Published Humanitas, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2001
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
For some of his admirers, Irving Babbitt is a major political thinker; for others he is the embodiment of higher culture, an exemplary literary scholar, or the outstanding model for American humanism. In what follows I shall not attempt to develop these categories. Rather, I shall concentrate on four themes in Babbitt’s writings that are relevant today to the discipline of comparative literature as well as to related disciplines for which the study of literature may be more important than is generally recognized, whether or not these themes have been reflected in recent critical texts. The first of these themes was outlined by Babbitt in the introduction to his Democracy and Leadership: “the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.” I cannot understand why Babbitt did not add to this formula “the aesthetic problem,” which would have conformed to his own practice and to that of comparative literature. It may be that he doubted the legitimacy of formal aesthetics as an academic discipline, having labeled it in his Rousseau and Romanticism a “nightmare subject.” Next I shall emphasize high standards in education, as treated in Literature and the American College. Third, and even more crucial, is the need of standards in individual thought and behavior, which Babbitt treats in connection with his well-known concept of the “inner check” as elaborated both in Democracy and Leadership and Rousseau and Romanticism. The fourth theme particularly relevant to our times is scattered throughout Babbitt’s writings, that of viewing life in America and the West in the light of comparable relationships in Asian philosophy and experience.
In 1960 the Irving Babbitt Chair of Comparative Literature was established at Harvard University. Although there may be some debate as to whether 1960 still can be described as belonging to the modern era, the existence of this chair should in itself make it germane to inquire into the extent to which Babbitt’s principles are still pertinent. In an address accepting appointment to the chair, Harry Levin held that criticism that extends to culture in general is superior to criticism narrowly confined to literary history and that Babbitt’s thought clearly belongs to the former category, in the main designed to reflect on contemporary culture.
Regarding higher education, Levin was cautiously optimistic, reporting that the trend in universities on the graduate level was away from the technical philology unrelated to the needs of contemporary culture that had been long decried by Babbitt. He percipiently praised Babbitt’s “insistence that an enlightened world view must come to terms with Asiatic thought,” an attitude even more vital now than in 1960. In connection with international relations, Levin quoted Babbitt’s warning that increased democratization among rival nations will not in itself curb “our growing unpopularity abroad,” together with his comment on domestic social problems that token philanthropies, presumably including token political reforms, are no substitute for genuine spiritual liberalization in high places (GC, 325). He refers to Babbitt’s Swedish “expositor” Folke Leander, but does not mention others, for example, in France or China, of whom he must also have been aware. Although recognizing Babbitt’s respect for the ancients, Levin drew attention to his self-description as “a modern of moderns,” as “positive,” “empirical,” and “experimental.” Despite Babbitt’s use of such terms, Levin interpreted his humanism as an impulse away from base nature in favor of life’s spiritual dimension. Citing Babbitt’s phrase borrowed from Emerson, “Law for man, and law for thing,” and his advocacy of an “inner check” on desire and behavior, Levin says, “his concept of an inner check, or higher will, approximates what Protestants would call conscience, and Freudians would term the superego.” Levin suggests that Babbitt’s habit of meditating, derived partly from oriental sources, had at least as great an influence on his spiritual life as the concept of the inner check (GC, 338). Babbitt himself had defined the inner check in terms of Diderot’s “civil war in the cave” between “a natural overexpansive will and a specifically human will to refrain.” The imagination “holds the balance of power between the higher and lower nature of man” (DL, 10). Levin also discerned in Babbitt a drift toward scepticism, if not quite agnosticism, in regard to formal religion, and attributed the tendency to his humanism. As for ethical and aesthetic standards, however, Levin had no difficulty in placing Babbitt unequivocally on the conservative side. In his political opinions, Levin discovered a compromise between the extreme positions of the period. “Like most of our respectable conservatives, he thought of himself as a genuine liberal” (GC, 340).
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