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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.

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