Irving Babbitt

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Irving Babbitt (August 2, 1865July 15, 1933) was an American academic and literary critic, noted for his founding role in a movement that became known as the New Humanism.


  • The true dualism I take to be the contrast between two wills, one of which is felt as vital impulse (élan vital) and the other as vital control (frein vital).
    • Representative Writings (1981), p. xvi
  • The greatest of vices according to Buddha is the lazy yielding to the impulses of temperament (pamada); the greatest virtue (appamada) is the opposite of this, the awakening from the sloth and lethargy of the senses, the constant exercise of the active will.
    • Representative Writings (1981), pp. xvi-xvii

"English and the Discipline of Ideas" (1920)[edit]

in Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981)

  • I chanced recently to be glancing over … a book on Japanese Buddhism, and I read among other things that several centuries ago there was a sect of Japanese Buddhism known as the Way of Hardships, and that shortly after there arose another sect known as the Easy Way which at once gained great popularity and tended to supplant the Way of Hardships. But the Japanese Way of Hardships is itself an easy way if one compares it with the original way of Buddha. One can follow indeed very clearly the process by which Buddhist doctrine descended gradually from the austere and almost inaccessible height on which it had been placed by its founder to the level of the prayer mill.
    • pp. 61-62
  • The complaint is often heard at present that there is an increasing exodus from the difficult and disciplinary subjects and a rush into the soft subjects. One good sign is that those who stand for the difficult and disciplinary subjects, e.g., the professors of physics and the professors of the ancient classics, are coming more and more to see that they must co-operate and not work at cross-purposes, as they have done only too often in the past, if they are to make head against the drift toward softness.
    • p. 62
  • The question I propose to consider is in what way one may justify the study of English on cultural and disciplinary, and not merely on sentimental or utilitarian, grounds. My own conviction is that if English is to be thus justified it must be primarily by what I am terming the discipline of ideas.
As a matter of fact one hears it commonly said nowadays that literature may be rescued from the philologist on the one hand and the mere dilettante on the other by an increase of emphasis on its intellectual content, that the teaching of literature, if it is to have virility, must be above all the teaching of ideas.
  • p. 63
  • Those who are filled with concern for the lot of humanity as a whole, especially for the less fortunate portions of it, are wont nowadays to call themselves idealists. We should at least recognize that ideals in this sense are not the same as standards and that they are often indeed the opposite of standards. It would be easy to mention institutions of learning in this country that are at present engaged in breaking down standards in the name of ideals.
    • pp. 64-65
  • Three or four years ago a distinguished Frenchman, M. Hovelacque, published an article on America in the Revue de Paris in which he maintained that the essential weakness of our American civilization lay in the failure of our education to produce any equivalent of the superior man of Confucius or the καλὸς κἀγαθός of the Greeks.
    • p. 65
  • True democracy consists not in lowering the standard but in giving everybody, so far as possible, a chance of measuring up to the standard.
    • p. 65
  • When we consider carefully what many of our so-called humanists stand for, we find that they are not humanists but humanitarians.
    • p. 66
  • What seems to me to be driving our whole civilization toward the abyss at present is a one-sided conception of liberty, a conception that is purely centrifugal, that would get rid of all outer control and then evade or deny openly the need of achieving inner control.
    • p. 66
  • To glorify man in his natural and unmodified self is no less surely, even if less obviously, idolatry than actually to bow down before a graven image.
    • p. 67
  • Our most urgent problem just now is how to preserve in a positive and critical form the soul of truth in the two great traditions, classical and Christian, that are crumbling as mere dogma.
    • p. 69

"Democracy and Standards" (1924)[edit]

in Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981)

  • Since every man desires happiness, it is evidently no small matter whether he conceives of happiness in terms of work or of enjoyment. If he work in the full ethical sense that I have attempted to define, he is pulling back and disciplining his temperamental self with reference to some standard. In short, his temperamental self is, in an almost literal sense, undergoing conversion. The whole of life may, indeed, be summed up in the words diversion and conversion. Along which of these two main paths are most of us seeking the happiness to the pursuit of which we are dedicated by our Declaration of Independence? The author of this phrase, Thomas Jefferson, remarks of himself: "I am an Epicurean."
    • pp. 137-138
  • When the element of conversion with reference to a standard is eliminated from life, what remains is the irresponsible quest for thrills.
    • p. 138

"What I Believe" (1930)[edit]

in Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981)

  • Rousseauist and Baconian, though often superficially at odds with one another, have co-operated in undermining, not merely religious tradition, but another tradition which in the Occident goes back finally, not to Judea, but to ancient Greece. This older tradition may be defined as humanistic. The goal of the humanist is poised and proportionate living. This he hopes to accomplish by observing the law of measure. ... Decorum is supreme for the humanist even as humility takes precedence over all other virtues in the eyes of the Christian. Traditionally the idea of decorum has been associated, often with a considerable admixture of mere formalism, with the idea of the gentleman. Humanism and religion in their various forms have at times conflicted, but have more often been in alliance with one another. As Burke says in a well-known passage: "Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things that are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion."
    • pp. 6-7
  • Everything in our modern substitutes for religion—whether Baconian or Rousseauistic—will be found to converge upon the idea of service. The crucial question is whether one is safe in assuming that the immense machinery of power that has resulted from activity of the utilitarian type can be made, on anything like present lines, to serve disinterested ends; whether it will not rather minister to the egoistic aims either of national groups or of individuals.
One's answer to this question will depend on one's view of the Rousseauistic theory of brotherhood. ... To assert that man in a state of nature, or some similar state thus projected, is good, is to discredit the traditional controls in the actual world. Humility, conversion, decorum—all go by the board in favor of free temperamental overflow. Does man thus emancipated exude spontaneously an affection for his fellows that will be an effective counterpoise to the sheer expansion of his egoistic impulses? ...
Unfortunately, the facts have persistently refused to conform to humanitarian theory. There has been an ever-growing body of evidence from the eighteenth century to the Great War that in the natural man, as he exists in the real world and not in some romantic dreamland, the will to power is, on the whole, more than a match for the will to service. To be sure, many remain unconvinced by this evidence. Stubborn facts, it has been rightly remarked, are as nothing compared with a stubborn theory. Altruistic theory is likely to prove peculiarly stubborn, because, probably more than any other theory ever conceived, it is flattering: it holds out the hope of the highest spiritual benefits—for example, peace and fraternal union—without any corresponding spiritual effort.
  • pp. 7-8
  • According to Mr. Walter Lippmann, the belief the modern man has lost is "that there is an immortal essence presiding like a king over his appetites." This immortal essence of which Mr. Lippmann speaks is, judged experimentally and by its fruits, a higher will. But why leave the affirmation of such a will to the pure traditionalist? Why not affirm it first of all as a psychological fact, one of the immediate data of consciousness, a perception so primordial that, compared with it, the denial of man's moral freedom by the determinist is only a metaphysical dream? The way would thus be open for a swift flanking movement on the behaviorists and other naturalistic psychologists.
    • pp. 9-10
  • This higher will is felt in its relation to the impressions and impulses and expansive desires of the natural man as a will to refrain. ... The failure to exercise the will to refrain in some form or degree means spiritual anarchy. A combination such as we are getting more and more at present of spiritual anarchy with an ever-increasing material efficiency—power without wisdom, as one is tempted to put it—is not likely to work either for the happiness of the individual or for the welfare of society.
    • p. 12
  • It seems to me imperative to re-establish the true dualism—that between vital impulse and vital control—and to this end to affirm the higher will first of all as a psychological fact. The individual needs, however, to go beyond this fact if he is to decide how far he is to exercise control in any particular instance with a primary view to his own happiness: in short, he needs standards. To secure standards, at least critically, he cannot afford, like the Rousseauist, to disparage the intellect.
    • pp. 14-15
  • The assumption is all but universal among those who control our educational policies from the elementary grades to the university that anything that sets bounds to the free unfolding of the temperamental proclivities of the young, to their right of self-expression, as one may say, is outworn prejudice. Discipline, so far as it exists, is not of the humanistic or the religious type, but of the kind that one gets in training for a vocation or a specialty. The standards of a genuinely liberal education, as they have been understood, more or less from the time of Aristotle, are being progressively undermined by the utilitarians and the sentimentalists. If the Baconian-Rousseauistic formula is as unsound in certain of its postulates as I myself believe, we are in danger of witnessing in this country one of the great cultural tragedies of the ages.
    • p. 16

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