August 19, 2012


An American Classic : a review of Democracy and Leadership  by Irving Babbitt.  (CLAES G. RYN, Autumn 1981, University Bookman)

Babbitt questioned the dominant intellectual currents of his own lifetime. In Democracy and Leadership, as in other works, he criticizes what he calls the naturalistic movement in modern Western society. He distinguishes between two aspects of this movement, letting Francis Bacon exemplify its mechanistic and utilitarian side and Jean-Jacques Rousseau its sentimental side. Both ignore the need to order human life with reference to a transcendent ethical principle. The utilitarian and sentimental dispositions are frequently joined in the same individual. A common modern political type is the lover of humanity, basking in self-approbation, whose benevolence expresses itself in calls for social engineering. But, according to Babbitt, no amount of sentimental "love" or sociopolitical activism can substitute for a lack of real moral character. Stressing the tension in man between higher and lower potentialities, he views genuine love and charity as the fruits of an often difficult self-discipline in the individual soul. Social reform can sometimes aid but never replace moral self-improvement and education.

[W]ith the present trend toward "social justice," the time is rapidly approaching when everybody will be minding everybody else's business. For the conscience that is felt as a still small voice and that is the basis of real justice, we have substituted a social conscience that operates rather through a megaphone. The busybody, for the first time perhaps in the history of the world, has been taken at his own estimate of himself.

Real social harmony rests ultimately on the exercise of a higher will in man. This will is Babbitt's much-debated but poorly understood "inner check." He means by this term the transcendent good reaching into the lives of individual men and drawing them toward a common center. In specifically Christian language, the inner check corresponds to grace or love. But this higher will, Babbitt argues, does not have to be taken on faith or on the authority of tradition. It is a matter of immediate experience which can be judged by its fruits.

Societies aspiring to be civilized must instill in their citizens a sense of the enduring good to which the impulse of the moment can be ordered. A rich cultural life serves this purpose. An "inner working" of this kind must not be neglected in favor of attention to a merely utilitarian "outer working," such as the economic efficiency displayed in the marketplace. All societies, but especially those wishing to maintain a popular government, need citizens educated toward appreciation of the higher values of civilized life and leaders particularly distinguished in the same respect. To inspire and sustain the higher potentialities of human society, Babbitt gives a central place to the training of what he calls "the moral imagination." This highest form of the imagination, most fully developed in the great poets and artists, penetrates to the heart of human existence, giving man a sense of the elevation and happiness of morally ordered experience. In its attempt to grasp what abides in the midst of change, it draws upon the great examples of the past. But it does so creatively and goes beyond tradition in its application of the cultural heritage to new circumstances. Babbitt contrasts this type of imagination (in the moderate traditionalism of Edmund Burke) with the radical and primitivistic dreaming of Rousseau.

Contrary to Rousseauistic belief, a people throwing off all traditional restraint unleash in themselves, not some original goodness, but the arbitrary and destructive ego. Hobbes and Nietzsche are correct in regarding the will to power as a pervasive human drive. Under the influence of a perverted demagogic leadership, a democratic people lacking in moral discipline will soon exhibit a ruthless imperialism. In 1924 Democracy and Leadership predicted the catastrophes soon to befall mankind.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at August 19, 2012 8:40 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus