying forms instanced the sharp intellectual and spiritual decline of a nation and its people. “[A]ny granting of moral status and imperative force to form in its spatiotemporal embodiment is a sign of danger,” Weaver warned. The only way a culture, he went on to say, can be kept from “‘worshipping monuments of its own magnificence,”’ thus becoming repressive and destructive even in the midst of great achievements, is to recognize and preserve what he calls “allocations of the spirit”: “For if man is a cognitive, aesthetic, ethical, and religious creature, he must maintain some rights of office among these various faculties.” No less than Babbitt, Weaver observed a pronounced tendency to extremism in American life, and he repeatedly warned against this tendency as he saw it asserted in all aspects of American society and culture. At the heart of this extremism he viewed a growing pattern of disorder in reckless deviations from the sacred path that Babbitt saw as leading to peace, poise, and centrality. Weaver especially lamented the modern world’s “general exaltation of means over ends,” as people more and more “feel a loyalty toward means which leaves them indifferent to ends.” “The more secular society grows,” he warned, “the more dominant this attitude is likely to become.”
Babbitt’s enemies have liked to think that he left no followers or allies and that he exerted little or no influence after his death in 1933. Such are, everywhere and always, the fantasies of the liberal mind. No two books, separated in date of publication by over thirty years, more forcefully repudiate these fantasies than Character and Culture and Visions of Order. In their basic themes and ethos, these books demonstrate astonishing continuity and correlation. In their warnings regarding the health of American character and culture, they depict a shared indictment of tendencies that have progressively led a nation and its people to chase after the heresies and the illusions that have no purpose other than that of destroying both the idea of value and humane civilization.
Babbitt discerned and identified the modern malaise as it was developing and spreading with cruel rapidity. His teachings and writings sought to chart those regions of modernity that held the greatest danger for modern man. Critical fortitude, steadfastness, and patience characterize his life and work. He pressed on with his mission, his calling, to the end, refusing to be stranded, like others, on “the heights of despair.” For Babbitt the law of humility was endless. With Edmund Burke he believed that it is at the root of all other virtues that involve first principles. “Nothing will avail short of humility,” Babbitt insisted. Of the two critics, it is Babbitt who stands at the fountainhead of the dissident critical spirit that modernity and all its sectaries could not mute. “In the closing years of the twentieth century,” Ryn observes, “it is evident that Irving Babbitt will go down in history as one of his country’s original and seminal intellects.” One could go so far as to say that the crisis of modernity, as it now slides with a vengeance into a post-modern stage of decadence and nihilism, cannot be fully grasped or resisted without an understanding of Babbitt’s achievement.
Even to ponder a few pages from Babbitt’s oeuvre each day can be a valuable exercise for anyone who wants to be rescued from contemporary negators of the moral life and the ethical life: from, in a word, the technological-Benthamite forces of gravity. Ultimately Babbitt’s thought has a good influence, imparting as it does soundness and sanity, good sense, reasonableness, direction, balance-reverent qualities that actively oppose the disordering extremes that modern life legislates indiscriminately. He was truly a critical genius who was for too long misunderstood and misrepresented, unrecognized and unrewarded by his countrymen. But abroad, especially in the Orient, he was esteemed as an American sage and saint who had wrought a noble reconciliation of East and West, of Confucius and Aristotle, of Buddha and Christ.
Nowhere in his published writings does Weaver acknowledge straightaway Babbitt’s influence or praise its significance–perhaps because great thinkers prefer their own counsel and seek to protect and preserve their own sovereignty of mind and thought. On one occasion when Weaver does mention Babbitt’s name (along with Paul Elmer More’s), in an essay entitled “Agrarianism in Exile” (1950), it is on a disparaging note that, following T.S. Eliot and Allen Tate, simply restates “the fallacy of humanism.” In ”its admission of a theism,” Weaver writes, Agrarianism is “unafraid to step beyond the phenomenal world,” whereas the New Humanism “assumed that man could find his destiny through a discriminating study of his own achievements.” At the time of Weaver’s composition of “Agrarianism in Exile,” it hardly needs saying, Babbitt’s achievement had not as yet been honestly estimated so as to disprove many of his critics’ attacks on his ideas as lacking the idea of transcendence, of the absolute, of a total awareness. Yet, as Visions of Order shows so conclusively, Weaver had pondered his Babbitt, reacted to his ideas, and even used his language. Indeed, as a young graduate student he had studied his Babbitt in order to complete a master’s thesis in English, in the spring of 1934, at Vanderbilt University, under the direction of John Crowe Ransom. That thesis was entitled “The Revolt Against Humanism,’’ and in it he voiced doubts about “the creed of the genteel tradition” later articulated in “Agrarianism in Exile.”
But when one chooses to go beyond the early and disingenuous criticisms of Babbitt and the New Humanism, which had no doubt brushed Weaver’s generation, one will discover that Babbitt’s moral impact was deep and lasting, even as any critical comparison of Character and Culture and Visions of Order will prove. Yes, differences in critical orientation are there, but the affinities and the similarities, the visionary sperma, the larger moral concerns and spiritual purposes, are also very much there, transcendently. The passage of time–Babbitt had been dead for more than three decades when Visions of Order saw print–had softened some of the immediate intellectual tensions and hostilities, personal animosities and regional differences, that had clouded Babbitt’s contribution. His central message to modern man, his wise teachings, and the universality of his vision could hardly escape either the interest or the respect of a great inheritor and continuer: Richard Weaver was, after all, fighting the new-old battles, now even more perilous in their outcome, in which Babbitt had fought valiantly and selflessly, in the front lines, in the fledgling years of the twentieth century.
In his unrelenting labors to provide correctives to the fragmentation and excesses of the modern world, Babbitt had penetrated to its heart of darkness. Visions of Order, in its remarkable way, pays tribute to Babbitt’s enduring legacy and relevance. Babbitt neither desired nor expected to be acknowledged for his contribution to life and letters. There is, really, no need to cite him by name: his ideas have both implicit and beneficent consequences, and cannot be routinely relegated to footnotes. Weaver is among those “keen-sighted few” who attest to Irving Babbitt’s permanence of value in the order of the “permanent things.”
Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1986).
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