Irving BabbittOne of western civilization’s greatest defenders in the twentieth century, Harvard University’s Irving Babbitt, founder of the New Humanism, best friend to Paul Elmer More, and the teacher of T.S. Eliot, considered it vital to read and comprehend the greats of non-western culture as well.

Indeed, against Jean Jacques Rousseau, Babbitt embraced the inherent Stoic qualities not only of the ancient western world but also of high, ancient Asian culture as well. “The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament,” More explained, quoting a footnote from Babbitt’s Literature and the American College. Conversely, “the greatest virtue is the opposite of this, the awakening from sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will. The last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples were an exhortation to practise this virtue unremittingly.”[1]

While Babbitt did not consider the Buddha to be perfect, he did believe that he had possessed more Stoic virtues than had the actual western Stoics. In particular, Babbitt appreciated that Buddha was “extraordinarily insistent upon the fact of sin,” whereas Occidental Stoics had ultimately embraced a form of extraordinary and supernatural optimism. The Buddha, never self-satisfied, looked only to what was eternal as essential. All things of this world would pass, thus demanding the well-centered human person to look beyond, beneath, around, and above them.[2] This should not result in complacency, the Buddha argued. Instead, seeing himself as a medical doctor or psychologist of the soul and will, the Buddha demanded action. “A man may possess the noble truths,” he argued, “and so escapes from sorrow only by acting upon them.” The well-centered man, noble in thought, must act through faith by embracing a “path” leading to ‘quiescence, knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana.’”[3]

buddha1Such actions were not necessarily equivalent to a Christian understanding of good works or of participating in the divine liturgy, each of which might easily mislead a man, noble or ignoble, Babbitt feared. For the Buddha, “the man who is outwardly idle may be at once more strenuously and more profitably employed than the man who is outwardly active.”[4] Though real work (Karma)—what in the West might be called, properly, leisure or contemplation—“is a sort of fate, but a fate of which man is himself the author and which is not any particular moment entirely subversive of moral freedom.”[5] Again, Babbitt stressed, the teachings of the Buddha led neither to a religion nor a philosophy but to a “path.”[6] In the West, as Babbitt saw it, St. Francis of Assisi came closest to living a Buddhist life, though Francis, of course, had no contact with any element of the East and developed Stoic charity according to his own lights.[7] In this, St. Francis was unique.

According to Babbitt, the West had created a dreadful world, “a world of frenzied producers” and a “world of frenzied consumers.”[8] Only the most cultivated and most uncultivated had escaped the desires of consumerist passions, he feared. Instead, most western and American men had been trained well but only partially educated. Rather than giving them control over the self, their education had only created insatiable longings. The average man, only half-educated and almost certainly not liberally educated, has rejected all that tradition, mores, and norms had restrained in him. Partially formed, modern man was not “critical enough to achieve new” restraints, his education having led to the “proneness namely to harbor desires that are not only numerous but often incompatible.”[9]

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[1] Paul Elmer More, “Irving Babbitt,” American Review (1934): 30.

[2] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada (1936; New York: New Directions, 1965), 82-83.

[3] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 86-87. “Nirvana” means, importantly, not nihilism as western culture has understood it, but as the ability to move beyond one’s emotions and desires.

[4] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 92.

[5] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 92-93.

[6] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 94-95.

[7] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 100-101.

[8] Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 110.

[9] The Reformation had played a vital role in the decline of the world as well, as Babbitt understood it. While the Roman Catholic Church had offered only an imperfect restraint upon the will and the appetites of man, it had necessarily created an aura of mystery and reverence for the venerable and awful. Protestantism, especially Calvinism, had loosed all real restraints, Babbitt concluded, making religion utilitarian rather than graceful and poetic. Consequently, the desire for material comfort had long replaced the desire for spiritual comfort. Further, though Protestants had in theory separated the sphere of religion from politics, in practice, it had done the opposite. “Practically both the Lutheran and the Calvinistic state tend to run together the things of God and the things of Caesar,” Babbitt argued. Consequently, Protestantism nullified any “refuge from the secular power.” Without restraint, the secular city ultimately glorified itself in the name of modern nationalism. See Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident,” in The Dhammapada, 112-114; and Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, 76.

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