Humanistic Letters: The Irving Babbitt—Paul Elmer More Correspondence
Edited by Eric Adler.
University of Missouri Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 488 pages, $75.

Reviewed by Justin D. Garrison.

In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk observes, “it is an ominous sign for any society . . . when men of letters must take up the burden which a dwindling remnant of old-fashioned philosophical statesmen have resigned.” He was writing about Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) and Paul Elmer More (1864-1937), the two leading figures in the early twentieth-century American New Humanism movement. Like many today, Babbitt and More saw serious signs of decline in several areas of American culture. The humanistic renewal they pursued sought to fight back against growing disorder, perhaps eventually to recover a substantial degree of order, while avoiding the false dilemma, as Babbitt once wrote to More, of having to choose in the modern world between becoming a “Rousseauist or a Jesuit.”

At its height this movement won many admirers in the United States, Europe, India, and China. It also attracted several prominent, often uncharitable, critics including H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, Harold Laski, and Allen Tate. While New Humanism has never reclaimed the level of public prominence it had in the 1920s and 1930s, it has never entirely disappeared. Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, George Panichas, Claes Ryn, and many others have taken up various strains of thought in Babbitt and More, revising and applying their ideas about ethics, imagination, education, politics, and religion. 

Over the past few years, Eric Adler has given fresh attention to Babbitt and New Humanism. In The Battle of the Classics (Oxford UP, 2020), he makes a Babbitt-inspired argument in favor of a genuinely cosmopolitan humanism as the heart of a revitalized humanities in American higher education. In Humanistic Letters: The Irving Babbitt—Paul Elmer More Correspondence (Missouri UP, 2023), he continues developing his broader interest in the movement by offering the first complete collection of the correspondence between Babbitt and More. This volume is an impressive work of scholarship in several ways. The bibliographic material is extensive and will afford readers numerous opportunities to pursue in more depth any number of topics of importance to one or both thinkers. The letters themselves are made much easier to understand thanks to Adler’s extensive contextualizing footnotes as well as his brief biographies of key family members and other figures who feature prominently in the correspondence. 

In a thoughtful and comprehensive introduction, Adler writes, “the New Humanism, moreover, should not be merely the object of historical curiosity. On the contrary, the movement Babbitt and More spearheaded has much to teach us today. This conclusion seems especially salient in our anti-humanistic age.” Offering a glimpse behind the curtain, as it were, these letters indeed have much to tell people living through today’s “anti-humanistic age.”

One of the first things a reader observes in this volume is the deep, life-long friendship between Babbitt and More. Though they had clear intellectual differences, and even vigorous disagreements, such issues never entirely broke the bond between them. The letters show each giving the other frank advice and encouragement on many works in progress. It is clear each man wanted the other to succeed as a scholar. They also wrote to one another about their daily lives, their own health and the health of their families, plans for holiday travel, and other such topics. In one letter, Babbitt tells More he has a new neighbor in Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Babbitt writes, “she is said to be putting $200,000 into her investment which is concrete evidence that she has made religion ‘hum’ as they would say in Chicago.” On a more somber note, a lengthy exchange between them on religion and humanism ends abruptly with Babbitt announcing his sister had been struck by a car and killed.

As Adler notes, Babbitt “aimed first and foremost” to create a movement to influence the broader culture. In a letter Babbitt wonders “whether it is possible to combine the historical sense with any respect for absolute standards.” Out of sincere conviction, and out of tactical considerations, Babbitt’s humanism was an ecumenical “yes” to this possibility. His response to the unsound individualism of modernity was not to reject individualism but to replace it with a vision of sound individualism that could be at home in the modern world. On what was perhaps the most important issue to him, the truth of the ethical life, he was comfortable engaging modern skeptics of moral universality in a Socratic manner by appealing to experience and to the wisdom embedded in the great works of literature as well as in the teachings of figures such as Buddha, Jesus, Aristotle, and Confucius. As one willing to see and interpret the ethical check on historical and psychological grounds, Babbitt believed he was acting as a more “complete positivist” than were his conventional positivist opponents, many of whom, in the name of scientific rationality, dogmatically excluded the ethical will from consideration.

Paul Elmer More was less concerned than Babbitt about establishing a broad public movement, humanistic or otherwise. He was therefore not as interested as Babbitt in what he saw as his friend’s tactical choices. He was more skeptical of modernity than Babbitt, seeing it as driven by “the rejection of authority as authority . . . and a tendency to discredit anything settled.” More was comfortable describing himself as a reactionary, “if only the word is properly taken.” Over time, as Adler explains, More became increasingly theologically rigorous as he “drew closer to a heterodox Anglicanism.” Like Babbitt, More saw true wisdom in a variety of non-Christian religions and philosophies. Unlike Babbitt, More increasingly insisted Christianity was both distinct from and superior to such traditions. For More, the ethical teachings of Jesus could not be separated from belief in his status as God Incarnate. If the theological truth of the Incarnation were downplayed or ignored, then the mere fact of Jesus’s ethical teachings would be no more authoritative than any number of other mere facts about the moral life. More writes, “One can’t, in this world, have his cake and eat it. And I may say that it is just impossible to get the psychological benefits of Christianity while rejecting the Christian (and Platonic) conception of the supernatural as a reality.” In a 1931 letter to Babbitt, More argues, “Certainly if Buddha is right then Christ’s doctrine of God is an illusion, if not a ghastly one. You must take your choice.”

Babbitt acknowledged an effective humanism “must have a background of religious meditation.” In these letters and in his numerous publications, Babbitt did not argue humanism ought to replace religion or could dispense with religion. At the same time, he thought it was both bad tactics and ultimately inadequate thinking to insist dogmatic teachings must be accepted for the ethical truth in a tradition to be understood. As Babbitt writes to More, “the substantial agreement of Christ and Buddha as to the fruits of the religious life is a fact not to be dismissed lightly on theological or other grounds.” For Babbitt, the reality of the higher will, whatever it might be called and whatever other ideas it might relate to, is known first in action, then in mind. Perhaps he captures the differences between him and More on these issues best when he states, “our conclusions when translated into actual conduct are practically identical but our philosophies certainly diverge at times very widely.” 

To return to the question posed above, what does the New Humanism have to teach people today? Despite having been a highly influential editor and literary critic in his day, interest in More has mostly faded away. If this collection of correspondence draws new attention to his thought and numerous publications it will have accomplished a great good. The much more substantial and enduring interest in Babbitt indicates there is indeed something significant to learn from him and the movement he led. Books and articles about Babbitt or using Babbitt continue to find their way into print, including the book here being reviewed. Adler has mainly been attracted to Babbitt’s ideas on literature and the need for a renewal of humane education in America. Others have been drawn to Babbitt’s ideas about politics and ethics. Claes Ryn, Babbitt’s foremost living interpreter, has adapted and strengthened many of Babbitt’s insights, using them to theorize about political morality and forms of democracy as well as to create a systematic epistemology that emphasizes the crucial roles played by will and imagination in the constitution of human knowledge. Measured in these ways, New Humanism is far from the intellectual equivalent of a museum piece. It has never stopped teaching people things worth knowing.

While many individual scholars have found Babbitt’s way of thinking appealing, the institutional and cultural success of New Humanism has been rather modest. In humanism, Babbitt found for himself an alternative to becoming a “Rousseauist or a Jesuit.” He also hoped humanism could take root and gain ground against deterioration in the wider culture, beginning with American higher education. Such ambitions have yet to be realized. The culture in general, and higher education in particular, is permeated today by what Babbitt called humanitarianism, a Rousseauistic (and Baconian) movement he saw as ascendant but not yet triumphant in his time. Especially in higher education, when resistance to humanitarianism has emerged, it has typically come from conventional religious perspectives, lukewarm or even hostile to Babbitt and humanism. Increasingly, the ideology of humanitarianism is being fought on numerous fronts, not by humanists of the Babbittian variety, but by adherents to humanitarianism’s mirror image: populism. The prospects for a humanistic renewal in this “anti-humanistic age” appear even worse than in Babbitt and More’s day.

And yet, as the correspondence between Babbitt and More reveals, humanism is neither pessimistic nor utopian. Babbitt, for one, had realistic expectations regarding the fruits of his labor to breathe life into a rejuvenated American humanism. In a letter to More written just over a year before he died, Babbitt explains, “I shall of course continue to do all I can to oppose the present naturalistic deliquescence and to coöperate with those who are making a similar effort, even though on postulates very different from my own. I am not sure that any of us can accomplish very much. The anti-naturalist who wishes to preserve his peace of mind these days would do well to recall the Hindu maxim and, while working to the utmost, to be not unduly attached to the fruits of his working.”

Kirk is right to see it as an “ominous sign” when the defense of civilization falls on the shoulders of men of letters. Adler is not wrong when, in The Battle of the Classics, he argues, “the world urgently requires a humanistic revival.” Babbitt would agree with both men. Today, people intrigued by this type of humanism, especially in higher education, are often intellectually and geographically isolated. For a humanistic revival to have a chance in the present, those attracted to the ideas of Babbitt and More need to forge friendships, foster communities, and coordinate efforts to bring these ideas to bear on the culture. Even if these times seem more discouraging than a century ago, people today interested in this brand of humanism can take inspiration from this new volume and can take courage from Babbitt’s words in Literature and the American College when he writes, “under these circumstances our prayer, like that Ajax, should be to fight in the light.” 

Justin D. Garrison is Associate Professor of Political Science at Roanoke College.

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