Irving Babbitt

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Paul Elmer More were the two chief proponents of the New Humanist movement in the first half of the twentieth century.

Babbitt and the New Humanists perceived that Western culture had been negatively impacted by the naturalism of eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was, in turn, perpetuated by the reliance on intuition and emotion in the works of the nineteenth-century Romantic era. Instead, Babbitt prescribed a thorough background in the literature that he believed instilled classical ethics, morality, and disciplined reason divorced from contemporaneous political and materialistic ideology and focused on universal conservative values. This conservatism in an era increasingly concerned with modernism made Babbitt and the New Humanists lightning rods for derision from the prevailing cultural critics, including Sinclair Lewis, who allegedly named the repressed title character of his 1922 novel Babbitt after him, and openly denounced the New Humanists in his Nobel Prize acceptance address. As a result of the popular novel, the name Babbitt became synonymous for a type of philistine individual who is mired in the past and rejects anything new out of fear. Babbitt had many supporters, however, including his former student T. S. Eliot, who adopted many of Babbitt's views on classical literature and the decline of cultural values, as well as his teachings on the Oriental belief systems Confucianism and Buddhism in his poem The Waste Land. Eliot and Babbitt remained lifelong friends but differed on Babbitt's belief in humankind's possession of an internal ethical will, an "inner check" with which Eliot disagreed on the grounds that it did not allow for the consideration of the existence of a higher spiritual power. Chief among his cultural concerns, Babbitt identified the notion of individuality as advanced by democratic approaches to education: "One is inclined, indeed, to ask, in certain moods, whether the net result of the [commercialism] movement that has been sweeping the Occident for several generations may not be a huge mass of standardized mediocrity; and whether in this country in particular we are not in danger of producing in the name of democracy one of the most trifling brands of the human species that the world has yet seen." Babbitt is credited also with creating a national forum to discuss literature as a means to shape and influence political and moral thought. In his book The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk wrote that Babbitt "joined the broken links between politics and morals, and that is a work of genius. He knew that the conservation of the old things we love must be founded upon valid ideas of the highest order, if conservatism is to withstand naturalism and its political progeny."

From Ohio to Harvard

Babbitt was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Edwin Dwight and Augusta Darling Babbitt. His mother died when he was eleven years old. His father, a physician and businessman father, was engaged in several get-rich-quick schemes, including founding the New York College of Magnetics and publishing several health manuals with such titles as "Vital Magnetism: The Life Fountain." Historians conjecture that Babbitt's father's socialist politics and outlandish schemes served to encourage Babbitt's later outspoken conservatism. As a young man, Babbitt sold newspapers in New York City; lived for a time with relatives in Ohio; worked as farmhand; worked on a ranch in Wyoming; and was a police reporter in Cincinnati, Ohio. With financial assistance from his uncles, he attended Harvard College in 1885, where he earned a four-year degree in classics. Upon graduation, he accepted a position as a classics instructor at the College of Montana, earning enough money to enroll in Sanskrit and Pali classes held in Paris, France. He returned to Harvard, earning a graduate degree in 1893. He was appointed professor of Romance languages at Williams College, but returned to Harvard to teach French and comparative literature until his death in 1933. In his writings and lectures, Babbitt disparaged sentimentality, materialism, and a disregard for the past, while advocating self-restraint and personal discipline. He married one of his former students, Dora May Drew, in 1900, and the couple produced two children. In 1926, he was named a corresponding member of the Institute of France. In 1930, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received an honorary degree from Bowdoin College in 1932.

Babbitt was among the first literary critics to gain a wide audience by publishing essays in such mass-circulation periodicals as the Atlantic Monthly and the Nation. Several of these essays are included in his first book, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities, which was published in 1908. In such essays as "The College and the Democratic Spirit" and "Literature and the Doctor's Degree," Babbitt negatively criticized the academic policies of Harvard president Charles William Eliot that allowed students to establish their own courses of study rather than enforce a rigid academic regimen emphasizing self-discipline. Babbitt argued that allowing students to elect their own course of study reduces the universal authority of the academy in favor of the individual. Among the chief culprits against a wide-ranging cultural education, Babbitt believed, was the influence of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Babbitt, the wide acceptance of Rousseau's theories in Western culture resulted in the blurring of lines between natural laws for humans and laws for things. Agreeing with Ralph Waldo Emerson that the two laws remain separate, Babbitt believed that Rousseau and the Romantics endangered classical intellectual and rationalist humanist standards by replacing them with a sentimental and emotional attachment with nature. Such was his vehement attacks on Rousseau that his Harvard students joked that Babbitt checked under his bed for Rousseau each night before going to sleep.

Laokoon and the Inner Check

In his second book, The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts, published in 1910, Babbitt attacked the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, believing it to be a logical extension of Rousseau's philosophy of naturalism. By emphasizing powerful emotion, Babbitt believed, the Romantics negated form as a restraining mechanism necessary to raise art from the temporal to the universal. Borrowing the phrase "inner check" from Emersonwho had borrowed it from Eastern philosophyBabbitt believed that a degree of self-discipline was necessary to temper what he perceived to be the excessive emotional and individualistic nature of nineteenth-century literature. According to Russell Kirk: "Those checks are supplied by reason not the private rationality of the Enlightenment, but by the higher reason that grows out of a respect for the wisdom of one's ancestors and out of the endeavor to apprehend the character of good and evil." In his next volume, The Masters of Modern French Criticism, published in 1912, Babbitt establishes a lineage of like-minded critics to support his belief that literature since Rousseau had been in steady decline. One critical measure of a literary work's merit, he wrote, was its historical perspective.

Following World War I, Babbitt widened his attacks on modernism, romanticism, and democracy, which he perceived to expediting the decadence of Western culture through materialism and unlimited growth. The resulting democratic aims of equality he believed resulted in the anarchy of proletarian art in place of high art. In Democracy and Leadership, he furthered his attacks on the democratization of literature and, by extension, society. Russell Kirk wrote: Democracy and Leadership is perhaps the most penetrating work on politics ever written by an Americanand this precisely because it is not properly a political treatise, but really a work of moral philosophy." Among the philosophers and social critics Babbitt interpreted in this work was Edmund Burke, who advocated an adherence to the permanence of traditional values, which Babbitt called "imaginative conservatism." Babbitt's views were controversial, coming under attack for his authoritarian refusal by writers in such publications as The New Republic and the Hound and Horn. These writers faulted Babbitt's refusal to consider literature from the previous century, and his authoritarian approach to political and social beliefs. Babbitt argued his points to an audience of more than three thousand at New York City's Carnegie Hall, as well as in the pages of The Bookman and The Forum, as well as receiving support from T. S. Eliot in the Criterion. Eliot, however, rejected the secular nature of the humanist "inner check" because he felt it advocated ethics without religion. Paul Elmer More, perhaps the most ardent supporter of Babbitt's beliefs, also rejected the secular nature of the inner check.


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