The birth of a Chinese cultural movement: letters between Babbitt and Wu Mi.

Author:Wu, Xuezhao
Position:Irving Babbitt,

My late father, Wu Mi, had carefully kept three letters written to him by his esteemed and beloved teacher Irving Babbitt. Later I was able to read, in the archives at Harvard University, three letters written by my father to Professor Babbitt. The exchange of correspondence shows Babbitt's care for his Chinese student. It also demonstrates his support of the Critical Review, which was published and written by his Chinese former students and other Chinese admirers, as well as his concern for the fate of the traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. This was shortly after the emergence of the "New Culture Movement." The latter's raucous calls of "Down with Confucius" and the attendant discord aroused the concern of Babbitt and other Western scholars.

Before the letters are presented, a brief introduction of Babbitt and his work may be useful. (1) In China there is a revival of interest in Babbitt, but certain prevailing views of him--such as the account in Imperfect Understanding by Wen Yuanning, translated by Lin Yutang--are unreliable and short on fairness.

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) was a professor of French literature at Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard University in 1889 with flying colors. After teaching at the University of Montana for two years, wishing to further explore the Oriental subjects, he went to France to study Sanskrit and Buddhist scriptures with Sylvain Levi. Returning to America, he continued studying Oriental subjects under Charles Rockwell Lanman at Harvard and received the Master of Arts degree from Harvard in 1893, at that time still the typical teaching credential for university faculty. Unwilling to work on a doctoral dissertation in the manner of the German school, which in his field emphasized narrowly specialized textual research, he--together with Paul Elmer More, who obtained the Master's degree from Harvard the same year--decided against further formal study. Babbitt started teaching at Harvard while plunging into independent reading and research. Much diligent study and thinking led Babbitt and More to favor graduate work in letters that entailed wide readings in ancient and modern literatures and in history and philosophy as a background for specialization.

Years of meditation free from the positivism and specialization in vogue led Babbitt and More to the formulation of a humanistic critique of powerful modern trends that they would develop for the rest of their lives. Their humanism would touch upon the main problems of philosophy, literary criticism, education, sociology, politics, and religion.

With the successive publication of Shelburne Essays by More beginning in 1908, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities by Babbitt that same year, The New Laokoon, An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts by Babbitt in 1910, and The Masters of Modern French Criticism by Babbitt in 1912, the contours of the new humanistic criticism of fashionable views and trends became clearer. That same year Irving Babbitt was promoted to a professorship of French Literature, which he made into a chair of comparative philosophy and literature. The breadth and depth of his reassertion of humanism became apparent in 1919 when he published Rousseau and Romanticism and still more so in 1924 with the appearance of his Democracy and Leadership.

Babbitt's reputation became worldwide. He questioned the soundness of much of the thought prevalent in the world at the time. He dared to write that the Occident had gone wrong on first principles. It had fallen into what he called "the naturalistic trap," confusing the law for man with the law for thing. In 1923 Professor Babbitt was an exchange professor at the Sorbornne. In 1926 L'Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the French Institute elected him a corresponding member. He also became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was invited to deliver lectures at Yale, California, Leland Stanford, at the principal universities of the Middle West, at North Carolina, Princeton, Toronto and at many colleges in New England. In 1932 Bowdoin awarded him an L.H.D.

The reception and discussion of the works of Irving Babbitt was a major event in the literary and intellectual history of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1930 Humanism and America, a symposium of essays by his disciples together with one of his own, in which he condensed his principles, precipitated what came to be called "The New Battle of the Books." Besides numerous reviews, magazine articles, and editorials, a counter manifesto was promptly published in book form and led to further reviews. Unfortunately, like much earlier writing about Babbitt, some of this discussion showed a poor or limited grasp of Babbitt's doctrines.

Misunderstandings of his ideas were to some extent inevitable. Babbitt was the first to discount the possible value of a popular discussion of his ideas. His most significant influence lay elsewhere. It is evidenced, for instance, in the frequency with which his name reappears when scholars make a philosophical approach to the study of literature. The breaking down of departmental barriers will no doubt remain one of his greatest contributions. "When studied with any degree of thoroughness," he wrote in Democracy and Leadership, "the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem." At the very beginning of his career, he had decided that no serious study of literature is possible except in conjunction with the study of philosophy, not to mention politics and and society. In 1912, he wrote, in the preface of The Masters of French Criticism: "[W]hether the critic can judge, and if so by what standards, is only a form of the more general inquiry whether the philosopher can discover any unifying principle to oppose to mere flux and relativity." He would have us attack specialized study with a view to advancing a more satisfactory explanation of the real meaning and value of life. He well understood that a single mind cannot encompass all the fields of knowledge, but he hoped for the advent of a university whose members, instead of being what he once called "an aggregation of mutually repellent particles," would have enough interest in and knowledge of fields other than their own to make possible shared understandings and syntheses.

One of the reasons why Babbitt showed great interest in the Orient as well as the Occident was that he looked for the constants of human nature in general as opposed to the peculiarities of time and place. If he seemed harsh in his judgments at times, it was because he could not esteem very highly an author who, no matter how gifted, did not reveal a sense of the abiding reality behind changing circumstance. For him, the great spirits were those who met on the plane of the higher imagination through their intuitions of the universal. "We find in them," he would say, "maxims that are sure to be reaffirmed whenever and wherever men attain to the level of humanistic insight." "We are dealing here," he would add, "with indubitable facts, and should plant ourselves upon them as against those who would exaggerate either the constant or the variable elements in human nature."

Unfortunately, the history of human thought has been too often the history of such exaggerations. Thus in his courses "Pascal," "Chateaubriand," and especially "Rousseau and Romanticism" and "Literary Criticism in France," Professor Babbitt was critical of the mechanical imitation of neo-classicism but also of the individualistic exuberance of romanticism, of those who minimize life's element of change but also of those who would deny the existence of any abiding elements.

And yet, as he would often remark, what he sought to say was in one sense nothing new. He did not want to have his doctrine called the new humanism. For him, there was no new humanism. There was only the age-old opposition between naturalism (or the monistic merging of God, man, and nature, with its consequent denial of a higher law) and humanism. According to the latter, man has a distinct and unique nature. He is a mysterious being in whom the material and spiritual meet, who is responsible to a law superior to his "ordinary" self, a law which he must discover, a higher will to which he must learn to attune his inclinations. Babbitt did not quarrel with established religion for interpreting this higher will in special doctrinal ways derived from revelation. On the contrary, he looked to religion for support of humanism. And if, as a philosopher, he felt he could interpret the higher will only as known in actual human experience, as a veto power and sense of higher purpose, he pointed to it as proof of a dualism within the human self without which there can be no genuine religion.

Some of Babbitt's vigorous personality will survive in his style of writing. His works will continue to reveal the...

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