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The Ivy League Babbitt

The social and political prescience of Harvard’s humanist.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By EMILY SCHRADER
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In university classrooms, and across campuses nationwide, we hear it repeatedly: Ever--increasing calls for “social justice.” But not everyone is on board:

Social justice, it is well to remind these “forward-looking” professors, means in practice class justice, class justice means class war, and class war, if we are to go by all the experience of the past and present, means hell.

Now there’s a perspective that most of today’s college students will never hear. In fact, you might suspect that this is a quote from some pundit lamenting, say, Occupy Wall Street or the Obama administration. But the statement is from academia itself; and although the literary critic and conservative scholar Irving Babbitt published Democracy and Leadership as long ago as 1924, his arguments predicting the decline of American morality and personal responsibility have proven alarmingly accurate.

Babbitt, born in Ohio in 1865, was inspired by one of the fathers of conservative thought, Edmund Burke. He was also motivated by his profound distaste for the Romanticism (what he calls sentimentalism) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others.  

All of Babbitt’s professional life was spent in the academy—notably at Harvard, where he joined the faculty in 1894 and remained until his death in 1933. But while his credentials as a true academician were impeccable, his ideas were comparatively divisive, and drew scathing responses from critics as diverse as H. L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway. And yet, despite his many enemies, Babbitt profoundly influenced many of the great thinkers of the last century, including Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Babbitt’s own student at Harvard, T. S. Eliot. Eliot wrote a critique of Democracy and Leadership in 1928, arguing against Babbitt’s idea that people can be ethical without religion.  

Babbitt was probably best known in his time for this doctrine, which he called humanism, and which, in the political realm, differs greatly from humanitarianism. The central tenets of Babbitt’s humanism are judgment and self-control, irrespective of religion. While modern liberals would argue that the exercise of judgment makes one closed-minded, Babbitt demonstrated that establishing standards is moderation, and is in fact the foundation of civilized society. He argued that society does not become civilized by accepting all things and instituting overreaching tolerance, but by the individual man recognizing his ability to differentiate right from wrong: “It is well to open one’s mind, but only as a preliminary to closing it, only as a preparation in short, for the supreme act of judgment and selection.”

This may well be heresy to the modern academic, to whom tolerance is not only a virtue but the highest, and possibly the only necessary, virtue.

Though critical of religion—and quick to point out anti-intellectualism within religion—Babbitt credits Christianity, especially, for motivating man to curb his immoral desires and maintain traditional values. But he also argues that it is possible, through self-discipline and without religious faith, to maintain moral standards and to control man’s ignoble desires. According to Babbitt, religion tends to ignore man’s expansive desires, while humanism harmonizes them to the best advantage. This is a point on which many (including, especially, Eliot) disagree, although Babbitt himself noted that religious faith is primarily about individual commitment. 

Nevertheless, Babbitt always contrasted his humanism with humanitarianism, which aims to serve man without concern for the development of inner character. It is a philosophy, he argued, that has repeatedly proven insufficient for controlling the unethical desire for power because it fails to instill a sense of humility, and seeks to replace traditional morals with pity for our fellow human beings.

And on the subject of humility, Babbitt said this of Rousseau:

Perhaps no doctrine has ever been more cunningly devised to fill the poor man and the plebian with self-righteous pride, and at the same time inflame him with hatred and suspicion of those who enjoy any social or economic superiority.

Babbitt’s criticism of Rousseau was harsh, but pertinent: He said that Rousseau’s ideas stemmed from an idyllic imagination prone to moral decline and violence. This, Babbitt believed, would lead to the inability of man to control his immoral desires, thus requiring a higher power. His critique is key here because it demonstrates the need for man to be acknowledged as an individual capable (as in capitalism) of making his own decisions. Quoting Burke, he said of society that it “cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” And, as Babbitt explained, the more that power comes from “without,” the more oppressed man is.

Self-discipline as opposed to the benevolence of Big Government? That’s a concept that doesn’t get much traction in today’s classroom. But it’s not the only idea from Democracy and Leadership that academia neglects. Babbitt also challenged the oversimplified proposition that men should be equal in all ways. This bastardization of the legitimate concept of equality is widely held in collectivist, humanitarian, utilitarian, sometimes even democratic, societies. But it is based on a false premise. Babbitt believed that it was, in fact, moral and moderate to make distinctions—whether based on religion or humanism—since man ought to be judged on his merits: “The democratic convention that everybody should have a chance is excellent provided it mean that everybody is to have a chance to measure up to high standards.” Genuine liberty is a product of ethical effort, not a natural gift.

Today’s undergraduates hear a great deal about “service” and social justice, and Babbitt had something to say about that as well. Because academia is contemptuous of self-control (or the “inner-self,” as he called it), and this leads to a deterioration of morals, academics have developed a concept of progress based in an alternate reality. This reality is formed by pity or emotionalism (see Rousseau, again!), which can give rise to tyranny in the name of “equality.” Where education used to be about wisdom and character, it is now about social justice and power. And if you don’t believe Babbitt, read just about any commencement speech from this latest season: The emphasis of academia has shifted from the individual to the collective—and Democracy and Leadership predicted this, 89 years ago.

Irving Babbitt demonstrated that freedom without self-control or personal responsibility, combined with the failure to acknowledge man as an individual being with unique capacities, is a recipe for destruction and chaos. He drew the line between this toxic combination and the concept of social justice as leading to the decline of moral character. True liberty, he wrote, does not emerge from social justice or the narrowing of gaps between rich and poor, but from hard work and self-control. Which is why Democracy and Leadership should be on every freshman reading list. Or, more to the point, should be required reading for every faculty in America.

Emily Schrader, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, was previously an intern at The Weekly Standard.

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