We live in a world completely mastered and permeated by economic ideals, yet expecting better government within societies brought up on humanitarian thinking strikes us as yet another fantasy. Much has changed since the solutions posited by humanist thinkers of the last century, so what can we do in this world? What can we bet on—really?

The following text is a translation from the book Humanizm jako realizm. Trzy szkice wokół myśli Paula Elmera More’a i Irvinga Babbitta (Humanism as Realism: Three Essays Concerning the Thought of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt), which was written in Polish and published in 2019 by The Lethe Foundation. The book has been intended, above all, to show the relevance and importance of Paul Elmer More’s (1864–1937) and Irving Babbitt’s (1865–1933) legacy for those trying to live a thoughtful and responsible life nowadays. It consists of three longer essays. The excerpt below comes from the central one which deals with political implications of the Humanists’ diagnosis of modernity. —Editor


What has reading the humanists given us? First, we’ve realized that we live in a world completely mastered and permeated by economic ideals. Referring to T.E. Hulme’s prose, today we don’t so much think about economic ideals as we think “seeing things through” them, i.e., in terms of them. From this perspective, most political differences we’ve become accustomed to are typically inferior, superficial, and limited. It doesn’t matter if you’re a socialist or a free-market liberal—whether you choose to believe the former or the latter.

Second, we’ve begun to understand that the hegemony of economic ideals is associated with a huge transformation of the religious imagination in the process of transition from classical thought and Christianity to modern faith in humanity. The height of this change seems to be marked by the eighteenth century and the work of Rousseau. The ideals of modernity, of course, go back even further—look at Bacon’s vision of the benefits of scientific progress. Nevertheless, the emergence of a new dualism as a make-shift space for the spirit allowed for the justification of the abandonment, if not murder, of the old civilization in the name of the good of humanity; good reconceptualized in terms of expansion and emancipation.

Third, we should view the humanistic response to all this as revolving around the opposite primacy of politics over economics. This model—which could very well be called the priority of preserving civilization over satisfying the needs of the masses—is embodied in the attitude of a gentleman or aristocrat, for whom what really matters is rational control over his own soul.

This third point, however, turns out to be the most vulnerable. We know that there has never been a humanist political system; at most, certain elements of other regimes—or their philosophical-political interpretations and reinterpretations—could have favored the “cause” of humanism. The historical aristocracy was in fact an oligarchy of the “well-born.” The title of “gentleman” probably decorated many a vain aesthete, but also many sly, crafty men. What’s more, we learn from the humanists—especially from Paul Elmer More—that political order cannot be a perfect whole, that it requires a compromise with nature and that nature itself is always deaf to our desires. We are not able to overcome—in natural conditions—the limitations or indolence of the “masses.” Although modern democracy—a system that emerged thanks to the achievements of modernity and consistent implementation of economic ideals—does not preclude aristocrats “by nature” from winning over crowds of their fellow citizens, expecting better government within societies brought up on humanitarian thinking strikes us as yet another fantasy. A party of supporters of humanism could hardly be created, and even if it was, its platform would not be, in media jargon, appealing to the average voter. Much has changed since the time of Disraeli, and even Churchill. So, what can we do—in this world? What can we bet on—really?


What does More think about all this? It seems that the answer he formulated concerning “man’s fear of man” should be regarded as an indispensable key to the political interpretation of humanism: “that fear we shall not eliminate by more scientific efficiency; we shall not eliminate it by any means, but we may possibly change its direction and its object.” Obviously, fear as such is not anything unusual, it is a part of human nature. We have good reason to be afraid. “Everywhere about us are unseen forces which, at a moment and without warning, may leap upon us out of the darkness.” It doesn’t matter if we imagine another person or a force or a bacterium in this role. The true lesson of pre-modern thought concerns something else: the separation of what is random and what is divine. “Man cannot imagine himself in a world of immoral chance or unmeaning change; if he reflects at all he is driven to translate the devious work of fate into a law of retributive justice.” In other words, the fear of what lurks around the corner disappears in the face of fear of the gods, and finally—of God. It is impossible to escape His judgments—intentional judgments. “The wrath of a celestial Judge we may have reasoned or laughed away, but it does not follow that we have argued ourselves out of the ancient dread; we have merely brought down fear from heaven to earth, giving to sociology what we have taken from religion.”[1]

If the key problem lies in the modern secularization of fear, then the only reasonable response would be to try to reverse this state of affairs. In a broader sense this entails a re-sacramentalization of life. Contrary to appearances, this position does not force one to seek a relationship with the Church (or any existing religious denomination), so it would be a misunderstanding to dismiss it as “political theology.” Instead, we should talk about a nemetic (from the word Nemesis) theory of politics. The most important part of this approach is its perception of the law, which “speaks to the heart of a man and holds him individually responsible for his acts.” This law does not differentiate people in terms of their effectiveness in achieving and maintaining material status; it does not allow for the depreciation of non-economic ideals, but it also does not seek to negate how most of society makes a living. As More states: “Even he who, to those absorbed in business, seems to have withdrawn into the contemplation of ideas as into a harbour of refuge, may have found a certain value in life itself which it were good for the world to understand. But at least, whether for the scholar or for the man of affairs, it looks as if, first of all, we needed somehow or other to get the fear of God back into society.”[2]

Just as it is not about one possible confession, it is not about a merely particular good. The attempt to “restore the fear of God in society” does not determine support for any particular form of political system, let alone a specific political party. We are not to create, say, a new version of the hierocracy or establish a party of vengeful priests. Nevertheless, the hint More gives reveals very practical consequences, if we read it as marking the level at which it is worthwhile and necessary to make assessments here and now in the field of politics (and in areas related to politics). That default measure by no means grants consent to preserve the remains of a pre-modern civilization, a reference to the old aristocratic ethos, or even an attitude towards the legacy of the churches. The measure of our judgment will be nothing but the ability to manage fear. Whoever has possessed the competence to do so must first have consciously attained the ability to control their own fears. What has previously served the realization of economic ideals will now be used to regain the horizon of the human spirit that extends beyond the plane of expansion and wealth acquisition and distribution. Otherwise, unfortunately, no spiritual “athletes” capable of taking over and managing a truly post-modern era will appear—and Bacon’s “machinery” will remain in the hands of the “cosmic loafers,” the children of Rousseau. Like More, Irving Babbitt—seeking an “equivalent for Grace” in Buddhist “psychology” rather than in Christian thought—had no illusions about the primacy of economics over politics. “A world of frenzied producers requires as its complement a world of frenzied consumers. The expert in advertising has been gravely praised of late for making two desires grow where only one grew before. The extirpation of desire in the Buddhist sense, or even the limitation of desire in the humanistic sense, would plainly be injurious to trade.”[3] More’s attempt at managing fear allows us to face both what in practice makes humanism a position that is politically hopeless and what constitutes a real bastion of the imagination of a man who grew up on a diet of the fruits of faith in humanity. Along with this unpleasant procedure—a descent into the cave of modernity—humanistic realism, in its understanding of human nature, becomes political realism in the most appropriate sense of the term.


Let’s complete the critique of modern thinking about politics outlined above with a few remarks. First, since non-economic ideals should be associated with religious and humanist experience, the key task must be to describe these experiences from a political point of view. The issue of religion itself requires a separate discussion. For now, it is enough to emphasize that a religion conceived—or reconstructed—in the spirit of humanism cannot serve to justify moral indifference and the abandonment of work on an individual’s character. The non-worldly ideal of contemplation should, in a significant sense, correspond to the ideals of this world: giving them a vertical dimension, refining them, limiting the hegemony of expansion. Unreserved asceticism, with mortification of the body and a refusal to participate in worldly affairs, undoubtedly acts on the imagination, but this action is quite ambivalent, because—in More’s view—it consists in an attempt to “attain the mystical release by violence rather than by the gradual discipline of philosophy and morality.”[4] This kind of religious experience could prove to be not only useless, but also harmful, even leading to a negation of all righteousness (how can I be bound by earthly laws when my heart is devoted to God and Him alone—hands off, gentlemen!). We should also note that the ideal of the “hard” ascetic can be understood as the economic ideal à rebours. The total negation of inherent expansiveness directed at material goods betrays the surrender to a feeling, no less expansive, to consume—hic et nunc—the desire to overcome one’s own nature. To put it simply, according to humanists, the key is not to deny everything material, but not to take it seriously; or better—to take all goods seriously as far as they matter to the soul; a soul which, however, cannot be thought of in isolation from the world.

When we look, in turn, at philosophers as natural representatives of vita contemplativa, putting up, so to speak, signposts of humanistic experience, a paradox of similar measure appears to our eyes. On the one hand, we can see there is a fundamental tension between philosophy and politics, on the other—the complete isolation of philosophers from political reality seems to be a sign of decadence. There are stories, some of them hilarious, about people immersed in philosophical discourse, who, wanting to give to the world even a bit of the wisdom they have gained, take to practical issues of, say, management, consider their actions as exemplary—and fail miserably.[5] Someone may say that such anecdotes describe intellectual clowns and buffoons rather than true philosophers. However, the unfortunate case of none other than Plato comes to the aid of the doubting. Contrary to many school “narratives,” he himself left a very skeptical opinion about serious involvement in politics. His famous “ideal state” (a polis ruled by a philosopher-king) is characterized by the fact that it is literally an ideal state and therefore does not and cannot really exist. In the real world, within particular political communities, people who love truth “have also come to understand the madness of the multitude sufficiently and have seen that there is nothing, if I may say so, sound or right in any present politics, and that there is no ally with whose aid the champion of justice could escape destruction, but that he would be as a man who has fallen among wild beasts, unwilling to share their misdeeds and unable to hold out singly against the savagery of all, and that he would thus, before he could in any way benefit his friends or the state come to an untimely end without doing any good to himself or others—for all these reasons I say the philosopher remains quiet, minds his own affairs, and, as it were, standing aside under shelter of a wall in a storm and blast of dust and sleet and seeing others filled full of lawlessness, is content if in any way he may keep himself free from iniquity and unholy deeds through this life and take his departure with fair hope, serene and well content when the end comes.”[6] The tension between the philosopher and the city is therefore the inevitable result of the clash between the universality of the good (that which is “sound or right”), which is the object of philosophical contemplation, and the particularity of opinions that set the horizon of political life. To put it simply, the philosopher has far more important matters on his mind than those his fellow citizens are concerned with—and it is better for him that these fellow citizens do not fully realize this. There is no such thing as too much realism.

It’s easy for interpretations to miss the mark here, though. Socrates could have refrained from making a political career, but he was involved in wars and feasts; he was not a hermit, he fulfilled his civic duties and—above all—he talked with the inhabitants of the city. The latter ultimately took his life, but his death was neither premature nor senseless. We can generalize Socrates’ testimony by stating that philosophy—like everything human—goes astray due to loneliness, i.e., when detached from the world of opinion. Is one not wise only in confrontation with stupidity? What is leaving the cave worth without experiencing that cave? It is certainly no great achievement for a philosopher to “hypnotize himself into empty dreams of his own wisdom.”[7] Perhaps the secret behind this dilemma lies precisely in the fact that it is unsolvable and philosophers simply like to think most about what concerns themselves?[8]

Secondly, let us take a look at the practical consequences of the implied advantage of philosophical life over political life. Not many thoughts affect our well-being as much as the one placing us into the narrow category of “the enlightened”—or at least those who have successfully entered onto the path of enlightenment, who look down on the ignorant masses. In this way, the generally recognized division into the less and more satisfied or, simply, the poor and the rich can be replaced by a less obvious but equally un-humanistic division into those who consider themselves philosophers and those who do not know that it is worth considering themselves philosophers. One of the most important attempts to revive the Socratic tradition in the twentieth century ends, as Stanley Rosen picturesquely described it, with the emergence of “infantry troops consisting of those who would believe themselves to be gods merely by their proximity to the revelation of an unrevealed and justifying doctrine.”[9] The intellectual sectarianism of the elites is horrendous for humanists, whose teaching, as we know, is “psychological,” not “sociological.” We can jokingly point out that the very structure of the word “sociology” contains a difficulty resulting from the creation of a dubious hybrid. This makes the effects of linking a classical apology of the vita contemplativa with modern intellectuals’ justification of their life aspirations or position all the more significant. And whatever we have established concerning the issue of “opinion management,” it does not mean that we want to impose some vision of the “philosophical” segregation of humanity. Humanity passionately segregates itself, without the participation of adepts of philosophy, and no “story” about withdrawn elites and frisky commoners should serve to hide this basic truth: that the most important divide runs not outside, but inside the soul. My soul.

Thirdly, there is no denying that our reflections also contribute to the assessment of our native (Polish) political thought. The humanistic critique of modernity makes us aware, above all, of the need to recognize the “first principles” or trajectories of the imagination, preceding discursive and non-discursive complexities in the mutual relations of states and societies. Before we dive into reflections on the history and current functioning of ideas, we should first think seriously about what we expect from the world. If More and Babbitt are right in the main points of their diagnosis, then, simply put, the problem is not that people are getting richer, but that they believe in wealth; not that they want to expand at the expense of others, but that their expansion seems to them arbitrary and unpunished, because their ideas about themselves do not reach beyond the plane of economic ideals. Why not cry, then, that it isn’t money that rules the world . . . but the imagination of people who, seeing one good or possibly a type of good, are unable to see anything beyond it? Imagination, stupid! If imagination is limited to the pursuit of wealth—which in our case usually means “catching up with the West” and buying into the grace of the local managerial elite—it’s difficult to talk about real political thought. Perhaps we are in need of a long series of discoveries, whose common denominator will be the conclusion that the direction we are heading in is our choice rather than the necessary result of some beneficial (mega-)processes; processes that would encompass us more or less in the sense that the vast Milky Way galaxy encompasses the peripheral reference system called the Solar System. Among desirable discoveries there will be ones that we can simply owe to reading the humanists. At the very least the fact that the plane of economic ideals is an experimental plane based on certain assumptions and predictions, justified or not. We must learn to see and comprehend the gap between the world shaped by classical and—especially—Christian thought and the world we know today; and having understood, we must overcome this gap, overcome its effects. How nobly naive our tendency to treat the West—the West of our dreams—as a continuum seems: from Socrates and Christ through subsequent eras to a united Europe without borders. No. Recognizing the benefits of the present situation, we must never forget that this is a trade-off. Societies richer than ours, or considered more structured, are not at all better in this respect. To the contrary.

Fourth and finally, the title of this essay (Non-economic Ideals) is very problematic. The term “ideal” used in reference to religious salvation or philosophical happiness or justice is formally correct. However, at a deeper level, More’s remark against those who would like to live “as if” Christianity was real is thought-provoking. Their “attempt has taken the form of an Hegelian substitution of ideals for Ideas, of what we should like to be true for what we believe actually to be true.”[10] It is impossible to escape from reflection on how far we have departed from the natural—unmediated by modern thought—experience of reality, from being simultaneously open to being as a whole and responsible for ourselves; to living fully and seriously. Meanwhile, apart from everything else, we’re used to being patronized. And this carries with it far-reaching cognitive consequences. Our “realisms” are narrow and imperfect. After all, true political realism must correspond to a true understanding of human nature. Otherwise, chimerical views, futile intellectual games, and performances calculated to gain the applause of a wide audience are born. The most important findings do not result from the presentation of technical or expert knowledge, but from human efforts to judge the here-and-now from the perspective of what is eternal. Reaching this level—to the extent that we are able—we find that economic ideals, which are ideals of expansion, are solely particular in nature. For this reason, all faith deposited in institutions created to get rich and gain an advantage over others turns out to be deceptive faith. There is no salvation on the side of expansion, because salvation is not on the side of natural necessity. That kind of offer comes from Someone completely different. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Non-economic ideals—keeping with this term, since it is useful to us for the time being—are universal. Not confusing these two areas is a necessary condition of good politics.

Translated from Polish by Lisa Fretschel.

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[1] Paul Elmer More, “Economic Ideals,” in Shelburne Essays Eleventh Series: A New England Group and Others, ed. Paul Elmer More (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921), pp. 252-254.

[2] Ibid., pp. 255-256. Cf. idem., “Church and Politics,” in On Being Human (New Shelburne Essays III), ed. Paul Elmer More (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1936), pp. 156-158; idem., “Oxford, Women, and God,” especially pp. 284-285, 287.

[3] Irving Babbitt, “Buddha and the Occident” (Part II), The American Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 1936, pp. 84–85.

[4] P.E. More, “Definitions of Dualism,” in idem., Shelburne Essays Eighth Series: The Drift of Romanticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), p. 293.

[5] Cf. idem, “Emerson,” in idem., A New England . . . , pp. 90–93.

[6] Plato, Republic, 496 C.E., p. 200. Cf. P.E. More, Platonism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1917), p. 286 ff.

[7] P.E. More, “The Paradox of Oxford” [in:] idem, Shelburne Essays Ninth Series: Aristocracy and Justice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1915), p. 76.

[8] Cf. A.H. Dakin, Paul Elmer More (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 169.

[9] Stanley Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 125.

[10] P.E. More, Christ of the New Testament (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1924), p. 294.

The featured image is “Three Philosophers” by Giorgione (1478-1510), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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