Irving Babbitt: What Is Humanism? 1

What Is Humanism? (My introduction)

Babbitt’s essay is divided into three parts. This post contains three introductory paragraphs; the three parts following them will be published in three separate posts.

One of our federal judges said, not long ago, that what the American people need is ten per cent of thought and ninety per cent of action. In that case we ought all to be happy, for that is about what we have already. One is reminded by contrast of an accusation brought by a recent historian of Greek philosophy against Socrates, who, according to this historian, exaggerates the reasonableness of human nature. Only think rightly, Socrates seems to say, and right acting may be counted on to follow. The English and American temper is in this respect almost the reverse of Socratic. Act strenuously, would appear to be our faith, and right thinking will take care of itself. We feel that we can afford to “muddle along” in theory if only we attain to practical efficiency.

This comparative indifference to clearness and consistency of thought is visible even in that chief object of our national concern, education. The firmness of the American’s faith in the blessings of education is equaled only by the vagueness of his ideas as to the kind of education to which these blessings are annexed. One can scarcely consider the tremendous stir we have been making for the past thirty years or more about education, the time and energy and enthusiasm we are ready to lavish on educational undertakings, the libraries and laboratories and endowments, without being reminded of the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite inquiry and research, may be employed to evade and shuffle off real labor – the real labor of thinking.” We live so fast, as the saying is, that we have no time to think. The task of organizing and operating a huge and complex educational machinery has left us scant leisure for calm reflection. Evidently a little less eagerness for action and a little more of the Socratic spirit would do no harm. We are likely, however, to be arrested at the very outset of any attempt to clarify our notions about education, as Socrates was in dealing with the problems of his own time, by the need of accurate definition. The Socratic method is, indeed, in its very essence a process of right defining. It divides and subdivides and distinguishes between the diverse and sometimes contradictory concepts that lurk beneath one word; it is a perpetual protest, in short, against the confusion that arises from the careless use of general terms, especially when they have become popular catchwords. If Socrates were here to-day, we can picture to ourselves how he would go around “cross-examining” those of us (there are some college presidents in the number) who repeat so glibly the current platitudes about liberty and progress, democracy, service, and the like; and he would no doubt get himself set down as a public nuisance for his pains, as he was by his fellow Athenians.

A good example of the confusion rising from general terms is the term that is more important than any other, perhaps, for our present argument. To make a plea for humanism without explaining the word would give rise to endless misunderstanding. It is equally on the lips of the socialistic dreamer and the exponent of the latest philosophical fad. In an age of happy liberty like the present, when any one can employ almost any general term very much as he pleases, it is perhaps inevitable that the term humanism, which still has certain gracious associations lingering about it, should be appropriated by various theorists, in the hope, apparently, that the benefit of the associations may accrue to an entirely different order of ideas. Thus the Oxford philosopher, Mr. F. C. S. Schiller, claims to be a humanist, and in the name of humanism threatens to “do strange deeds upon the clouds“. Renan says that the religion of the future will be a “true humanism”. The utopists who have described their vision of the future as “humanism” or the “new humanism” are too numerous to mention. Gladstone speaks of the humanism of Auguste Comte, Professor Herford of the humanism of Rousseau, and the Germans in general of the humanism of Herder; whereas Comte, Rousseau, and Herder were all three not humanists, but humanitarian enthusiasts. A prominent periodical, on the other hand, laments the decay of the “humanitarian spirit” at Harvard, meaning no doubt humanistic. We evidently need a working definition not only of humanism, but of the words with which it is related or confused – humane, humanistic, humanitarian, humanitarianism. And these words, if successfully defined, will help us to a further necessary definition, – that of the college. For any discussion of the place of literature in the college is conditioned by a previous question: whether there will be any college for literature to have a place in. The college has been brought to this predicament not so much perhaps by its avowed enemies as by those who profess to be its friends. Under these circumstances our prayer, like that of Ajax, should be to fight in the light.

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