Seeing himself and his allies on the losing side of the war against the modern spirit, Irving Babbitt made a fierce call to arms, advocating the need for a “remnant” to preserve all that is good, true, and beautiful…
In his own day and age, Irving Babbitt’s (1865-1933) many opponents—from Ernest Hemingway to H.L. Mencken to Dorothy Thompson—denounced him as a Puritan dressed in modern clothing; an uptight and no-nonsense academic; a dry-as-dust schoolmaster shaming all of those around him. In truth, Babbitt possessed almost none of these qualities. Once a member of an East Coast urban street gang as well as an experienced ranch hand in the American West, Babbitt reveled in the life of the mind of the life of physical exertion, being one of the earliest amateur “runners” of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, being a jogger long before it was popular. Babbitt so loved movement that he even forced his students to hold “office hours” with him while either running or walking. Who knows what Babbitt’s smartwatch would read if we lived now. “Irving, you have reached your exercise goal for the day. Save or dismiss?”
A rattlesnake hunter and the son of a New Age snake-oil crystal worshipping nineteenth-century con-man, Babbitt had seen both nature “red in tooth and claw” as well as the absurdities of human life.
If anything, the woman or man who today admires Babbitt must be careful not to exaggerate his rather abundant and mischievous personal eccentricities. A powerful bull of a man as well as an intellectual giant, Babbitt inspired as much love as he did hate for his subject from his opponents. Students who studied with the man raved about him, citing not only his genius but his personality as inspiration for their own ideas and careers.
Even if Babbitt lost many of his own battles in the public arena of the 1910s and 1920s, his disciples carried on his ideas and message well into the middle of the twentieth century: T.S. Eliot, G.R. Elliott, Russell Kirk, Milton Hindus, Louis Mercier, George Panichas, and Claes Ryn. Other, not as well-known or remembered, but important, include Austin Warren, Norman Foerster, and Gordon Keith Chalmers. Austin Warren went to so far as to claim that no Great Books courses or colleges—such as those at the University of Chicago, Columbia, the University of Notre Dame, or St. John’s—could have come into being without Babbitt’s direct and indirect influences. One might argue to what extent Babbitt mattered, but he most certainly did matter. Equally indirectly, writers such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset benefitted from Babbitt’s so-called “New Humanism” movement.
Not a natural writer, Babbitt published only a few books in his lifetime, and many of these books are simply rushed compilations of his articles and essays, disparate in tone and message. Of these books, half remain in print and (somewhat) available, but most of Babbitt’s published writings and literary output remain hidden to all but the most tenacious of his followers. The one most readily available is the one that least represents his overall thought, the one political book he wrote, 1924’s Democracy and Leadership. Despite being the least representative of Babbitt’s fundamentally anti- and ante-political thought, the book reveals much about the latent dangers of democracy, especially a democracy that emerges from a decayed republic. The book serves, in many ways, as a twentieth-century version of Burke’s Reflections or Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In no way does Babbitt match Burke’s or Tocqueville’s style, but his intellect is comparable.
In his rather complex arguments regarding the culture of a republic, Babbitt tries to explain how the loss of norms and standards results in the bloated democracy of his day. The last thing that he and his fellow writers and critics should worry about, he states, is the re-emergence of a puritanism. The modern American, so far removed from the puritanism of England and colonial New England, is in danger of becoming nothing but a shallow and superficial Epicurean, wallowing in his own wealth and “standards of living.” “The average man we have thus idealized is increasingly Epicurean,” Babbitt wrote in 1917, as “he is for making the most of the passing moment with scant regard for any abiding scale of values.” Indeed, the average American cares for little but the “good time,” two words that have become nothing less than magical, and most Americans believe it “written in great blazing letters on the very face of the firmament.” We move, then, not toward Calvin but toward Nero.
As a people, then, our fate is tied to the amorphous and meaningless “progress.” Though our writers and academics hold “the conviction that whatever else they may be they are the pink of modernity, that they are riding on the very crest of the wave of progress.” In fact, all is vanity and delusion, as, at best, they are weaving about them and us “an endless web of intellectual and emotional sophistry.” Given that Babbitt argued this repeatedly during the heart of the progressive movement helps explain why he was such a divisive figure in his own day.
Such a trajectory of thought, Babbitt continued, finds its origins in the unholy alliance of positivism and scientific evolution(ary-ism) of the nineteenth-century, forming the “modern spirit.” As such, writers and scholars no longer feel themselves a part of a great continuity or great conversation and, consequently, withdraw into themselves, isolated, alone, and, ultimately, smug. For Babbitt, few nineteenth-century scholars better represent this trend more than the English social scientist and economist, Herbert Spencer.
Seeing himself and his allies and students on the losing side of the war, Irving Babbitt made a fierce call to arms, advocating the need for a “remnant” to preserve all that is good, true, and beautiful from the past. “This doctrine of the saving remnant has been denounced as priggish. It is the exact opposite. A man to belong to the remnant must be humble, must feel the need of looking to some standard set above his ordinary self. Anyone who thus looks up, has some chance of becoming worthy to be looked up to in turn.”
Hemingway, Mencken, and Thompson each have their followers, today, but so does Babbitt. You wouldn’t be here at The Imaginative Conservative if you did not believe in Babbitt’s conservative remnant.
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