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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Paul Elmer More fans, take note!

Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) and Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) were the co-founders of a school of thought known as the “New Humanism” or “American Humanism.”  These literary scholars sought to establish that a particular set of propositions about morals and psychology could be found in the most respected books of many of the world’s great literatures.  Babbitt was an irreligious man, but he dutifully included the Bible on his list of Great Books; he took a serious academic interest in early Buddhist writings, and late in life began a study of Confucius.

While Babbitt included sacred texts in his studies in an attempt to show that there is a form of moralism that is compatible with many religions but dependent on none of them, More took a different approach.  He had a strong, though vague, religious leaning; after youthful studies of the Upanishads and other holy books from ancient India, he settled into Anglo-Catholicism.  By far the most popular of More’s books in his lifetime was The Sceptical Approach to Religion; I suspect its popularity is based solely on its title.  While the rest of his books are written in a remarkably clear, easy style, The Sceptical Approach to Religion is largely unreadable.  Intended as a work of apologetics, the book consists primarily of disavowals, qualifications, and backpedaling of every sort.  The Sceptical Approach to Religion appeared in 1934, the year after Irving Babbitt’s death.  I suspect that if the notoriously pugnacious Babbitt had been alive to give his opinion of the book, More would never have dared release such a mealy-mouthed production.

Although The Sceptical Approach to Religion presents readers with an extraordinarily murky version of More’s religious ideas, his most sustained scholarly work, the five-volume treatise known as The Greek Tradition, paints a clearer picture.  The full title of the series is The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon (399 BC to 451 AD.)  Its thesis is that the development of ancient Greek philosophy beginning with Plato found its logical culmination in the debates at the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrines that emerged from those debates.  The study has its eccentric aspects certainly, and shows its age.  Nor can a nonbeliever quite take More’s thesis seriously.  Nonetheless, I can say that it has repaid me well every time I’ve read it, for all my skepticism.

Now we have a new book that apparently reflects a research program similar in scope, if not in theological purpose.  Marian Hillar, a professor of philosophy and biochemistry* at Texas Southern University, has published a book called From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.)  A review of the book by Patricia Johnston of Brandeis University was recently sent to members of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South.  Professor Johnston writes:

In this sweeping review, Marian Hillar attempts to trace the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, from the early pre-Socratic philosophers to Tertullian, with a special focus on Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), Justin Martyr (115–165 CE), and Tertullian (160–225 CE).

Paul Elmer More would have been alarmed at that part; he objected to the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that early Christians thought of the Holy Spirit as something on a par, not with God the Father and God the Son, but with the communion of the saints or other expressions that might very well name something of great religious importance, but that no one thought of as one of God’s Persons.  Still, More had some reservations about Justin Martyr’s orthodoxy and thought of Tertullian primarily as a notorious heretic, so he might not have found it too hard to believe that they were precursors of Trinitarianism.

*Professor Hillar was a medical doctor before earning his philosophy Ph.D.

Inner Check, Inner Dash

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) were American literary scholars, famous in their day for arguing that Socrates, the Buddha, Samuel Johnson, and a wide array of other sages throughout the history of the world had conceived of the freedom of the will as the ability to defy one’s impulses.  Babbitt and More gave this conception a variety of names; perhaps the most familiar of these names is “the inner check.”

The other day, I picked up a copy of the August 2012 issue of Scientific American magazine while I was waiting for the pharmacist to fill a prescription.  Lo and behold, a column by Michael Shermer described neurological study conducted in 2007 by Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard.  Doctors Brass and Haggard found support for an hypothesis that will sound familiar to students of Babbitt and More.  As Mr Shermer puts it:

[I]f we define free will as the power to do otherwise, the choice to veto one impulse over another is free won’t. Free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice. I could have had the steak—and I have—but by engaging in certain self-control techniques that remind me of other competing impulses, I vetoed one set of selections for another.

Support for this hypothesis may be found in a 2007 study in the Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard, who employed a task… in which subjects could veto their initial decision to press a button at the last moment. The scientists discovered a specific brain area called the left dorsal frontomedian cortex that becomes activated during such intentional inhibitions of an action: “Our results suggest that the human brain network for intentional action includes a control structure for self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions.” That’s free won’t.

If this is true, then Babbitt and More’s works take on a new interest.  If such a control structure exists in the human brain network, it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that humans would be consciously aware of it.  There are any number of facts about the operation of our brains that no one ever seems to have guessed until quite recent scientific findings pointed to them.  So, if Babbitt and More were right and a great many distinguished intellectuals operating in many times and cultures conceived of moral agency as a matter of “self-initiated inhibition or withholding of intended actions,” it would be reasonable to ask whether this conception is evidence that the process Doctors Brass and Haggard detected in the left dorsal frontomedian cortex is perceptible to the person who owns the brain in which it occurs.

The same issue included a couple of other interesting notes on psychological and neurological topics.  A bit by Ferris Jabr discusses Professors George Mandler and Lia Kvavilashvili, who have been studying a phenomenon they call “mind-pops.”  A mind-pop is a fragments of memory which suddenly appears in one’s conscious mind for no apparent reason.  Most mind-pops are very slight experiences; the example in the column is a person washing dishes who suddenly thinks of the word “orangutan.”  That’s the sort of thing a person might forget seconds after it occurred.  Trivial as an individual mind-pop might be, perhaps as a class of experiences they may point to significant aspects of mental functioning.  Professors Kvavilashvili and Mandler:

propose that mind pops are often explained by a kind of long-term priming. Priming describes one way that memory behaves: every new piece of information changes how the mind later responds to related information. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish-and-chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” This phenomenon can boost creativity because, she says, “if many different concepts remain activated in your mind, you can make connections more efficiently than if activation disappears right away.”

The same researchers also suspect that mind-pops have a connection to a variety of mental illnesses and emotional disorders, so it isn’t all so cheerful as that paragraph may suggest.

Morten Kringelbach and Kent Berridge, in a feature article titled “New Pleasure Circuit Found in the Brain,” describe a study conducted in the 1950s that involved electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain.  Subjects expressed a strong desire that the stimulation should continue.  From that desire, researchers concluded that the areas in question were producing pleasure.  However, more recent work suggests that these are in fact areas that produce, not pleasure, but desire.  Indeed, none of the patients in the original study actually said that they enjoyed the stimulation, they simply said that they wanted more of it.  Researchers were jumping to an unwarranted conclusion when they interpreted that desire as a sign of pleasure.  The actual process by which the brain produces pleasure is rather more complicated than those researchers, and the “pleasure-center” model of the brain that grew out of their work, might lead one to assume.

The Nation, 26 September 2011

James Longenbach contributes a surprisingly sympathetic review of a collection of letters by the young T. S. Eliot.  Longenbach argues that Eliot’s Unitarian family made a fetish of doubt and complexity, and that the aspects of Eliot’s life and thought that puzzled them came from a rebellion against this fetish, against “the Eliot Way.”  Eliot rebelled against what he called “the Way of Doubt” by time and again taking actions that entailed an irrevocable commitment.  As Longenbach puts it:

In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.

Considering this disposition of Eliot’s, and in view of his time and place, it is nothing short of amazing that he did not join the Blackshirts.  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone:

In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.

The man’s neighbors, in their fascination with the details of the crime, might easily fall into a psychological or other scientific explanation of the killer’s motivation, which would in turn reduce the crime itself to the ordinary level of everyday life.  The medieval view insists that murder, like other sin, is not ordinary, that it is a thing set apart from the created world around us.  Eliot may not have craved murder, but he did crave that sort of setting apart.  For him, it was a lie to say that the whole world is one thing and that it can be reduced to one set of laws.  Eliot’s onetime teacher Irving Babbitt was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “There are two laws discrete,/ not reconciled–/ Law for man and law for thing;/ The last builds town and fleet,/ But it runs wild,/ And doth the man unking… Let man serve law for man,/ Live for friendship, live for love,/ For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;/ The state may follow how it can,/ As Olympus follows Jove.”  These lines come from a poem Emerson dedicated to W. H. Channing.  W. H. Channing was the nephew of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, and like Emerson was himself a Unitarian preacher.  The Channings, Eliots, and Emersons were all related to each other, so Eliot likely perked up when he heard Babbitt quote these lines.

While Emerson may have concluded that the “Law for Man” is best observed by general friendliness, Babbitt drew a more sobering conclusion.  In his first book, Literature and the American College (which takes the lines from Emerson as its epigraph,) Babbitt explained that he called himself a “humanist” rather than a “humanitarian” because the former word suggests a more selective sympathy than does the latter.  One can see the humanitarian impulse, in Babbitt’s sense of the word, in the neighbors’ insistent focus on the practical details of the murder, in the implication that the act of murder can be reduced to those details, that it can therefore be put on a level with other acts a person might perform.  The humanitarian impulse thus reduces even murder to one form of behavior among many.  In an age dominated by humanitarianism, murder loses its terror.  The word “mystery” comes to mean, not that of which one may not speak because it lies outside the ordinary realm of our experience, but that of which one must inquire until it can be reduced to the ordinary realm of our experience.  The “murder mystery,” a story in which investigation reveals that a murder was of a piece with the ordinary life around it, thus emerges as the signature genre of the humanitarian age.

Longenbach doesn’t mention Babbitt, through the study of whom I first became seriously interested in Eliot.  Nor does he mention Eliot’s Royalist politics, one of the aspects of Eliot’s thought that kept Babbitt from taking his former student seriously.  However, I was thinking of Eliot the Royalist earlier today, when I offered a comment on the website Secular Right.  A post there complained about a speech Prince Charles had made about global warming.  As rightists, the authors of the site aren’t much interested in speeches about global warming; as secularists, when they hear such a speech from the heir apparent to a throne which sits at the center of the established Church of England, they are quick to attribute it to a yearning for the apocalyptic.  For good measure, the post threw in an identification of the prince as an “aristocratic idler.”  I suggested in reply that this yearning might be a sign that the House of Windsor is an unsatisfactory sort of monarchy:

It might be better if Prince Charles truly were an “aristocratic idler.” As it is, his handlers set myriad tasks for him each day, among them the delivery of public statements that reassure various groups that their concerns are being taken seriously at the highest levels of the state. This frees the people who actually exercise power at the highest levels of the state to ignore those concerns. If the prince and his immediate family were relieved of this chore and their other public functions, they would have an opportunity to withdraw into seclusion, appearing only on those occasions when they might strike awe into the natives. Then the UK might have a proper monarchy, distant, godlike, surrounded by an aura of high majesty and cold terror. Then there would be no need for the heir apparent to repeat warnings about the end of the world; the sound of his name would suffice to fill the people who find such warnings emotionally satisfying with the dread they crave. Failing that, you might as well have a republic.

Walter Bagehot said that there can be arguments for having a splendid court and arguments for having no court, but that there can be no arguments for having a shabby court. I’d say that there can be arguments for having a terrifying king and arguments for having no king, but that there can be no arguments for having an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person as king.

I call Charles “an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person,” not only because his statement is a pack of cliches, but also because of his busy-ness and because he is so familiar a figure.  Irving Babbitt criticized the cult of busy-ness in his own time as something that robbed life of depth; today, the same cult has gone to such extremes that it has reduced people to interchangeability.  By the end of the day, virtually anyone who had completed Prince Charles’ schedule would be indistinguishable from Prince Charles.  And his constant presence in the public eye makes it impossible to accept the prince as a figure embodying any kind of mystique.   As humanitarianism has made murder an ordinary act, albeit a costly one, and murderers ordinary folk, so too it has made kingship an ordinary job and kings ordinary fellows.  I don’t disagree with the Secular Right crowd that there is an unwholesome yearning for the apocalyptic afoot in our time; though perhaps that yearning is in fact simply a yearning for an event that will cast ordinariness aside once and for all.

(more…)

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.

“The Meeting,” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Paul Elmer More’s essay on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, mentioned below, quotes Whittier’s poem “The Meeting.”  The poem is long, and not aimed at 21st century literary sensibilities.  It begins with a long passage from a visitor who reproves Whittier for attending the silent meetings of Quakers, deprecating them as “dull rites of drowsy-head” and extolling the outdoors as the proper place to worship the God who created nature.   In response, Whittier explains that wilderness is full of distractions, while the surroundings within the meetinghouse focus the mind on God.  More was an excellent critic, and chose the perfect lines to quote:

But nature is not solitude:
She crowds us with her thronging wood;
Her many hands reach out to us,
Her many tongues are garrulous;
Perpetual riddles of surprise
She offers to our ears and eyes;
….

And so I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world’s control;
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known
Falls off and leaves us God alone.

I recommend the whole poem.  Not least because the theme developed in my earlier post, that Quakerism tends to obscure the importance of habit in human life, is partially belied by Whittier’s lively interest in this topic.

Friends Journal, January 2011

During our Christmas break, the Believer and I read the latest issue of the Quaker publication Friends Journal.  I also read several books, among them the third volume of Paul Elmer More’s Shelburne Essays. The themes of this month’s issue of the magazine seemed to coincide in some interesting ways with the themes More explored in that 1905 collection.

Phil H. Gulley’s article on “The Meaning of Universalism” brings to mind two of More’s essays, the one on Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, also the one on William Cowper.  More argues that Cowper was the first English poet to make home life a major theme of poetry, and that Whittier was at his finest in exploring scenes of home.  In that way, Gulley is a follower of Whittier, for his essay is strongest in its vivid scenes from his childhood home.  Explaining his belief that there is no Hell, but an afterlife in which every human will proceed to salvation, Gulley tells of his parents insisting that he invite every child in the neighborhood to his eighth birthday party.  From that point on, he couldn’t imagine that God would give a party and leave anyone uninvited.

In his essay on William Cowper, More connects the poet’s poor mental health to his fervent belief in Jean Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.   Calvin argued that the human will is powerless to accomplish anything of importance, certainly powerless to earn salvation, so that it is only by the free and arbitrary grace of God that some few souls, the Elect, are spared damnation.  Of this doctrine, More writes:

Good Dr Holmes has somewhere written that it was only decent for a man who believed in this doctrine to go mad.  Well, Cowper believed in it; there was no insulating pad of worldly indifference between his faith and his nerves, and he went mad.

The most obvious thing about this Universalism is that it is a form of Predestinarianism. It differs from Calvin’s doctrine only in expanding the number of the Elect to include all humans.  I cannot see that one form of Predestinarianism should be radically healthier than another.  Perhaps the belief that our actions on earth are of no importance to a kindly, indulgent God who can deny us nothing we might desire would lead to another set of delusions than those which would haunt believers in a doctrine that preaches that our actions are of no importance to a capricious, inscrutable God who will save or damn us without reason, but neither doctrine seems likely to inspire clear-headed realism.

If Gulley himself has kept his wits intact, I hasten to add, it is less likely because of an “insulating pad of worldly indifference” than it is a testament to the parents he commemorates so fondly.  As it so happens, Gulley’s father Norm was a coworker and a good friend of my father’s, and I was an occasional visitor in the home where he grew up.  My visits came after Phil Gulley had left for school, but I can confirm that they had created one of the most wholesome environments imaginable.

Another piece in the issue describes people who came from very different environments.  In her “Teaching in a Culture of Poverty and Violence,” Stephanie Wilder describes her work as a teacher in a facility for juvenile offenders in Philadelphia who have been convicted of serious crimes.  Some of these crimes are very serious indeed; the Believer and I both lost sleep after reading that “One of my students raped and brutally beat an 87-year-old woman.  He waited for her daughter to arrive home and then did the same to her.”  Wilder begins the next paragraph by acknowledging that “My students are unlikely to change.  The recidivism rate in juvenile justice is over 90 percent.”

Wilder turns to an obvious question:  “So why do I continue to work in juvie?”  After saying that as a Quaker, she is “reminded to seek that of God in everyone,” Wilder goes on to say that “I have learned to let go of my attachment to outcomes.”  She focuses on what she can control- her own behavior- not on her students’ behavior, which she can’t control.   “The boys use the expression, ‘Don’t test my gangsta!’  It means, ‘Don’t push me so far that I lose control.’  I feel that my ‘gangsta’ is my Quaker beliefs and values in the face of anger and violence.  I am sorely disappointed in myself when my gangsta is tested and I lose control and raise my voice or get disappointed.”

I’m sure Wilder’s basic point is sound- there is no point in focusing on other people’s behavior when all we can control is our own.  It is possible to take this too far, however.  Her presence in the classroom has an influence on the boys.  All of the stories she tells make it sound like her students respond to her principled nonviolence and solicitous concern for that of God in them with unbounded contempt.  If that is the case, then she may in fact be making it more likely that they will reoffend.  If the face of the justice system is someone they regard as a joke, then it can hardly deter them from continuing with the lives of crime in which they have already become so deeply invested.  As I reads the piece, I kept hoping that Wilder would describe some way that she found to use therapeutic methods based on the “Criminal Thinking” psychological model, or some other approach that has actually had success steering violent offenders away from their patterns.

Left-wing conservatism

I’ve long been curious about the phrase “left-wing conservative.”   It’s a label that’s been applied to Christopher Lasch, for example.  And Jacques Delors once declared that “We have to struggle against the conservatives from all sides, not only the right-wingers, but also the left-wing conservatives.”  Though I’ve never gotten around to any of Christopher Lasch’s writings, I’ve always been under the impression that they were well worth reading.  And of course, any enemy of Jacques Delors is a friend of mine.  So one of my goals in life is to get a clear understanding of what the phrase “left-wing conservatism” might mean and to live up to that idea. 

In the 1 March issue of The Nation, Rebecca Solnit makes some general remarks that might serve as a definition of of left-wing conservatism.  Writing of the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, Solnit grants that for some participants those celebrations might reinforce the privileged positions they enjoy in the existing social order.  But even the conservative aspects of Mardi Gras don’t keep it from being something leftists should embrace.  Considering the ways that the African-American “Indians” and other groups use Mardi Gras to assert power against the local elites, Solnit writes:

The Mardi Gras Indians head out on their own without announced routes on Mardi Gras and a few other days every year, but making the costumes and maintaining the communities lasts all year. This is probably the very essence of Mardi Gras and all Carnival as I understand it: maintaining community.

Now, I believe that community is a subversive force. To understand what I mean by subversive, let’s go back to the defeatists. They, like much of our society, speak a language in which everything but a pie-in-the-sky kind of victory is defeat, in which everything that isn’t black is white, in which if you haven’t won, you’ve surely lost. If you asked them, they’d say we live in a capitalist society. In fact, we live in an officially capitalist society, but what prevents that force from destroying all of us is the social aid and pleasure we all participate in: parents don’t charge their children for raising them; friends do things for each other, starting with listening without invoicing for billable hours; nurses and mechanics and everyone in between does a better job than money can pay for for beautiful reasons all their own; people volunteer to do something as specific as read to a blind person or as general as change the world. Our supposedly capitalist society is seething with anticapitalist energy, affection and joy, which is why most of us have survived the official bleakness. In other words, that’s not all there is to our system. Our society is more than and other than capitalist in a lot of ways.

To say that Carnival reconciles us to the status quo is to say that it affirms the world as it is. Now, for people in Rex, their Mardi Gras probably reinforces their world, but for those in some of the other krewes and rites, the same is true, and the reinforcement of the survival of the mutual aid societies that emerged after slavery is not reaffirmation of capitalism, domination, etc. It reinforces, in other words, their ongoing survival of capitalism and racism. Carnival also reinforces joy and ownership of public space and a kind of confidence in coexisting with a wide array of strangers. New Orleans itself is the place where, unlike the rest of the United States, slaves were not so cut off from chances to gather and chances to maintain their traditions. Jazz and jazz funerals, second-line parades and more derive in many ways from this subversive remnant of a non-European tradition. They didn’t bow down. This is something to celebrate, and it is what is celebrated by some of the people in the streets.

To me, these paragraphs make sense of the revolutionary rhetoric and destabilizing policies that have long characterized the American Right.   For Marx and Engels, the wild churning of capitalism was proof that the system would eventually shake itself apart, generating a proletarian uprising and ushering in communism.  For Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, that same wild churning is the proof that capitalism is destined to reign forever and ever. 

And Gingrich and Romney may well be right.  A labor market in which the highest rewards are reserved for people who are willing to move frequently and move across continents will tend to produce a large population of atomized individuals, unconnected to any community of equals, dependent on their employers not only for their income, but also for their identity.  The flux and churn of hypercapitalism dissolve every relationship not based on monetary exchange, smashing every social refuge in which working people might look for shelter.  Isolated from each other, those who do not own capital are helpless to resist those who do. 

Solnit’s words about tradition and community imply a defense, not only of Mardi Gras and of Carnival, but also of narrative.  A tradition allows us to feel connected to people at other times and in other places because we are all part of the same story; a community takes people who share this sense of connectedness and puts them to work together.  Hypercapitalism drains narrative from life.  Narrative concepts like tradition, community, meaning, endings, seem artificial to people whose lives are largely bounded by markets and machines.  Markets fluctuate, and may in time dissolve.  Machines operate, and may eventually stop.  However, neither system reaches a conclusion.   The forces that drive them into action at one moment are the same forces that stop them at another moment.  To the extent that my life is bounded by markets and machines, therefore, narrative seems to me like an artificial convention imposed on experience.  But how do we know that history is not in some real sense a grand narrative, that our lives are not in some real sense narratives nested inside it?  I can’t see why one of these views should bear a heavier burden of proof than the other.     

Perhaps “left-wing conservatism” is not an oxymoron, but a tautology.  If we are to resist the power elite, whether to overthrow them or simply to put limits to the power they wield over the rest of us, we cannot do so as solitary individuals, but only as communities.  Communities need cultivating and defending.  It takes multiple generations to cultivate and defend a community; so, community is an inherently conservative value.  If leftism means opposition to the power elite, it therefore is an inherently conservative project. 

One conservative thinker who would have reacted with horror if he had ever been described as a leftist was Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt taught French at Harvard from 1894 until his death.  His name is often mentioned these days by American academics of a traditionalist conservative bent.  Babbitt and his friend Paul Elmer More were  the founders and guiding lights of the “New Humanism,” a school of thought that made a splash in 1930 when it protested against the attempt of another, quite different, group of American thinkers to appropriate the same label. 

Babbitt and More identified themselves as fiercely right-wing.  Babbitt’s political testament, his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership, was widely criticised as being all leadership and no democracy; More, as editor of The Nation, responded to the Ludlow massacre by proclaiming that “To the civilized man, the rights of property are more important than the right to life” (in an essay collected in Aristocracy and Justice, page 136.)   Yet I would argue that the emphasis Babbitt and More place on tradition, gentility, transcendental belief, and historical continuity puts them in need of a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism.  These things simply cannot coexist with the demands of the modern market economy.  Tradition counts for nothing against the new new thing; self-restraint and well-curated taste count for nothing against the tides of fashion; transcendental belief counts for nothing against the need to appeal to youthful demographics; historical continuity counts for nothing against the need to impress the shareholders today.  Babbitt acknowledged as much on several occasions.  For example, in Democracy and Leadership Babbitt quoted Henry Ford’s remark that the prohibition of alcohol was a necessary consequence of mass production, that “Liquor had to go out when the Model T came in.”  Babbitt’s responded was that Americans had become so craven a people that they would degrade the Constitution for the sake of mere things. 

Another article in this issue brought Babbitt and More to my mind.  That was William Deresiewicz’ essay about Tolstoy.  Deresiewicz uses a construction that Babbitt and More labored to avoid, what might be called the “Academic We.”  There is of course the Royal “We“, first-person plural pronouns monarchs use to refer to themselves when they are speaking in their official capacity.  And there is the Editorial “We,”  which editorialists use when expressing the official position of their publications.  In a case of the Academic “We,” a college professor uses first person plural pronouns when characterizing the current state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.    Deresiewicz’ essay includes a splendid example.  Tolstoy’s later writings are:

Not a body of work the contemporary reader is apt to find congenial. Leave aside the religiosity. We have learned to distrust the story with a message, any message. We disdain the writer who comes to us bearing ideas or ideologies. We don’t like a moralizer, don’t want to be preached at, don’t believe in answers, in endings. We put our faith in ambiguity, complexity, irresolution, doubt. Life isn’t that simple, we think. It doesn’t happen that way. But that is exactly what Tolstoy believes.

The Academic “We,” even when I hear myself using it, always leaves me with a desire to quote Oscar Brown, Junior’s song about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”  Who is this “contemporary reader” who has learned all these attitudes?  Deresiewicz’ description fits my habitual impulses fairly well, I admit.  But that may just be because living among markets and machines has inclined me to disbelieve in narrative.  Perhaps there are “answers” in the world.  Perhaps there are “endings” to be reached. 

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