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Seaton – Irving Babbitt and Cultural Renewal

James Seaton, Michigan State University
Irving Babbitt and Cultural Renewal
The Philadelphia Society, April 13,
2002


It is tempting to think of Irving Babbitt as a voice crying in the
wilderness, a lonely prophet attempting the impossible task of reversing the
course of history. Such a view of
Babbitt has the bonus of imputing a special virtue to those few, like
ourselves, who are able to appreciate his real importance. Indeed, to think of
Babbitt in this way is not entirely wrong‑‑he did take unpopular
stands, and he did oppose what he saw as the dominant trends of modern
thought, Baconian naturalism and Rousseauian romanticism. Attractive though
such a view might be, however, it should be rejected. Babbitt himself was
uninterested in the consolations of defeat. The romance of the Lost Cause was
not for him.
Though he was unsparing in his criticism of the laxities of American
culture, Irving Babbitt was unwilling to concede that contemporaries like John
Dewey were somehow more "American" than he. When American
“progressives” looked to Jefferson for inspiration, Babbitt turned to
George Washington.1
When American cultural radicals took Emerson as their hero, Babbitt claimed
the Emerson who knew that the "law for man" was not identical with
the "law for thing."2
Shrewdly criticizing Whitmanís “democratic vistas” not for their
affirmation of democracy but for the rationale they provide for American
imperialism, Babbitt argued that his own politics were in the unionist
tradition of Whitman’s hero Abraham Lincoln.3

Just as he refused to surrender American politics to his adversaries,
Babbitt refused to be categorized as a philosophical traditionalist or
reactionary. Instead, he insisted that it was he who was the true modernist;
he argued that "the whole modern experiment is threatened with

breakdown simply because it has not been sufficiently modern."4
Babbitt identified himself wholeheartedly with "the modern spirit . . .the
positive and critical spirit, the spirit that refuses to take things on
authority" (RR, lxxi). Babbitt rejected the appeal to any authority beyond
the individual, arguing that “[t]he establishment of a sound type of
individualism is indeed the specifically modern problem” (RR, lxxii).
Thus Babbitt’s criticism of romanticism does not rely on any prior
acceptance of classical literary standards or even traditional morality but
rather on the failure of the movement to live up to its own promises. Babbitt
points out that "The Rousseauist seeks happiness and yet on his own
showing, his mode of seeking it results, not in happiness but in wretchedness .
. . a movement which began by asserting the goodness of man and the loveliness
of nature ended by producing the greatest literature of despair the world has
ever seen." (RR, 307).

To assess the significance of Babbitt’s intellectual legacy, it is more
fruitful to consider the ways in which Babbitt’s New Humanism provides a context
that allows us to organize into a
coherent perspective otherwise scattered insights than to present him as a
lonely genius. The power of Babbitt’s thought can be gauged from its ability to
integrate ideas from a polemical adversary like George Santayana, from a
champion of political liberalism like Lionel Trilling, and from a contemporary
novelist championed by Richard Rorty, Milan Kundera.

Babbitt certainly never lacked for polemical adversaries. In 1930 an
anthology of attacks on the New Humanism appeared. According to C. Hartley
Grattan, the editor of the anthology, Babbitt and the other Humanists were such
obscurantists that they rejected “all scientific progress since Newton as
largely false.”5
Malcolm Cowley posed what he considered an unanswerable question to Babbitt and
his colleagues: What validity did the New Humanism have “for the millhands of
New Bedford and Gastonia, for the beet-toppers of Colorado, for the men who
tighten a single screw in the automobiles that march along Mr. Fordís assembly
belt?”6
Another of the contributors, Henry Hazlitt, characterized the New Humanism as
“little more than a rationalization of neophobia and a piece of special
pleading for the genteel tradition..”7

The notion of a “genteel tradition,” had, of course, originated with
George Santayana. Observing that the “chief fountains of this tradition were
Calvinism and transcendentalism,”8
Santayana had argued that the attempt to fuse two such radically opposed points
of view could lead only to intellectual confusion. Since Babbitt was neither a
Calvinist nor a transcendentalist, one might have expected that a philosopher
would have protested against the misuse of his concept. Instead, Santayana
responded in 1931 by writing his own condemnation of Babbittís New Humanism
under the title “The Genteel Tradition at Bay.”9
From a very different point of view than Malcolm Cowley, Santayana posed a
series of what were meant to be similarly unanswerable questions:
Why not frankly rejoice in the benefits, so new and extraordinary, which our
state of society affords? . . . at least (besides football) havenít we
Einstein and Freud, Proust and Paul Valéry, Lenin and Mussolini? (GTB, 163)

Why
should anyone be dissatisfied? Is it not enough that millionaires splendidly
endow libraries and museums, that the democracy loves them, and that even the
Bolsheviks prize the relics of Christian civilization . . .? (GTB,166)

and
perhaps most crushing of all:

. . . I can find little in their recommendations except a cautious
allegiance to the genteel tradition. But can the way of Matthew Arnold and of
Professor Norton be the way of life for all men for ever? (GTB,193)

Anyone who was introduced to Santayana and Babbitt by “The Genteel
Tradition at Bay” could be excused for assuming that the two must have
disagreed about everything. And yet Babbittís critique of literary romanticism
is confirmed by Santayanaís own analysis of German philosophical romanticism.
Santayanaís characterization of romantic attitudes parallels Babbittís own:

In
various directions at once we see to-day an intense hatred and disbelief
gathering head against the very notion of a cosmos to be discovered, or a stable
human nature to be respected. Nature, we are told, is an artificial symbol
employed by life; truth is a temporary convention; art is an expression of
personality; war is better than peace, effort than achievement, and feeling than
intelligence; change is deeper than form; will is above morality.10

What
bothered Santayana was that Babbitt attempted to convince others that art is
more than an “expression of personality,” that feeling is no substitute for
intelligence, that impulse should be restrained by morality. In his later
philosophy Santayana emphasized the importance of “spirit,” by which he
meant the attempt to view “things as they are, disinterestedly,
contemplatively . . . to take the point of view of God, of the truth, and of
eternity” (GTB, 190). According to Santayana, “when ultimately the spirit
comes face to face with the truth, convention and absurdity are out of place; so
is humanism and so is the genteel tradition; so is morality itself (GTB, 195).

Whether or not Santayana is right about this, for most of our lives we
are not engaged in solitary contemplation,
“face to face with the truth,” but acting as members of families,
societies and states. If one chooses to take an active part in oneís society
and culture, then “morality itself” is no longer “out of place.” It
would be most unfortunate if the polemics of “The Genteel Tradition at Bay”
led to the conclusion that one must choose between Santayana and Babbitt. It
would be more accurate to say that Babbittís New Humanism provides an example
of what is possible when Santayanaís real insights are made the basis for
intellectual and cultural renewal.

Lionel Trilling famously began The Liberal Imagination with the
assertion that “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the
dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”11
Trilling never discussed Babbitt, Paul Elmer More or the New Humanism in any of
his essays. Even in his long book on Matthew Arnold, originally a doctoral
dissertation, Trilling failed to consider Babbittís view of Arnold in any
substantive way. He did note, however, that F. O. Matthiessen, if not Trilling
himself, considered Babbitt one of”the continuators of the Arnold
tradition.”12

Now it is true that Babbitt is indeed one of the “continuators of the
Arnold tradition,” though his admiration for Arnold was by no means
uncritical. Babbitt was explicit about his indebtedness. One may be a
“continuator” of a tradition, however, without declaring that allegiance.
Trilling himself may be seen as a “continuator” of the “Babbitt
tradition,” even though his references to Babbitt are either neutral or
hostile.

In the February 2002 issue of Commentary Gertrude Himmelfarb
justifiably takes Richard Posner to task for, among other things, portraying
Lionel Trilling as a critic torn between “the moralist and aesthetic camps,”
when Trilling might be more accurately described as “the prototype of the
moral critic.” She is quite possibly right to assert that Trilling
“exercised” the “moral imagination” ” more effectively and
imaginatively than any other literary critic,” and it is at arguable that she
is right in going on to say that he did so more ” than any other public
intellectual of the time.” Miss Himmelfarb is wrong,
however, in asserting that “It is he [Trilling] who coined the term
ëmoral imaginationí . . . “13
The phrase, of course, is Edmund Burkeís, and it occurs in one of the
most famous passages of his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Lamenting the ill treatment of Marie Antoinette, Burke comments that “the age
of chivalry” has been replaced by a time “of sophisters, economists, and
calculators.” Now, Burke fears,

All
the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas,
furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns,
and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked
shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be
exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. [italics added]14

Trilling might have run across the phrase either in Burkeís Reflections
itself or, more likely perhaps, in Irving Babbittís Democracy and
Leadership
, whose third chapter is entitled “Burke and the Moral
Imagination.” Not merely the phrase but the concept is central to Babbittís
thought. He believed that “the only effective conservatism is an imaginative
conservatism” (DL, 138) because he recognized “the supreme role of the
imagination” ( DL, 127) in human
affairs. The second chapter of Democracy
and Leadership
is entitled “Rousseau and the Idyllic Imagination”; as
the contrasting titles of the second and third chapters of Babbittís book on
politics suggest, Babbitt saw the culture wars of his own day as not so much a
battle of ideas as a struggle between opposing imaginative visions. That was why
Babbitt spent more time analyzing romantic poetry than discussing romantic
philosophers; it was the poets who could touch menís souls.

Near the end of Rousseau and Romanticism Babbitt comes “back to
the problem of the ethical imagination” and argues that this “[t]his problem
is indeed in a peculiar sense the problem of civilization itself.” Having
identified himself with “the critical spirit” of modernity, Babbitt notes
“a civilization that rests of dogma and outer authority cannot afford to face
the whole truth about the imagination and its rÛle” but adds immediately that
“[a] civilization in which dogma and outer authority have been undermined by
the critical spirit, not only can but must do this very thing if it is to
continue at all.”The problem is so important because Babbitt believes that
“the truths on which civilization depends” cannot finally be conveyed
through abstract reason “but only through imaginative symbols” (RR, 368-9).
When Lionel Trilling argues that “we stand in need of the moral realism which
is the product of the free play of the moral imagination” and goes on to claim
that “[f]or our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has
been the novel of the last two hundred years” he is, whether he knew it or
not, a continuator of the tradition of Irving Babbitt.15

Richard Rorty attempts to enlist the novelists Milan Kundera and Charles
Dickens in the postmodernist cause in an essay entitled “Heidegger, Kundera
and Dickens.”16
Charles Dickens wrote too many books that have been
read by too many people for too long to allow his reputation
to be highjacked very easily. When, however,
Rorty asserts that Milan Kunderaís novels teach that “It is comical
to think . . . that there is something called Truth which transcends pleasure
and pain” (HKD, 74), many might
assume that Rorty knows what heís talking about. According to Rorty,
Kunderaís fiction reveals “the essential relativity of human affairs” (HKD,
77), which for Rorty means that nobody is any more right than anybody else about
anything. It is certainly easy to see why Rorty wants to interpret Kundera this
way; it allows him to borrow the prestige of one of the most acclaimed and
innovative of contemporary novelists for his own ideas. The trouble is,
Kunderaís novels, innovative in style though they certainly are, are closer in
spirit to Irving Babbitt than to Richard Rorty. For example, Kunderaís novel
Life is Elsewhere
offers striking evidence for the contemporary relevance
of, among other things, Babbittís critique of romanticism.17

Far from rejecting the existence “of something called Truth,” Kundera
attempts in Life is Elsewhere to “bear witness” to the reality of
what happened when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. The narrator insists
that the complicity of literary romanticism with political brutality must not be
forgotten:

What
actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era
of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalized murder. But we
who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an
era of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (LE, 270)

Kundera
is writing from personal experience, since as a young man he himself was swept
away by the romance of revolution and, like his protagonist Jaromil, welcomed
the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Throughout the novel Jaromilís zeal
is fired not by economic or political theories but because his identification
with the revolution allows him to strike romantic poses. It is when his mother
embarrasses him by combing his “carefully mussed-up hair” in front of her
friends that he swears “eternal allegiance to radical transformation of the
world” (LE, 114). When Jaromil turns in his girlfriend to the secret police,
he is able to justify and even take pride in what he has done
because it makes possible “a great poem”:

He
did not expose his girl to danger because love meant little to himñquite to
the contrary, he wanted to effect a world in which people would love each other
more than ever. Yes, thatís how it was. Jaromil had risked the safety of his
own beloved precisely because he loved her more than other men love their women:
precisely because he knew what love and the bright new world of pure feeling
were all about. Of course, it is terrible to sacrifice a concrete living woman
(red-headed, petite, talkative, freckle-faced) for the sake of the future world.
Such a sacrifice, the only genuine tragedy of our time, was worthy of a great
poem.

He sat down at his desk and wrote and paced the room and it seemed to him
that the poem he was creating was the greatest he had ever composed. (LE, 265)

The narrator suggests that the protagonistís linkage of romantic poetry
and Communist revolution is not peculiar to him but illustrates a larger
connection. After all, “[t]hrough poetry, man realizes his agreement with
existence, and rhyme and rhythm are the crudest means of gaining consent.” If
one asks “Can a revolution dispense with repeated affirmation of the new
order? Can a revolution dispense with rhyme?” the answer is obvious.
Certainly, “[r]evolutions have no wish to be examined or analyzed, they only
yearn to merge with the masses. For that reason, revolutions are lyrical and in
need of lyricism” (LE, 193). The narrator has an historical perspective that
young Jaromil, who succeeds in dying young, will never possess.

Communism today persists as official state doctrine only in Cuba, North
Korea and China. Romanticism, however, will survive. Babbitt believed that most
people “always have been, are and probably always will be romantic” (RR, 5).
Nothing, one might suppose, could be less interesting or more irrelevant to
contemporary events than the criticism of somebody fighting the old literary
battle between romanticism and classicism. Yet as long as romanticism survives,
the work of Irving Babbitt will retain its central importance. And when the
young allow themselves to become intoxicated and exalted by the thought that
they will soon die and in dying kill others, they may be accurately described as
romantics, whatever name they or their leaders may use—Muslims, Marxists,
nationalists, revolutionaries, or whatever.

Emil Bergson in Willa Catherís O Pioneers! exemplifies the
romantic attitude toward death at its most attractive:

He
was at that height of excitement from which everything is foreshortened, from
which life seems short and simple, death very near, and the soul seems to soar
like an eagle. As he rode past the graveyard he looked at the brown hole
[of a new grave] in the earth . . . and felt no horror. That, too, was
beautiful, that simple doorway into forgetfulness. The heart, when it is too
much alive, aches for that brown earth, and ecstasy has no fear of death. It is
the old and the poor and the maimed who shrink from that brown hole; its wooers
are the young, the passionate, and the gallant-hearted.18

That
suicidal killers may be among “the young, the passionate, and the
gallant-hearted” might be thought not to excuse their crimes but, if it has
any moral relevance at all, to provide further grounds for condemning those who
exploit youthful generosity in the service of murderous ideologies. Yet when the
custodians of our cultural heritage fail to pass on the traditional wisdom
available through humanistic studies, intensity of commitment may seem to trump
all other values, and an incapacity or unwillingness to be restrained from
murder by an “inner check” may seem the stuff of heroism.

Irving Babbitt remains important not only because his thought offers an
intellectual framework that furthers our understanding of contemporary masters
like Milan Kundera and humane thinkers of the last century like Lionel Trilling
or George Santayana but, even more significantly, because his life lets us know
that it is possible to confront romanticism in politics and society as well as
in literature without falling into an extremism that mimics what it opposes. At
a time like the present Irving Babbitt is important not only as an analyst of
the illusions of romanticism but also as a champion of the unromantic virtues,
the qualities so important in everyday life and so disdained by the mass media.
Babbittís humanism remains vital because it is not a doctrine but a way of
life:

After
all to be a good humanist is merely to be moderate and sensible and decent. It
is much easier for a man to deceive himself and others regarding his
supernatural lights than it is regarding the degree to which he is moderate and
sensible and decent. (RR lxxx-lxxxi).

Footnotes

In Democracy and Leadership (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979)
Babbitt argues that “The American experiment in democracy has . . . from the
outset been ambiguous and will remain so until the irrepressible conflict
between a Washingtonian and a Jeffersonian liberty has been fought to a
conclusion” (273). The book was
first published in 1924. Hereafter quotations from this work will be cited in
the text by page numbers and the abbreviation DL.

2.
Babbitt chose Emersonís lines declaring “There are two laws discrete/ Not
reconciled,ñ/ Law for man, and law for thing” as the epigraph for his first
book, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the
Humanities
( Washington, D. C.: National Humanities Institute, 1986). The
book was first published in 1908. Later Babbitt commented that “it is possible
to cherish Emerson, or at least one side of Emerson, and at the same time look
with extreme suspicion on the Emersonians” (The Masters of Modern French
Criticism
[Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912], p.
355).

3.
Babbitt commented that “to be fraternal in Walt Whitmanís sense is to be
boundlessly expansive . . . Whitman imagines the United States as expanding
until it absorbs Canada and Mexico and dominates both the Atlantic and the
Pacific” (DL, 294). Comparing Lincoln and Whitman, Babbitt asserted that it
was only necessary “to read, for example, the Second Inaugural along with the
ëSong of Myselfí if one wishes to become aware of the gap that separates
religious humility from romantic egotism” (DL, 275). Babbitt identified his
own politics with “our unionist tradition based on a sane moral realism”
(DL, 295), listing the “unionist leaders” as “Washington, [John] Marshall,
and Lincoln” (277).

4.
Rousseau and Romanticism (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 1991),
p. lxxxiii. First published in 1919. Hereafter quotations from this work will be
cited in the text by page numbers and the abbreviation RR.

5.
C. Harley Grattan, “The New Humanism and the Scientific Attitude,” The
Critique of Humanism: A Symposium
, ed. C. Hartley Grattan (New York: Brewer
and Warren, 1930), 3-36, 24.

Malcolm Cowley, “Humanizing Society,” The Critique of Humanism: A
Symposium
, ed. C. Hartley Grattan (New York: Brewer and Warren, 1930),
63-84, 68.

7.
Henry Hazlitt, “Humanism and Value,” The Critique of Humanism: A
Symposium
, ed. C. Hartley Grattan (New York: Brewer and Warren, 1930),
87-105, 96.

George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,”
The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana
, ed. Douglas L.
Wilson ( Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 37-64, 61. The
essay was first published in 1911.

9.
Published as a short book in 1931, “The Genteel Tradition at Bay” has been
republished in The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana,
ed. Douglas L. Wilson ( Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998),
152-96. Hereafter quotations from this work will be cited in the text by page
numbers and the abbreviation GTB.

10.
George Santayana, The German Mind: A Philosophical Diagnosis (New York:
Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968, , 147-8. The book was first published as Egotism in
German Philosophy
in 1915.

11.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society
(New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979), unpaged preface. The book was
first published in 1950.

12.
Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,
1977), 190. The book was first published in 1939.

13.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Judging Richard Posner,” Commentary 113.2
(February 2002), 37-44, 41.

14.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France Harmondsworth,
Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968), 170-71.

Lionel Trilling, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” The Liberal
Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society
(New York: Harcourt, Brace,
Jovanovich, 1979), 193-209, 209.

16.
Richard Rorty, “Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens,” Essays on Heidegger and
Others: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2
(Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press, 1991), 66-82. Hereafter quotations from this work will be
cited in the text by page numbers and the abbreviation HKD.

Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, trans. Peter Kussi (
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1986. First published in French in
1973. Hereafter quotations from this work will be cited in the text by page
numbers and the abbreviation LE.

18.
Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (New York: Signet, 1989), 191-2. The book was
first published in 1913.

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