What do we mean by humanism, in the real world of legacies and influences?

When Irving Babbitt passed away in 1933, he left an incredible legacy of allies, students, and literature. His humanism—so powerfully a part of the cultural mores of his day—transformed into several things following his death (or shortly before it).

One) Most diabolically, it had become—quite truly—a false religion. Founded by the former Baptist and Unitarian minister, Charles Francis Potter’s humanism went public at the very beginning of the fall of 1929 when he delivered a homily to 244 New Yorkers, having turned away well over 400 to meet the fire code. “Just as Protestantism was an offshoot of Roman Catholicism, and Liberalism, as represented by Unitarianism and Universalism, was born of Protestantism, so also Humanism has come forth from Unitarianism.”[1] Blatantly taking the name of his new faith from Babbitt and More (whom he thought would be allies in his new religion) he asked his congregants to give up their primitive “deity obsession.”[2] Only from man, Potter claimed, could one find true dignity. “Out of the heart of man have arisen all his noble impulses and aspirations.”[3] Babbitt and More, horrified, condemned the new movement, and the scare almost certainly moved More toward Anglican orthodoxy. Potter, however, with the aid of the effete John Dewey and bizarre Harry Elmer Barnes, founded the American Humanist Association and issued the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. To be sure, the word “humanism” has never recovered.

Two) It also took shape as a sort of muse for artists, especially in the poetry of T.S. Eliot and, at the very least in parallel development, in the novels of Willa Cather.

“What! Are you here?” Eliot exclaims as he scrutinizes “the first met stranger in the waning dusk.” Tenebrous, purgatorial, and Dante-esque, Eliot’s encounter with the “dead master” occurs in part II of the fourth of The Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.” The two come together, by chance it seems, “in concord at this intersection time, of meeting nowhere, no before and after,” but still walking “the pavement in dead patrol.” When Eliot asks his companion for a discussion of the master’s ideas, the master hesitates and dissuades the wanderer from asking anything further. In this place—wherever and whenever it might be—the master states, language no longer holds the same place it did in the land of the living. Here, to rehash the argument is to eat the bitter “shadow fruit,” devoid of enchantment and promise. Even in the attempt, one only comes to know all that he did wrong and all the right he failed to do. As the master departs, there is hope, for a horn sounds; the cock has crowed.

Or, take this paragraph from Cather’s novel, The Professor’s House:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins – not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance – you impoverish them.[4]

One would be forgiven in imagining the protagonist, Godfrey St. Peter, as an amalgam of Babbitt, More, and, perhaps, Herbert Eugene Bolton.

Three) Babbitt’s humanism could find its way into post-war conservatism, a way of defending and conserving the best of an ante- and anti-politicized and ideological past.

Neither of the two great founders of post-war conservatism, Russell Kirk nor Robert Nisbet, ever shied away from their respect, if not downright adulation, of Babbitt.

It would be no exaggeration to claim that Russell Kirk’s 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, was the sequel to Babbitt’s 1924 magnum opus, Democracy and Leadership, though separated by 29 years in terms of publication. From his earliest memories, Kirk had absorbed the ideas of Babbitt, however indirectly and seemingly by osmosis. Indeed, a veritable sponge when it came to reading and influence, few outside of Kirk’s family would shape him as much as did the ideas of Irving Babbitt. It was through his maternal grandfather’s wisdom and extensive reading, in particular, that Kirk first encountered—albeit, rather indirectly—the wisdom of Babbitt. “My family shared all the prejudices of Professor Babbitt,” Kirk proudly remembered in 1983, “even though we possessed none of his books.”[5]

Kirk would not actually encounter anything direct or tangible from Irving Babbitt until his first year as a student at Michigan State College in Lansing. That first year, Kirk met not only his favorite professor, John Abbott Clark, but he also met a group of men in Lansing dedicated to the humanist ideas of Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Of those men who happily included the young Kirk in their discussions and company, however, none affected him as much as Clark. He was, Kirk remembered, “the best college teacher of literature this writer ever knew.” Indeed, Kirk continued, Clark’s “students learned more from his courses in critical writing and in the history of criticism than they got from everything else in their undergraduate years, or from graduate studies.”[6] And, yet, the administration in East Lansing treated Clark with increasing contempt, Kirk bitterly noted, slowly removing from him the classes he loved and taught so well. Kirk would take great issue with the transformations at Michigan State, much to the university’s embarrassment, over the next four decades in his regular column for National Review, “From the Academy.” When Kirk rather publicly resigned from Michigan State in the fall of 1953, it was in no small measure due to the mistreatment of Clark, a series of slights Kirk would never forget nor forgive.

During his first two years of college, under Clark’s tutorship, Kirk devoured all six of Babbitt’s books and a significant number of his articles and reviews. The young man even joked with one of his closest friends that he bent his knee at the shrine of Babbitt. “When I read Babbitt,” Kirk confessed to a crowd in the early 1980s, “a conscience spoke to a conscience,” noting, especially, a “strong sympathy of mind and character.” Even more than Christopher Dawson and T.S. Eliot, Kirk claimed, Babbitt “influenced me more strongly than has any other writer of the twentieth century.” The Conservative Mind especially was influenced by “Babbitt, as much as Burke,” Kirk admitted. As far as Kirk—as a young man and as an elder scholar—was concerned, Irving Babbitt stood with Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Confucius, and Horace as one of the greats of world civilization, “one of the sages of antiquity,” Kirk proclaimed.[7] Despite the many disparate Occidental and Oriental cultures from which Babbitt drew, “he is one of the most thoroughly native of American writers,” Kirk thought.[8] Babbitt never strove to be the leader of a movement, but he found himself as one, the younger man noted, being duly impressed with such an achievement. No one in the twentieth century within western civilization, Kirk concluded, better exemplified a mature conservatism than did Babbitt.

It is worth noting a few things about the Babbitt-Kirk connection. First, and importantly, each man was an American original, a true individualist who generally distrusted individualism. Whether one wants to label each as eccentric or quirky, each was certainly his own man. Though both might seem somewhat stuffy given merely what they wrote and published, each lived life as radically as any moral individual ever has. While Kirk viewed Halloween as the highest holiday of the year (in action, if not always in thought), carried a sword-stick with him across North Africa, and sometimes jumped out from under the bed of a house guest, Babbitt often walked or ran during his Harvard office hours, once lived with a New York street gang, and enjoyed whipping rattlesnakes in circles around his head while ranching in Wyoming. After gleefully noting Babbitt’s rather unusual life, Kirk claimed with a straight face (presumably) that few men better represented the virtue of charity and the mores of normalness and humility. “He was such a man as even a great university sees but seldom,” Kirk enthused. He was “a scholar suffused with the unbought grace of life, a gentleman who feared neither the oligarch nor the mob. One may agree with him, or not,” Kirk conceded, “but it is shabby to refuse him his due admiration.” The man himself, after all, “rose superior to such jealousies.”[9]

Each also had a similar religious upbringing. Though generations had passed since each family had embraced New England Puritanism, Babbitt’s immediate family as well as Kirk’s immediate family had wrapped themselves in radical and mystical forms of late nineteenth-century spiritualism. For Kirk, this meant séances, levitations, and visiting with ghosts. Only very slowly did Kirk move away from such an upbringing, though he continued to practice reading tarot cards and defending the presence and existence of ghosts well into his later years. Having grown up with the otherworldly phenomena, Kirk delved deeply into and read extensively in the serious literature about the supernatural and the occult.[10] He also investigated a number of claims in the U.S. and in Europe, and he even contributed to at least one serious work of the occult, Brad Steiger’s 1969, Stranger Powers of ESP. Though he received no authorial credit on the cover of the book, Kirk wrote Chapter Two, “A Note on Ghostly Phenomena in Russell Kirk’s Old House at Mecosta, Michigan.”[11] A belief in the supernatural, he held, served as a marker for our understanding of faith. In an age of faith, the human person took the supernatural as natural. One saw unusual things, and saints radiated, as represented in the “halo” of art. In an age of scientism, the person and the culture dismissed the supernatural event as ridiculous and religion as a whole as superstitious.[12] But, as Kirk put it rather humorously, the haunting and haunted spirits of the world, in turn, “simply ignore rationalists.”[13] Regardless, he argued, a mass of anecdotal evidences has sprung forth from almost every era and every culture and religion in human history of the appearance of ghosts, revenants, and poltergeists.[14] To ignore all of this, he argued, served as pure obstinacy. “Have I ever seen a ghost? Why, I am one, and so are you—a geist, a spirit, in a mortal envelope,” he wrote in 1979.[15]

In ways unlike Kirk, Babbitt developed a rigorous rationalism and aestheticism. Like Kirk, though, he remained open to the idea of the supernatural in the world of reality. “He had been immersed in childhood in an atmosphere of spiritualism, and had absolutely none of the common inhibitions as to believe in what transcends ordinary experience. He would talk in the most matter-of-fact manner of having seen tables, nay, even pianos, float in the air, and used to laugh away my doubts,” an undergraduate friend remembered of Babbitt. He “professed himself so inured to the idea of supernatural apparitions as to be quite prepared to see, any night, without the slightest tremor of surprise, a ghost standing at his bedside.”[16] Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt (1828-1905), described by one person as a ‘crackpot,’ had peddled bizarre occultism and pseudo-science in a number of works in the nineteenth century.[17] Perhaps most famously, he had authored and self-published The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things, The Harmonic Laws of the Universe, the Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Force, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications in 1878. He followed up this book with a number of New Age-y titles dealing with the “other world” and the use of light to manipulate the physical world, including The Wonders of Light and Color (1879), Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe (1881), and Health and Power (1893). He had become a spiritualist in 1869 and, in addition to writing and publishing, opened a medical-business practice as a “psychophysician.”[18] And, we should all be reminded of Cather’s Godfrey St. Peter.

Second, as mentioned previously, Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind as much as anything as a sequel to Babbitt’s 1924, Democracy and Leadership. As such, Kirk borrowed such terms and phrases as “the flies of summer” and the “moral imagination” and his concepts of “private judgment” and the integration of all elements of society—from Babbitt, even as Babbitt took several of these from thinkers he admired such as Edmund Burke. One of Kirk’s later books, 1978’s Decadence and Renewal in Higher Education, originally suggested to him by T.S. Eliot, also reflected Babbitt’s ideas, sometimes exactly and always without apology.[19]

Third, however, no one should consider Kirk a clone of Babbitt, either. Kirk was no man’s clone, though he rather proudly and openly expressed his admiration of those from whom he borrowed and learned. At the same time that Kirk was reading and devouring Babbitt, he was equally attracted to the anarchist Albert Jay Nock and extreme constitutionalist, Isabel Patterson. When it came to the humanists, Kirk, for example, never embraced Asian philosophy and theology to the extent that Babbitt did, and, perhaps connected to this, Kirk remained firmly Occidental in this thought, migrating eventually to Roman Catholicism and always possessing a spontaneous and romantic streak in his life and writings, fiction and non-fiction alike. While Babbitt also grew in appreciation of the Roman Catholic tradition, he also wielded many of the prejudices of the Protestants of his era. “The more the neo-classical movement is studied, the more one whole side of it is seen to be merely the expression in matters artistic and literary of the Jesuitical spirit,” Babbitt argued in 1910. “Just as the Jesuits, in order to strengthen and centralize the principle of authority, were ready to multiply their minute rulings on moral ‘cases’ even at the risk of suppressing spontaneity in the religious life and arriving at a pure formalism, so the Aristotelian commentators exercised a centralizing influence on literature and tended to substitute purely formal precepts for spontaneous opinions.”[20]

Where Babbitt ended on the question of faith remains a mystery, perhaps a critically vital one when understanding the very history of Babbittian humanism. Toward the end of his life, Babbitt had the following comments and conversation on religion. “ ‘Oh, god is very great and a man is a worm.’ After a silence, I said, ‘But the God whom men worship is not just a Will, as in your writings, but a Being, a complete Being, who—’ ‘Yes, yes,’ he broke in with humorous impatience, ‘but that is beyond my province as a writer. Why do you keep wishing me to be a theologian? I am merely a critic.’ ”[21] This is a considerably different end than that experienced by either Paul Elmer More or T.S. Eliot, each of whom had come to a rough form of Christian orthodoxy.

If we judge a man by his fruits, Babbitt’s were plenty. Nearly every one of his students and followers converted to Catholicism, either of the Anglo or Roman variety.


So, is there a summa? Is there a “happily ever after”? As I mentioned earlier, Kirk believed that Babbitt’s humanism represented the most mature form of conservatism. If that is true, what can we say about it?

First, Babbitt’s humanism never became commodified, and no host of radio personalities developed around it, and, if they had, they would never dismiss the liberal arts as ridiculous as our current radio personalities frequently do.

Second, it was not political or politicized. Instead, it recognized politics as important, but inferior to culture. Indeed, I myself am tempted to think more highly of Charles Francis Potter than I do of George Bush or Donald Trump.

Third, humanism was most certainly a reaction—a reaction against progressivism, nationalism, utilitarianism, socialism, and every form of radicalism (left or right). These are excellent things to oppose, and I hope we never lose the will to do so.

This is the second essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Humanism and Conservatism” series.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as 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.


[1] “Defines Religious Humanism,” New York Times (April 29, 1929), 21.

[2] “New Religion Bars Baptism, Priest, Prayer,” New York Times (September 30, 1929), 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Willa Cather, The Professor’s House.

[5] Russell Kirk, “The Enduring Influence of Irving Babbitt,” in George A. Panichas and Claes G. Ryn, eds., Irving Babbitt in Our Time (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 19. See also Kirk, “Babbitt Read Anew,” National Review (January 19, 1957), 67.

[6] Kirk, “John Abbot Clark, RIP,” National Review (November 16, 1965), 1018. Kirk dedicated his biography of Edmund Burke (New York: Arlington House, 1967) to Clark. On Clark’s decline and death, see Warren Fleischauer to Peter Stanlis, September 18, 1965, in Stanlis Papers, RKCCR; and Peter Stanlis to Warren Fleischauer, September 23, 1965, in Stanlis Papers, Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Mecosta, MI.

[7] Kirk, “The Enduring Influence of Irving Babbitt,” 20. While this might seem hyperbolic, Kirk was certainly not alone in offering Babbitt such praise. In his book, Great Humanists (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), Lynn Harold Hough placed Babbitt and More on the level with Aristotle, Cicero, and Erasmus. Equally taken with Babbitt—though voiced in much less “over-the-top” praise—is the extraordinary work of Claes Ryn. See especially his Will, Imagination, and Reason: Irving Babbitt and the Problem of Reality (Washington, DC: Regnery Books, 1986); and his masterly and longish introduction to Irving Babbitt, Character and Culture: Essays on East and West (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995).

[8] Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 366. Not only had Babbitt studied deeply the Hindu and Confucianist writings, he found himself quite taken with the writings of the Buddha. The ideas of the Buddha come up in almost all of Babbitt’s writings, but they are best found in the posthumously published book, Irving Babbitt, The Dhammapada (1936; New York: New Directions, 1965).

[9] Russell Kirk, “Introduction” to Irving Babbitt, Literature and the College (Chicago, IL: Regnery, 1956), x.

[10] Russell Kirk, “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” The Critic (April-May 1962): 17. The same essay is reprinted as the conclusion to Kirk, Surly Sullen Bell (Fleet, 1962), 231-240. RAK employed the same title for the introduction to his 1984 collection, Watchers at the Strait Gate (Arkham House, 1984), ix-xiv. By 1984, however, Kirk had radically altered this piece. While the themes remain similar, the examples used to illustrate his points are quite different. Vigen Guroian’s edited collection, Kirk, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales (Eerdmans, 2004), 402-406, reprints the 1984 version. Also important is Kirk, “Prologue,” to The Princess of All Lands (Arkham House, 1979), vii-viii; as well as his “The Canon of the Ghostly Tales,” introduction to Canon Basil A. Smith, The Scallion Stone (Chapel Hill, NC: Whispers Press, 1980), xi-xv.

[11] Kirk, “A Note on Ghostly Phenomena in Russell Kirk’s Old House at Mecosta, Michigan,” in Brad Steiger, Strange Power of ESP (New York: Belmont Books, 1969), 20-27. A note on page 20 reads: “This chapter was written for this book by Russell Kirk.” I am indebted to Mr. Steiger for sharing his views on Kirk via correspondence. Kirk even started to explore the veracity of UFO sightings in the 1960s. See Kirk, “The Unexpected Visitors,” To the Point column, Ada Evening News (April 5, 1966), 4.

[12] Kirk, “A Cautionary Note,” 17. See also, Kirk’s 1954 book, St. Andrews, discussed previously in this work. It should be noted, Kirk especially disliked the literary genre of science-fiction, seeing it, in general, as banal and meaningless,” a superficial mirroring of the works of H.G. Wells. This is surprising, given how thoughtful writers such as Walter Miller, James Blish, or Kingsley Amis could be, and how much in line they would be with Kirk’s own understanding of the world. The best science fiction, to Kirk’s mind, was that of Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis, the kind that is far more fantasy set in space, rather than what might be termed hard science fiction. These are, essentially, what literary critic and biographer Joseph Pearce would call “theological thrillers.”

[13] Kirk, “Racketing Spirits,” Ada Evening News (February 13, 1966), 4.

[14] Kirk, “A Cautionary Note,” 18.

[15] Kirk, “Prologue,” to The Princess of All Lands, viii.

[16] Giese, “IB, Undergraduate,” American Review, 74.

[17] “Crackpot” taken from Milton Hindus, Essays: Personal and Impersonal (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1988), 108-109.

[18] See entry, “Edwin Dwight Babbitt,” in Ohio Authors, 22-23.

[19] Kirk admitted the connection between Decadence and Renewal to Babbitt’s humanism in Kirk, “The Enduring Influence,” 22.

[20] Irving Babbit, The New Laokoon (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 7.

[21] G.R. Elliott, “Irving Babbit as I Knew Him,” American Review 8 (1936-1937): 59-60.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Still Life with Books and Candle” (1890) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), courtesy of WikiArt.

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