Irving Babbitt and the Origins of the Culture Wars

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) is a name one hears in connection with T.S. Eliot, who studied under him at Harvard. The student is now much more famous than the master, yet Babbitt can be credited as one of the founders of modern intellectual conservatism. Many of his works are out of print. Fortunately, I located a library copy of Rousseau and Romanticism (originally published in 1919). Babbitt discusses the contrast between “classicism” and “romanticism,” and it is interesting to note that while he sides with the former he is not blind to its shortcomings, especially as it became an increasingly ornate and shallow form of decorum in the French Enlightenment. The romanticists, on the other hand, presented themselves as rebels against artificiality and convention in the name of intuition and spontaneity. They craved the strange and wonderful. But this was very different from the idea of awe (appreciated by Johnson and Burke), which has its origins in more humble and sublime feelings.

Creative activity to the true classical mind means seeking some general principle or higher ideal to imitate. For the romanticists it means endless fantasizing (see related comments by Roger Scruton). “The imagination is supreme the classicist grants,” Babbitt says, “but adds that to imitate rightly is to make the highest use of the imagination.” Likewise: “Every doctrine of genuine worth is disciplinary and men in the mass do not desire discipline.” That explains the motive behind the anti-classicist movement. Of course, pre-romantics like Voltaire, who were already quietly moving away from a genuine sense of tradition, made the mistake of worshiping their own subjective “rationality,” overlooking the fact that “in the long run man is driven either to rise higher or to sink lower than reason.”

As for the romantics, their very protest against the “artificiality” of convention was riddled with contradictions. Rousseau’s highly sanitized “primitivism” had nothing to do with the realities of uncivilized existence. Most people, Babbitt notes, are inclined to be romantic and for that reason it is not hard to sympathize with some of Rousseau’s musings. Nevertheless there is a difference between ordinary daydreaming and Rousseau’s tendency “to regard his retirement into some land of chimeras as a proof of his nobility and distinction.”

In an increasingly abstract artistic world, aesthetic rebels find that they cannot appeal directly to conventional sensibilities and must make an impact by shocking others. Babbitt perceived the rising cult of ugliness which deliberately cultivated the ill-proportioned, weird and obscene. Already the English romanticist Henry Hazlitt opined that “the ideal is always to be found in extremes.” For that reason the artistic extremist boasts that if he is not better than others, at least he is different. This leads to post-classical artists and writers specializing in their own sensations, as Babbitt puts it. So we are left with an endless procession of mundane and futile displays of narcissism.

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