American Burke: Irving Babbitt Formulated a Conservatism for a World in Whirl

By Hoeveler, J. David | The American Conservative, February 2011 | Go to article overview

American Burke: Irving Babbitt Formulated a Conservatism for a World in Whirl


Hoeveler, J. David, The American Conservative


For conservative thinkers the past 15 years have been a season of self-assessment. In moods of disenchantment, anger, and even betrayal many have staked out positions differentiating their views from what today commonly passes for "conservatism." In 2004 Patrick J. Buchanan published Where the Right Went Wrong, a work that, like much of this literature, targeted neoconservatism--his subtitle was "How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency." In 2003 Claes Ryn's America the Virtuous indicted the radical conservatives of recent decades and judged them to be the "New Jacobins."

The most helpful contributors to conservative self-examination have also explored an intellectual genealogy. At the same time that they have condemned a wayward and dangerous Right, they have also looked for roots. They have sought to measure the ascendant "conservatism" they disparage in the light of an older conservatism. That investigation has led in many cases back to Edmund Burke. Long venerated by conservatives in Europe and the United States, the 18th-century Irish-English statesman, critic of the French Revolution and defender of the American, has acquired a new currency in the conservative press. Evidence abounds. David Brooks spoke for many in 2007 when he declared, "Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke."

Yet Burkean conservatism has never sat easily with the conditions of American life. Whereas Europe provided conservatism with history and tradition, the United States emerged as a "nation without a past." That overstates things, but the quest for roots, stability, continuity, and tradition has never been simple here. Our inherited ideology and normative American values embrace individualism and freedom, democracy and equality, flux and change, mobility and relocation. We have never looked to church and seldom to state for a location of authority or for a sense of nationhood. In short, all the fixtures of an idealized organic society, so important to European conservatism, have found barren soil here.

But the interest remains. And no one made the effort to describe an American Burkean conservatism more energetically than Irving Babbitt. A fresh look at this conservative humanist might assist those who look for a Burkean corrective to today's ascendant Right.

Conservative Humanist

Babbitt was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1865. He traveled widely in Europe as a young man and became especially attracted to Spain, at a time when many Americans viewed that country with opprobrium. Babbitt matriculated from Harvard College in 1889 and returned there for graduate work in 1892. He kept his ties to Harvard the rest of his life, beginning his teaching career in 1894 when he joined the Romance Languages Department. His scholarship focused on literary criticism, with excursions into other subjects-especially higher education, politics, and religion. His major works include Literature and the American College (1908), The New Laokoon (1910), The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), and Democracy and Leadership (1924).

His work came to be identified with a school of thought called the "New Humanism." As defined by Babbitt and Princeton critic Paul Elmer More, this movement in criticism gained popularity in the late 1920s, culminating with a manifesto, Humanism and America, in 1930. Babbitt was a legendary teacher at Harvard, dazzling students with the wisdom of the world. Those who sat in his classroom included Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, and T.S. Eliot, who called Babbitt and More "the two wisest men that I have known." Those who have since claimed his mantle include Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, and George Will.

Babbitt had a quarrel with modern intellectual life and culture. Convinced that the West had lost the sense of sin and misplaced the source of evil, he urged their recovery. All of his views derived from his understanding of human nature. …

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