The Battle of the Classics: The Humanities without Humanism

Eric Adler

It is one of the many oddities of contemporary academic life that few humanities professors would deem themselves humanists. In fact, I’d wager that most current teachers of the humanities (Classicists included), if queried about the humanistic tradition, would have only the vaguest sense of what that term means. By comparison, one would be hard pressed to find professors of the so-called hard sciences who don’t self-identify as scientists.

This peculiar state of affairs isn’t entirely the fault of humanities faculty. After all, as the famous Renaissance scholar Paul Kristeller observed in the early 1960s, the term humanism “has become the source of much philosophical and historical confusion”. He added that, “in present discourse, almost any kind of concern with human values is called ‘humanistic’, and consequently a great variety of thinkers, religious or anti-religious, scientific or antiscientific, lay claim to what has become a rather elusive label of praise.” Hence, we find locutions such as secular humanism and scientific humanism, which bear little resemblance to the humanist movement as it was founded in Roman antiquity.

Why does widespread ignorance of the humanistic tradition on the part of Classicists and others nominally upholding its legacy matter? As it turns out, the virtual disappearance of humanism from contemporary academic life helps explain the marginalization of the Classics and, more broadly, the humanities in our secondary and tertiary education. Without a genuine humanist revival, it is doubtful that we can rescue the humanities from their precarious position in colleges and universities today.

Paul Kristeller at 90; Irving Babbitt in his 60s.

The writings of the American scholar Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) help demonstrate this point most clearly. Babbitt, a Classically trained professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard University, was the leader of the so-called New Humanism, an informal movement of literary and social criticism that caused a stir in the early twentieth century. As a lover of Classical literature from the early days of his education, Babbitt pined to teach Ancient Greek and Latin at Harvard. Since Harvard’s Classics department had no openings, however, he was forced into a career as a French professor, an occupation he always deemed distinctly inferior to that of a Classicist.

Despite his misgivings about French literature, Babbitt became one of Harvard’s pedagogical leading lights, whose popular courses were a rite of passage for students there. Among his devoted followers at Harvard was the future poet and critic T.S. Eliot; Babbitt’s New Humanism had a profound influence on Eliot’s views on Classicism, although Eliot eventually criticized his former mentor for his ecumenical approach to revealed religion. Although he is these days far from a household name, Babbitt contributed some of the most penetrating criticism of the American university system, in which he foresaw the lowly place of the contemporary humanities. Especially in his first book, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (1908), Babbitt unearthed the ways in which the creators of the university movement in the US knowingly attacked the humanistic tradition. It’s an attack from which the humanities have never recovered.

Babbitt anchored his vision of humanism in its historical inception as the studia humanitatis in Cicero’s Rome. In sympathy with Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch (1304–74) and Leonardo Bruni (c 1370–1444), he also stressed that a proper education amounted to the improvement of the self through the use of models from the past. Unlike fellow advocates of “liberal culture” from his era, Babbitt attempted to offer a philosophically precise rationale for this inward-directed education.

The tomb of Leonardo Bruni at Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. The epitaph reads: “Now that Leonardo has departed from this life, History grieves, Eloquence is mute. And it is said that the Muses, both Greek and Latin, could not hold back their tears.”

In accordance with what he took to be much Greco-Roman, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu thought, Babbitt contended that all true humanists have at least implicitly stressed the duality of human nature. To Babbitt, human beings possess both impulsive desires (what the philosopher Henri Bergson called the élan vital) and the ability to restrain or affirm these desires (what Babbitt called the frein vital, “inner check,” or “higher will”). With a nod to Denis Diderot (1713–84), Babbitt referred to the struggle between one’s impulsive desires and one’s inner check as “the civil war in the cave”. Individuals, he stressed, must learn to nourish their beneficent impulses and restrain those that are destructive to productive and respectful life. For this reason, Babbitt (like the historical humanists before him) placed cardinal importance on a particular conception of education: a proper approach to pedagogy, he argued, centered on the study of literary masterpieces from the past – from any civilization and time period. Such works, which provide the most profound visions of human life, could spur the young to cultivate their higher will, thus enabling them to live more ethically sound and happier lives.

Babbitt spied twin threats to this inner-focused humanism, both of which he identified with naturalism. He labeled one “scientific naturalism” and considered Francis Bacon (1561–1626) its progenitor; he called the other “sentimental naturalism” and deemed Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), the most influential philosopher associated with the romantic movement, its greatest advocate. Bacon’s and Rousseau’s ideas both earned the moniker “naturalist” insofar as they denied the inner dualism Babbitt considered key to humanism in favor of a monistic interpretation.

Francis Bacon (by Paul van Somer, 1617, Palace on the Water, Warsaw, Poland) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753, Musée Antoine-Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin, France).

Sentimental naturalists such as Rousseau contended that human beings are intrinsically good and that society and its institutions had corrupted them. Thus, Rousseau and his fellow romantics preached the cultivation of one’s innate impulses. They eschewed the “civil war in the cave” in favor of an outer militancy: the true fight, they maintained, was between human beings and society. Babbitt considered this perspective appealing but misguided: Rousseau failed to recognize the baleful elements of human nature – that human beings possess base inclinations as well as beneficent ones. Without regard for the hard work of improving the self through the cultivation of one’s higher will – one’s ability to exercise judgment, to restrain or affirm natural impulses, to appreciate human dualism and human frailty – thought Babbitt, people would not welcome Rousseau’s chimerical “brotherhood of man” but instead would invite misery and chaos.

Unfortunately, Babbitt contended, Baconian scientific naturalism serves to reinforce the false path he associated with Rousseau. According to Babbitt, scientific naturalists deny human dualism in part by eschewing the goal of character development in favor of gaining power over the natural world. By achieving dominion strictly over things, Babbitt feared, scientific naturalists lost control over themselves. He warned that the complete displacement of humanism with sentimental and scientific naturalism was a recipe for disaster. As he stressed in his book Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), “The man who does not rein in his will to power and is at the same time very active according to the natural law is in a fair way to become an efficient megalomaniac.”

The stealing of the apple, Maurice Leloir, 1903 (after Rousseau’s Confessions of 1782).

It was therefore calamitous, thought Babbitt, that American higher education in his day actively undermined humanism in favor of sentimental and scientific naturalism. Babbitt excoriated the drastic changes that had taken place in the US colleges since the dawn of the American university movement in the second half of the nineteenth century. He recognized that the new professionalized universities by design sideline the humanities. The architects of these institutions, a striking number of whom were champions of pseudo-scientific racism, hoped to undercut humanism by centering higher learning on the scientific method. Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926), the longstanding president of Harvard, for example, helped popularize a fully elective curriculum that he knowingly likened to social Darwinism: “In education, as elsewhere,” he opined in an essay on liberal education originally published in 1884, “it is the fittest that survives.” Not coincidentally, Eliot was a disciple of the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer and a supporter of racial segregation in the school system.

By eliminating curricular prescription in favor of election, Eliot demonstrated his Rousseauistic and Baconian bona fides. According to Eliot’s scheme, Babbitt noted, “There is no general norm, no law for man, as the humanist believed, with reference to which the individual should select [courses]; he should make his selection entirely with reference to his own temperament and its (supposedly) unique requirements. The wisdom of all the ages is to be naught as compared with the inclination of a sophomore.” Indeed, naturalists such as Eliot openly disparaged the value of inner-focused humanism. As part of his ninetieth birthday celebration at Harvard, Eliot repeated to students the advice of the minister Edward Everett Hale: “Look forward and not backward – Look out and not in.”

Charles W. Eliot at 70 and Edward Everett Hale in his 70s.

It would be difficult to find a more fitting slogan for the contemporary American university. Hence, the sorry plight for the modern humanities in our higher education. Our contemporary curriculum – which maximizes student choice and thereby treats pupils as customers – actively undermines humanism and has ushered in the neo-liberal university that so many observers justly lament. It has further encouraged Classicists and other humanities professors to eschew humanism in favor of minute, professionalized research Babbitt linked to scientific naturalism. Rather than analyzing great works in a manner that allows students to discover for themselves an appropriate philosophy of life, humanities professors typically confine themselves to arcana that help serve the scientific naturalist’s cult of progress. That’s one reason most humanities professors wouldn’t consider themselves humanists: they’re too busy pretending to be scientists.

How can we rescue humanism – and thereby reinvigorate the Classics and the humanities? Babbitt provided many answers to this question, some of which demonstrate the applicability of his thought to our multicultural age. Indeed, Babbitt was a humanist trailblazer of sorts, whose syncretistic impulses compelled him to champion a radical expansion of the humanist canon. Discussing what he termed the Platonic Problem of the One and the Many, he contended that individuals’ impulsive desires tend to distance them from one another, whereas the “higher will” or “inner check” speaks to what is common among human beings. Literary works may be deemed masterpieces, Babbitt thought, if they possess a transcendent quality that blends the particular with the universal.

Relief of the Muses, Roman sarcophagus of the 2nd century AD (Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City).

For this reason, Babbitt embraced masterpieces from a variety of cultures and civilizations. In some respects, he presaged much of the current emphasis on diversity and inclusion in curricula, but rather than a shallow embrace of those ideas as administrative buzzwords, his approach was richly informed by an understanding of humanism’s true purpose. Thus, for example, he noted that “the experience of the Far East completes and confirms in a most interesting way that of the Occident. We can scarcely afford to neglect it if we hope to work out a truly ecumenical wisdom to oppose the sinister one-sidedness of our current naturalism.” Although in his writings he chiefly underscored the virtues of Classical and Far Eastern thought, Babbitt argued in favor of a radical omni-culturalism that saw value in the examination of all human civilizations for humanistic wisdom. Babbitt’s paramount regard for an essential unity to human knowledge deliberately opposed the social Darwinian impulse to split up humanity according to a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of races.

Undoubtedly, one cannot simply heed Babbitt’s advice to rescue the Classics and the modern humanities. As is the case with the work of any thinker, Babbitt’s writings possess downsides and appear in some respects ill-suited to social and pedagogical conditions vastly postdating his lifetime. But we can learn much from this unjustly neglected scholar, whose books and essays could jumpstart an omni-cultural humanist revival. Without it – and without humanism – the modern humanities will continue to succumb to the defeat the architects of the professionalized universities designed for them.

Eric Adler is Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Further Reading

Eric Adler, The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today (Oxford UP, 2020).

Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC, 1986; originally published in 1908).

Charles W. Eliot, Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses (The Century Co., New York, 1898).

Robert E. Proctor, Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools (Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1998).