Historicist humanism has been largely ignored in the American intellectual consciousness. But for those individuals who realize the depth of our national crisis, who sense the emptiness of mainstream culture, and who lament that society is fracturing for lack of common identity and purpose, historicist humanism has much to offer.
The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age (320 pages, SUNY Press, 2020)
Recent events show a nation in crisis. The George Floyd riots highlight divisions so deep that the opposing factions appear to be experiencing separate realities. There is no longer any sort of unifying national culture. Our social contract—the U.S. Constitution—seems increasing irrelevant, given federal overreach, the steady erosion of our guaranteed rights, legislation by judicial review, the failure to enforce laws, and the watering down of our voting rights. At times, it appears as if we are witnessing a manifestation of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
Given this societal free-fall, it is a time to question the prevailing philosophical winds. Revitalization is needed. One long-ignored perspective that seems tailor-made for rejuvenation is the “New Humanism” propounded by early 20th century scholar Irving Babbitt and kept alive in recent decades by Catholic University political science professor Claes Ryn, among others. This brand of humanism is explained and discussed in light of today’s developments in a new volume of essays titled The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age, edited by Roanoke College political scientist Justin Garrison and Virginia Military Institute international studies and political science professor Ryan Holston. The essayists include some of the leading current proponents of Babbitt’s brand of humanism—plus Babbitt himself: the first chapter is a reprinted version of Babbitt’s essay, “What I Believe.” Although all of the contributors are academics, the book seems less like a collection of academic essays and more like a manifesto; there is something exciting and revolutionary about its historicist approach to morality and politics.
This is not to suggest that this humanism is going to rapidly sweep through the nation and unite us into one nation. It is likely to be appreciated only through considerable intellectual effort; even highly intelligent people not versed in the great ideas of Western civilization may not grasp it on the first go-around. It lacks the simplistic, universal appeals of other perspectives, such as collectivism (“everybody should be equal”) or libertarianism (“everybody should be free to do what they want as long as nobody else is hurt).
Nor does historicist humanism have other perspectives’ natural—and powerful—allies. Neoconservatism, for instance, inherently attracts global business interests and the military industrial complex, social conservatism grew out of traditional religious constituencies, and modern big government liberalism has intrinsic appeal for power-hungry politicians, bureaucrats, crony capitalists, and supporters of positive rights for those in need of a social net.
Not so historicist humanism; today’s corporate, political, and academic establishments are likely to view it as a threat. And, while, as Dr. Holston suggests, it is “compatible” with Christianity,” it can be misinterpreted by Christians as a competitive secular alternative. Additionally, social net advocates are likely to recoil at humanism’s focus on building character instead of building enabling institutions.
Without powerful backers and easy broad-based appeal, Babbitt’s humanism disappeared from the mainstream after his death. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, its influence was subtle, despite support from conservative scholar Russell Kirk.
But for those individuals who realize the depth of our national crisis, who sense the emptiness of mainstream culture, and who lament that society is fracturing for lack of common identity and purpose, historicist humanism has much to offer. In America today, that’s a whole lot of people. One senses, on the Internet, in the student population, and in the more thoughtful sectors of the MAGA movement, a yearning for just the type of renewal historicist humanism promotes.
So what is the “humanism” espoused in The Historical Mind?
Humanism in the broad, generic sense defies narrow definition; it can be used to describe everything from the ideas of medieval Catholic thinkers to some types of modern collectivism. Editors Garrison and Holston write that the unifying principle among all the various strains of humanism is a “belief that conceptualization of human experience illuminates the nature of human beings and the structure of reality.” And that the “theoretical insights” derived from such conceptualization “ought to shape the ways in which people conduct their lives as individuals and members of society.”
What is distinctive about this strain of “humanism,” though, is that it is historicist: as the march of history reveals new insights, it may be necessary to adjust beliefs in accordance with the wisdom gained from millennia of human experience. Babbitt’s and Ryn’s historicist version of humanism is not a political theory or theology. Nor is it an axiomatic system that can be derived from a single principle, such as John Locke’s property rights or Rene Descartes’s conscience. And it is not a set of utilitarian or pragmatic rules.
It is instead, a quest for the good life and the good society. It is empirical and inductive, focusing on the particulars of human existence to develop broader principles. It incorporates ideas from many different strains of Western—and Eastern—thought, with roots ranging from the Aristotelian “Golden Mean,” Christian emphasis on the duality of man’s nature, the historicism and reverence for tradition of Edmund Burke, and the particularity of Eastern religions.
Perhaps historicist humanism’s signature feature is the way it carves out a middle path between rigid universalism and feckless relativity. Drs. Garrison and Holston explain how the historicist capacity for change is intertwined with a belief in objective truth: “the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic standards internal to human life . . . reveal themselves in all their objectivity in historical experience through the ages.”
The historicist perspective allows that, just as with relativity, knowledge may be in error. However, because it so relies on concrete particulars, it does not quite leave mankind “at the infinite of the horizon,” as Nietzche described his era’s rejection of religious universality for the uncertainties of relativity (“We have forsaken the land and gone to sea! We have destroyed the bridge behind us”). The historicist humanist is not likely to spin off into conjectural theorizing the way true relativists often do; instead, he or she is likely to focus on more grounded sources such as tradition or empirical evidence.
“Ryn’s historicism is not relativist; he does not deny truth but argues that we only know it as it manifests itself historically,” writes one of the contributors, Steven McGuire, a political theory professor at Villanova University. “The moral and spiritual imperative of existence takes precedence over abstract intellectual activity,” Dr. McGuire explains. “We experience and attempt to live in accordance with transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty as they manifest themselves through our immanent, particular, concrete existence.”
Contributor Robert Koons, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, notes Burke’s nuanced epistemology:
Burke’s rejection of abstraction is highly qualified: “I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question, because I know well that under that name I should dismiss principles, and that without principles, all reasonings in politics, as in everything else, would only be a confused jumble of facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.”
Indeed, historicist humanism has a deep regard for proper universals. According to Drs. Garrison and Holston, the central quest is “for the Oneness that unites all of human existence—the abiding and eternal that brings coherence and deep satisfaction to a life well-lived.”
Still, historicist humanism does not suffer the hubris of the rigid universalist. Though humanists seek principles to live by, they allow for adjustments according to new information and experience. Dr. Koons again cites Burke, who wrote that “The rights of men are . . . incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.’ ” Definition is fixed; discernment allows for adjustment as new evidence and understanding appears.
Discernment, though, is an art, not a science. For Babbitt, the key was education. “If the humanistic goal is to be attained, if the adult is to like and dislike the things he should . . . he must be trained in the appropriate habits almost from infancy.”
Of course, when one takes note of deficiencies in the dominant beliefs of the age and promotes a new theory, he or she should not expect a warm greeting from proponents of those more established perspectives. Drs. Garrison and Holston acknowledge humanism’s potential threats to established orders:
The idea that universality and particularity exist in a relationship of fruitful tension will likely be met with misgivings. Historical relativists might be pleased to see attention called to the diversity of historical experiences, but they will likely bristle under the notion that the past can be more than one thing after another.
Abstract rationalists might applaud this embrace of universality, but they will probably become apprehensive when it is not to celebrations of “universal values” raised above or somehow separate from the dangerous flow of history.
Historicist humanism is in many ways a response to what Scottish philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre termed “The Enlightenment Project.” “This project is an effort to discover rational foundations of objective morality,” writes William Byrne, a St. Johns University political scientist. Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the use of reason over tradition and religion. Before then, the departure of one’s viewpoint from customary beliefs signaled caution. But the relationship between reason and tradition became reversed. Man’s ability to reason logically was deemed the only rational method, and the idea that tradition “reflected at least some wisdom,” that was “long held intuitively by most people” was dismissed by many leading Enlightenment thinkers, writes Dr. Byrne.
To historicist humanists, the dismissal of tradition was a grave error. They seek to elevate it to, if not its former importance, then to a significant role in the reasoning process, while also acknowledging the value of Enlightenment ideas.
The Enlightenment Project’s assault on tradition was two-pronged: Enlightenment thinkers attacked it through both the utopian sentimentality of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the scientific positivism initiated by Roger Bacon. “Both currents assume a coming of a new superior world,” writes Dr. Byrne, and they shared a rejection “of the old stress on moral character as the key to a satisfying life.”
For historicist humanists, moral character is paramount for a good life and good society. Especially important is a belief in man’s dual nature, or as Hillsdale College history professor Bradley Birzer described it, “human beings are distinct creatures, neither purely spirit as the angels nor purely material as the animals”; we share in both the spiritual (the high) and the material (the low).”
Rousseau, whom Babbitt regarded as “the “most influential writer of the past 200 years,” rejected that duality. Instead, he claimed that “man is naturally good and that it is by our institutions alone that man becomes wicked.” Rousseau’s faith in man’s inherent goodness has caused untold mischief, as, under its spell, the struggle within man to conquer his base instincts and desires becomes a campaign for society to remake itself, leading to violent revolutions, failed social experiments, and totalitarian regimes.
The effect has been just as deleterious to individuals as it has been to nations. Since, for Rousseauian utopians, human beings “are naturally good, but traditional societies pervert and imprison their true nature,” writes Dr. Ryn, ”the way to a better life is to liberate man’s natural goodness from inner and outer restraint.” The result of this liberation is often immorality; the crux of historicist humanism’s campaign for renewal is to counter the impulses of our lower selves without resorting to religious dogma or absolute rules. “The humanist exercises the will to refrain,” wrote Babbitt. “The humanistic virtues,” such as “moderation, common sense, and common decency” go against the grain of the natural man . . . one is forced to conclude from a cool survey of the facts of history.” Dr. Byrne added that “for Burke the primary goal of the sound political order is fostering restraint and discouraging the “caprice” that leads both to disorder and to tyranny.”
Also important is historic humanism’s relation to Christianity. Dr. Holston writes that Babbitt himself did not believe in revelation; he saw “genuine religiosity as grounded in concrete spiritual effort” rather than in “professions of commitment to dogma.” This was, according to Dr. Holston, something “expressed in early Buddhism,” a religion Babbitt extensively mined for insight. Indeed, Babbitt’s student T.S. Elliot roundly criticized his former mentor’s religious beliefs—or lack of them. Elliot even suggested that Babbitt was “trying to supplant the religious foundations of Western Civilization with a secular alternative.”
According to Dr. Holston, rather than being anti-Christian, in many ways Babbitt “actively” recognized “the universal truths contained within the Christian message.” His intent was not to replace Christianity, but to bolster and restore it, by “urging it into a more ‘experiential’ direction” that would enable it to fend off “modern utilitarian-sentimental” distortions and return to “the essential spirit of the faith.” Dr. Holston proposes that the relationship between Babbitt’s historicist humanism and Christianity “should be understood as comparable to that of Aristotle.” That is, the two belief systems are allied with each other though separate, for much of Aristotle’s ethical thought served as a basis for Christianity. In the same manner, Babbitt’s ethics “may be seen to anticipate and inform the contemporary philosophical approach known as virtue ethics,” an approach developed by important modern Christian thinkers such as G.E.M. Anscombe and Alasdaire MacIntyre.
While largely focused on the individual, historicist humanism has much to say about society and government. Contributors ardently affirm the Aristotelian notion that “there is an obvious correspondence between the character of the souls of a people and the regimes that they comprise,” and that “the good regime ultimately requires good citizens.”
That was especially true of the United States at its founding. Northern Ohio University law professor Bruce Frohnen writes that “Constitutionalism is not merely a political structure; it is a way of life, rooted in a particular conception of human nature, virtue, and the good life.” He cites an example from Dr. Ryn: “the American tradition was one of self-reliance and local action adhering to the Golden Rule. The American Framers ‘assume the preponderance of a particular type of moral responsibility with deep roots in classical and Christian civilization.’ ”
The current state of that assumption is worrisome. “Our Constitution is, among other things, an effort to preserve engendering experiences of order,” writes Middle Tennessee State University political scientist Michael Federici. The document was designed by and for a population whose character had “developed over the course of thousands of years,” and “who shared a cultural heritage that reached back to the ancient world of Greece and Rome.” At the nation’s founding, that character was very much in accord with historicist humanism; the Constitution’s emphasis on limiting power was an acknowledgment of man’s dual nature and the need to keep in check the darker impulses that arise in that nature. And while based on the universal principles of the Enlightenment, it included means for change.
Yet, that national character is no more, or at least not as prevalent as it was in the early years of the nation. According to Dr. Federici, we have failed to meet two challenges faced by a society to preserve its experiential nature noted by German-American theorist Eric Voegelin. One is that “human beings have imperfect memory and, as time passes, memory tends to fade.” The other is that new ideas are introduced over time that can undermine and tear down the traditional order. As the culture gradually became removed from its “historical sources of order,” the “traditional American understanding of Constitutionalism became “one among several competing ideologies. Chief among these is Progressivism, an ideology fundamentally at odds with traditional American constitutionalism.”
Dr. Frohnen, however, suggests that the breach between culture and constitution is not insurmountable. Rather, “it embodies a tension inherent in our nature as social beings living in a large, complex society.” He adds, however, that the gaps between law and custom, on the one hand, and government and society, on the other, must be kept as narrow as possible.”
Keeping that gap narrow may not be easy to do; in our polarized, multicultural society, exactly what are our customs? Defining—or discerning—them for the current era and recent past appears to be an impossible task: one faction or another will feel aggrieved no matter what.
The Historical Mind is an extremely ambitious book, attempting to elevate historicist humanism to a place of prominence in the American intellectual consciousness when it has, for decades, been largely ignored. It also seeks to restore the nation to a more proper course than the one it is on. Drs. Garrison and Holston write, “these scholars are concerned with the building up, or, to be more precise, the rebuilding of Western civilization.”
Certainly, many other conservatives also wish to restore the nation. And yet, despite their political successes, we seem to be moving further away from a well-ordered Western society towards chaos. Major perspectives on both left and right are failing to produce the quality of either citizens or institutions necessary to keep our balanced constitutional republic. It is clear that “renewal” should be a major part of today’s zeitgeist.
And renewal is what The Historical Mind is all about. One of great strengths of the essays in the book is that, while the contributors champion tradition, they also express “a historical consciousness” that is highly flexible. The approach draws from a wide array of influences and welcomes inquisitive minds from a multitude of religions and perspectives. The goal is to find “an important mean or virtue” that is “our continual openness and sensitivity to what it is that the past has to say,” write Drs. Garrison and Holston. They suggest the essays “should be understood first and foremost as ways forward, not solutions, since it is true of the cultural, moral and political alike that fixed models cannot meet the needs of changing circumstances.”
Dr. Garrison suggests that humanism itself is optimistic. He cites Babbitt: “ ‘Human nature, and this is its most encouraging trait, is sensitive to a right example.’ ” And right examples are found in history, not in abstraction.
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 Garrison, Justin D. and Holston, Ryan R., eds. The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2020, 145.
 Ibid., xvi.
 Ibid., xix.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 2008, 102.
 Garrison and Holston, 92.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., xviii-xix.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., xviii.
 Ibid., xix.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 116.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 117-8.
 Ibid., 147.
 Ibid., 145.
 Ibid., 147.
 Ibid., 150.
 Ibid., 146.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 191.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 190.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 191.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 273.
 Ibid., 275.
 Ibid., 83.
The featured image is “Self-Portrait (In the New Studio)” (1912) by Carl Larsson (1853-1919) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.