The intellectual kinship of Irving Babbitt and C.S. Lewis: will and imagination in that hideous strength.

Author:Sheahan, Luke
Position:Critical essay


Interest in literature and the imaginative dimensions of politics has been stimulated in previous decades by the inability of positivism fully to account for the experience of human beings amidst the political and cultural changes of the 1960s. Aspects of important social movements such as the civil rights movement defied the strictures of positivist social science. In the generation that followed, the study of literature grew in prominence along with recognition of the importance of the imagination for a fuller understanding of politics.

In 1993, the American Political Science Association (APSA) added an organized section on "Politics and Literature." (1) The turn within the discipline to the study of "politics and literature" was attributed to literature's ability to express and explore dimensions of human existence that precede or are implicit in political engagement as well as its capacity to explore the ramifications of politics for other aspects of human existence. In an article describing the reasons for founding the APSA section, Catherine Zuckert writes,

The questions that led political scientists to look to works of art for enlightenment concern the aspects of human life that are most difficult, if not impossible, to study and observe externally or objectively--the attitudes, emotions, and opinions that shape and are shaped by people's circumstances, especially their political circumstances. (2) Recognition that these imaginative intuitions are shaped by literature and its derivatives has produced a plethora of books and articles over the past few decades, (3) as well as a notion that there may be depths to which even philosophy, let alone positivist social science, cannot reach. (4) On occasion, even political philosophy may need to turn to literature for enlightenment.

This interest in literature as an influence on thought and conduct is not new but is the rediscovery of connections that have long been studied by others and that were explored in depth by the Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). Babbitt wrote at great length about the role of literature and the arts in shaping human life, for good or ill. In a series of major works, he demonstrated how qualities of the imagination relate to moral, political, and other social phenomena. (5) A similar interest and emphasis, though differently applied, is discernible in another titan of twentieth-century literary thought: the Oxford don and popular author C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). While they represent different genres and scholarly styles and are not often compared, Babbitt's and Lewis's understanding of the person and the imaginative dimensions of life and literature are remarkably similar. Moreover, their concerns, along with those of a number of related thinkers, may be seen as anticipating the above-mentioned study of politics and literature at the end of the twentieth century. This article will argue that Lewis shared Babbitt's understanding of the imagination and its relation to will and reason as well as Babbitt's dichotomous conception of the idyllic and moral imaginations. To demonstrate this commonality, we will explore strikingly Babbittian ideas in Lewis's dystopian science fiction novel That Hideous Strength and discuss the implications of this understanding of the imagination for politics and human life generally.

Irving Babbitt

Irving Babbitt pioneered the study of comparative literature at Harvard in the early twentieth century. He was significantly influential during his own lifetime, was widely discussed, engaged in spirited public debates, and delivered distinguished lectures at several universities in the U.S. and abroad. Babbitt exerted a major influence on a variety of American authors and thinkers including T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, Walter Lippmann, and Peter Viereck. (6) He was highly controversial and was criticized by literary luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. In 1960, Harvard University established the Irving Babbitt Chair in Comparative Literature.

Babbitt opposed what he called sentimental humanitarianism, the unleashing of egalitarian and maudlin emotion and enthusiasm as a replacement for morality as understood in the classical and Christian traditions. He argued that sentimental humanitarianism was rampant in modernity, often in cooperation, somewhat paradoxically, with a new faith in science. He detected two forms of naturalism that, though superficially dissimilar, came together in one destructive historical force: a Baconian scientific naturalism that seeks to control society and a Rousseauian romanticism that finds the highest virtue in universal empathy or love of mankind. Babbitt believed that scientific naturalism and sentimentalism were intimately connected in that they ignored the need for moral character, shared a dreamy imaginative framework, and had a grasping, expansive quality that made for conformity. As the proper antidote against these twin threats he advocated a modernized form of humanism, which others dubbed the "new humanism" or "American humanism." Babbitt's humanism held that man's primary need is a morally integrated, disciplined soul. This state of character he contrasted with the sentimental humanitarian emphasis on the unleashing of emotion and gratification of appetite and with reliance on science to promote a better human race. (7)

Babbitt and Lewis

At first blush, a comparison between Babbitt and Lewis might seem odd considering that Babbitt was not an orthodox religious believer and Lewis was famous from at least the early 1940s for his public defense of Christian doctrines. Babbitt considered it a mistake for Christianity in the intellectual circumstances of the modern world to take its stand primarily on particular creedal formulations rather than on the experiential evidence for spiritual and moral truth. The modern skeptical mind demands evidence for beliefs, and there is, Babbitt insisted, plentiful experiential evidence for the honest skeptic to consider. Among intellectuals especially, religion and morality are not well served by simply reasserting dogmas. Once in a conversation with his close friend and fellow "new humanist" Paul Elmer More, who would in time write as a kind of Anglican theologian, Babbitt exclaimed: "Great God, man, are you a Jesuit in disguise?" (8) He was criticized by some of his Christian admirers, T. S. Eliot prominent among them, for not making explicitly Christian creedal affirmations and for his emphasizing spiritual experience over formal belief. (9) Lewis agreed with Eliot's criticism of Babbitt's humanism for assuming, as it appeared to them, that an ethical basis could arise from art alone. (10) Whether Eliot and other Christian critics of Babbitt really understood the basis of Babbitt's religious and moral ecumenism and of his resistance to dogmatism is an open question. (11)

To the consternation of some Christian critics, Babbitt wrote admiringly of elements of Buddhism, especially of the Hinayana (Small Vehicle) variety. He praised its understanding of right willing as central to ethical and religious discipline and its relative lack of casuistry and obscurantism. He made a translation of the Dhamapada, the holy text attributed, at least in general spirit, to the Buddha, which was published, along with a lengthy essay by Babbitt on Buddhism, after his death. (12) Although Babbitt's ecumenical, non-dogmatic approach to spiritual matters irritated some of his Christian readers, "his notion of ethical self-discipline had much in common with historical Christianity ... [even though] he did not identify the source of moral order with a personal God." (13)

The purpose of these remarks is not to demonstrate that Babbitt's distinctive ideas directly influenced Lewis, but to show that there is a close similarity in their understanding of the imagination and the dangers inherent in particular types of imaginative paradigms. (14) Furthermore, it is to show that these thinkers also share a view of the human being that is ultimately tripartite in nature, comprised not only of imagination but of will and reason as well. While Lewis did not have a copy of any of Babbitt's books in his library, (15) his close relationship with Paul Elmer More, Babbitt's friend and fellow "new humanist," is but one clear indication that he was familiar with Babbitt. In an October 1934 letter to Paul Elmer More, Lewis thanked More for sending him Babbitt's obituary after his death the previous year. (16) There has been speculation on the basis of a limited understanding of Babbitt that Lewis may have been criticizing Babbitt's and More's "new humanism" in the character of Mr. Humanist or Mr. Neo-Classical in The Pilgrim's Regress published in 1933. (17)

Lewis's disagreement with aspects of the "new humanism" does not rule out the possibility of Babbitt's influence on Lewis any more than it would rule out Babbitt's obvious influence on More or Eliot, each of whom had disagreements with Babbitt on various points, including religion. While there seems to be no clear proof that Babbitt directly and specifically influenced Lewis, it is evident that Lewis knew the work of More well. More had been deeply influenced by Babbitt and the two had become with regard to central beliefs virtually indistinguishable. Lewis's admiration for More went so far that Lewis referred to him as a "spiritual uncle." (18) More's book The Skeptical Approach to Religion can be seen as a more philosophical and academic forerunner of Lewis's popular religious advocacy, as in Mere Christianity. Lewis was explicit that he could not refer to More as a "spiritual father," which would have indicated fuller agreement with his views, but he had for More's "new humanism" and, by implication, Babbitt's, a strong spiritual and intellectual affinity Considering the fame of Babbitt, the controversies surrounding his ideas, and More's partial disagreement with his...

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