Irving Babbitt and the Christians*
Claes G. Ryn

The essay by James W. Tuttleton in the thirtieth-anniversary issue of Modern Age (Summer/Fall 1987) calls for some comment. "T. S. Eliot and the Crisis of the Modern" brings the reader back to the debate about humanism and religion that took place in the 1920s and 30s. Professor Tuttleton discusses the critique of the so-called New Humanism that was offered by Eliot and a few like-minded Christians. Their main target was the recognized intellectual leader of the movement, Irving Babbitt, who figures prominently in Professor Tuttleton's essay. (Babbitt's humanism should not to be confused with the movement associated with John Dewey or with what is today called secular humanism.) Eliot greatly admired his former teacher at Harvard, but, after converting to Christianity, he published some critical reflections in which he questioned Babbitt's idea of the inner check and stressed the need for grounding ethics in traditional religion. Babbitt's close friend and ally Paul Elmer More had evolved in the direction of a Christian position and was treated with less suspicion. That Tuttleton should wish to revisit this intellectual controversy is understandable. It involves literary and intellectual figures of special stature in the twentieth century and contains much of continuing interest.

The debate can be fully understood and evaluated only after the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of the participants have been carefully assessed. A perplexing feature of Tuttleton's essay is that it formulates the issue of humanism and religion in much the same terms in which it was formulated half a century ago by the above-mentioned Christian critics of the New Humanists. Since that time an extensive scholarly literature has grown up that challenges the terms and the validity of that old critique of the New Humanism. What is puzzling is that Tuttleton's essay does not in any way reflect that writing. The reason may be that the article is primarily intended to present the issue of humanism and religion as it appeared to Eliot and some kindred writers like Allen Tate. Needless to say, Tuttleton should not be held responsible for views of theirs that he quotes or paraphrases. But he does not take exception to any of these opinions, presumably because he sees no need to do so, and he describes Babbitt in ways that extend and sharpen Eliot's criticism.

Scholars have thoroughly examined the old criticism of the New Humanism, especially as directed against Babbitt. Both Christian and non-Christian interpreters of his work have been taken to task for careless, sometimes even scandalous, misrepresentations and misunderstandings of his ideas and for lack of philosophical discernment and depth. All too many of those who attacked Babbitt had not studied his ideas in an intellectually serious manner and were sometimes content to repeat the unsubstantiated and superficial allegations of others. In the last several decades scholarship in this area has created a new setting for discussion of the humanism-religion controversy. One might mention, for example, the authoritative writings of the late Folke Leander, including Humanism and Naturalism (1937) and The Inner Check (1974), the work of George Panichas, exemplified by his essay "Babbitt and Religion" (Modern Age, Spring/Summer 1984), the collective volume Irving Babbitt in Our Time (1986), edited by George Panichas and myself, and work of my own such as Will, Imagination and Reason (1986), "The Humanism of Irving Babbitt Revisited" (Modern Age, Summer 1977), and "Babbitt and the Problem of Reality" (Modern Age, Spring/ Summer 1984). A large number of other sources could be cited. To adopt the perspective of Tuttleton's essay is to return to an old and clearly inadequate "state of the question." While this perspective may be instructive for what it reveals about the mind of Eliot and some others at the time, it does not bring the philosophically substantive issues of the debate into focus. It certainly does not do justice to Babbitt's position.

Irving Babbitt is treated in Tuttleton's essay as a leading representative of a modernist humanism that Eliot rejects. But most of the definitions of this modernist stance that are provided in the article fit Babbitt very poorly or not at all. For example, it could hardly be said about Babbitt, the relentless critic of romantic imagination and the champion of classical standards, that he "substitutes amorphous feeling states for solidly grounded principles." And he does not have "an optimistic view of human nature." Neither does he refuse "to believe any longer in the radical imperfection of either man or Nature." Most particularly, Babbitt cannot be counted among those who believe in consulting "only their own subjectivity." These and other partial definitions of "humanism" are patently alien to his position. Tuttleton also places Babbitt in the company of a thinker like Bertrand Russell, an intellectual classification to which Babbitt would have strenuously objected. If Russell is a modernist humanist, Babbitt is something quite different.

Defining modernist humanism, Tuttleton speaks of "early twentieth-century writers who had abandoned the Christian past and begun a journey into the future virtually dissociated from the historic religious and moral tradition." Babbitt is actually a sharp critic of such writers. His aim is to help save the ethical and religious core of the Western tradition and to work for a general revitalization of Western culture. It is with this goal in mind that he considers it necessary to face squarely the deepest challenges of modernity. Many "traditionalists" who think it sufficient merely to reaffirm inherited religious creeds and dogmas are not up to that particular task. Tuttleton asserts that Babbitt rejects revealed religion. But such a description of his position, if not placed in the proper context, is bound to mislead. The formulation is accurate only in a limited, qualified sense: Babbitt considers it short-sighted and intellectually feeble for modern defenders of ethical and religious truth to state their case in doctrinal terms that will be rejected out of hand not just by militant atheists and nihilists but by honest skeptics who are looking for intellectually persuasive evidence.

To the assertion that Babbitt rejects revealed religion Tuttleton adds that Babbitt is "thus rejecting the supernatural." The latter characterization of his views is as questionable as the first. The many passages in Babbitt's work that flatly contradict this interpretation can be summed up in his explicit and emphatic statement that in the debate between naturalists and supernaturalists he ranges himself "unhesitatingly on the side of the supernaturalists." (See Babbitt's chapter in Norman Foerster, ed., Humanism and America, 1930.) On the basis of Tuttleton's essay, who could imagine that Babbitt's work is actually aimed at refuting naturalism, whose two main forms he calls "scientific naturalism" and "sentimental humanitarianism."

Tuttleton states that Babbitt offers his notion of the inner check as "a substitute for 'religious obligation' and 'religious restraint.' " This assertion is contradicted by overwhelming evidence and is mistaken in more ways than one. First of all, what Babbitt calls the "inner check" is precisely a sense of higher obligation and a power of restraint; and it is regarded by Babbitt as having a religious as well as a humanistic manifestation. He writes sympathetically and at length on the nature of the specifically religious life. It is true that Babbitt pays even more attention to what he calls the humanistic level of life. He argues that this plane of human existence is subject to a universal ethical standard that is intrinsic to it and that is ascertainable by the individual apart from religious faith or revelation. Suspicions based on these grounds that Babbitt wants to replace religion with humanism might just as well be directed at representatives of the old natural-law tradition. It is indicative of a kind of intellectual arbitrariness or recklessness in Babbitt's Christian critics that they should neglect or disregard so much writing by him that contradicts their claims, including pointed and explicit statements seemingly intended by Babbitt to preclude misunderstanding of his views, as when he avers: "I am not setting up humanism as a substitute for religion." (Babbitt, On Being Creative, p. xviii.)

In formulating the idea of the inner check, or higher will, Babbitt is not trying to talk Christians out of their beliefs. He is addressing all of those in the modern world who are not willing to accept ethical and religious truth on the authority of inherited dogmas. To these modern skeptics he argues, not that traditional beliefs are wrong, but that ethical and religious life do not stand and fall with Church authority. They have an experiential foundation. This concrete evidence found within the human consciousness itself is accessible to scrutiny. It remains compelling even if traditional ethical and religious authority is to be given no weight. Honest modern seekers after truth who claim to respect experience should be encouraged to consult this evidence. In Babbitt's own words, he wants "to meet those who profess to be positive and critical on their own ground and to undertake to show them that in an essential respect they have not been positive and critical enough." What Christians refer to in their accustomed theological language as "God's will," "grace," et cetera, are not without an observable basis in concrete human experience. Taking careful account of this experiential reality, Babbitt adopts a terminology -- "the inner check," "the higher will," "the higher immediacy," et cetera -- that avoids too close an association with traditional religious language that presupposes the truth of revelation and particular theological dogmas. If a person should prefer to interpret direct human experience in the light of Christian theology, Babbitt has no objection. He comments, "I have no quarrel with those who assume this traditionalist attitude" (Babbitt, On Being Creative, 1932, xvii-xviii).

Given the intellectual circumstances of the modern Western world, Babbitt is concerned that traditional creedal formulations not be presented as the sole support for religious and ethical life. A serious weakness of "dogmatic and revealed religion" is its difficulty in reaching modern non-believers and its tendency to restrict unduly the range of debate. Babbitt considers it unwise to frame ethical and religious issues in such a way that thinkers who are not Christian believers, or Christians of a particular denomination, are automatically relegated to inferior status as contributors to discussion. Babbitt despises "liberal" ethical and religious ecumenism of the most common, abstract, and sentimental kind, but he also insists that there is a universal element in mankind's ethical and religious experience that can form the basis for a more genuine ecumenical wisdom. Representatives of different faiths and also many who do not consider themselves religious in the ordinary sense can contribute to this core of insight.

Intelligent Christians should not regard exploration of the common human ethical and religious ground as a threat to their own faith but as a helpful partial account and elucidation of what they believe. Babbitt's project was in fact warmly welcomed by many Christian intellectuals, not least by Roman Catholics such as Louis Mercier and Leo Ward. That so many of Babbitt's students or closest intellectual associates, e.g., Paul Elmer More, should have either retained or bowed towards Christian beliefs suggests that Babbitt's ideas are not an obstacle to confessionally oriented religion. It may be argued that Babbitt provides a grounding for ethical and religious life that protects it against the skepticism that is typical of the modern world. This Babbittian grounding makes ethics and religion less susceptible to the chronic doubt and the kind of aesthetical religious posturing to which those are prone who deep down are not really convinced of the truth of their professed beliefs.

Eliot's critique of Babbitt can be seen in part as his somewhat strained declaration of independence from an intellectually powerful mentor. It is more of a devotional exercise by a religious convert than an incisive assessment of thought. Considering the aim of Babbitt's humanism and of his thought generally, Eliot's criticism is largely beside the point. His understanding of Babbitt's idea of the inner check is not very perceptive. This is the case however much his pious tones may have appealed to Christian partisans. The same can be said with even greater justification about Allen Tate's confused rendering of Babbitt.

Writings that criticize thinkers for placing insufficient stress on God and traditional religion seem to be profoundly appealing and reassuring to large numbers of conservative intellectuals. Apparently, such writings convince of their intellectual soundness precisely because they have that sermonic ring. It is troubling that Eliot's (and Tate's) judgment regarding Babbitt seems to have been taken as persuasive by many Christians. Even Russell Kirk, who is one of Babbitt's strongest admirers, has given assent, although in a qualified and ambiguous way, to Eliot's complaint that Babbitt does not properly ground his understanding of moral order in traditional theology. (See Kirk's introduction to the recent new edition of Babbitt's Literature and the American College.) Is it indelicate or rude to point out that, in philosophical discourse, devotional sentiments are no substitute for accuracy, evidence, and cogency of argument? The interpretation and criticism of Babbitt by some religious partisans half a century ago illustrates that inherently weak reasoning is no stronger for being sprinkled with holy water. It is difficult to see how defenders of Christianity could benefit their cause by leaving the impression that they are not concerned to uphold the highest intellectual standards. Besides reading with care what Babbitt actually wrote, people prone to uncritical acceptance of Eliot's judgment would do well to ponder John Jamieson's chapter on Eliot, Babbitt, and Maurras in Irving Babbitt in Our Time.

It should perhaps be added that I have published extensive criticisms of Irving Babbitt. Hence these brief comments are not meant to imply that Babbitt is above intellectual reproach. But fair is fair, and prominent individuals speaking in the name of Christianity have published some of the least discerning comments on his position. One hopes that such prejudice will not hinder young Christian intellectuals from discovering in Babbitt a thinker whose thought can strengthen theirs. 

*This article first appeared in the Fall 1989 issue (Volume 32, No. 4) of Modern Age. [Back]

Updated 22 June 2023