In studying the Victorian-to-Modern transition, I have come across this remark about the Victorian “custodians of culture” several times.
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“As self-appointed custodians of ideals and fundamental moral principles, pre-1910 American intellectuals believed it their responsibility to lead the nation upward and onward. If there were obstacles to be overcome, intellectuals sounded the call and led the reformers’ charge. If idealistic visions were the requirement, they provided blueprints for utopias. The twentieth century began with most intellectuals in the United States sanguine about the future of the Western world. The wave of pride and confidence generated by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment still rolled strongly. What a work of art was man! His intellect, disciplined with science, seemed capable of explaining and utilizing every natural process. And the same natural laws that provided the key to the physical world were thought to make possible a social science as well. With liberal application of the oil of natural rights, most Americans confidently expected the social vehicle to run squeakless forever.
World War I exploded this halcyon vision. Instead of reasoning out their difficulties, nations assumed to be the world’s most advanced turned to the troglodytic method of bashing each other over the head …”
At the end of the Victorian era, there was a consensus in America on national identity, morality, progress and culture. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal principles and a republican form of government. Morality was assumed to be universal, true and obvious. Anglo-American culture was celebrated. The country also celebrated “progress” which meant scientific and technological progress, rising material living standards and becoming more elevated and refined in manners and morals. American intellectuals also saw themselves as moral guardians of the Republic.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“The men who met in 1912 to honor Howells took for granted that they and most of their countrymen shared a view of life. Part of their confidence in this set of beliefs arose from the fact that it had survived a series of challenges; however insipid the American credo of 1912 seemed to the next decade, we must remember that it had lived through the nineteenth century. This century, and particular its second half, was by no means the smug Victorian calm created by the mythology of the 1920s. The old men of 1912 had come to consciousness in the midst of a devastating and revolutionary civil war. Their mental as well as the country’s physical landscape had been drastically changed by rapid industrialization. Ever since the announcement of the Darwinian hypothesis, the moral cosmos had been subject to a succession of earthquake shocks. Yet, with some difficulty, the main tenants of traditional American faith had managed to adapt and survive. It is not surprising that they seemed proof against anything.
The first and central article of faith in the national credo was, as it always had been, the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values. Words like truth, justice, patriotism, unselfishness, and decency were used constantly, without embarrassment, and ordinarily without any suggestion that their meaning might be only of a time and place. This central commitment entailed several corollaries, often stated and still more often taken for granted. First, most Americans were still certain that moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas. Second, it seemed clear that such judgments could be and must be applied not only to the conduct of individuals but also to the doings of trusts and labor unions, cities and nations. Finally, and this was perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as the leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment, even of herself.”
Here it is again.
Victorian intellectuals and academics saw themselves as moral guardians. It was their responsibility to improve the character and guard the minds of impressionable undergraduate students. The key thing here is that “moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas.” This was about to change in the new age of Modernism.
The following excerpt comes from Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America:
“During the nineteenth century, a large majority of American academic and literary intellectuals served as protectors of Victorian mores and ideas. By the 1920s, however, more leading American intellectuals had announced their rebellion against virtually the same conventions and concepts. The rebellion was supported by the nation’s foremost book publishers, literary and scholarly journals, and heads of philanthropic foundations.
The crucial factor in causing the intellectuals’ rebellion was a shift in their values. This led them inevitably into conflict with Americans who continued to hold and were attempting to protect the conventional ethos. Behind the shift lay an expansion of the parameters of later nineteenth century literary realism and naturalism and of Victorian science and social science. These twentieth-century trends were encouraged by the reinforcement of dissident ideas provided by increased numbers of intellectuals, an enlarged audience for such ideas, and much more money available for their creation and dissemination.
During the mid- and late nineteenth century, trustees of colleges and universities in the United States almost invariably selected as presidents men who shared the trustees’ piety and orthodox political, social, moral, and religious beliefs. These presidents, in turn, chose faculty members who almost all understood that their most important duty consisted of improving the characters and guarding the minds and souls of impressionable undergraduate students. As part of this task, they provided access to the accumulated high knowledge of their academic specialties, including that scientific knowledge which appeared to confirm conventional American beliefs …”
Coben describes the break in values between the 19th century and 20th century American intelligentsia this way:
“The heart of the conflict between the intelligentsia’s values and those of the great majority of their intellectual predecessors – including Howells and Norris – lay in differing perceptions of their obligations to “truth.” To almost all the leading intellectuals of the 1920s, “truth” implied a willingness to accept evidence and to study and describe activities and emotions that would have seemed unacceptable to Victorians of high character, including almost all Victorian intellectuals.
A definitive statement of the intelligentsia’s values, applicable to the ideal objectives of most of the era’s finest poets, novelists, physical and biological scientists, and academic humanists and social scientists, was delivered in a manifesto by the poet Ezra Pound, published first in 1913 and restated by him in somewhat different phrases for over two decades thereafter:
“If an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of man, as to his own nature, as to the nature of his ideal of the perfect, as to the nature of his ideal of this, that or the other, of god, if god exists, of the life force, of the nature of good or evil, if good and bad exist, of the force with which he believes or disbelieves this, that or the other, of the degree in which he suffers or is made glad; if the artist falsifies his reports on these matters or on any other matter in order that he may conform to the taste of his time, to the proprieties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies. If he lies out of deliberate will to lie, if he lies out of carelessness, out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of any sort of negligence whatsoever, he nevertheless lies and he should be punished or despised in proportion to the seriousness of his offense.”
The artist, Pound insisted, should utilize all information or techniques that would help him interpret his subject accurately, no matter whom this interpretation might antagonize. A similar ethic guided social scientists during the 1920s as they described terrible deficiencies in the lives of “typical” middle-class and working-class Americans. …
As in practically all human endeavor, ideals varied from practice – not only Lewis and Pound but even Loeb, his friend Franz Boas, and Boas’s student Margaret Mead sometimes slipped in practice. However, in general, in their work, by the 1920s American intellectuals accepted the primacy of the ideals expressed by Pound, Hemingway, and Lewis’s Gottlieb.”
In the 1920s, the liberal intelligentsia embraced Modernism and washed their hands of their older role in Victorian America as custodians of culture and moral guardians. In fact, the goal now was to “liberate” the individual from his culture so that he could pursue an aesthetic lifestyle.
The following excerpt comes from Paul V. Murphy’s book The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s:
“By the 1920s, then, intellectuals had witnessed a society wide crisis of authority and became acutely aware of the bifurcation between themselves and the rest of society. The inevitable pressure of industrial and technological progress compelled these realizations. Progress – what an older generation assumed to be divinely planned – now seemed prosaic in its human origins, relentless in its application, and impervious in the independence of any individual or collective intention. It was a force that ran on its own accord. Intellectuals responded in two ways.First, a large number gravitated toward modernist beliefs that were concerned, above all, with the autonomy and independence of writers and artists.These values reinforced a deepening split with many Americans who preserved traditional faiths and expectations. Second, intellectuals redefined and reconceptualized culture in fundamentally new ways that allowed them to style a new kind of cultural politics that could potentially allow them to shape and direct the American response to change. …”
“In the space opened by Santayana’s essay, intellectuals championed an insistent, ultimately Romantic imperative for individual autonomy and self-rule. They renounced their older role as moral guardians, one that had given them great influence, in favor of a new role as tribunes of openness, experimentation and tolerance. In self-consciously repudiating their traditional social responsibility, they were embracing modernism.”
“Even while placing themselves at odds with the broader public, however, intellectuals defined a new and potentially vital public role as cultural critics. They did this in part by reimaging the very meaning of culture. In the nineteenth century, culture had been bound up with individual moral self-development and personal refinement; intellectuals now saw it as somewhat broader and all-inclusive, and they gave themselves the role of interpreting it. …”
“Used loosely and retrospectively, modernism invokes a mélange of intellectual positions and tendencies growing out of conflicting European intellectual traditions. In each instance, modernists responded to new scientific and philosophical claims – evolution, Freudian psychoanalysis, the Higher Criticism, theories of relativity, new principles of uncertainty. However first and foremost, modernism was an internal discussion among artists and writers about their own precarious social status, which resulted from a loss of vital connection between themselves and the masses. Modernists posed key questions about art: Should it represent a recognizable figure? Need it be broadly appealing or recognizably understood? The answers produced the distinctive features of modernism: movements toward abstraction in visual art; atonality in music; and stream of consciousness, free association, and fractured narrative lines in literature. Modernism redefined aesthetic criteria in terms of the values and intentions of the artist. The art object would be judged on its own terms, free and independent of the audience’s response. Individual autonomy and integrity, not tradition or communal responsibility, were the essential values. Modernist intellectuals crafted a highly individualistic credo, one embracing the emerging bifurcation between intellectuals and the public. …”
“In the 1920s, Edmund Wilson became the model of the new wide-ranging cultural critic. Intellectuals were recognizing that they constituted a new social class defined intellect and not wealth. (In the years between the world wars, New York City became “the home for intellectuals who coalesced in the first significant intelligentsia in the country’s history.”) They were in a position to break free of the obligations of moral uplift that were part and parcel of the nineteenth-century ideology of culture …”
The highbrows revolted in the 1920s.
American youth in the 1920s revolted with them.
The following excerpt comes from Paula S. Fass’s book The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth In The 1920s:
“In fact, however, it was not the substitution of one set of standards for another that was the most threatening to these observers, but the fact that for young people there were apparently no effective standards or controls at all. Once released from traditional restraints, their behavior appeared to be characterized only by licentiousness and self-gratification. Each individual seeking his own raw truth, did just as he pleased: “This sense of overwhelming fact,” Hamilton noted, “is at the root of modern license.” In Harper’s Magazine, Avis Carlson, a college professor of English, observed that morality was something from which the young were “rapidly emancipating themselves.” Morality, Carlson noted, “the right-and-wrong standard is based on authority,” but authority of any kind, whether of government, church, or family, was unacceptable to the young. According to Carlson, youth organized their behavior on the basis of personal expediency, with the veto of public opinion their one effective limitation. “They keep a shrewd weather-eye out for what they call ‘stuff you can’t get by with.’ ‘Getting by’ is almost the twentieth century equivalent of morality. Far less significant than the specific proposal (which was, of course, deeply moral), was Carlson’s urgent sense of the need for some universally accepted standard. That a member of the college community and a patron of the moral establishment should recommend in a journal like Harper’s a substitute for morality suggests just how far-reaching the repudiation of standards was believed to have gone among the young.”
“Morality” as it had been known crumbled.
What would replace morality in American culture? Over the course of a century of moral decline, the worship of the Self which is the greatest legacy of Modernism and the laundry list of -isms and -phobias derived from Freudian psychoanalysis, critical theory and postmodernism.
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“Allen has begun his chapter on intellectuals in the twenties with a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald that was destined to become standard equipment in most subsequent discussions of this topic. It appears in the final paragraph of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920): “here was a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” Allen has not used the other omnipresent quotation, attributed to Gertrude Stein, about a “lost generation,” but his analysis supports this stereotype. Intellectuals in the twenties, Allen has written, found that certainty had departed life … nothing … was sure … there was no solid thing on which a man could lay hold and say, This is real; this will abide.” Fixed values had collapsed, and the highbrows were in revolt against the mainstream of American civilization. All they possessed, Allen contends, was a vague credo deifying individual freedom and deploring repression and conformity.”
It is not an exaggeration to say this was when The Fall took place.
This is what divides the Victorian generations from the Modern generations. The origins of our present crisis are in this shift because this is what began the culture war in the 1920s. Future historians will also date the rejection of this worldview as the beginning of the end of Modern America.
“At the fringe of the American intellectual community stood a few really shaken minds for whom neither the old absolutism nor the new relativism and scientism sufficed as a basis for belief. Yet even these disillusioned few refused to exist with no values at all. Instead they began the American exploration of a point of view later labeled existentialism. Axiomatic to this position was confrontation with human futility and the absurdity of life. For this reason intellectuals’ conception of themselves as a lost generation was essential.”
“Sullivan begins with a portrait of the “stony disillusionment” with which he feels the American people reacted to World War I. Taking Ernest Hemingway as a case study, he quotes a passage from A Farewell to Arms (1929) that has been reiterated time and again as later historians have attempted to articulate their conception of the spirit of the postwar decade: “I was always embarrassed by the words ‘sacred,’ ‘glorious,’ and ‘sacrifice,’ and the expression ‘in vain’. We had heard them … and read them, on proclamations … for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”
“In the first place the exiles were serious artists. They made a “religion of art” and, at the least, had this antidote to the lost sensation. Second, far from being amoral and valueless, they devoted a considerable part of their energies to a search for certainty. They felt lost, in other words, but wanted to be found. In one of the best, and apparently one of the most easily forgotten, things ever written about the intellectuals of the 1920s, Cowley has said: “the generation belonged to a period of transition from values already fixed to values that had yet to be created. Its members … were seceding from the old and yet could adhere to nothing new, they groped their way toward another scheme of life, as yet undefined; in the midst of their doubts and uneasy gestures of defiance they felt homesick for the certainties of childhood. …
It was not that they had no guidelines but rather that “they were open to every new influence that came along.” The central tenet of their faith was a belief in the value of experimentation in their lives and in their art. They rebelled, in other words, only to rebuild …”
These rebels who seceded from Victorian culture were the founders of Modern culture. In much the same way, we are seceding from Modern culture and groping our way toward “another scheme of life.”
This brings us to Irving Babbitt and the New Humanists.
The term Babbitt brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt which ridiculed the materialism and conformity of Middle America. The real Babbitt though was an antagonist of these people.
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“Examination of a period’s formal discussion of ethics (values, morals, or standards might also be used) offers a revealing approach to its intellectual life. Ethics in this sense, of course, means something other than what does, or does not, happen in the back seats of automobiles. It relates, rather, to moral philosophy – to man’s search for the solid foundations of right and wrong, good and bad, on which belief can be anchored. Intellectuals have traditionally made this exploration their special concern. In the 1920s the debate over values was especially energetic. Some Americans clung determinedly to the old absolutes. But the clamor of dissatisfaction rang through the period. Many regarded belief in the absolute as lazy, a substitute for creative thinking. For others it was an outright life, undermined by the new science and the need for social adjustments. But as the old standards fell the incentive to creative new ones increased. Few intellectuals of the twenties lapsed into the nihilism and despair so often attributed to the postwar years.”
Finally, we are going to discuss someone who isn’t as depressing as William James, John Dewey, Franz Boas, Randolph Bourne, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley and all the other depressing figures of the first three decades of 20th century America.
“The Humanists (or New Humanists) of the 1920s were not numerous, but their presence demonstrates that old ethics could at least survive in the new era. For these intellectuals control, balance, and order were the cardinal virtues. Adherence to a strict moral code was necessary to attain them. The Humanists believed that fundamental law underlay morality. The law consisted of a set of ethical and aesthetic norms inherent in, but always above, nature, and articulated by the world’s great religions, literature and art. It followed that right and wrong were constants – absolutes that did not change with changing circumstances but persisted through the ages. The best that man could do, according to the Humanists, was to follow these unvarying values. And, fortunately, man possessed both reason and a moral sense or will that enabled him to intuit the ethical absolutes and use them to restrain his lower nature. In this way order and decorum were secured, beauty created, and progress achieved.”
Obviously, these people were the losers in the culture war and the winners have bequeathed to us the world of Cardi B’s WAP that exemplifies American progress in early 21st century aesthetics.
“Humanism was an expression of what George Santayana labeled in 1911 “the genteel tradition.” It drew heavily, according to Henry May’s End of American Innocence, on the “nineteenth century credo”: a composite belief in the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values, in the possibility of progress, and in the beneficence of traditional Anglo-Saxon culture. The Humanists were philosophical idealists. They felt they knew how people ought to behave, and they endeavored to bring thought and conduct up to the ideal type. Understandably, they considered quality more important than quantity. And they stressed the importance for the individual of cultivating the inner man and rising above the mediocrity of the mass.”
Sounds like something worth exploring further in this tragic era.
“Humanism had several prominent spokesmen in the 1920s. Irving Babbitt, a Harvard professor, and Paul Elmer More of Princeton and the Nation championed the position before, during, and after World War I. Both were Middle Westerners, Harvard graduates, classicists, and philosophers. Both criticized the tendency of romanticism, naturalism, and pragmatism to break down ethical and aesthetic absolutes.”
In retrospect, Babbitt and More were right. Anyone who loathes pragmatism was on the right side of the culture war.
“The real question,” according to More in 1928, “is not whether there are standards, but whether they shall be based on tradition or struck out brand new by each individual critic.” Casting his vote with the first option, More praised the thinker or artist who discerned permanent values and thereby enabled man to raise himself from bestiality to his higher, divine nature. In More’s opinion the relativists who rejected such values were both indolent and conceited; they followed the easy way of their own fancies. Mental and moral discipline demanded sustained effort, but success in curbing the lower appetites was the highest pinnacle of human achievement.”
Frankly, the Paul Elmer More Club sounds a lot more classy than the H.L. Mencken Club.
“Babbitt (who must have rued the coincidence of his name with that of Sinclair Lewis’ famous character) joined More in praise of order. He especially admired the American Puritans who were able to place an inner check on man’s natural impulses. In fact the problem with modern America, in Babbitt’s estimation, was a preoccupation with material progress at the expense of moral progress. There was a dearth of standards and restraints. Responsibility – to anything higher than oneself – had melted under the force of the relativists’ sun. “The American reading his Sunday paper in a state of lazy collapse,” Babbitt complained, “is perhaps the most perfect symbol of the triumph of quantity over quality that the world has yet seen.” But equally deplorable were satirists and literary critics like Henry L. Mencken, Harold Stearns, Van Wyck Brooks, and Randolph Bourne, who, according to Babbitt, struck down the very standards intellectuals had a special responsibility to uphold.”
I’m going to have to read more about Irving Babbitt. Anyone who was opposed by H.L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, Harold Stearns and whose name was made infamous by Sinclair Lewis had the right enemies.
“A Harvard protégé of Babbitt and admirer of More, Stuart B. Sherman lent his remarkable energies to the Humanist cause after World War I. Bourne, disparagingly, branded him “the last offshoot of the genteel tradition.” His first book, on Matthew Arnold, appeared in 1917, and before his untimely death nine years later Sherman wrote ten more. Taken together they underscored the need for certainties and absolutes. Following the Humanist tradition, Sherman sought such bedrock in the past, and he singled out the American past, in preference to that of Greece and Rome, for special praise. He berated the Young Intellectuals of the twenties who disdained the American heritage. Their work lacked optimism and moral vigor, in his opinion, because they turned their backs on the values inherent in their own culture. Emerson, with his strong belief in spiritual truth and moral law, especially appealed to Sherman. The Puritans were attractive for the same reason. Sherman had no patience with intellectuals who “make their truth” as they need it.” He refused, therefore, to accept the pragmatic definition of goodness. Under the guise of romanticism, intellectuals had too long followed their individual criteria. …”
Amazingly, the Genteel tradition had kept Americans relatively moral and decent through over a century of liberalism. It counterbalanced the worst tendencies of liberalism toward unbridled individualism. It goes a long way toward explaining why the cultural collapse took so long.
“Despite the strength of its proponents’ convictions, Humanism encountered vigorous and persistent dissent in the 1920s. Its chief opponents, the Modernists, discounted the old certainties and rejected absolutes. The dialogue between these two positions provided one of the major intellectual themes of the decade. While the discussion frequently concerned the merits of contemporary literature, the real issue at stake was the nature of value.”
The Humanists were the opponents of the Modernists. In other words, they were the good guys.
“There were salvos between Babbitt and More on the one side and Bourne and Mencken, for example, on the other for a number of years, but the controversy reached a crescendo in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Virtually every intellectual became involved, at least to the extent of having opinions. The weapons used were usually reviews and essays in literary periodicals, but in 1930 two book-length works expounded the conflicting viewpoints. The Humanist manifesto was Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization, edited by Norman Foerster. In his preface to the collection Foerster opened fire on the Modernists who “made of revolt and scepticism ends rather than the beginnings of wisdom.” These iconoclasts, according to Foerster, were symptoms of, not remedies for, the sorry condition of American civilization.” But Foerster took heart from his conviction that the nation’s intellectual climate was swinging back to an appreciation of permanent values. …
The principal reply to Foerster and his colleagues was The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium, edited by C. Hartley Grattan. Grattan was only twenty-eight at the time of its publication, and he did not bother to disguise his impatience with an old-fashioned doctrine that was, in his view, inconsistent with reality, stifling to creativity, and opposed to progress. Grattan’s own contribution to the symposium came squarely to grips with the question of value. He began by rejecting the Humanist notion of the separateness of man and nature. There were no lower and higher levels of experience. Grattan consequently rejected the idea of value as emanating from a higher reality. Man, in a word, was natural. The human mind was an organ, like the heart or liver, and had no power to intuit higher truth. Indeed, there was no reason for even positing the existence of such truth in Grattan’s estimation. What the Humanists really did, he continued, was to drive values from past literature and a vague “wisdom of the ages.” But since man in the past had the same limitations as present man, the whole Humanist structure collapsed in shambles. In Grattan’s estimation Humanism boiled down to unfounded and indefensible dogma.
Turning to his own Modernist understanding of value, Grattan made clear at the outset that “our quarrel is not with values as such.” Standards and ethics were necessary to civilized living. The crux of the issue was not the desirability but the source of values. Grattan believed that the only certain values came from science. He believed that man was part of nature and should be studied with the same methods as, say, a plant or mineral. Values would be obtained by allegedly objective experimentation. A pragmatic criterion should apply: if adhering to a certain value system advanced the quest for the good life, then that system would be accepted. Evidence to the contrary, however, would prompt a reformulation of ethics. There were no absolutes. “The remedy for the present situation,” Grattan concluded, “is not less science but more science. The extension of the experimental [technique] into the human and social realms is bound to be the most fruitful adventure of modern times.”
I’ve just ordered Foerster’s Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization and Grattan’s The Critique of Humanism: A Symposium. It will be interesting to go back and read this clash between Humanists and Modernists knowing the outcome in the 21st century.
T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk were influenced by Irving Babbitt:
“This depiction of liberty has marked similarities to the ethical philosophy of Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), the Harvard professor who influenced Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, Peter Viereck, and other conservative thinkers. Indeed, Kirk wrote that he felt “a strong sympathy of mind and character” with Babbitt and later in life acknowledged that, to a large extent, Babbitt “animated” his book The Conservative Mind. Eliot wrote in a similar vein: “To have been once a pupil of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position. . . . His ideas are permanently with one, as a measurement and a test of one’s own.”
Today, Babbitt is a figure hidden in the pre-history of the American conservative movement, but his ideas remain rich and relevant a century later. Unlike Deneen, Babbitt, though skeptical of modernism — the progressive unraveling of the institutions, conventions, and mores of the pre-modern era — did not condemn America’s liberal tradition or think that it was rotten at its roots. Babbitt claimed that he was a “thoroughgoing individualist” who was “irrevocably committed to the modern experiment.” As such, he might provide an alternative vision for those who, with Deneen, decry the modern understanding of liberty but do not want to toss quite so many of liberalism’s fruits out the window.” …
After college, Babbitt continued his study of languages, before returning to Harvard as a professor of French literature. There he developed the “New Humanism,” a school of literary criticism, with his lifelong friend Paul Elmer More. Staunchly opposed to a “philosophically barren and joyless” modernism, the New Humanists followed in the intellectual footsteps of Edmund Burke and Matthew Arnold, seeking to buttress and rebuild literary standards on universal ideals of virtue and order.
To his students, Babbitt was a legendary teacher. Lovers of sentimental French poetry who arrived on the first day of class would find an impassioned Babbitt, willing to quote every book in the Eastern and Western canons to convert “romantically disposed students to the austerities of humanism.” A staunch generalist, Babbitt might as soon draw a lesson from the Confucian Analects or the Buddhist Dhammapada as from Aristotle.”
The Imaginative Conservative has a series of articles on Irving Babbitt. I plan to read through and digest them this evening. As one of the most prominent intellectual enemies of the modernists and bohemians of the 1920s (the people who poisoned American culture), I want to learn more about him.
“As the obituarist for the New York Times wrote in 1933: “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.”
Three days later, a writer for the Times stated:
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 are not as clear as crystal.”
“No intellectual task could be more urgent today than refuting the pseudo-scientific distinction between ”facts” and “values” and restoring to the humanities and social sciences a sense of transcendent moral purpose. In this effort we would be well-advised to reconsider the work of a great American whose ideas have yet to be fully comprehended and appreciated, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). His is a contribution toward the revitalization and renewal of the classical Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions, which is not only original but also highly relevant to present intellectual circumstances. Formally a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard but also a man of formidable range, Irving Babbitt was the leading figure in the movement of ideas known as the New Humanism, which divided American academic opinion in the twenties and thirties. Unfortunately, his books are known today primarily through secondary sources. These do not, for the most part, deal in depth with his central ideas, and they are frequently unreliable. (See our discussion below.) For complex reasons, Babbitt encountered intense opposition as well as admiration among his contemporaries. Many of the available interpretations of his position were formulated in the heat of controversy and reflect an impatient and even intemperate wish to be rid of an uncomfortable opponent. There are also the misinterpretations of sympathetic commentators who have simply failed to grasp his meaning. Part of the blame must be borne by Babbitt himself. He did not always develop his ideas systematically, and he sometimes expressed them in an ambiguous manner. Although most certainly a leading philosopher by the criteria of insight, depth, and comprehensiveness, he was not a professional, “technical” philosopher. “
“His work came to be identified with a school of thought called the “New Humanism.” As defined by Babbitt and Princeton critic Paul Elmer More, this movement in criticism gained popularity in the late 1920s, culminating with a manifesto, Humanism and America, in 1930. Babbitt was a legendary teacher at Harvard, dazzling students with the wisdom of the world. Those who sat in his classroom included Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, and T.S. Eliot, who called Babbitt and More “the two wisest men that I have known.” Those who have since claimed his mantle include Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, and George Will.
Babbitt had a quarrel with modern intellectual life and culture. Convinced that the West had lost the sense of sin and misplaced the source of evil, he urged their recovery. All of his views derived from his understanding of human nature. He described two warring principles in human beings: an expansive impulse that seeks liberation from all constraints and a controlling force that exercises discipline and restraint, what Babbitt called the “inner check.” We have thus a “higher” and a “lower” self, always in contention for mastery of the individual.
Babbitt’s writings scour the range of literature and philosophy from the Greeks onward in search of a moral center that could supply the stabilizing effects of the higher self. But he wrote during what seemed to be the age of the lower self, defined by the barbarizing currents of romanticism and naturalism. Those ideologies had discredited universal standards, loosened culture and society from their moorings, and bequeathed to us a world where “whirl is king.” Now, said Babbitt, “the central problem for modern man is how to live in a universe with the lid off.”
Romanticism, especially in the fashion of Babbitt’s bête noir, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, posits an innocent human nature—“born free and everywhere in chains”—and accuses society of creating the misery that afflicts us all. Naturalism, in contrast, depicts man as the reflex agent of external forces, biological or environmental, that overdetermine his behavior. Both views violate human duality and thus relocate the problem of evil away from an innocent human nature. These reinforcing ideologies, Babbitt believed, had deprived modern man of any inner check. Bereft of the constraining forces of a genuine humanism, he had built a civilization at once emotionally indulgent and mechanically driven. …”