“I do not hesitate to affirm,” writes Irving Babbitt in Democracy and Leadership, “that what is specifically human in man and ultimately divine is a certain quality of will, a will that is felt in its relation to his ordinary self as a will to refrain.” By taking stances contrary to main-stream thinking, this great American scholar influenced some impressive followers and also met with opposition. Even today as he attracts new adherents to what he called the New Humanism, the controversy surrounding him has not abated.
Irving Babbitt was bron in Ohio, the son of a physician. After the early death of his mother, he was raised by relatives in a number of places. His graduation from Harvard with honors in classics, in 1889, was followed by study abroad and a teaching post at Williams College. From 1894 to 1933, he taught French and comparative literature at Harvard, even though, on principle, he never pursued a doctoral degree.
Babbitt was by all accounts an extraordinary teacher. Beyond Harvard, he gained fame as a literary critic and as the author of lasting studies. Indeed, “His thinking defies academic thinking defies academic boundaries,” Claes G. Run tells us.
“He is far more than a literary and cultural critic.. His particular subjects became the occasion for developing a comprehensive view of life. His thought is marked by cosmopolitan breadth and vast literary, historical, and philosophical learning.”
Babbitt’s philosophy of modern civilization is propounded in Democracy and Leadership, in which he relates his thinking to issues of politics. He rejects the naturalism preached by such men as Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as the rationalism that flourished in the eighteenth century and that posited the triumph of reason over prejudice. To Babbitt, “In the light of history (one need not go any further back than the Great War) man’s reticence to be governed by reason in any ordinary sense of the world seems a bad jest.” He allies himself with Edmund Burke, stating:
“Among those who took up the defense of the traditional order against Rousseau, Burke is easily first, because he too perceived in his own way the truth that cold reason has never done anything illustrious. He saw that the only conservatism that counts is an imaginative conservatism. One may, therefore, without being fanciful, regard the battle that has been in progress in the field of political thought since the end of the eighteenth century as being in tis most significant phase a battle between the spirit of Burke and that of Rousseau.
That battle raged in Babbitt’s day, with such luminaries as his friend Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, and Walter Lippmann – and later Russell First and Nathan Pusey – being influenced by him. With More, Babbitt led the movement known as the New Humanism, which encourages adherence to a universal code of values, not one defined by cultural and temporary norms, and cultivation of all parts of human nature. Babbitt, More, and their followers saw liberty as stemming from restrain on the part of individuals.
Today, in a climate of rampant license often portrayed as freedom, interest in Babbitt’s thought is apparent in the number of books and websites devoted to him and in a project of the National Humanities Institute. There is also new urgency to the question he raises in Democracy and Leadership concerning how we may discover leaders of integrity who value the lasting standards of civilization.
Those who read this classic are rewarded with new insights into the meaning of liberty.