In what God did Irving Babbitt disbelieve?

Irving Babbitt, late in life

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) often made remarks to the effect that religion was a good thing, though he never endorsed any particular religion, and certainly never joined any.  Such scholars as Claes G. Ryn have argued that Babbitt, despite his personal irreligion, is a powerful intellectual ally for believers.  After Babbitt’s death, his closest friend, Paul Elmer More, wrote that one day when they were students together at Harvard, Babbitt pointed to a church and cried out “There is the enemy!  There is the thing I hate!”  More acknowledged that this youthful exclamation was not typical of Babbitt even in his early twenties, but was issued in a moment of personal irritation that More himself had provoked by insisting over and again that those who would lead a truly moral life must embrace Christianity.  Far more typical of Babbitt is the opening of his great study Democracy and Leadership (1924):

According to Mr Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with relations between capital and labor.  In that case, one is tempted to say, the future will be very superficial.  When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn run into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Several weeks ago, I posted here about  Babbitt’s analysis of Ernest Renan’s theories.  Babbitt saw in Renan’s thought an effort to develop an ideology that Renan could use to release himself from the influence of the Roman Catholic tradition in which he was raised.  As an American of a Protestant cultural background, Babbitt was struck by the similarities between Renan’s ostensibly anti-Roman Catholic ideology on the one hand and the distinctive mental habits of Roman Catholicism on the other.  To quote again the passage of Babbitt’s essay on Renan that I cited in that earlier post:

Renan has evidently carried over to science all the mental habits of Catholicism.  As Sainte-Beuve remarks, “In France we shall remain Catholics long after we have ceased to be Christians.”  Renan, indeed, may be best defined as a scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination.  For instance, he arrives at a conception of scientific dogma, of an infallible scientific papacy, of a scientific Hell and inquisition, of resurrection and immortality through science, of scientific martyrs…  He promises us that if we imitate him we may hope to be, like himself, sanctified through science: “If all were as cultivated as I, all would be, like me, incapable of wrongdoing.  Then it would be true to say: ye are gods and sons of the Most High.”

It might not be surprising that Renan, beginning his intellectual life as a Roman Catholic surrounded by Roman Catholics, should continue to think in the terms familiar to him after he ceased to identify himself with that tradition, and that the ideology he developed to use in ridding himself of Catholicism would have many formal similarities to Catholicism.   Indeed, it might not be too much to say that Renan’s ideas, while atheistic, are in fact a phase of Roman Catholicism.   They represent something that can happen to Catholicism when belief in God is subtracted and insistence that there is no God is put in its place.  I use the word “phase” because it suggests chronological development; an ideology like Renan’s could appeal only to someone who had already had experience with Catholicism or a tradition very much like it, who had found great power in that tradition, and had begun to look for a way to escape from its influence.  Another advantage of the word “phase” is that it suggests a stage of development that is not permanent.  An ideology like Renan’s might seem very satisfactory to a person who finds the questions Catholicism asks to be most compelling, but who rejects the answers it offers.  If such a person should cease to find the questions compelling, or should find a new strength in the answers, then s/he would not find such appeal in a view like Renan’s.  S/he would look for an ideology to succeed Renan’s, perhaps another form of atheism, perhaps another theistic belief system, perhaps a new understanding of Catholicism.

In that original post, I went on from my noting of Babbitt’s remarks about Renan to wonder  whether every atheism can be analyzed as a phase of a particular religion, as something that happens to the religion that most shaped the atheist’s cultural background when you subtract belief in God or gods from it.  I might of course have gone in the opposite direction, and wondered about the extent to which atheism has shaped the theistic belief systems of the modern world.  Certainly the urgent importance many believers place on particular arguments for the existence of God, especially the Argument from Design, would suggest a constant awareness that atheists exist and that atheism is a live option for modern people.  Believers often seem more than a little bit desperate to have something to say when atheists challenge their beliefs.

After I put that post up, I wondered what religion Irving Babbitt’s own (godless!) theories exemplified.  I think there are some religious traditions which Babbitt seems to have worked at rejecting.

Irving Babbitt’s father, Edwin Dwight Babbitt, seems to have invented a sort of religion that had something to do with magnets and the healing power of color.  Edwin Dwight Babbitt has some followers today, in fact; several books of his can be found online, among them the stupendously titled The Principles of Light and Color: Including Among Other Things the Harmonic Laws of the Universe, The Etherio-Atomic Philosophy of Force, Chromo Chemistry, Chromo Therapeutics, and the General Philosophy of the Fine Forces, Together with Numerous Discoveries and Practical Applications.  Advocates of “color therapy” cite him as a pioneer in their field.

In their study of Babbitt in Twayne’s United States Author Series,  Stephen Yarbrough and Stephen C. Brennan pointed out that as a young man, Irving Babbitt was intensely ashamed of his father, and take many of the angrier passages in Irving Babbitt’s writing as denunciations of Edwin Dwight Babbitt.  This reading does clear up one of the more puzzling aspects of Irving Babbitt’s writing.  When Irving Babbitt attacks Rousseau for exalting unrestrained emotion, his superheated fervor is bewilderingly out of place next to his acknowledgment of the complexity of Rousseau’s thought and works.   When he attacks Francis Bacon on the grounds that his philosophy of science treats empirical research not as a project with scope and limits, but as an all-powerful deity, he again displays a ferocious rage that is startling coming on the heels of his learned discussion of Bacon’s place in the history of philosophy.   Read as indictments of the chicanery of Edwin Dwight Babbitt, with Rousseau and Bacon as stand-ins for the author’s hopelessly inadequate, infinitely embarrassing father, these passages make a great deal more sense.

If we see Irving Babbitt’s thought as a phase in his revolt against his father’s ideology, we might expect it to appeal to readers who grew up among the sort of “New Age” enthusiasts who continue to keep Edwin Dwight Babbitt’s name alive today.  How, then, can we account for the fact that Irving Babbitt attracted a sizable following in his own day, and continues to maintain a  readership today, among people whose backgrounds have nothing in them of “the Philosophy of the Fine Forces”?  Can we find another, more widespread tradition against which Irving Babbitt may have been rebelling?

Perhaps we can.  I suspect that Irving Babbitt’s thought may represent a post-theistic version of radical Protestantism, perhaps of Quakerism in particular.  Like the Quakers, Irving Babbitt emphasized the inward mystical experience of the individual, asserting that individuals have equal and immediate access to supernatural knowledge.  Asserting this equal access, he rejected both religious hierarchies and national particularity.  Again, Quakers do the same, denying that priests have any special connection to the divine or that there is any chosen people who have a unique relationship to the divine.  Here too, he is in step with his father, whose wrote a book called Religion as Revealed by the Material and Spiritual Universe and promoted it as a critique of “Christianity, or rather Churchianity,” including as it does chapters denouncing “The Churchianic Conception of Hell” (which reduces Creation to a “grand blunder”) and “Churchianic Infallibility” (which “leads to Hierarchical Power, crushes out individuality, and causes men to lean upon leaders or authority rather than upon principle and their own manhood.”)

Irving Babbitt breaks from the Quakers, and from his father, not only in his lack of any belief in God, but also in declaring that tradition and authority are vital to a good society.  Irving Babbitt was pugnacious about these declarations, pugnacious enough that it’s clear he was making them as a way of rebelling against someone or other.  Still, he never submits himself to any actual tradition or any recognizable authority.  What tradition did Irving Babbitt value?  All of them, apparently; his “humanism” involves a pastiche of his own very wide reading, in the course of which he read famous books written in each of a great many countries and found elements of his own ideas in each of them.  This procedure fits in with Irving Babbitt’s idea of universal equal access to supernatural knowledge, but it makes absolute hash of his claim to value tradition.  Babbitt’s idea of the Buddhist tradition, for example, consists of his interpretation of the Pali scriptures that he could read in the original, of Chinese works he’d read in translation, and of brief conversations he’d had with some students from China who took his classes.  That’s hardly the kind of thing people are talking about when they say that Buddhist traditions have shaped the lives of many people in Asia.

Indeed, Irving Babbitt’s use of the word “tradition” was the target of withering criticism in his own day (see for example Allen Tate’s essay in The Critique of Humanism,) as it isn’t clear what if anything he means by it.  Again, this fits with the idea that his theories were an atheistic phase of Quakerism.  By presenting himself as a defender of “tradition,” whatever that may mean, Babbitt was defying the Quakers, placing himself outside and against their communion.  As a specimen of Quakerism himself, however, Babbitt had inherited a theology that so thoroughly abhorred tradition that he could develop a usable concept only after confronting that theology directly and renouncing his inheritance of it.  Since Babbitt never gave any thought to that inheritance, he could not renounce it.  His thought remained Quakerly in form even when its content was most stridently anti-Quaker.

Another area where Irving Babbitt seemed to devote a great deal of energy to rebelling against radical Protestantism in general and, perhaps,  Quakerism in particular was in the question of what the imagination is.   Babbitt was a great fan of Aristotle’s theory of the imagination as an adjunct of memory, and talked about creativity in just these terms.  Aristotle’s theory that imagination as a faculty that rearranges the raw material provided by memory is the main theme of two of Babbitt’s books, The New Laokoon (1910)  and On Being Creative (1932.)  Babbitt constantly recurs to this idea in his other books as well.  For example, in his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919,) Babbitt carries out a comprehensive attack on the belief that imagination brings entirely new information into the world.  Quakers and other radical Protestants often say that the holy spirit acts within the soul of the Christian to bring entirely new things into the world, that in moments of mystical communion the Christian soul is the point where God breaks into the world.  So you hear phrases like “Genesis moment,” meaning moments when a person experiences a psychological change that is as profoundly novel as the creation of the world described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  If the Romantics and their cult of genius represented a secular version of this theological doctrine, as Babbitt indeed says they did, then Babbitt’s own decades-long campaign against the concept of imagination as a faculty that creates information ex nihilo represents a rebellion against the same doctrine.  That Babbitt could slash away at the concept for so many years, deploying so much erudition, and finding so little influence outside his own circle of followers shows that the religious roots of this concept were still providing it with a powerful source of life.  That he never gave up the fight shows that it was a matter of personal urgency to him.

Next Post


  1. JT Overstreet

     /  March 18, 2011

    Very interesting post. I was only vaguely aware of Babbitt’s father. I suspect that the fierceness of Babbitt’s reaction to his father fueled his critical insights.

    I also agree with your general observation of Babbitt’s ‘godlessness’. Ryn’s refusal to engage in an intellectually honest assessment of Babbitt’s idiosyncratic reading of “religion”, as well as Oriental traditions in general, has almost completely dismantled Babbitt’s humanistic movement, reducing it to “Rousseau bad, ‘restraint’ good”, a poorly constructed epistemological system, and a vague ethical multiculturalism.

    All of these elements could be found in Babbitt, but by sheer force of personality, he could hold them together and make them more than the sum of their parts.

  2. acilius

     /  March 18, 2011

    Thanks for the comment!

    Long ago, I spent a year reading and rereading Babbitt’s works and those of his circle; at the end, I came to an assessment virtually identical to yours. At the same time, I feel that T. S. Eliot spoke for me when he said that “Once to have been Babbitt’s student was to remain always in that position.” So to the extent that I have a worldview, it’s as much a reaction to his system as his system is a reaction to his father’s and to the radical Protestantism of the nineteenth-century American milieu of his youth.

  3. JT Overstreet

     /  March 22, 2011

    I couldn’t agree with you more, I think. Although I find myself disagreeing more or less with virtually every individual point Babbitt made, I cannot keep from asking myself, “What would Babbitt have said about that?” every time a new idea pops into my head. I am in one sense or another, wholly at the mercy of his ideas. Most recently, I have been trying to fuse Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God with Babbitt, but I can’t see that I will live long enough to do the job any justice.

    I think that one of the difficulties I have had with Babbitt’s followers or fellow travellers is that Babbitt’s ideas were a gateway from skepticism to faith, especially some variant of Catholicism, while for me the process was entirely reversed. Interestingly, there are no Buddhist Babbittians (from what I can tell).

  4. acilius

     /  March 22, 2011

    One of the contributors to Irving Babbitt: Man and Teacher tells a story you may remember. Babbitt had been mentioned in some publication. He gave the man a copy. It described him as a Buddhist. The man looked up in astonishment and turned to Babbitt. “I didn’t know you wee a Buddhist!” “Neither did I,” replied IB.

    Babbitt had those students from China, Lin Yutang most notably, also Wu Mi and others. Lin had been raised a Christian and would pass through a Buddhist phase before returning to Christianity. It’s true Lin did not consider himself a disciple of Babbitt’s at any point, but he did acknowledge him as an influence, in something like the way you’ve described; here is an article about it. It was in First Things in 1999, you may have seen it at the time. If you’ve found this post, I’m sure you’ve already explored the National Humanities Institute’s material about Babbitt, including this article about Wu Mi. I don’t know if either of those men ever qualified as Babbittian Buddhists, and even if they did I’m sure you’re right that there are none such remaining in today’s world.

    I’d say that for me Babbitt’s ideas were a gateway from one form of skepticism to another form of skepticism. A more mature skepticism, maybe; before Babbitt, I rejected Christian dogmas, but assumed in a breezy way that the rosier aspects of liberal Christianity were obviously true and didn’t need defending. After I engaged with Babbitt’s work, I could see just how dependent my thinking had been on beliefs I explicitly rejected. If anything, that left me more open to change than I had been before. After studying Babbitt, I was willing to be convinced that Christianity was true.

    It was actually Paul Elmer More’s apologetic, The Sceptical Approach to Religion, that closed that door for me, at least for a time. In that book, More consistently evades all the major issues that have traditionally vexed monotheists. He’s so slippery, in fact, that he hardly says anything at all. That’s such a stark contrast with his admirably straightforward style in his essays on secular literature, or even his more scholarly treatment of Christian thought in his six-volume study called The Greek Tradition, that I couldn’t help but think that embracing the Anglicanism of the Episcopalian Church had corrupted him gravely. In my recoil from that apparent corruption, I stayed away from church until I met my wife. She’s so religious we attend two churches regularly; the one where I am particularly comfortable is, as a matter of fact, Episcopalian.

%d bloggers like this: