The Agonist Journal

Academic specialization has become the weaponization of narrow-mindedness. Professional scholars write on increasingly obscure topics in what is usually a vain quest for originality. What they offer, for the most part, is a shallow and facile trendiness which merely exacerbates the American public’s already waning interest in the humanities. The scholarly obscurity is accompanied by a demand for diversity in the humanities: not an evaluation of the genuine variety that colors the Western literary tradition, but a presentist imposition of artificial relationships, sustained by resentment against an imagined monolithic persecutor. This combination of pedantic insularity and identity crusades has proven lethal to the American zeitgeist, which is starved of the nourishment that was once provided by its cultural heritage. It would be well, therefore, to hearken back to the example of an author whose study exemplifies the importance of authentic breadth over unnatural diversity. This is Irving Babbitt.

"Although today a hotbed for the preaching and propagation of social activism, in spirit comparative literature is the antidote to modern cultural and literary sectarianism."

The man precedes the work. Born in 1865 in Dayton, Ohio, he knew a life on the plains and the attendant toil. He graduated from Harvard where, in the late nineteenth century, the curriculum was still founded firmly on the classical liberal arts, with an emphasis on ancient Greek and Latin. He also studied French literature there. After several years of teaching classics at a college in Montana, he traveled to Europe, where he studied Buddhism and the language of its canon, Pali, at the Sorbonne. Upon his return to the States and the acquisition of an A.M. in Sanskrit at Harvard, Babbit was offered a post to teach French literature at his alma mater. Harvard retains a professorship of comparative literature that bears his name.

Babbitt’s method is comparative literature. Although today a hotbed for the preaching and propagation of social activism, in spirit comparative literature is the antidote to modern cultural and literary sectarianism. As the name suggests, comparative literary studies involve the examination of different national literatures, genres, and epochs to the enrichment of each constituent canon or category. Such a study presumes familiarity not only with the major works of each body of literature but also with the original languages in which the literatures were written. There is a certain degree of reverence required in comparative work. This Babbitt demonstrates ably and consistently. The degree is maintained by the recognition that specialization and the pedantic grasp of minutiae can never be the purpose; such a pursuit has no value outside the elimination of cancer cells. We must not yield to the frothing prelates of postmodernity whose mantra of diversity bewilderingly compels people to judge all literary corpora equal. They are not, per nature, and enforced equality dissolves difference.

Reverence for difference consists of viewing a literary corpus of another tradition in its entirety, while maintaining a secure sense of one’s own home literary milieu. Respect for another national literature is genuine if the intensive study of it increases the reader’s respect for his or her own national literature or home genre. The purpose is to see the love and humanity that went into its creation and enables it to grow beyond the conditions of its emergence. This grants an augmented awareness and then affection for one’s home milieu, having seen the development of a strange but beautiful culture from the outside. The very opposite of this spirited reciprocity takes place in a degenerate form under the banner of equality. The result is an academically driven assault upon Western literature by the PC clergy who ostracize any dissenters who fail, in the name of equality, to honor the ever-proliferating categories of literature of the oppressed.

Having failed to maintain the dignity and honor of the literature in their charge, contemporary Western academics will be incapable of liberating any class—oppressed or not. Whether they love Western literature or not, they are its offspring; the abject and unbalanced condemnations they level against it is an axe they lay at the trunk of their own relevance. Once hewn down, they will lack all ability to elevate others. Here, fortunately, the example of Babbitt can save. For he reaches outside his culture without reviling it. Now, having insisted upon the necessity of reverence for one’s own literary culture, we must clarify: reverence is not to be confused with worship. No civilization, after all, is without historical developments at which some later formation of its own culture won’t feel shame. Nor should such developments be rationalized away in the name of loyalty to one’s tribe.

Yet where many professional academics now unthinkingly respond to nature’s inequities with their suicidal axe, Babbitt set to fraternal pruning. In doing so he demonstrates another important aspect all but lost on the present generation: reading the opposition. Inasmuch as he values deeply the Western literary tradition and the evolution of its immense variety, Babbitt identifies strains of it that he considers detrimental to the whole. Precisely what strain will become clear in the brief survey of the tenor and trajectory of his major works that will follow. For now, let us double down on the fact that although Babbitt most certainly disagreed with certain elements of Western thought, he did not dismiss them censoriously. Quite the opposite. He expended much of his formidable intellect studying the works he considered troublesome and wrote on them extensively. In this regard they fall lamentably short, the liturgists of inclusion in academia who call for entire swaths of literary output, for some of the brightest lights in the authorial pantheon, to be blotted out from college curricula. Such a development is no less absurd than a department of biology dismissing the study of the great apes because they find the narrative of human evolution too ape-centric.

Babbitt’s narrative is never far from what one could call his main contention: There is a fundamental difference between humanism and humanitarianism. He is credited, alongside Paul Elmer More, with establishing New Humanism, though he hardly thought it new. He reaches back to figures as far and great as Socrates and the Buddha, delving into original languages and cultural contexts, to define the humanist against the humanitarian. Although humanitarianism is to be found in every era, Babbitt finds its maturation as a social and therefore political force in the life and works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Babbitt, “The true humanist maintains a just balance between sympathy and selection.”1 He considers the disproportion between sympathy and selection the key ingredient of humanitarianism, whose respective heralds are Rousseau and Francis Bacon.2 In them he sees intellectual imbalance and dishonesty coupled with personal moral bankruptcy. They are radicals because they are reformers; Rousseau from the pole of sentiment and Bacon from that of science.

The reforming humanitarian is necessarily a radical revolutionary because he takes offense at the harmonious balance in nature that constitutes fitness. Nature via evolution requires that her creatures draw from their own variety the characteristics that will enable them to survive in their environment. Humanitarians prefer to alter their environment and human society to suit their undeveloped traits and primal instincts, thereby negating their human need to evolve. Contrast this to the humanist who responds to the better part and strives to internalize the greatest achievements of mankind as embodied by art and literary culture. This is not simply rote book-learning; rather, it involves authentic internalization that changes one’s conduct—private and public—in accordance with the literary peaks of man’s self-understanding. Humanism is a doing, an imposition of discipline by the self on the self; it is not something indiscriminately and soullessly imposed on the masses by humanitarian institutions long bereft of any conception of what best nurtures the soul.

Babbitt’s first book was Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (1908). Ostensibly a mere pro-humanities statement coupled with his theory of education, it serves in truth as the commencement of his diagnosis of the developments that plague the West. Offering here his first published definition of humanism, Babbitt begins with Latin. Here also he begins illustrating the incongruity between humanism and humanitarianism which long predates him:

[I]t would appear that humanitas was from the start a fairly elastic virtue with the Romans, and that the word came to be used rather loosely, so that in a late Latin writer, Aulus Gellius, we find a complaint that it had been turned aside from its true meaning. Humanitas, says Gellius, is incorrectly used to denote a “promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call philanthropy,” whereas the word really implies doctrine and discipline, and is applicable not to men in general but only to a select few—it is, in short, aristocratic and democratic in its implication.[^3]

Antiquity, religious and philosophical, knew that the realm of ideas, the higher plane which the human creature is singly capable of accessing through reason, both transcends and informs the material world. The effort required to overcome instinct and cause the body to follow the mind’s precepts is man’s humanist heritage, but not all will receive it. Such is hierarchical nature. It is subversion for the humanitarian, moved by Rousseauist sentiment and positivist and Baconian utilitarianism, to seek to replicate the effect of authentic enlightenment by distributing tangible idols to the uninitiated masses.

What is more, this kind of altruism is debilitating. The present day’s hyper-focus on material solutions, like making college not only available but accomplishable for all, disregards man’s need for the exercise of reason, because it inevitably results in dumbing down curricula in order to accommodate an increasingly unprepared student body. When human reason is thus disregarded by an environment that does not require struggle, the human creature is rolled back to the status of an instinctual thing, a mere reaction to external stimuli.

Following his identification of the main strains of humanitarianism that plague American colleges, Babbitt addresses how their expressions have seeped into American academic programs. He decries an initiative at Harvard to allow incoming freshmen to construct their own programs of learning as smacking of Rousseauism. On the side of Baconian humanitarianism in the university is the increasing proclivity to approach the study of language and literature scientifically; money and careerism come thereby to edge out the formation of character. He moves thence to castigate the perceived need for specialization in doctoral programs, lamenting the usurpation and enthronement of philology over literature. Per humanism, the way is between the analytical and the aesthetic, for allegiance to only one is essentially depravity.

Another imbalance is the emphasis placed by American graduate programs on originality in research, which came as an inheritance from the German model that American universities too assiduously copied. This imbalance creates an infatuation with newness and makes unavoidable the circumstance of today: an impatience with ancient literature coupled with the invention of new literary corpora just as synthetic as the contrived communities on which they are based.

The New Laokoon; An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910) is Babbitt’s second book. It is a response of sorts to a book published in 1766, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an influential German writer of the eighteenth century. Lessing’s mantra, taken from Horace, was ut pictura poesis (as in painting, so in poetry). Babbitt found it necessary to reimage Lessing’s premise, thinking it was founded not upon a pure but a pseudo-classicism arisen from the overwrought authority granted to over-strict interpretations of Aristotle and Horace. Hyper-formalization, long the alluring siren of classics via the inhumanity of professional classicists, resulted in a poetry whose sheer unpoetic aspect made inevitable the writhing throes of emotion that birthed romanticism into the world. Babbitt reflects: “Too much Aristotelian rigor in interpreting the doctrine of imitation had some awkward consequences.”3 Babbitt, respecting the erudition of Lessing, exonerates him of deliberate malice and confirms him an honest Aristotelian. Thence to Rousseau. In this context Babbitt presents the man and his works as representative of the chaotic need for emotional release against the formalism of the neo-classicists and, ultimately, of Aristotle. Whereas genuinely inspired poets and poetesses are balanced between fix and flux, the rise of Rousseau indicates the swinging of the pendulum from the role of poetic rigidity to that of prosaic gush.

Babbitt’s third published outing is Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), a survey of several Gallic literary critics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While Rousseau is not afforded his own chapter, he appears with some frequency inasmuch as the selected critics are judged by the conceptual proximity to his ideas they demonstrate. Whether through the confused morality and impulsive enthusiasm of de Staël or the relativistic and aestheticized Catholicism of Chateaubriand, Rousseau’s ruinous spirit pervades France in various forms. Voices of balance there were, mainly the Platonic reactionary Joubert, the classical and Christian conservative Nisard, or Brunetière the stoic universalist. Some struggled after balance with less success: for instance, Taine under a naturalism that metastasized into mechanical determinism. Some fell from grace: Scherer into atomistic relativity following disillusionment with religion or Renan into atheistic scientism with religious fervor.

The two longest chapters focus on Sainte-Beuve, who, like Chateaubriand, sought but never attained the discipline of Christianity and settled for an epicurean (and therefore unsettled) humanism in the manner of Montaigne. Though a shrewd psychological interpreter, Sainte-Beuve drifted into a morass of anxiety, the destiny of the undisciplined aesthete, where dwell the critics bereft of the pleasure of reading. Despite the rampant relativism of modern literary criticism, Babbitt closes without despair: “But even though the full attainment of our standard should prove impossible, some progress might at least be made towards tempering with judgment the all-pervading impressionism of contemporary literature and life.”4

Babbit’s fourth book one might think ought to have been his first: Rousseau and Romanticism (1919). Babbitt commences with terms to be defined and thereafter evaluates various permutations of the romantic miasma. At the onset romantic is contrasted with classic: “A thing is romantic when it is strange, unexpected, intense, superlative, extreme, unique, etc. A thing is classical when it belongs, on the other hand, when it is not unique, but representative of a class.”5 Babbitt locates romantic in a term used to describe the European languages that evolved from Latin, and associates classic with the development of the body of literature that would come to be called “Classics” and consists of Latin and Greek prose and poetry. With this grounding the reader is to understand that romanticism, the song of individual man, is a revolt against classicism, the song of universal man.

Classicism had developed into a formidable body of thought and learning with a hardened accretion of dogma that obscures the beauty and harmony of the literature that had hitherto sustained its authority. Romanticism was the burst dam of the suppressed emotion of writers long stifled by the deadening hyper-formality demanded by classicists since the Medieval era. Emerging from the husk of Voltaire’s France, Rousseau is impulse unbridled. His predecessor had chipped away at the Christianity upon which rested the superstructure of custom, heritage, and tradition. Rousseau idealized spontaneity and childish abandon. His gospel was primitivism, the view that man is inherently good and, when unfettered by the shackles of law and custom imposed by civilization, his natural goodness emerges and universal fraternity reigns. This is a philosophy of resentment, not unlike the gospel of social justice today, founded upon a bitter misapprehension of human nature. Babbitt diagnoses at length the utopian delusion of zealots then and now:

Inasmuch as there is no conflict between good and evil in the breast of the beautiful soul he is free to devote all his efforts to the improvement of mankind, and he proposes to achieve this great end by diffusing the spirit of brotherhood. All the traditional forms that stand in the way of this free emotional expansion he denounces as mere “prejudices,” and inclines to look on those who administer these forms as a gang of conspirators who are imposing an arbitrary and artificial restraint on the natural goodness of man and so keeping it from manifesting itself. With the final disappearance of the prejudices of the past and those who base their usurped authority upon them, the Golden Age will be ushered in at last.[^7]

Responsibility is eschewed and science is made to conform to the vision of Edenic man unlawfully bereft of his garden. The mindset not only of perpetual victimhood but of those who consider themselves called to deliver perpetual victims to the paradise of equality has its cultural origin in Rousseau’s libertinism.

Foreseeing that the consequences of Rousseau’s mobilization of decadence would further metastasize into social activism, and then into cultural dissolution, Babbitt widened the purview of his next publication, producing what is considered his most influential book: Democracy and Leadership (1924). In this work, Babbitt sets up Edmund Burke as the antithesis to Rousseau, whom readers will now understand as the archetypal entitled delinquent. “His nature is in short what I have described elsewhere as a projection of the idyllic imagination.”6 In Burke, Babbitt saw a realized representative of the balance between sense and sensibility, erudition and emotion. “He saw that the only conservatism that counts is an imaginative conservatism.”7

Babbitt continues his prophecy of Rousseau’s influence, manifest today not only in the unchecked sense of entitlement that marks our depraved elite but the academy as well. Drawing from classical and Chinese sources in their respective original languages, Babbitt recognizes in the self-destructive trajectories of Western civilizations the spirit of radical destratification that Rousseau embodies:

Rome later ran through a somewhat similar cycle: a constitutional republic resting ultimately on religious control gradually gave way with the weakening of this control to an egalitarian democracy which in turn passed over with the usual incidents of class war into a decadent imperialism.[^10]

Babbitt decries the baleful influence that Rousseau and his romanticism has come to exert over the modern age. In fairness, though, it should be said that Rousseau was in many ways a complex and profound thinker, and there was more to this advocate of “the General Will” and of Christianity than his being a progenitor of our far left. Still, his rejection of authority, his mistrust of knowledge that one had not gained for oneself, and his conviction that individuals should be free to change institutions to suit their wishes would open the door to the nescience that has poisoned our educational system and culture alike.

Aristotle knew, and Babbitt echoes, that the tyranny of failed democracies is the tyranny of the mob, the tyranny of fickle sentiment. The antidote is a renewed humanism in the manner of Babbitt’s: Self-control over self-indulgence, hierarchy over egalitarianism, a balance between imagination and discipline, and a realization that the greatest service to the future is the greatest reverence for the past.


  1. Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (1908), pg. 9 

  2. Throughout Babbitt’s oeuvre, the lion’s share of his focus is centered on combatting Rousseau’s doctrines. 

  3. Irving Babbitt, The New Laokoon; An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910), pg. 28 

  4. Irving Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), pg. 392 

  5. Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), pg. 18 

  6. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (1924), pg. 102 

  7. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (1924), pg. 91