Irving Babbitt and cultural renewal.

Author:Seaton, James

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 Whitman's "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 identified himself wholeheartedly with "the modern spirit ... the positive and critical spirit, the spirit that refuses to take things on authority." (4) He was guided, he insisted, by experience, understood in its fullest sense. Babbitt knew that "... experience is of many degrees: first of all one's purely personal experience, an infinitesimal fragment; and then the experience of one's immediate circle, of one's time and country, of the near past and so on in widening circles" (RR, lxxviii). In his debate with those whose truncated empiricism reduced "experience" to sense-data, ignoring both the inner life and the experience incorporated in religion, philosophy and literature, Babbitt emphasized that it was he who was the true modernist, even warning that "[t]he whole modern experiment is threatened with breakdown simply because it has not been sufficiently modern" (RR, lxxxiii). (5) 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 less fruitful to present him as a lonely genius than to consider the ways in which Babbitt's New Humanism provides a context that allows us to organize otherwise scattered insights into a coherent perspective. 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." (6) Contributor 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. Ford's assembly belt?" (7) Henry Hazlitt, another contributor, characterized the New Humanism as "little more than a rationalization of neophobia and a piece of special pleading for the genteel tradition." (8)

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," (9) 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 Babbitt's New Humanism under the title "The Genteel Tradition at Bay." (10) From a point of view very different from that of Malcolm Cowley, Santayana posed a series of what were meant to be similarly unanswerable questions:

Why not frankly rejoice in...

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