Chapter One of Babbitt's Literature and the American College (1908)
What Is Humanism? Irving Babbitt


One of our federal judges said, not long ago, that what the American people need is ten per cent of thought and ninety per cent of action. In that case we ought all to be happy, for that is about what we have already. One is reminded by contrast of an accusation brought by a recent historian of Greek philosophy against Socrates, who, according to this historian, exaggerates the reasonableness of human nature. Only think rightly, Socrates seems to say, and right acting may be counted on to follow. The English and American temper is in this respect almost the reverse of Socratic. Act strenuously, would appear to be our faith, and right thinking will take care of itself. We feel that we can afford to “muddle along” in theory if only we attain to practical efficiency.

This comparative indifference to clearness and consistency of thought is visible even in that chief object of our national concern, education. The firmness of the American's faith in the blessings of education is equaled only by the vagueness of his ideas as to the kind of education to which these blessings are annexed. One can scarcely consider the tremendous stir we have been making for the past thirty years or more about education, the time and energy and enthusiasm we are ready to lavish on educational undertakings, the libraries and laboratories and endowments, without being reminded of the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite inquiry and research, may be employed to evade and shuffle off real labor—the real labor of thinking.” We live so fast, as the saying is, that we have no time to think. The task of organizing and operating a huge and complex educational machinery has left us scant leisure for calm reflection. Evidently a little less eagerness for action and a little more of the Socratic spirit would do no harm. We are likely, however, to be arrested at the very outset of any attempt to clarify our notions about education, as Socrates was in dealing with the problems of his own time, by the need of accurate definition. The Socratic method is, indeed, in its very essence a process of right defining. It divides and subdivides and distinguishes between the diverse and sometimes contradictory concepts that lurk beneath one word; it is a perpetual protest, in short, against the confusion that arises from the careless use of general terms, especially when they have become popular catchwords. If Socrates were here to-day, we can picture to ourselves how he would go around "cross-examining” those of us (there are some college presidents in the number) who repeat so glibly the current platitudes about liberty and progress, democracy, service, and the like; and he would no doubt get himself set down as a public nuisance for his pains, as he was by his fellow Athenians. A good example of the confusion rising from general terms is the term that is more important than any other, perhaps, for our present argument. To make a plea for humanism without explaining the word would give rise to endless misunderstanding. It is equally on the lips of the socialistic dreamer and the exponent of the latest philosophical fad. In an age of happy liberty like the present, when any one can employ almost any general term very much as he pleases, it is perhaps inevitable that the term humanism, which still has certain gracious associations lingering about it, should be appropriated by various theorists, in the hope, apparently, that the benefit of the associations may accrue to an entirely different order of ideas. Thus the Oxford philosopher, Mr. F. C. S. Schiller, claims to be a humanist, and in the name of humanism threatens to "do strange deeds upon the clouds.” Renan says that the religion of the future will be a "true humanism.” The utopists who have described their vision of the future as "humanism” or the "new humanism” are too numerous to mention. Gladstone speaks of the humanism of Auguste Comte, Professor Herford of the humanism of Rousseau, and the Germans in general of the humanism of Herder; whereas Comte, Rousseau, and Herder were all three not humanists, but humanitarian enthusiasts. A prominent periodical, on the other hand, laments the decay of the "humanitarian spirit” at Harvard, meaning no doubt humanistic. We evidently need a working definition not only of humanism, but of the words with which it is related or confused—humane, humanistic, humanitarian, humanitarianism. And these words, if successfully defined, will help us to a further necessary definition,—that of the college. For any discussion of the place of literature in the college is conditioned by a previous question: whether there will be any college for literature to have a place in. The college has been brought to this predicament not so much perhaps by its avowed enemies as by those who profess to be its friends. Under these circumstances our prayer, like that of Ajax, should be to fight in the light.


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.1

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.

The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgment. One of the most recent attempts to define humanism, that of Brunetière,2 who was supposed to be out of touch with his own time, suffers, nevertheless, from our present failure to see in the term anything more than the fullness of knowledge and sympathy. Brunetière thinks he has discovered a complete definition of humanism in the celebrated line of Terence: "Humani nihil a me alienum puto.” This line expresses very well a universal concern for one's fellow creatures, but fails to define the humanist because of the entire absence of the idea of selection. It is spoken in the play as an excuse for meddling; and might serve appropriately enough as a motto for the humanitarian busybody with whom we are all so familiar nowadays, who goes around with schemes for reforming almost everything—except himself. As applied to literature, the line might be cited as a justification for reading anything, from Plato to the Sunday supplement. Cosmopolitan breadth of knowledge and sympathy do not by themselves suffice; to be humanized these qualities need to be tempered by discipline and selection. From this point of view the Latin litterae humaniores is a happier phrase than our English "humane letters,” because of the greater emphasis the Latin comparative puts on the need of selection.

The true humanist maintains a just balance between sympathy and selection. We moderns, even a champion of the past like Brunetière, tend to lay an undue stress on the element of sympathy. On the other hand, the ancients in general, both Greek and Roman, inclined to sacrifice sympathy to selection. Gellius's protest against confusing humanitas with a promiscuous philanthropy instead of reserving it for doctrine and discipline would by itself be entirely misleading. Ancient humanism is as a whole intensely aristocratic in temper; its sympathies run in what would seem to us narrow channels; it is naturally disdainful of the humble and lowly who have not been indoctrinated and disciplined. Indeed, an unselective and universal sympathy, the sense of the brotherhood of man, as we term it, is usually supposed to have come into the world only with Christianity. We may go farther and say that the exaltation of love and sympathy as supreme and all-sufficing principles that do not need to be supplemented by doctrine and discipline is largely peculiar to our modern and humanitarian era. Historically, Christians have always inclined to reserve their sympathies for those who had the same doctrine and discipline as themselves, and only too often have joined to a sympathy for their own kind a fanatical hatred for everybody else. One whole side of Christianity has put a tremendous emphasis on selection—even to the point of conceiving of God Himself as selective rather than sympathetic ("Many are called, few are chosen,” etc.). We may be sure that stalwart believers like St. Paul or St. Augustine or Pascal would look upon our modern humanitarians with their talk of social problems and their tendency to reduce religion to a phase of the tenement-house question as weaklings and degenerates. Humanitarianism, however, and the place it accords to sympathy is so important for our subject that we shall have to revert to it later. For the present, it is enough to oppose the democratic inclusiveness of our modern sympathies to the aristocratic aloofness of the ancient humanist and his disdain of the profane vulgar (Odi projanum vulgus et arceo.) This aloofness and disdain are reflected and in some ways intensified in the humanism of the Renaissance. The man of the Renaissance felt himself doubly set above the "raskall many,” first by his doctrine and discipline and then by the learned medium through which the doctrine and discipline were conveyed. The echo of this haughty humanism is heard in the lines of Milton:

“Nor do I name of men the common rout,
That wandering loose about,
Grow up and perish as the summer fly,
Heads without name, no more rememberèd.”

Later on this humanistic ideal became more and more conventionalized and associated with a hierarchy of rank and privilege. The sense of intellectual superiority was reinforced by the sense of social superiority. The consequent narrowing of sympathy is what Amiel objects to in the English gentleman: "Between gentlemen, courtesy, equality, social proprieties; below that level, haughtiness, disdain, coldness, indifference. . . . The politeness of a gentleman is not human and general, but quite individual and personal." It is a pity, no doubt, that the Englishman is thus narrow in his sympathies; but it will be a greater pity, if, in enlarging his sympathies, he allows his traditional disciplines, humanistic and religious, to be relaxed and enervated. The English humanist is not entirely untrue to his ancient prototype even in the faults of which Amiel complains. There is a real relation, as Professor Butcher points out, between the English idea of the gentleman and scholar and the view of the cultivated man that was once held in the intensely aristocratic democracy of Athens.


We should of course remember that though we have been talking of ancient humanism and humanists, the word humanist was not used until the Renaissance and the word humanism not until a still later period. In studying the humanism of the Renaissance the significant contrast that we need to note is the one commonly made at this time between humanity and divinity. In its essence the Renaissance is a protest against the time when there was too much divinity and not enough humanity, against the starving and stunting of certain sides of man by mediaeval theology, against a vision of the supernatural that imposed a mortal constraint upon his more purely human and natural faculties. The models of a full and free play of these faculties were sought in the ancient classics, but the cult of the ancients soon became itself a superstition, so that a man was called a humanist from the mere fact of having received an initiation into the ancient languages, even though he had little or nothing of the doctrine and discipline that the term should imply. Very few of the early Italian humanists were really humane. For many of them humanism, so far from being a doctrine and discipline, was a revolt from all discipline, a wild rebound from the mediaeval extreme into an opposite excess. What predominates in the first part of the Renaissance is a movement of emancipation—emancipation of the senses, of the intellect, and in the northern countries of the conscience. It was the first great modern era of expansion, the first forward push of individualism. As in all such periods, the chief stress is on the broadening of knowledge, and, so far as was compatible with the humanistic exclusiveness, of sympathy. The men of that time had what Emerson calls a canine appetite for knowledge. The ardor with which they broke away from the bonds and leading-strings of mediaeval tradition, the exuberance with which they celebrated the healing of the long feud between nature and human nature, obscured for a time the need of decorum and selection. A writer like Rabelais, for instance, is neither decorous nor select; and so in spite of his great genius would probably have seemed to a cultivated ancient barbaric rather than humane. Such a disorderly and undisciplined unfolding of the faculties of the individual, such an overemphasis on the benefits of liberty as compared with the benefits of restraint, brought in its train the evils that are peculiar to periods of expansion. There was an increase in anarchical self-assertion and self-indulgence that seemed a menace to the very existence of society; and so society reacted against the individual and an era of expansion was followed by an era of concentration. This change took place at different times, and under different circumstances, in different countries. In Italy the change coincides roughly with the sack of Rome (1527) and the Council of Trent; in France it follows the frightful anarchy of the wars of religion and finds political expression in Henry IV, and literary expression in Malherbe. Of course in so complex a period as the Renaissance we must allow for innumerable eddies and crosscurrents and for almost any number of individual exceptions. In an age as well as in an individual there are generally elements, often important elements, that run counter to the main tendency. But if one is not a German doctor who has to prove his “originality,” or a lover of paradox for its own sake, it is usually possible to discern the main drift in spite of the eddies and counter-currents.

We may affirm, then, that the main drift of the later Renaissance was away from a humanism that favored a free expansion toward a humanism that was in the highest degree disciplinary and selective. The whole movement was complicated by what is at bottom a different problem, the need that was felt in France and Italy, at least, of protecting society against the individual. One can insist on selection and discipline without at the same time being so distrustful of individualism. Many of the humanists of this period fell into hardness and narrowness (in other words, ceased to be humane) from overemphasis on a discipline that was to be imposed from without and from above, and on a doctrine that was to be codified in a multitude of minute prescriptions. The essence of art, according to that highly astringent genius, Scaliger, who had a European influence on the literary criticism of this age, is electio et fastidium sui—selection and fastidiousness toward one's self (in practice Scaliger reserved his fastidiousness for other people). This spirit of fastidious selection gained ground until instead of the expansive Rabelais we have the exclusive Malherbe, until a purism grew up that threatened to impoverish men's ideas and emotions as well as their vocabulary. Castiglione had said in his treatise on the Courtier that there should enter into the make-up of the gentleman an element of aloofness and disdain (sprezzatura), a saying that, properly interpreted, contains a profound truth. Unfortunately, aristocratic aloofness, coupled with fastidious selection and unleavened by broad and sympathetic knowledge, leads straight to the attitude that Voltaire has hit off in his sketch of the noble Venetian lord Pococurante,—to the type of scholar who would be esteemed, not like the man of today by the inclusiveness of his sympathies, but by the number of things he had rejected. Pococurante had cultivated sprezzatura with a vengeance, and rejected almost everything except a few verses of Virgil and Horace. “What a great man is this Pococurante!” says the awe-stricken Candide; “nothing can please him."

The contrast between the disciplinary and selective humanism of the later Renaissance and the earlier period of expansion should not blind us to the underlying unity of aim. Like the ancient humanists whom they took as their guides, the men of both periods aimed at forming the complete man (totus, teres atque rotundus). But the men of the later period and the neo-classicists in general hoped to attain this completeness not so much by the virtues of expansion as by the virtues of concentration. It seemed to them that the men of the earlier period had left too much opening for the whims and vagaries of the individual; and so they were chiefly concerned with making a selection of subjects and establishing a doctrine and discipline that should be universal and human. To this end the classical doctrine and discipline were to be put into the service of the doctrine and discipline of Christianity. This attempt at a compromise between the pagan and Christian traditions is visible both in Catholic countries in the Jesuit schools, and in Protestant countries in the selection of studies that took shape in the old college curriculum. No doubt the selection of both divinity and humanity that was intended to be representative was inadequate; and no doubt the whole compromise between doctrines and disciplines, that were in many respects divergent and in some respects hostile, laid itself open to the charge of being superficial. The men of the early Renaissance had felt more acutely the antagonism between divinity as then understood and humanity, and had often taken sides uncompromisingly for one or the other. Machiavelli accused Christianity of having made the world effeminate, whereas Luther looked on the study of the pagan classics, except within the narrowest bounds, as pernicious. Calvin execrated Rabelais, and Rabelais denounced Calvin as an impostor. Yet, after all, the effort to make the ancient humanities and arts of expression tributary to Christianity was in many respects admirable, and the motto that summed it up, sapiens atque eloquens pietas, might still, if properly interpreted, be used to define the purpose of the college.

A desideratum of scholarship at present is a study of the way certain subjects came to be selected as representative and united into one discipline with elements that were drawn from religion; we need, in short, a more careful history than has yet been written of the old college curriculum. Closely connected with this and equally needful is a history of the development of the gentleman, going back to the work of Castiglione and other Italian treatises on manners in the sixteenth century, and making clear especially how the conception of the gentleman came to unite with that of the scholar so as to form an ideal of which something still survives in England. A Castiglione in Italy and a Sir Philip Sidney in England already realize the ideal of the gentleman and scholar, and that with the splendid vitality of the Renaissance. But a Scaliger, for all his fastidious selection, remains a colossal pedant. In general, it is only under French influence that scholarship gets itself disengaged from pedantry and acquires urbanity and polish, that the standards of the humanist coalesce with those of the man of the world. But it is likewise under French influence that the ideal of the gentleman and scholar is externalized and conventionalized, until in some of the later neo-classic Pococurantes it has degenerated into a mixture of snobbishness and superficiality, until what had once been a profound insight becomes a mere polite prejudice. We must not, however, be like the leaders of the great romantic revolt who, in their eagerness to get rid of the husk of convention, disregarded also the humane aspiration. Even in his worst artificiality, the neo-classicist is still related to the ancient humanist by his horror of one-sidedness, of all that tends to the atrophy of certain faculties and the hypertrophy of others, by his avoidance of everything that is excessive and over-emphatic; and, inasmuch as it is hard to be an enthusiast and at the same time moderate, by his distrust of enthusiasm. He cultivates detachment and freedom from affectation (sprezzatura) and wonders at nothing (nil admirari); whereas the romanticist, as all the world knows, is prone to wonder at everything—especially at himself and his own genius. In his appearance and behavior, the neo-classicist would be true to the general traits of human nature, and is even careful to avoid technical and professional terms in his writing and conversation. "Perfected good breeding,” says Dr. Johnson, “consists in having no particular mark of any profession, but a general elegance of manners. “(A standard that Dr. Johnson himself did not entirely attain.) At the bottom of the whole point of view is the fear of specialization. “The true gentleman and scholar” (honnête homme), says La Rochefoucauld, “is he who does not pride himself on anything.” We may contrast this with a maxim that is sometimes heard in the American business world: A man who knows two things is damned. In other words, the man of that time would rather have been thought superficial than one-sided, the man of today would rather be thought one-sided than superficial.


We may perhaps venture to sum up the results of our search for a definition of humanism. We have seen that the humanist, as we know him historically, moved between an extreme of sympathy and an extreme of discipline and selection, and became humane in proportion as he mediated between these extremes. To state this truth more generally, the true mark of excellence in a man, as Pascal puts it, is his power to harmonize in himself opposite virtues and to occupy all the space between them (tout l'entredeux). By his ability thus to unite in himself opposite qualities man shows his humanity, his superiority of essence over other animals. Thus Saint François de Sales, we are told, united in himself the qualities of the eagle and the dove—he was an eagle of gentleness. The historian of Greek philosophy we have already quoted remarks on the perfect harmony that Socrates had attained between thought and feeling. If we compare Socrates in this respect with Rousseau, who said that “his heart and his head did not seem to belong to the same individual,” we shall perceive the difference between a sage and a sophist. Man is a creature who is foredoomed to one-sidedness, yet who becomes humane only in proportion as he triumphs over this fatality of his nature, only as he arrives at that measure which comes from tempering his virtues, each by its opposite. The aim, as Matthew Arnold has said in the most admirable of his critical phrases, is to see life steadily and see it whole; but this is an aim, alas, that no one has ever attained completely—not even Sophocles, to whom Arnold applies it. After man has made the simpler adjustments, there are other and more difficult adjustments awaiting him beyond, and the goal is, in a sense, infinitely remote.

For most practical purposes, the law of measure is the supreme law of life, because it bounds and includes all other laws. It was doubtless the perception of this fact that led the most eminent personality of the Far East, Gotama Buddha, to proclaim in the opening sentence of his first sermon that extremes are barbarous. But India as a whole failed to learn the lesson. Greece is perhaps the most humane of countries, because it not only formulated clearly the law of measure ("nothing too much"), but also perceived the avenging nemesis that overtakes every form of insolent excess (ubriz) or violation of this law.

Of course, even in Greece any effective insight into the law of measure was confined to a minority, though at times a large minority. The majority at any particular instant in Greece or elsewhere is almost sure to be unsound, and unsound because it is one-sided. We may borrow a homely illustration from the theory of commercial crises. A minority of men may be prudent and temper their enterprise with discretion, but the majority is sure to over-trade, and so unless restrained by the prudent few will finally bring on themselves the nemesis of a panic. The excess from which Greek civilization suffered should be of special interest, because it is plain that so humane a people could not have failed to make any of the ordinary adjustments. Without attempting to treat fully so difficult a topic, we may say that Greece, having lost its traditional standards through the growth of intellectual skepticism, fell into a dangerous and excessive mobility of mind because of its failure to develop new standards that would unify its life and impose a discipline upon the individual. It failed, in short, to mediate between unity and diversity, or, as the philosophers express it, between the absolute and the relative. The wisest Greek thinkers, notably Socrates and Plato, saw the problem and sought a solution; but by putting Socrates to death Athens made plain that it was unable to distinguish between its sages and its sophists.

There is the One, says Plato, and there is the Many. “Show me the man who can combine the One with the Many and I will follow in his footsteps, even as in those of a God." 3 To harmonize the One with the Many, this is indeed a difficult adjustment, perhaps the most difficult of all, and so important, withal, that nations have perished from their failure to achieve it. Ancient India was devoured by a too overpowering sense of the One. The failure of Greece, on the other hand, to attain to this restraining sense of unity led at last to the pernicious pliancy of the “hungry Greekling,” whose picture Juvenal has drawn.

The present time in its loss of traditional standards is not without analogy to the Athens of the Periclean age; and so it is not surprising, perhaps, that we should see a refurbishing of the old sophistries. The so-called humanism of a writer like Mr. F. C. S. Schiller has in it something of the intellectual impressionism of a Protagoras.4 Like the ancient sophist, the pragmatist would forego the discipline of a central standard, and make of individual man and his thoughts and feelings the measure of all things. “Why may not the advancing front of experience," says Professor James, “carrying its imminent satisfaction and dissatisfaction, cut against the black inane, as the luminous orb of the moon cuts against the black abyss?" 5 But the sun and moon and stars have their preordained courses, and do not dare, as the old Pythagoreans said, to transgress their numbers. To make Professor James's metaphor just, the moon would need to deny its allegiance to the central unity, and wander off by itself on an impressionistic journey of exploration through space. It is doubtless better to be a pragmatist than to devote one's self to embracing the cloud Junos of Hegelian metaphysics. But that persons who have developed such an extreme sense of the otherwiseness of things as Professor James and his school should be called humanists—this we may seriously doubt. There would seem to be nothing less humane—or humanistic—than pluralism pushed to this excess, unless it be monism pushed to a similar extremity.

The human mind, if it is to keep its sanity, must maintain the nicest balance between unity and plurality. There are moments when it should have the sense of communion with absolute being, and of the obligation to higher standards that this insight brings; other moments when it should see itself as but a passing phase of the everlasting flux and relativity of nature; moments when, with Emerson, it should feel itself “alone with the gods alone"; and moments when, with Sainte-Beuve, it should look upon itself as only the “most fugitive of illusions in the bosom of the infinite illusion." If man's nobility lies in his kinship to the One, he is at the same time a phenomenon among other phenomena, and only at his risk and peril neglects his phenomenal self. The humane poise of his faculties suffers equally from an excess of naturalism and an excess of supernaturalism. We have seen how the Renaissance protested against the supernaturalist excess of the Middle Ages, against a one-sidedness that widened unduly the gap between nature and human nature. Since that time the world has been tending to the opposite extreme; not content with establishing a better harmony between nature and human nature, it would close up the gap entirely. Man, according to the celebrated dictum of Spinoza, is not in nature as one empire in another empire, but as a part in a whole. Important faculties that the supernaturalist allowed to decay the naturalist has cultivated, but other faculties, especially those relating to the contemplative life, are becoming atrophied through long disuse. Man has gained immensely in his grasp on facts, but in the meanwhile has become so immersed in their multiplicity as to lose that vision of the One by which his lower self was once overawed and restrained. “There are two laws discrete,” as Emerson says in his memorable lines; and since we cannot reconcile the “Law for man” and the “Law for thing,” he would have us preserve our sense for each separately, and maintain a sort of “double consciousness,” a “public” and a “private” nature; and he adds in a curious image that a man must ride alternately on the horses of these two natures, “as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one and the other foot on the back of the other."

There is, perhaps, too much of this spiritual circus-riding in Emerson. Unity and plurality appear too often in his work, not as reconciled opposites, but as clashing antinomies. He is too satisfied with saying about half the time that everything is like everything else, and the rest of the time that everything is different from everything else. And so his genius has elevation and serenity, indeed, but at the same time a disquieting vagueness and lack of grip in dealing with particulars. Yet Emerson remains an important witness to certain truths of the spirit in an age of scientific materialism. His judgment of his own time is likely to be definitive:

 "Things are in the saddle
And ride mankind."

Man himself and the products of his spirit, language, and literature, are treated not as having a law of their own, but as things; as entirely subject to the same methods that have won for science such triumphs over phenomenal nature. The president of a congress of anthropologists recently chose as a motto for his annual address the humanistic maxim: “The proper study of mankind is man"; and no one, probably, was conscious of any incongruity. At this rate, we may soon see set up as a type of the true humanist the Chicago professor who recently spent a year in collecting cats'-cradles on the Congo.

The humanities need to be defended to-day against the encroachments of physical science, as they once needed to be against the encroachment of theology. But first we must keep a promise already made, and in the following essay try to trace from its origins that great naturalistic and humanitarian movement which is not only taking the place of the humanistic point of view, but actually rendering it unintelligible for the men of the present generation.


1. See Noctes Atticae, xiii, 17. [Back]

2. Histoire de la litérature francaise classique, t. 1, p. 28. [Back]

3. Phaedrus, 266 B. The Greeks in general did not associate the law of measure with the problem of the One and the Many. Aristotle, who was in this respect a more representative Greek than Plato, can scarcely be said to have connected his theory of the contemplative life or attainment to a sense of the divine unity, with his theory of virtue as a mediating between extremes. [Back]

4. Mr. Schiller himself points out this connection (see Humanism, p. xvii). As will appear clearly from a later passage (pp. 136 ff.) I do not quarrel with the pragmatists for their appeal to experience and practical results, but for their failure, because of an insufficient feeling for the One, to arrive at real criteria for testing experience and discriminating between judgments and mere passing impressions. [Back]

5. Humanism and Truth, p. 16. [Back]

Updated 20 June 2023