The Humanism of Irving Babbitt
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454 ] The Humanism of Irving Babbitt1 It is proverbially easier to destroy than to construct; and as a corollary of this proverb, it is easier for readers to apprehend the destructive than the constructive side of an author’s thought. More than this: when a writer is skillful at destructive criticism, the public is satisfied with that. If he has no constructive philosophy, it is not demanded; and if he has, it is overlooked. This is especially true when we are concerned with critics of society, from Arnold to the present day. All such critics are criticized from one common standard, and that the lowest: the standard of brilliant attack upon aspects of contemporary society which we know and dislike. It is the easiest standard to take. For the criticism deals with concrete things in our world which we know, and the writer may be merely echoing, in neater phrasing, our own thoughts; whereas the construction deals with things hard and unfamiliar. Hence the popularity of Mr. Mencken.2 But there are more serious critics than Mr. Mencken, and of these we must ask in the end what they have to offer in place of what they denounce. M. Julien Benda, for instance, makes it a part of his deliberate programme to offer nothing; he has a romantic view of critical detachment which limits his interest. Mr. Wyndham Lewis is obviously striving courageously toward a positive theory, but in his published work has not yet reached that point. But in Professor Babbitt’s latest book, Democracy and Leadership, the criticism is related to a positive theory and dependent upon it.3 This theory is not altogether expounded, but is partly assumed. What I wish to do in the present essay is to ask a few questions of Mr. Babbitt’s constructive theory. The centre of Mr. Babbitt’s philosophy is the doctrine of humanism. In his earlier books we were able to accept this idea without analysis; but in Democracy and Leadership – which I take to be at this point the summary of his theory – we are tempted to question it. The problem of humanism is undoubtedly related to the problem of religion. Mr. Babbitt makes it very clear, here and there throughout the book, that he cannot accept any dogma or revelation;4† and that humanism is the alternative to religion. And this brings up the question: is this alternative any more than a substitute ? And, if a substitute, does it not bear the same relation to religion that [ 455 The Humanism of Irving Babbitt “humanitarianism” bears to humanism? Is it, in the end, a view of life that will work by itself, or is it derivative of religion which will work only for a short time in history, and only for a few persons like Mr. Babbitt – whose ancestral traditions are Christian, and who is, like many people, at the distance of a generation or so from definite Christian belief? Is it, in other words, durable beyond one or two generations? Mr. Babbitt says, of the “representatives of the humanitarian movement ,” that they wish to live on the naturalistic level, and at the same time to enjoy thebenefitsthatthepasthadhopedtoachieveasaresultofsomereligious discipline. [47] The definition is admirable, but provokes us to ask whether, by altering a few words, we cannot arrive at the following statement about humanists: they wish to live on the humanistic level, and at the same time to enjoy the benefits that the past had hoped to achieve as a result of some religious discipline. If this transposition is justified, it means that the difference is only of one step: the humanitarian has suppressed the properly human, and is left with the animal; the humanist has suppressed the divine, and is left with a human element which may quickly descend again to the animal from which he has sought to raise it. Mr.Babbittisastoutupholderoftraditionandcontinuity,andheknows, with his5† immense and encyclopedic information, that the Christian religion is an essential part of the history of our race. Humanism and religion are thus, as historical facts, by no means parallel; humanism has been sporadic , but Christianity continuous. It is quite irrelevant to conjecture the possible development of the European races without Christianity – to imagine, that is, a tradition of humanism equivalent to the actual tradition of Christianity. For all we can say is that we should have been very different creatures, whether better or worse. Our problem being to form the future, we can only form it on the materials of...