Paradox of Humanism

The oldest of Irving Babbitt’s published writings is an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1897 (in volume 79, issue 473, pages 355-365.)   Babbitt, then in his early 30s, ends this piece with this paragraph:

There was never a greater need of the Hellenic spirit than there is today, and especially in this country, if that charge of lack of measure and sense of proportion that foreigners bring against Americans is founded in fact.  As Matthew Arnold has admirably said, it is the Greek writers who best show the modern mind the path that it needs to take; for modern man cannot, like the man of the Middle Ages, live by the imagination and the religious faculty alone; on the other hand, he cannot live solely by the exercise of his reason and understanding.  It is only by the fusion of these two elements that of his nature that he can hope to attain a balanced growth, and this fusion of the reason and the imagination is found realized more perfectly than elsewhere in the Greek classics of the great Age.  Those who can receive the higher initiation into the Hellenic spirit will doubtless remain few in number, but those few will wield a potent force for good, each in his own circle, if only from the ability they will thereby have acquired to escape from contemporary illusions.  For of him who has caught the profounder teachings of Greek literature we may say, in the words of the Imitation, that he is released from a multitude of opinions.  (Quoted from pages 57-58 of Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings, edited by George A. Panichas; University of Nebraska Press, 1981.)

I find the paraphrase of Thomas á Kempis strangely telling.  Babbitt continually asserted the unity of human experience, arguing that the similarities between a properly lived human life in any one time or place and a properly lived life in any other time and place will prove to be more important than the differences between them.  To sustain this idea, it is necessary to do two apparently contradictory things at the same time.  On the one hand, one must hold as few opinions as possible and set as low a value as possible on opinions, since opinions are plainly among the things that set one person apart from another.  On the other hand, one must have an opinion ready to account for each of the differences that sort people into groups.

Babbitt himself abounded with opinions.  Sometimes the number of his opinions, the range of topics about which he had opinions, and the vehemence with which he expressed his opinions drove Babbitt to the point of self-parody.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chapter six of his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), titled “Romantic Love.”    In this piece, Babbitt analyzes the love lives of various leading Romantic poets and novelists, arguing that the instability and eccentricity of some of their intimate attachments was the consequence of their theory of the will, and denouncing them ferociously for it.  Babbitt hands down his verdicts on Novalis, Shelley, Chateaubriand, and any number of other figures in such dizzyingly rapid succession that one cannot but smile at his gusto.  I’ve often suspected that Vladimir Nabokov had at some point read Babbitt’s withering attack on Novalis’ infatuation with the pubescent Sophie von Kühn and used it as the basis of Lolita.

I bring this up, not to beat old Babbitt when he’s down (he’s been dead since 1933, you can’t get much further down than that,) but to point out that I have fallen into the same dilemma.  In December 2009, I reviewed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s performance at the Albert Hall on this blog; in that review, I wrote the following sentences about Hester Goodman’s rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag”:

When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.

In that “indispensable part of the human experience” and the proclamations that surround it, we have a humanistic opinion eliding the differences of sexual identity and sexual response that often sort people into groups.  More recently, I asked here “Why do people have opinions about homosexuality?”  In that post, I wondered whether there was any need for anyone to hold an opinion about that topic.  Clearly those two posts don’t sit very comfortably together.  Perhaps their apparent contradiction, like Babbitt’s apparent self-contradiction, points up a paradox that humanists in general are hard put to escape.


  1. “Surely the charge of pedantry holds no terrors for anyone who speaks the words phthisis and chthonic aloud, and gives them no motive to suppress the initial consonant of either word.”

    Nice turn of phrase. If I’m not careful that one will sneak into something I write sometime twisted around in such a way as to not make me recognize it as something I stole.

  2. acilius

     /  August 10, 2011

    Steal it if you like, Jules, I’m done with it.

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