Humanists, Idiots, and the Rest

The other day, Jessica Hagy posted an Indexed comic that made me want to talk about two things:

Regular readers of this site will see the first point coming.  It’s to do with the word “humanist.”  I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933,) an American literary scholar who founded a school of thought sometimes known as “The New Humanism.”  In many of his writings, such as 1908’s “What is Humanism?,” Babbitt concerned himself with the definition of the words “humanist” and “humanism”:

The first step in our quest would seem to be to go back to the Latin words (humanus, humanitas) from which all the words of our group are derived. Most of the material we need will be found in a recent and excellent study by M. Gaston Boissier of the ancient meanings of humanitas. From M. Boissier’s paper it 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 not democratic in its implication (Noctes Atticae, 13.17).

The confusion that Gellius complains of is not only interesting in itself, but closely akin to one that we need to be on guard against to-day. If we are to believe Gellius, the Roman decadence was like our own age in that it tended to make love for one’s fellow men, or altruism, as we call it, do duty for most of the other virtues. It confused humanism with philanthropy. Only our philanthropy has been profoundly modified, as we shall see more fully later, by becoming associated with an idea of which only the barest beginnings can be found in antiquity—the idea of progress.

It was some inkling of the difference between a universal philanthropy and the indoctrinating and disciplining of the individual that led Aulus Gellius to make his protest. Two words were probably needed in his time; they are certainly needed today. A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and desire to serve the great cause of this progress, should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian, and his creed may be designated as humanitarianism. From the present tendency to regard humanism as an abbreviated and convenient form for humanitarianism there must arise every manner of confusion. The humanitarian lays stress almost solely upon breadth of knowledge and sympathy. The poet Schiller, for instance, speaks as a humanitarian and not as a humanist when he would “clasp the millions to his bosom,” and bestow “a kiss upon the whole world.” The humanist is more selective in his caresses. Aulus Gellius, who was a man of somewhat crabbed and pedantic temper, would apparently exclude sympathy almost entirely from his conception of humanitas and confine the meaning to what he calls cura et disciplina; and he cites the authority of Cicero. Cicero, however, seems to have avoided any such one-sided view. Like the admirable humanist that he was, he no doubt knew that what is wanted is not sympathy alone, nor again discipline and selection alone, but a disciplined and selective sympathy. Sympathy without selection becomes flabby, and a selection which is unsympathetic tends to grow disdainful.

Babbitt’s goal in drawing a sharp distinction between “humanist” and “humanitarian” was in part to efface another distinction.  Babbitt was deeply read in many languages, including several ancient languages of India.  He wanted to find a set of ideas that sages writing in every highly literate culture had expressed.  Indeed, he thought he had found such a set of ideas; by a wondrous coincidence, these ideas, the veritable Wisdom of the Ages, corresponded exactly to the ideas he had been expounding since his first publication, an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics” that stemmed from a lecture he gave when he was Instructor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana in 1896.  By laying such stress on the difference between, on the one hand, a “Humanist” who studies great literary works of the past and strives to conform his or her will to the ethical teachings that underlie those works, and on the other a “Humanitarian” who does good deeds to benefit others, Babbitt created a space in which to conflate the idea of a person who studies “the humanities” and a person who emphasizes that which all people have in common.  These two meanings would seem to need two words quite as urgently as do the meanings Babbitt found Aulus Gellius discussing, but by lumping them together Babbitt can lay claim to the Great Books of every civilization and enlist them in his campaign to establish a sort of substitute for religion and nationalism.

The second point I want to make is about the words “Idiot” and “Opportunist.”  Say you are a wealthy, powerful person, in a position to advance careers, allocate moneys, make introductions, and do all the things that patrons do for their hangers-on.  From your point of view, it would be foolish not to suspect a person who is showing you kindness of opportunism.  You will be approached by so many people who simply want hat you can give them, and such a large subset of that group will be capable of doing you real harm if you trust them too far, that you would stand to lose a great deal unless you kept your guard up.

At the same time, it would be natural for you to assume that anyone who is unkind to you is an idiot.  You know what you can do for that person.  The things you can do are valued highly by most people; you probably value them more highly than most, or you would not have succeeded in acquiring the power to give them to your favorites.  However, there may be some people who genuinely do not want the things you have to give.  Irving Babbitt is something of an example.  He alienated several presidents of Harvard and virtually all of his faculty colleagues by his strident criticism of the trends in higher education during his day.  Though his students included men plainly destined by birth and talent for the highest positions in American life, he did not cultivate them, instead building a following among bookish men marked out for academic careers at provincial institutions.  It was a matter of sheer chance that any influential people took an interest in him; if not for that chance, doubtless he would have ended up as a shopkeeper in his native Ohio.  Babbitt was no idiot; he simply did not want the things that powerful people had to offer.  Their position may very well have distorted their vision of him, as it generally does distort their vision of people who lack interest in their bounties.

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