[Originally published in Humanitas (Volume IX, No. 2, 1996)]

Richard M. Gamble is Professor of History at Hillsdale College.


From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?

     –James 4:1

In 1915, Irving Babbitt, professor of French literature at Harvard University and architect with Paul Elmer More of the New Humanism, turned his attention to the “breakdown of internationalism” that had plunged the world into the catastrophe of the Great War. Observing the critical situation less than a year into the European conflict, he prepared a lengthy and penetrating two-part essay on internationalism during a brief but busy sabbatical that was otherwise devoted to his forthcoming book, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)–his important consideration of the origin of the modern temperament. The companion articles appeared in the Nation in June 1915, but carried an editor’s disclaimer that they did not entirely reflect the Nation‘s own views on the war. Babbitt was indeed likely to offend the magazine’s more jingoist readers. By the late spring of 1915, there had already been some loss of American life (most notably on the Lusitania in May), and the fighting in Europe had stalemated in the trenches of the Western Front, circumstances pointing to the likely involvement of the United States. But Babbitt’s essays for the Nation preceded America’s “inevitable” decision to join the belligerents and were published when deliberation and restraint were still possible for America’s leaders, when an alternative remained open to Rooseveltian “realism” on the one hand and Wilsonian “idealism” on the other, twin expressions of the will to power and both violations, as Babbitt would argue, of humanism’s law of measure.

Throughout the war, Babbitt contributed articles to the Nation on topics ranging from Rousseau, to Matthew Arnold, to Buddha, making in each essay at least passing reference to the war. But his extended analysis in 1915 of the breakdown of modern internationalism spoke directly to the West’s moral crisis that had culminated with such force in the Great War. Babbitt’s careful dichotomizing of “true” and “false” internationalism—one the product of humane control, the other the product of humanitarian impulse—led him to consider the cumulative spiritual problem behind the war ’s more readily apparent material causes and behind the superficial mechanistic explanations for the war then being offered. He sought to disentangle the ethico-religious problem from the build-up of armaments, the political maneuvering, the economic and imperial rivalry, and the headline-grabbing events of the battlefields of Europe. While Babbitt did not deny or even minimize the war’s proximate political, social and economic causes, he endeavored especially to discern and explain the condition of the human will and imagination that had allowed a catastrophe of such magnitude—of unprecedented extent in geography, material cost, and loss of human life—the world having recently talked so expectantly of a coming day of peace and brotherhood among nations. Babbitt set out in these articles to uncover, in his words, “the solid background of ideas” and to reveal “how these ideas have actually worked out in life and conduct.”

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