The modern age has brought about a deluge of knowledge and technological advancement joined with a rough materialism. With all this empirical data, however, does man know anything more about his meaning and purpose? Is man a chance occurrence of molecules and atoms that simply drift through space and time or is he a creation with a unique relationship to the Creator of the universe? The modern age has exalted a thin humanitarianism and utilitarianism over higher standards and the humanities.
Two conservative authors, the British essayist Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) and the American critic and professor Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) analyzed what they called “the crisis of Western civilization” with the hope to reform education in order to influence Western culture in the face of modern “isms.” Belloc and Babbitt desire similar outcomes but possess different insights into the process of restoration. Both see Western civilization in a state of crisis and needing to be saved from itself. Restoration or rediscovery of the permanent things through classical conservatism and tradition inform their respective ideas. While Bellocsees the church (specifically Roman Catholicism) at the center of the rediscovery and restoration, as it is foundational to Western civilization, Babbitt puts the university at the center. Both authors maintain a critically harsh tone, but it is for the sake of saving civilization from what they see as its rapid downfall. Both disdain the modern age, yet their solutions are inherently different as one depends on the transcendent (Belloc) and the other on the humane (Babbitt).
In his book The Crisis of Civilization, Belloc implies the greatest fault comes from the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church. The spirit of Reformation, as he argues in chapter two, did not come from the sixteenth century, but rather had its roots in the later Middle Ages; “the end of the Middle Ages you have a material advance, an increasing knowledge of the world … There was something creative about the air in which the Middle Ages came to an end; but the forces at work produced nothing permanent.” Increasing knowledge of the world provided a substitute for myth and transcendence. Such things were seen as mechanical superstitions of an oppressive theocracy. The modern systems of politics, economics, and social interaction have their roots in the corrupt portion of the Middle Ages.
Belloc’s argument points to the possibility that feudalism (a system based largely on status) and the structure of the Catholic Church actually enhanced people’s lives rather than catered to a narrowed individualism. For Belloc, awareness of community defined Christendom and was an organic concern of the Middle Ages, especially its high period. For most authors who claim an allegiance to traditional thought, the interests of the community are of greater concern than those of the individual. Individualism provides an outlet for self-interest and, more importantly, a justification in challenging authority. Belloc condemns the Reformation for this very thing and attributes the decline of Western culture to the Protestant nature of the Reformed movement. One could make the argument that Europeans were finally liberated from the yoke of the church and crown. They were free to even deny God if they so wished. The argument of the Reformation claims that it made Christianity and God less institutional and more accessible to the common believer, but for Belloc, this personalization of God diluted the place of institutional authority in society. Due to the strong influence of religion on human beings, a similar dissolution in politics and economics would follow, unaccompanied even by the faith of the reformers.
Belloc lends so much credence to the influential nature of the church because he believes “that religion is the main determining element in the formation of a culture or civilization.” A culture without religion is a fallacy, and this is why he predicts that Communism has no chance of success. Communism is a form of collectivism: not community built on the mind of the maker, but rather one built on the self-interested man. For Belloc, this has led to unchecked capitalism, political cronyism, and a society devoid of truly caring for community. Interestingly enough, the issue of religion is where Babbitt’s ideas no longer parallel those of Belloc.
Babbitt was no orthodox Christian. He drew instead on literature and the discipline of criticism to form his attack on the excesses of modernity. His opponents were slightly different than those animating Belloc. For Babbitt, blame for the crisis of Western civilization falls on two parties—scientists and theologians. The modern age (too much empiricism) and the church (too much divinity) have led to the lack of exceptionalism and the fall of the West. Babbitt is hesitant to put all of his trust in something transcendent as well as the empirical. For him, the best path is through humane learning that does not submit itself to the church (something more akin to the Renaissance), nor does it promote a system of learning focused on utility and profitability (the modern age).
Babbitt, in Literature and the American College, concludes that the modern age has become more focused on humanitarianism than humanism. For someone like Belloc, humanism was an innate characteristic of the church, which has from its beginning seen learning and faith side by side. Babbitt is pointing out that this arrangement has changed and therefore an idea of wider sociability has usurped the advancement of Western culture. Babbitt contends that the intellectual superiority found through liberal learning has been replaced by democratic sensibilities. The education system has lost its ability to promote genius and high standards in its quest for greater numbers to be exposed to an accessible level of education. This is based on the idea that the lower school system conditions young people to expect colleges to give everyone a chance and the faculty to “waste their energies in trying to elevate youths above the level to which they belong, not only by their birth, but by their capacity.” He is concerned with the standard of Western education, not the religious culture. This falls in line with his ethos; he is looking to reinstitute a high quality of objective standards—the key word being objective (thus ruling out religion, which many see as subjective).
For Babbitt, science and contemporary theology commit the same crimes against the humanities, which therefore must be protected from both. The only “religion” Babbitt seems willing to entertain as benevolent and in line with true humanism is Buddhism. Buddhism is focused on the ability and will of the individual, not a connection to a transcendent being. Man needs an inner compass to maintain restraint and discipline of the self. Babbitt, unlike Belloc, attributes such ideas to secular humane learning—the ancient humanists committed to virtue and the cultivation of a gentleman-scholar (ideals shared by the likes of such other traditional conservatives as Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, G. K. Chesterton, et. al.) Babbitt is aware of what he calls the “barbarous extremes” of excessive pluralism or monism. A defense of humane learning, especially at the university level, represents the truest sense of tradition. The university better serves man if it commits to excellence in humane learning rather than the fads and specialisms desired by a materialistic culture.
The physical sciences are beholdento materialism and have created a society dependent on the comforts and material wares of the modern age. If students are conditioned under the scientific materialist mindset, they will know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. How can educators teach the tenets of the humanities when students are daydreaming about buying a Mercedes Benz? Babbitt, in chapter four, draws the parallel “that science aspires to be all in all, somewhat after the fashion of theology in the Middle Ages.” Given his conclusions about science and divinity, it is only logical that Babbitt gravitates towards the humanism of the Renaissance, which tried to free itself from the clutches of the medieval mind, focusing on the capability of the individual and checking itself by the attempt to rediscover ancient values through humane learning. Russell Kirk sees Babbitt’s philosophy as deeply flawed because of his unwillingness to incorporate theism into his understanding of tradition. Nonetheless, Kirk still sees Babbitt’s fight against “the clutch of ideology” in the American university as an important component in the preservation of conservatism, an alternative to an inhumane servility of the mind, and the plea for the permanent things in civilization: “If intellectually we linger smug and apathetic in a bent world, leaving the works of the mind to molder, as a people we will come to know the consequences of personal and public decadence.”
The principles espoused in the liberal arts provide the respective solutions for Belloc and Babbitt, but their methodologies hinge on different aspects of man. For Belloc, the Catholic Church and its effects on culture, along with the influence of the university, will save the day. For Babbitt, it is only the humanism preserved by the university that can save Western culture from its immediate problem, the advent of what Kirk called scientism, represented by Babbitt’s ideological opponent, John Dewey. Granted, there are those who mean to place Babbitt, at times, in close proximity to the Dewey camp. Individuals committed to tradition, who see Babbitt as a conservative rather than a progressive, need only to look for clarification from Claes Ryn:
Other philosophical concepts from Babbitt are “a oneness that is always changing,” “multiplicity,” “immediate experience,” and, for that matter, “analytic reason.” In spite of impressions left from time to time, Babbitt does not regard these as merely temporary, provisional, pragmatic “truths.” They refer to ultimates of human life that always and everywhere constitute experience.”
The authors do agree wholeheartedly on the need for a select or aristocratic group that would elevate the standards of education, society, and culture in general. True humanism succeeds at producing an intellectual elite whereas science provides the illusion of betterment.
Conservatives have drawn on both Belloc and Babbitt in diagnosing modernity and prescribing solutions. Both the church and the university remain characteristic of Western culture, having only recently been divorced from one another. The two authors, in their recognition of a common enemy and the state of the modern age, have seen to it that more than one solution is presented for the crisis of Western civilization. Despite their individual perspectives, they are bound by a humility to something higher than themselves that gives them the strength to preserve and rediscover the permanent concepts of Western tradition in order to maintain a classic humanism amid the rush of the modern age.
Chris Butynskyi is a visiting lecturer of European history at Eastern University and a Ph.D. candidate in Faulkner University’s Great Books Program.
Two conservative authors sought the restoration of Western civilization, but they differ significantly on their diagnosis and solution.