Irving Babbitt and Lin Yutang - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Irving Babbitt and Lin Yutang

Although it is generally accepted that T. S. Eliot was the most illustrious of Irving Babbitt’s students at Harvard, no agreement exists on who is next in line. The usual candidates are Walter Lippmann and Van Wyck Brooks. Judged from the perspective of international reputation, however, there can be no doubt that the most widely-known and perhaps the most influential of the great humanist’s students was a native Chinese, Lin Yutang (1895–1976), who was enrolled in Babbitt’s classes in 1919–1920. During a residence of nearly thirty years in the United States, Lin wrote in English a number of best-selling volumes of fiction and philosophy, some of which were distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and most of which were translated into a dozen European and Asian languages. In 1975, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Lin gave a short but vivid description of Babbitt as a teacher in his “Memoirs of an Octogenarian,” written in English in 1973, printed in 1974 in the Chinese Culture University Journal of Taiwan and reprinted in the following year as Eighty: An Autobiography. His text substantiates one part of “the good-natured mockery of a joke that was common around Harvard in the 1920s,” that “Babbitt’s fame was spreading around the world and had in fact already left Cambridge.”1In his reminiscences, Lin raised a number of points about Babbitt and the nature of literary criticism in his era and later:

In Harvard, I registered for the School of Comparative Literature. My professors were Bliss Perry, Irving Babbitt, Von Yagerman (Gothic), Kittredge (Shakes-peare) and another professor for Italian Literature. Bliss Perry was the most popular professor, liked by all the students. He had charming daughters. I wrote one essay on “The Change in Vocabulary in the Critical Essay.” He commented favorably and suggested I could make it my M.A. thesis, which I never did as my study at Harvard was soon cut off.

Prof. Irving Babbitt raised a storm in literary criticism. He was for maintaining a critical standard, as against the school of J. L. Spingarn, later in the New School of Social Research New York. Babbitt was the only professor who was only an M.A. by degree. Backed by prodigious learning, he used to read from Sainte-Beuve’s Port Royal and eighteenth-century French authors and quoted the modern Brunetiere. He devoted a whole course, Rousseau and Romanticism, tracing the disappearance of all standards to the influence of J.J. Rousseau. It was a course in the development of the expansive appreciative criticism in Madame de Staël and other early Romantics, Tieck, Novalis, etc.

His influence on Chinese was far-reaching. Lou Kuang-lai and Wu Mi carried his ideas to China. Shaped like a monk, Wu Mi’s love affair with his girl would make a novel. Wu and Lou were both good in Chinese, and they were orthodox in their point of view, veering less toward the “colloquial” style that was the rage called by the Literary Revolution. They sat on the same bench with me. I was forced to borrow the Port-Royal and have a glance at it. I refused to accept Babbitt’s criteria and once took up the cudgels for Spingarn and eventually was in complete agreement with Croce with regard to the genesis of all criticism as “expression.” All other explanations are too shallow. I was against the Chinese idea of style, which reduced all good writing to a series of “laws” of composition and sentence structures, whether for a “biography,” a “eulogy,” a “narrative,” or even a long novel, not knowing when Su Tung-Po wrote, he had no notion but to follow the bend of his thought current, like a wayward cloud “going on when he had to go on and stopping when he had to stop.”

It is obvious that Lin did not consider himself to be one of Babbitt’s disciples even though he had benefitted greatly from his influence. His observation that Babbitt was the only one of his Harvard professors who did not possess the Ph.D. degree may on the surface seem to be superficial, indicating a failure to understand the Harvard system in which some of its most prestigious professors were considered exempt from this requirement. It is possible that Lin did indeed suffer from such a misconception, but he may also have been expressing his own amused antipathy to the tyranny of the American fetish for advanced degrees which he elsewhere openly ridiculed. Soon after his Harvard days, he categorized American Ph.D.’s as “men who need a rank to earn their own bread and other people’s respect.”2In reality Babbitt had no need of rank to gain the respect of his students and colleagues, but the lack of an advanced degree may have interfered with his academic advancement, especially in the early years of his career. In 1896 when his outline for a course in nineteenth-century French literature was rejected by the administration, a course remarkably similar to the one which Lin took twenty years later, the veto, according to Babbitt’s biographer, may have reflected “the lot of a subordinate, and one without a doctoral degree.”3Apart from insights into the comparative literature program at Harvard, Lin’s remarks lead to a consideration of the long-range significance of his critical parting of the ways from Babbitt. They are notable also in indicating the role of American humanism in the Chinese movement of 1919, known as the literary revolution of the Fourth of May.

The highlight of Lin’s reminiscences of Harvard concerns his defense of J. E. Spingarn against Babbitt, a topic that is intimately connected with his remarks concerning Chinese notions of literary style. Lin almost certainly borrowed the metaphor of taking up the cudgels in Spingarn’s defense from an article by Babbitt, ironically against Spingarn himself. In this article Babbitt translated a Spanish proverb “Hay gustos que merecen palas” as “There are tastes that deserve the cudgel.”4Van Wyck Brooks in his autobiography describes Babbitt in his classes around this time, harshly repeating “There are tastes that deserve the cudgel.”5 Incidentally Babbitt is also the source of a metaphor used by his first Chinese disciple Kuang-ti Mei portraying China as “the dumping ground for all the routine banalities and dubious ideologies of the West.”6This metaphor is derived from a question by Babbitt in an essay, “Genius and Taste,” against Spingarn and Croce, published in The Nation in 1918: “Is this country always to be the dumping ground of Europe?” Babbitt’s title derived from a collection of essays edited by Spingarn in 1917 under the title Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste. His review in The Nation denied the alleged unity of these qualities. Spingarn was not offended, however, but later published Babbitt’s essay in a second collection which he edited under the title Criticism in America (1924). The leading essay in the collection is a reprinting of the one that had provoked Babbitt’s review in The Nation.

Lin’s defense of Spingarn consisted of a collection in Chinese translation of statements about literary criticism by a number of expressionists, including Spingarn, Croce, and Oscar Wilde, with an introduction laying out the battle lines between Babbitt and Spingarn. Lin published this work in 1929 under the title The New Literary Criticism, almost the same title that Spingarn had used for the leading essay of his collection in 1917. Lin’s description of the two dominant trends he discerned could be applied to the contrasts between traditional criticism and postmodern theory of the late twentieth century:

During the past decades two opposing schools of criticism have developed in the American literary world. One focusses on modern trends, a good example of which is Stuart P. Sherman’s Contemporary Literature. The other focusses on the inherent characteristics or qualities of criticism such as its function and its boundaries, whether there exist standards of excellence or whether criticism is creative, depending on the personal reactions of the critic. All these theoretical discourses are described in an article by Spingarn in 1910, “The New Criticism.” His discussion reveals the excitement aroused by recent thought in the literary departments of universities. It is not as turbulent as that existing in France, but it has had a wholesome influence upon the American academy and broken through the walls surrounding it. The traditional theorists are headed by Paul Elmer More, a non-academic scholar. Others, such as Sherman and Irving Babbitt have also expressed their individual opinions. Professor Babbitt in particular has had an extensive influence on the Chinese literary world, which almost everyone is acquainted with. His students such as Mei Kuang-te, Wu Mi, and Leung Shih-chin, just to mention a few, are my personal friends. Obviously individual belief is private and depends on personal freedom. Babbitt is widely admired for his knowledge and incisive rhetoric, which is similar to Brunetière’s. His basic theories also have considerable resemblance to those of Brunetière, both in essence going back to classical humanism, which regarded as the ultimate goal the appreciation of art and the ideal life. For this reason Brunetière in his old age turned toward Catholicism, but Babbitt was wiser. Although Babbitt respected religion, he did not turn in that direction, but instead toward humanism. Babbitt’s humanism, however, is different from that of the Renaissance, opposed as it is to religion, on one hand, and to naturalism, on the other, something like the theories of the Sung dynasty. Babbitt, therefore, respected our saint, Confucius, and our contemporary disciples of Confucius respect him in turn. I am not saying this to make fun of Babbitt, for I myself admire him personally. [Unlike Confucius,] he did not travel around to find an official job, nor did he offer comfort to those who failed.

Among the new theorists, Spingarn is the most distinguished; otherwise he would not have been fired by Columbia University. Spingarn is a great thinker and a disciple of Croce, a scholar of Italian esthetics. Over ten years ago, Croce lectured in the United States, stimulating considerable interest in his expressionist theories. Subsequently in March 1910, Spingarn gave a lecture at Columbia which was published by the university press in 1911 as part of his book Creative Criticism: Essays on the Theory of Genius and Taste. In February 1918, Babbitt published in The Nation an answer to Spingarn entitled “Genius and Taste.”

What Spingarn advocates is a direct confrontation between the reader and the text. He does not confine his reaction to any standard or discipline, nor does he compare the text with any other form of the arts. In this way, he demonstrates that each work has an individual character. The critic’s only concern is to decide whether the work actually does or means what the author intended it to do or to mean. Further elaboration or interpretation has nothing to do with the understanding of art. The appreciation of a work of art varies with each individual; everything depends upon his mood, the location and the point in time. This is true not only of expository works, but also of all other art forms, including painting, sculpture, music, epigrams, even laughter and gestures, all of which are forms of expression. How can we standardize expressions like these, which are to the highest degree changeable, individual and vibrant? If someone attempted to compare Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo, one can only regard him as stupid and nothing else.

Though Spingarn is somewhat revolutionary, it cannot be denied that he has contributed to the history of criticism. Recently I heard that the New Moon Publishing Company is going to bring out a book entitled “Babbitt and Humanism,” edited by Leung Shi chiu, Wu, and others, consisting of Babbitt’s lectures. Chinese readers will thereby be able to perceive the differences between Spingarn and Babbitt. The father of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau who died 150 years ago, has been indicted by Babbitt at Harvard as the fountainhead of the corruption of modern literature. Thanks to this new publication, he can now be beaten up again in East Asia. [translation by Kai Chong Cheung]

The expressionist scholar of the Sung dynasty to which Lin refers was Yeh Hsieh (1627–1703), who attempted to define the self in opposition to the rest of the world. According to his theory, the poet in attempting to understand his relations to the external world makes contact with origins, consequences, negations, and centerings, elements parallel to those listed by Lin as mood, location, and point in time, but the poet makes no artificial distinctions between the operations of nature, the process of composing a poem, and the judgment of a poem by another person. Lin’s subsequent comparison between Babbitt and Confucius is intentionally humorous but not disrespectful of either one. To the contrary, it shows Lin’s admiration of the Chinese sage’s political independence and of Babbitt’s steadfast adherence to principle.

The name of Croce appears only twice in Lin’s summary of the Babbitt-Spingarn debate, and one of these references embodies a minor error. Croce did not travel in person to the United States, although he allowed his lectures to be published in connection with symposia at which they were read.7Croce’s theories are central to Lin’s discussion, however, even though Lin considers expressionism entirely on its merits rather than as specifically the brain-child of the Italian philosopher. One of the most distinguished American scholars of Croce in our times, David D. Roberts, indicates that recent attempts to clarify Croce’s meaning have been blurred by use of “the notorious term ‘historicism.’”8This comment illustrates the process described in the title of Lin’s proposed M.A. thesis: “The Change of Vocabulary in the Critical Essay.” Terminology which may imply contrast in one generation may be brought to suggest acceptance in a later one or old labels may be introduced to suggest completely new perspectives or standards. The essays of Spingarn and Babbitt indicate in clear and emphatic language that the critical views of Spingarn and Croce are contrary in principle to those of Babbitt. Present-day essays by Folke Leander, Claes G. Ryn, and Roberts himself, however, argue that Babbitt and Croce have much in common, that, as Lin might say in his humorous way, they belong on the same side of the street. This is a complex subject requiring close analysis of the writings of both men, which is beyond the scope of the present essay. I shall confine myself, therefore, to Babbitt’s own criticism of Spingarn, whom he regarded as a disciple of Croce.

Spingarn had affirmed as the “guiding star of all criticism” Goethe’s question, “What has the writer proposed to himself to do? and how far has he succeeded in carrying out his own plan?”9Lin in the preface to his Chinese collection of essays paraphrases this as “the critic’s only concern is to decide whether the work actually does or means what the author intended it to do or to mean.” Babbitt in his essay “Genius and Taste” had countered that this is not enough—that the critic “must also ask whether the aim is intrinsically worth while. He must, in other words, rate creation with reference to some standard set forth above his own temperament and that of the creator.” This is the central concern of the debate between Babbitt and Spingarn; their essays represent a fundamental contrast in the attitude toward literature and art.

Babbitt’s earlier “Impressionist versus Judicial Criticism” (1906) makes the same point that judgment based upon standards should reign over individual sensibililty. In essence he sets forth the neo-classical view of the cultivated mind, “the judgment of the keen-sighted few in the present needs to be ratified by the verdict of posterity.” This is not quite the same as the consensus gentium since he cautions that “when the man in the street . . . sets up to be the measure of all things, the result is often hard to distinguish from vulgar presumption.” His targets in this early essay are not Spingarn and Croce, however, but nineteenth-century critics, including Sainte-Beuve, Anatole France, and Brunetière, his famous predecessors whom he would later use to enforce a contrast between judgment and mere interpretation in Masters of French Criticism (1912). In a head-on confrontation entitled “Croce and the Philosophy of the Flux” (1925) Babbitt affirms, “after much reading of Croce,” that the latter “combines numerous peripheral merits with a central wrongness and at times with something that seems uncomfortably like a central void.”10

Against Croce’s “own statement that there is no permanent problem of philosophy,” Babbitt as one who believes in the need and possibility for standards insists “that there is a permanent problem—what Plato calls the problem of the One and the Many.” Babbitt affirms that “nothing could be more romantic than Croce’s cult of intuition in the sense of pure spontaneity and untramelled expression, his tendency to reduce art to a sort of lyrical overflow that is not disciplined to any permanent centre of judgment in either creator or critic and the consequent identification of genius and taste.” Lin does not go as far as this in his own thought, which could probably be considered as midway between that of Babbitt and Spingarn, but closer to the latter.

Babbitt’s system contains an apparent inconsistency concerning the categories of knowledge. After affirming the existence of a “permanent problem of philosophy,” Babbitt rejects Croce’s “merging of frontiers” in reference not only to his denying the validity of genre in literature and art but also his finally identifying religion with philosophy and philosophy in turn with history. Opposing this merging of intellectual frontiers seems to be contrary to his well-known statement in Democracy and Leadership that “the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.”11

Although this concentration on Croce may have taken us some distance away from Lin and Spingarn, the literary principles at issue are central to all three critics. As Babbitt himself wrote about the Croce-Spingarn relationship, it is possible “to study the faults of the master in the exaggeration of the disciples.”12Lin, of course, did not penetrate into the higher reaches of Croce’s thought as discerned by his modern defenders, but instead supported the humbler and more personal aspects of expressionism as portrayed by Spingarn. For Lin, Babbitt represented a somewhat rigid neo-classicism in contrast to the emotional expansiveness of the other side. His view was not merely the romantic ebullience of youth, however, but the reflection of a major debate then taking place over his native Chinese language. His translation of Spingarn appeared in the wake of the most important literary event in China of the twentieth century, the so-called May Fourth Movement.

Writers and students throughout the entire country had for years been arguing whether literary works should continue to be published in the centuries-old formal style or in the everyday language of the people. On May 4, 1919, supporters of the vernacular, or common speech, demonstrated in Peking in favor of linguistic reform after which the vernacular was gradually accepted as the standard vehicle of expression. It was introduced gradually, first through the substitution of a new prosody for classical models and later through new translations of European writers in the vernacular. Lin was a fervent advocate of the new national language, but his fellow Chinese students in Babbitt’s classes, especially Lou and Wu to whom he refers, remained loyal to tradition. It was not a question of age or life-style but of linguistics, for Lin and his conservative friends were roughly of the same age and came from similar backgrounds.

The parallel between conformity in China consisting of laws of composition and sentence structure and conformity in the United States consisting of discipline and standards is, of course, not based on equivalent characteristics, but is like the often-quoted comparison of apples and oranges. Lin’s personal commitment to the vernacular in the May Fourth Movement was in no sense a repudiation of Babbitt, although the issues were related in the sense that Babbitt’s Chinese disciples followed his principles along with conformity to Mandarin as a literary language. Lin, however, championed the expressionism of Croce and Spingarn while advocating use of the vernacular in Chinese literature.13

Lin fused Babbitt’s esthetic standards with, in Lin’s words, “the Chinese ideas of style.” At the time, Lin probably had no more acquaintance with the thought of Croce than that which he derived from the essays of Babbitt and Spingarn, but he associated the traditional Chinese “laws of composition” with Western literary conventions such as neo-classical rules and notions of genre. His opposition to rigid notions of literary style resembles Croce’s resistance to the restrictions implicit in the concept of literary genres. From this perspective, he and Croce are comparable.

Another theme they have in common is that of expressionism in the sense of following the bent of one’s own thought. Lin found this principle mirrored in the life and work of the eleventh-century poet Su Tung-po about whom he eventually wrote a fictional biography under the title The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tung Po (1947). Here he portrays Su Tung Po as “an incorrigible optimist, a great humanitarian, a friend of the people, a prose master, an original painter, a great calligraphist, an experimenter in wine-making, an engineer, a hater of puritanism, a yogi, a Buddhist believer, a Confucian statesman, a secretary to the emperor, a confirmed wine-bibber, a humane judge, a dissenter in politics, a prowler in the moonlight, a poet, and a wag.” From this description, Su would seem to bear some resemblance to the Roman Ovid. The publisher’s blurb affirms that “to find his like in the West one would have to look at Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin.”

In 1934 Lin carried on his defense of Spingarn in an essay “On Literature,” published in Shanghai shortly after a meeting with Pearl Buck that led to his moving to the United States.

Writing is an expression of the spirit and mind of an individual, elements that are known only to himself, not to his parents, nor to his spouse. The essence of literature, therefore, is the expression of the individual personality. Writers who accept these principles cannot imitate the ancients; they have no incentive to do so even if imitation were possible. By rejecting rules and traditional models, they have found the essence of literature. The conflict between the liberators of literature and the literary conformists exists in both the East and the West. Conformity is associated in China with writing style, sentence structure, and paragraphing and in the West with discipline or standards. This is the focal point of the controversy between the modern American humanism of Professor Babbitt of Harvard and his opponents. Professor Babbitt’s contagious ideas have been imported into China by his disciples, and the notion of discipline is now arrayed against individualism as incompatible extremes. This is nothing new. In fact, Edward Young in 1755 in his Conjectures on Original Composition clearly stated that the essence of literature grows out of personal feeling, not imitation of others. [(in English in Lin’s text:) Young says, “it grows, it is not made.” “The less we copy the ancients, the more we resemble them.”] For one thing, we refuse to imitate the ancients because we have no time to do it; and for another, the ancients also wrote out of their own thoughts and feelings.” 14[translation by Kai Chong Cheung]

Lin’s reference to Young does not represent a notable knowledge of eighteenth-century English literature on his part. He is actually following Babbitt himself in the latter’s reply to Spingarn and Croce in “Genius and Taste” 1918.

In the introduction to a short “Autobiographical Poem of the Author at Forty,” written in Chinese around 1935, Lin devotes three or four sentences to Babbitt’s imputing the faults of modern European civilization to Rousseau’s romanticism and avows that he himself could not be won away from the Italian Croce’s way of thinking. In the following excerpt from the poem itself, Babbitt is given the Chinese homonym Bai Pi-De:

I went abroad to Harvard and studied literature.
It was said that the books there were more than 3 miles long.
We sat and kept our mouth shut, looking at Bai Pi-De.
We opened the coffins and angrily beat the old Rousseau. 15[translation by Shu-fen Chen]

The joke about beating up Rousseau is repeated from Lin’s essay The New Criticism of 1929. I know of no other poem in any language in which Babbitt is featured. That Lin should have included him in his fortieth birthday poem, as well as in his eightieth anniversay autobiography, would seem to be conclusive proof that Babbitt had a strong influence upon him.

Diran John Sohigian in a biography of Lin Yutang has associated Lin with Babbitt as fellow denigrators of European culture. He points out that, before going to the United States, Lin had come under the influence of “one of China’s greatest European bashers Ku Hung-ming,” and that Babbitt, as one of “the United States’ greatest bashers of modern European thought since Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” had contributed to Lin’s anti-European animus.16Sohigian concludes that Lin “shared Babbitt’s moral idealism.” This is a valid general conclusion although I would confine Babbitt’s opposition to modern Europe thought to certain trends, particularly extreme individualism as represented by Rousseau, Bergson, and Croce. Lin undoubtedly shared Babbitt’s esteem for high moral purpose and values, but he also adopted a good deal of the humorous iconoclasm of H. L. Mencken, which Babbitt condemned as “intellectual vaudeville” and “an evil influence on our contemporary life and literature.”17

In several of his publications in English during his residence in the United States, Lin both complimented Babbitt and expressed some of his major ethical concepts. In the first of these books, My Country and My People (New York, 1935), Lin turned Babbitt’s name into an adjective “Babbittian” to describe his intellectual system, an early and perhaps first usage of the word. In doing so, he once again compared Babbitt with Confucius. He observed that the common sense of Confucius “dismisses supernaturalism as the realm of the unknowable and expends extremely little time on it” and that Confucianism is “equally emphatic in the assertion of the superiority of the human mind over nature and in the denial of nature’s way of life, or naturalism, as the human way.” The Confucian conception that “heaven, earth and man” comprise “the three geniuses of the universe” Lin then compares to “the Babbittian threefold distinction of supernaturalism, humanism and naturalism.”

In a later work, The Wisdom of China and India (New York, 1942), Lin associated Confucianism more explicitly with humanism in a phrase “Chinese humanism or Confucianism.” The essence of Chinese humanism he defines as “the study of human relations [jen lun] through a correct appreciation of human values by the psychology of human motives to the end that we may behave as reasonable human beings [tsuo jen]. . . . The Confucian point of view is that politics must be subordinated to morals, that government is a makeshift of temporization, law a superficial instrument of order, and police force a foolish intervention for morally immature individuals.” Babbitt affirms similar views concerning Confucius in his articles “Humanistic Education in China and the West” in Chinese Students’ Monthly (1921) and “Humanism: an Essay at Definition” (1930).18In April 1918, Babbitt wrote to Stuart P. Sherman that he was “trying to recover my respect for human nature at present by immersing myself in the sages of the Far East—for the moment Confucius and Mencius. No one ever had a firmer faith in the final triumph of moral causes than these old boys.”19

Apart from the original disagreement over the expressionism of Spingarn and Croce, Babbitt and Lin differed over two essential aspects of humanism, one moral and the other purely intellectual. The moral aspect concerns the role of physical enjoyment in life concerning which Babbitt took a somewhat rigorous position of sensual sobriety. He repeatedly insisted that the goal of life is not comfort or pleasure, that work or intellectual activity brings superior happiness, and that the greatest satisfaction is found in the “higher will.” In nearly all of Lin’s writings, references to various aspects of the good life are endemic. His hedonistic attitude is most dramatically presented in a work of utopian fiction, Looking Beyond (New York, 1955), in which he maintains that wine, singing, good food, and women constitute “nine-tenths of any passable way of living.”

Babbitt and Lin disagree also on the relationship between humanism and the scientific method, even though each insisted that he had no objection to scientific progress. Babbitt declared his attitude succinctly in “Humanism: An Essay at Definition”: “It goes without saying that the humanist is not hostile to science as such, but only to a science that has overstepped its bounds, and in general to every form of naturalism, whether rationalistic or emotional, that sets up as a substitute for humanism in religion.” Lin, for his part, spoke out in strong terms against college professors who are dominated by “the mechanistic technique and materialist method.”20He had no objection to the kind of material progress that makes life easier and more comfortable, but he strongly opposed “scientific materialism as a method and a technique and a point of view which has hopelessly paralyzed the European humanities and thrown them into utter confusion.” Lin went considerably further than Babbitt in this anti-scientific stance by condemning professors of the humanities for “finding mechanistic laws governing human activities.”

There are no passages in Babbitt as extreme as Lin’s further statement that when the “scientific method is stolen and applied to the humanities, in the naive belief that we are beginning to make the humanities true sciences, that amoral, objective method is carried over with it. It happens, however, that disinterestedness which is a virtue in the natural sciences is, and must be, a crime in the human sciences.” Babbitt says almost the opposite: “I hold that one should not only welcome the efforts of the man of science at his best to put the natural law on a positive and critical basis, but that one should strive to emulate him in one’s dealing with the human law; and so become a complete positivist.”21Babbitt clarifies his meaning in Democracy and Leadership, where he argues that “physical science, excellent in its proper place, is when exalted out of this place, the ugliest and most maleficent idol before which man has yet consented to prostrate himself.”22

Babbitt’s meaning in declaring that one should strive to become a “complete positivist” is still being debated. As I interpret this statement, it is closely bound up with his opposition to Spingarn’s expressionism and his own adherence to the One in contrast to the Many. The concept of positivism originated in Auguste Comte’s view that man’s understanding of the universal laws of nature passes through a series of stages, beginning with the truths of mathematics and extending to the truths of social organization. In art and morality, these truths are equivalent to rigorous standards of judgment. In the literary realm, opponents of critical standards, in Babbitt’s time and today, argue that no objective, definitive tests for great books have ever been devised and that all criteria are relative or ambiguous. Individualists like Spingarn affirm the superior validity of personal reactions. Babbitt, as a traditionalist, relies on standards while recognizing that the concept of standards requires “the most difficult of mediation between the One and the Many.” To the pyrrhonist notion of moral and aesthetic relativity, he asserts the concept that positive knowledge may reign in these realms as well as in science and society.

Lin’s vindication of the good life in contrast to Babbitt’s work ethic is understandable from the perspective of Chinese philosophy. The pleasure principle is a doctrine of Taoism, a philosophy competing with Confucianism that Babbitt strongly condemned in his Rousseau and Romanticism for its alleged dependence upon nature and primitivism. Lin, however, accorded equal prominence to the two systems. His respectful comparison of Babbitt’s thought to that of Confucius may be contrasted with an ascerbic treatment by T. S. Eliot of what he termed Babbitt’s “addiction to the philosophy of Confucius.” In this connection Eliot remarked that he could not “see how anyone can understand Confucius without some knowledge of Chinese and a long frequentation of the best Chinese society.”23This requirement of acquaintance with the Chinese language for an American merely to comprehend a Chinese philosopher is tantamount to saying that a Chinese Christian cannot understand the religion he professes unless he knows Greek and Hebrew.

Lin, whose interpretation of Confucius was essentially the same as Babbitt’s, was a far more competent judge than Eliot of his competence. He may also in reverse direction be considered a partisan of Babbitt’s notion of humanism, even though in his early years he treated Babbitt with a degree of humor and took up the cudgels for Spingarn against him.



  1. Thomas R. Nevin, Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study (Chapel Hill, 1984), 31.
  2. My Country and My People (New York, 1946), 227.
  3. Nevin, op. cit., 13.
  4. “Impressionist versus Judicial Criticism” in PMLA, 21 (1906), 695–96.
  5. An authority on English romanticism, H. Beers, in a review in the Yale Review that appeared on a page preceding one by Babbitt, speaks of Mark Twain and Matthew Arnold “taking up the cudgels” for Harriet Shelley. [14 (1925), 376]. I have also encountered “take up the cudgels in his own behalf” in an esoteric British novel of 1914 attributed to Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 13.
  6. The Bookman 73 (1931), 369.
  7. Nevin, 7 n.10, 20 n. 53.
  8. “Croce in America,” in Humanitas, 8 (1995), 14.
  9. Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste, 23.
  10. Yale Review 14 (1925), 378.
  11. George A. Panichas, ed. Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (Lincoln, Neb., 1981), xxii.
  12. “Croce and the Philosophy of the Flux” in Yale Review 14 (1925), 381.
  13. Lin makes clear that he was not a disciple of Babbitt, but in the texts I quote mentions his friends and classmates who were, Mei Kuang-te, Leung Shih-chu, Lou Kuang-lai and Wu Mi. Lin also refers to a collection of translated articles of Babbitt and others published in 1929 under the title Babbitt and Humanism. I have treated these and related topics in “Irving Babbitt In and About China” in an earlier issue of Modern Age 35 (Summer 1993), 332–39.
  14. Reprinted in Lin Yutang Wen Hsuan [A Collection of Lin Yutang] (Taipei, 1962), 34–35.
  15. “Ssu-shih tzu-shu shi hsu” [“Introduction and poem on the Author’s fortieth birthday”] in Chuan Chi Wen Hsueh [Biographical Literature], 10 (1967), 9–10. The poem was printed thirty years after Lin’s fortieth year.
  16. Columbia University Dissertation, The Life and Times of Lin Yutang. (New York, 1992), 269.
  17. Nevin, 45, 157 n.51.
  18. In Humanism and America, ed. Norman Foerster. I have dealt with these sources in the article in Modern Age, 35 (1993), 332–339 cited in footnote 13.
  19. Nevin, 109. There is somewhat of an anomaly in Babbitt’s reference to Confucius and Mencius as “old boys” since this is the literal translation of the name of Confucius’s contemporary Lao Tse, whose system Taoism Babbitt later disparaged in Rousseau and Romanticism as equivalent to Romantic emotionalism. In 1918 Babbitt was only on the threshold of his entry into the realm of Chinese philosophy.
  20. The Wisdom of China and India, 572.
  21. “Introduction,” Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston, 1919).
  22. Panichas, ed., Representative Writings, 148.
  23. After Strange Gods (New York, 1934).

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like