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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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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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