The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age
edited by Justin D. Garrison and Ryan R. Holston
SUNY Press, 2020.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $95.

Reviewed by Luke C. Sheahan

The historical mind is not without its controversy. And for good reason. It would seem in some iterations to be a rejection of truth in any meaningful sense. Some versions of historicism such as the “search for the historical Jesus” begin with the end in mind: that religion is false. We just need to figure out why the superstitious nonsense arose in the first place. Many versions cannot avoid a devastating moral relativism with little to say to counter assertions of raw power and ideology. Where would we be without a statement of universal principles unsullied by historical contingency? What can the historical mind offer that would be better than that?

A lot, actually. It may be that the historical mind is the very means through which objective truth can be grasped and upheld because it is the historical mind that shapes the character of those who would know the truth. That is the essential thrust of a book edited by Justin Garrison (Roanoke College) and Ryan Holston (Virginia Military Institute). The editors write, “In a general sense, history is the record of various things that have been done by and happened to people. In a more meaningful sense, history is embedded with knowledge of how different peoples and ages conceptualized and lived goodness, truth, and beauty.” History is what teaches us what these things are and what they can be. The Historical Mind: Humanistic Renewal in a Post-Constitutional Age is an elaboration of the insights of Irving Babbitt, the great Harvard professor and key figure in early twentieth century humanism, as well as the most prominent contemporary advocate of his ideas, the distinguished Catholic University of America Professor of Politics Claes Ryn. As editors of the journal Humanitas, founded by Ryn, Garrison and Holston have been part of an effort to articulate a value-centered historicism for some time.

The volume begins with two classic essays by Babbitt and Ryn as statements upon the meaning of the “historical mind” in their own view. The essays that follow elaborate on these themes in four key areas that Babbitt and Ryn discussed in their work: the imagination, ethics and character, constitutionalism, and foreign relations. The essays are not all of a piece. Indeed, each of the authors is a prominent and independent thinker in his or her own right with the publishing record to prove it. This is reflected in the sometimes-critical albeit always-appreciative perspective each brings to the subject.

Babbitt and Ryn both cautioned against what they called the “idyllic imagination” grounded in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which finds the highest virtue in a gushing sentimentalism where the essence of morality is found in the unleashing of potential human goodness from the predations of tradition and society. The idyllic imagination can take the form of abstractionist ethics that separates the messiness of reality (where virtue and morality must in fact live) from the ideal. Babbitt and Ryn explored the ramifications of this view for politics, culture, and religion. As an alternative, they invoked the moral imagination of Edmund Burke, grounded in a classical and Christian understanding of human nature and historical particularity. In the Burkean understanding of human nature, in order for human beings to be moral, their lower impulses must be restrained and they must pay attention to the historical circumstances in which their actions play out. In ethical restraint, not sentimental gushing, human beings can find their highest fulfillment and constitutional order its most stable foundation.

Essays by Bradley J. Birzer, Justin D. Garrison, and S. F. McGuire tackle the problem of culture and imagination. Birzer, biographer of the great conservative luminaries Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson (among others), sheds light on Babbitt’s profound influence upon Kirk. It was Babbitt more than T. S. Eliot or Paul Elmer More who shaped Kirk’s views. Kirk’s magisterial Conservative Mind was really a sequel to Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership. This might be surprising to those schooled in the conventional history of the postwar American intellectual conservative movement. Kirk, like Ryn, was never a dutiful lapdog to Babbitt. Where Babbitt saw romanticism as inextricably bound up with the idyllic imagination, Kirk, like Dawson, saw in romanticism much good even if the potential for ill was undeniable. Romanticism allowed for the invigoration of the moral imagination even if it contained the danger of an escapism that encouraged idyllic dreaming.

As a professor of literature, Babbitt believed that great literature shaped the imagination for good and ill. Garrison looks at Babbittian themes in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men. Babbitt had warned about the dangers of an abstractionist science associated with Francis Bacon that placed undue faith in method. Perhaps this yielded helpful results in the physical sciences, but it was inapplicable to politics. Warren depicts a politician who brings such “science” to politics in his novel and the disastrous results that follow. By focusing on scientific order in the state, the politician misses the necessity of order in the soul. By reversing the priorities of these sources of political order he brings dire consequences for himself and those around him.

Eric Voegelin was a significant twentieth century figure in political thought whose wide ranging work covered many fields, but he is rarely compared to Babbitt and Ryn. For one thing, there is a difference of vocabulary. Voegelin does not discuss the imagination to the extent that Babbitt and Ryn do, although he discusses related concepts. Ryn has speculated that Voegelin may not have understood the nature and necessity of the imagination for politics. But S. F. McGuire argues that Voegelin actually does have a concept of the imagination and that it is possibly even more explanatory of political reality than is Babbitt’s and Ryn’s due to what McGuire calls its “luminous” dimension, the way in which the imagination may be a participation in being, illuminated from outside the individual. In a book of important essays, this might be the most important, by demonstrating both the linkage between the humanist political philosophy of Babbitt and Ryn and that of Voegelin as well as how they inform and build upon each other. It is an invitation for Babbittians and Voegelinians to read each other and to commence a fruitful cross-pollination of ideas.

Ethics is the central issue of the humanist project. William Byrne and Robert C. Koons address ethical issues in Babbitt and Ryn’s work. Byrne discusses Ryn’s elaboration of Babbitt’s concept of the imagination to demonstrate a substantial epistemological alternative to the abstractionist epistemology of the Enlightenment and he illuminates the ethical dimension of the epistemological discussion for politics. An educational system that prioritizes “technical” knowledge and defines intelligence as mastery or adeptness in technical matters will deprioritize historically grounded understanding and wisdom. The result is that society’s leaders will lack wisdom while being adept with technical knowledge. Will such a leadership class prioritize humility and wisdom, assuming their own lack of complete knowledge and questioning not only the motivations of their opponents, but their own as well? Or will they prioritize mastery of technical skills and seek power as the end in itself? The result of such training, as Ryn points out, is an oligarchical elite that uses its considerable financial, social, and political power to destroy traditions that instantiate an historically grounded morality.

Koons defends traditional natural law against Ryn’s accusations that it is too abstract. Koons does not defend its abstractionism, but its particularity. He argues that Ryn does not give enough credit to the medieval natural law for its sophisticated treatment of the relationship between the universal and the particular by reading Thomas and the others through the lens of modern natural law (which does give short shrift to the particular). Koons is also critical of Ryn’s Babbittian tendency to view morality only as restraint rather than positive moral duties (such as “love thy neighbor”). Despite these criticisms, he sees potential for a reconciliation between Ryn’s emphasis on the imagination, defined as the primary means whereby human beings inhabit the moral law, and the natural law tradition, with its emphasis on reason. From this perspective Burke and his twentieth- and twenty-first-century adherents have much more in common with Aristotle and Cicero and Thomas Aquinas than they do with modern natural law.

A common critique of Babbitt, who was irreligious, is that his humanism was incompatible with Christianity because Babbitt attempted to devise an ethical system that ignored Christian doctrine. T. S. Eliot is the most prominent of this line of critics, but he isn’t alone. Ryan Holston ably defends the fundamental compatibility between Babbitt’s ethical system and Christianity, demonstrating that in fact the structure of Babbitt’s ethical system is not only compatible with Christianity but deeply Christian in its awareness of the dangers of the lower will, humanity’s fallen nature and sinfulness, as well as the “sham spirituality” that emerges from the lower will masquerading as religious while denying the humility of a truly Christian disposition. What Babbitt is describing as his ethical system is something that does not render Christian teaching irrelevant but helps to reveal ways in which religious teaching can go wrong by masking the appeals of the lower will in spiritual or religious language. The critiques that Babbitt levied as “sham spirituality” were nearly identical to those of his contemporary, the Presbyterian minister and theologian Gresham Machen, in his critique of liberal Protestantism in Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

Holston does not mention Machen, focusing instead on the affinity between C. S. Lewis and Babbitt (a topic this reviewer has explored elsewhere), rightly pointing out their similarity. Lewis called Babbitt’s friend and fellow founder of the New Humanism Paul Elmer More his “spiritual uncle.” While discussing the fundamental ethics of the Tao in The Abolition of Man (1943) Lewis did not insist that the ethical system could only emerge from Christian doctrine. To claim that was to deny the fundamental reality of the ethical system, the natural law, that was in place from the beginning of Creation. Instead, Lewis emphasized the embeddedness of the natural law in the created order, grasped by the person with rightly ordered character.

One of Babbitt’s unappreciated aspects is the extent to which he critiques progressive constitutional values before the ramifications of the progressive constitutional project were widely understood. Ryn has largely become famous for his elaboration of Babbitt’s fundamental insights on the nature of the problem in our present circumstances. Michael Federici uses Voegelin’s analysis of the problem of whether constitutions can preserve the engendering experiences of order and whether they can become deformations of that experience and thus means to create second-order realities, ideological constructs untethered from actual reality. Central to Ryn’s critique of conservative constitutionalism is the way in which it ignores the unwritten background of constitutionalism in the social structures and social beings who act in the constitutional system.

The Founders’ conceptions of human nature were very different from those most people hold today. Late eighteenth century society was still drenched in Christian understandings of the limits of human achievement and the very real presence of evil in the human heart. The structure they built accounted for this philosophical anthropology, creating checks and balances to frustrate would-be tyrants, whether in the form of individuals, factions, or majorities. This understanding of human nature has given way to a conception that emphasizes man’s goodness in place of his fallenness and the need for effective government that can instantiate good values in place of structures that slow down government action out of concern for the very real oppressions that might emerge from power wielded by fallen human beings.

Central to Ryn’s account of constitutionalism is his dichotomy between plebiscitary democracy and constitutional democracy, mapping onto Babbitt’s distinction between the idyllic imagination and the moral imagination. The esteemed constitutional scholar Bruce Frohnen agrees that the character of citizens determines the character of the regime. Those who want to return to the “Constitution of the Founders,” Ryn argues, actually want to return the American people to the character of the founding generation. The two are inseparable. If we are to have constitutional democracy, we need constitutional citizens. If we expect to have a government that controls itself, we need to have citizens who also have self-control. “Constitutionalism is not merely a political structure; it is a way of life, rooted in a particular conception of human nature, virtue, and the good life.”

This understanding of the polity as “man writ large” dates back at least to Plato. But, Frohnen points out, in large nation-states we should be careful to too-closely connect citizens and their character to the national regime. There is no getting around the need for local government. So while it’s true that we need a constitutional morality to have constitutional government, we should remember that that morality and that government must exist primarily in relation to a human scale, which means they must focus primarily on local government and non-government associations.

An important aspect of the humanism of Babbitt and Ryn is its analysis of the imagination’s effect on foreign policy. Babbitt was writing during and shortly after the foreign policy adventurism and idealism of Woodrow Wilson, attributable in no small part to what could only be described as his idyllic imagination. Ryn is writing during the foreign policy adventurism and idealism of Wilsonians of both political parties a century later. Drawing from their conceptions of foreign policy, Richard M. Gamble critiques the exceptionalist tradition in America, which had long been in the minority. He argues that the missional understanding of America’s place in the world is newly ascendant. This requires interpreting American history to exaggerate the influence of this viewpoint that, while present in the past, was far from dominant. Gamble also critiques the exceptionalist understanding for ignoring the complexity of historical existence, confusing the things of God and the things of Caesar. The result is an imperialist mindset that Babbitt warned about over a century ago and one that has led contemporary American foreign policy into errors in recent years that have cost a great deal in terms of lives and treasure.

Imperialism is the logical result of the idyllic imagination, the self-understanding that one has the true vision of proper political order and a call to impose that idyllic order upon the world. Justin Litke applies Babbitt’s and Ryn’s ideas of ethical constraint in foreign policy to distinguish between imperialism and republicanism in the American political tradition. The idyllic imagination yields an imperialist foreign policy and the moral imagination, with its emphasis upon restraint, yields a restrained foreign policy consistent with a republican political order. Republicanism requires Babbitt’s “inner check,” the humility and self-restraint of a people to remain home, to insist that they do not have answers to the world’s problems. The idea of America as a propositional nation, rather than an historical nation, lent itself to an idyllic vision. Such an abstractionist understanding could become imperialist. If we have the right ideas instantiated in our national institutions, don’t we owe it to the world to make sure they have those ideas instantiated as well? Gamble and Litke, following Babbitt and Ryn, answer “no” and argue that most Americans through American history would have said “no” as well.

The final essay by Zhang Yuan, an extraordinary Babbitt scholar in China, and Justin D. Garrison, focuses on Babbitt’s little-remembered influence in Asia. Babbitt’s eclectic interests and cosmopolitan political theory attracted students to Harvard from abroad, especially China. A number of these students returned to China with Babbitt’s ideas of adapting the best of traditional views (in this case, Chinese) to current circumstances. This was different from both radical traditionalism, which rejected all things modern, and Marxist radicalism, which rejected all things traditional. Babbitt’s nuanced thinking provides a way to bring the best of the past to bear on the present, allowing nations to preserve what is most admirable in their tradition while being open to outsiders and change in a humane cosmopolitanism.

Babbitt and Ryn outlined a humane alternative to various strains of modern political thought, but their own work was self-consciously an open-ended inquiry. The intent was never to give the final answer, but to invite others to pursue the study of such essential concepts as the moral imagination and to think through ways in which such concepts could bolster a better understanding of humane politics through an elaboration of sound epistemology and a realist philosophical anthropology. As Ryn writes, “Knowledge is carried by concepts that can be forever improved. Cognition is a dialectical straining towards, never the achievement of, perfect clarity.”

The Historical Mind, while open-ended, is surprisingly coherent and complete. Each of the sections contains chapters that outline the essential perspectives and issues surrounding the historical mind and its humanist way of thinking and being. Each is thought-provoking and, like the Babbitt/Ryn humanist project as a whole, each is an invitation to further inquiry and interlocution. 

Luke C. Sheahan is assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University and a non-resident scholar at the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

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The University Bookman has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.