Irving Babbitt’s humanism was not radically intricate or convoluted: It was a reflection of nature and, at least to the wise, of common sense. No one could—in his wildest dreams—dismiss the humanism of Babbitt as a mere fad or a marginal movement; all thinking people engaged the ideas, whether they found them palatable or not.
Editor’s Note: This essay was originally given as a lecture at the 2019 Academy of Philosophy and Letters Conference.
Tonight, I would like speak about the relationship of Humanism to Conservatism in the twentieth century. By each, I would ask that you accept the most fundamental definitions—“humanism” as provided by Irving Babbitt, T.E. Hulme, and Paul Elmer More; and by “conservatism” as defined by Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In almost every way, there can be little if any separation of the two terms. If our conservatism is not a conservation of the humane, we have failed miserably as scholars and as humans. If our humanism does not seek to conserve the best of the past, we have once again failed miserably as scholars and as humans.
Yet, in some ways, this relationship of conservatism and humanism is a poor and lop-sided one. Most especially in terms of influence and importance. While Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet were household names in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, even influencing U.S. senators and at least one president, their conservatism devolved into a form of political thought, thus attenuating the influence and longevity of what was once boldly and unapologetically noble. Today, of course, conservatism means everything from populism to mean-spiritedness, and we see it has become a cultural commodity, to be consumed and disposed of.
By contrast, no one could—in his wildest dreams—dismiss the humanism of Babbitt, More, or Hulme as a mere fad or a marginal movement. It was a central part of the greatest cultural and literary (if not political) debates of the 1910s through 1930s, and all thinking people engaged the ideas, whether they found them palatable or not.
When Babbitt and More passed away (and Hulme, having been killed in the trenches of northern France in the Great War), they left behind a fascinating array of students and followers—from T.S. Eliot to Norman Foerster to Gordon Chalmers to G.R. Elliott. They also left behind admirers who where not students—such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Robert Hutchins, Allen Tate, Mortimer Adler, and Christopher Dawson.
And, of course, they left behind a huge corpus of writings, Paul Elmer More especially.
One only has to look to the New York Times to see Babbitt’s influence over the culture.
As the obituary for the New York Times reads: “Professor Babbitt was probably the leading exponent in America of ‘the new humanism,’ a philosophy which he admitted he could not defend in a few words.” “After long, austere, quiet labor as a scholar and thinker, the late Irving Babbitt was blown upon by a queer, unexpected blast of notoriety. The coast guards of Bohemia rose against him. Subjectivists, individualists, expressionists, exhibitionists, liberals and Heaven knows how many other little sects raved and roared. Columnists blazed with their serried columns. There was a very pretty quarrel about humanism, neo-humanism, anti-humanism, and what not. It is true that the humanists don’t agree among themselves. It is true, as some of Professor Babbitt’s opponents urged, that his own definition of it is not as clear as crystal.”
None of this should suggest universal popularity. Viscous critics such as Albert Jay Nock, Edmund Wilson, Sinclair Lewis, and Peter Gay emerged, to be sure. One of the most important journalists of the day, the iconoclastic and lovely Dorothy Thompson complained that the humanists caused nothing but suffering. Thompson, humanist Seward Collins admitted privately to Paul Elmer More in 1930, “read one of my articles when she was in the hospital at the time her baby was born, and told a friend of mine that reading it was worse than having the baby.”
Typically, and not surprisingly, though, most critics left out the descriptions of birthing and, rather, dismissed Babbitt and More as puritans, as reactionaries, and, especially, as men psychologically incapable of understanding the modern world. This would become a standard trope against any conservative throughout the twentieth century. This was, of course, a slightly more artful way of labeling them with the stigma of cowardice.
While in print, Babbitt might appear stuffy to those who did not know him, even a few moments in his company would dismiss the pervasive criticisms as ludicrous. A huge bear of a man, Babbitt, the son of an infamous New-Age shyster (he sold crystals to be used as determinants of a baby’s sex while in utero), had lived with a somewhat tame gang in New York as well as in Wyoming as a ranch hand and cowboy. At the same time that Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister were falling in love with the American West, Babbitt found himself smitten with rattlesnake hunting. As a friend remembered, Babbitt would amuse “himself by pulling a retiring rattlesnake out of its hole by the tail and whirling it around his head.” A health fanatic, Babbitt once found himself tackled by the Paris police late at night. He had gone for a run, but the Paris police assumed him a criminal. Who else would dash through the streets of that fair city at midnight? Further, he often held office hours with his Harvard students while taking his daily walks and runs. “One who wished to talk with him extensively had to walk with him extensively; thus he economized his time, killing two birds with one stone. Often I felt like one bird killed with two stones: physically and mentally exhausted I would totter home after parting from him, wondering whether I should be able three or four days later to keep our appointment for what he termed, euphemistically, ‘another little walk together.’ “ Babbitt usually walked or ran—at any time of day or night—two to three hours daily.
Babbitt was rather above the average height, powerfully built, with the complexion of radiant health. But it was his eyes that caught and held one’s attention. They were of a dark, not pure blue, and even then, though of a luster that dimmed somewhat in later years, had in repose the withdrawn look of one much given to meditation. He had a way of gazing downwards or forwards or anywhere rather than into the face of his interlocutor, in a manner which could never be described as timid or shifty, but which gave often the impression of remoteness, as if the individual before him were lost in some general view of life or some question of fundamental principles which might be occupying his mind. But if the unlucky individual thought to escape into that remoteness from the consequences of a rash statement or logical fallacy, he was likely to be caught up by a swift direct glance that seemed to shoot out tentacles, as it were, into his very soul. At such moments that restless energy of Babbitt’s which was wont to work itself off in walking or by pacing back and forth as he talked, would appear to be gathered together, holding his body in an attitude of tense rigidity.
As should be obvious by these vignettes, Babbitt loved activity, nature, and friendship.
He could, however, be prickly as well. He never forgave Harvard for hiring him as a professor of French rather than as a professor of classics or a professor of philosophy. One student heard him complaining to the head of the French department “that French was only a cheap and nasty substitute for Latin.”
Babbitt’s Harvard, of course, was the Harvard of Frederick Jackson Turner, George Santyana, William James, and Josiah Royce.
As a teacher and as a thinker, he was their equal or their superior, and this, indeed, claims much, especially considering that Harvard might have been—at least in 1910—the greatest university in the English-speaking world, rivaled only by Oxford and Cambridge.
Paul Elmer More remembers the intelligence and perceptiveness of Babbitt with deep and abiding respect. “How he came to his love and mastery of Roman and Greek poets, I do not know. According to his own account, the taste was born in him. The astonishing fact, as I look back over the years, is that he seems to have sprung up, like Minerva, fully grown and fully armed.”
No matter how much Babbitt railed against romanticism, there was an urgent romantic sense about his own vocation. “The man who presently entered the room and seated himself behind the desk was of big frame slightly stooped,” a student remembered. “The face was craggy, the jaw obtrusive, the voice vibrant, the gestures quick and angular. And certainly when he spoke he laid down the law; but not as though the law were his own. It belonged to humanity, so he made one feel; it had been enacted by the parliament of history and he was a clerk announcing it.”
Not atypically, one follower remembered,
At that time he had very small classes—meeting around a table. He came in with a bag bursting full of books, and took out a handful of notes which he arranged around him.—Began to sway in his chair, then leaped out upon one of them and poured a barrage of criticism upon some doctrine or some line of poetry,–‘to cast o’er erring words and deeds a heavenly show’—Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Horace, Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, Milton, etc..—etc. He deluged you with wisdom of the world; his thoughts were unpacked and poured out so fast you couldn’t keep up with them. You didn’t know what he was talking about, but you felt that he was extremely in earnest, that it was tremendously important, that some time it would count; that he was uttering dogmatically things that cut into your beliefs, disposed derisively of what you adored, driving you into a reconstruction of your entire intellectual system.
When studying with Babbitt, one felt “that he was a Coleridge, a Carlyle, a Buddha, pouring out the full-stuffed cornucopia of the world upon your head.”
Though much has been written about Babbitt’s humanism—often intentionally or unintentionally complicating it—the humanism itself was not radically intricate or convoluted, mostly because it was a reflection of nature and, at least to the wise, of common sense. A proper summation of Babbitt’s humanism might be something like six canons (admittedly, I’m very much borrowing the idea from Kirk’s six canons of conservative thought):
- Man is at his best when self-restrained.
- All things belong to a whole.
- Man must love his labor.
- Western civilization began to fail around the time of Machiavelli, continuing through the nemesis of Hobbes and Rousseau.
- Rousseau—at least symbolically—best represents all that is evil in society.
- Democracy at home will inevitably become imperialism abroad.
Often, Babbitt wrote of law of measure, of sympathy, of selection, of proportionality, of reconciling opposites (or harmonizing conflictions), of the One and the Many, of “labor of the spirit,” of “self reform,” of “the cult of brotherhood,” and, of the horrors of utilitarianism, pragmatism, and humanitarianism, but especially, of imagination.
Yet, despite all of these terms and references, Babbitt most wanted restraint of the individual will. “The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgment.”
This is the first essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Humanism and Conservatism” series.
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 New York Times, July 16, 1933, 20.
 New York Times, July 19, 1933, 16.
 Seward Collins to PEM, 17 December 1930, in Dakin Papers, Box 24 (Copies of Letters to and from PEM), Folder 3, PEM Papers (C0054).
 W.F. Giese, “Irving Babbitt, Undergraduate,” American Review 6 (1935-1936): 90.
 G.R. Elliott, “Irving Babbitt as I Knew Him,” American Review 8 (1936-1937): 39.
 Giese, “IB, Undergraduate,” American Review: 88.
 Paul Elmer More, “Irving Babbitt,” American Review 3 (1934): 24.
 Giese, “IB, Undergraduate,” American Review: 68.
 More, “Irving Babbitt,” American Review 3 (1934): 26-27.
 G.R. Elliott, “Irving Babbitt as I Knew Him,” American Review 8 (1936-1937): 36-37.
 “Chronicle and Comment,” The Bookman (November 1929), 293.
 “Chronicle and Comment,” The Bookman (November 1929), 293.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Irving Babbitt.