Irving Babbitt on Governing a Democracy

Irving Babbit the imaginative conservative

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) was a literary critic and co-founder with Paul Elmer More of an early 20th century movement called the New Humanism. Babbitt was hugely influential in shaping the conservative values of T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, and many others. Though very popular for a time, he was the favorite target of many liberals. Babbitt’s influence began to wane after his death. Even so, he still has many readers for his two main works, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) and Democracy and Leadership (1924). The latter book, the subject of this essay, is widely hailed as a classic study of political conservatism rooted in the tradition of Aristotle and Edmund Burke. Babbitt’s main targets for criticism were the 17th century’s Francis Bacon, to whom he traced the baneful source of modern naturalism, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, whom he regarded as the ultimate 18th century fountainhead of modern romanticism.

Democracy Defined

To properly approach Democracy and Leadership it helps to distinguish the various definitions of democracy. Any well informed student of history knows that pure democracy on a large scale is impossible and carries with it the threat of mobocracy. Athens in its Golden Age experimented with the idea that all the people could vote on all the important decisions to be made for the city-state. That experiment failed miserably, as Socrates learned to his sorrow when a large number of Athenians voted by a rather small majority that he should die. The effort to create a pure democracy has not been repeated since. Modern democracy requires only that people shall vote for their governors, who are supposed to carry out the people’s will. This kind of system is called a republic, which also is not perfect, but has proven itself to be more temperate and viable than pure democracy. Moreover, those elected to govern, if they are proven rascals, can be impeached or driven from office at the next election.


The next thing to consider is the reason why a democracy should even exist. As Winston Churchill wryly observed, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the voter.” Yet, whatever defects have been seen, where republican forms of democracy have been adopted without being corrupted, peace, justice, and prosperity tend to prevail; if not perfectly, at least better than under any other system the world has tried. The tensions that naturally exist between humans and groups of humans are better resolved when a balance of powers exists, and where absolute power is not lodged in any single branch of the government. Republican democracy, despite its occasional failings, is designed to prevent the permanent oppressive takeover of the government by any one person or party.


Now the government of a republican democracy, if it is to succeed, must inevitably be composed of liberals and conservatives. These two groups tend to provide checks upon the excess of power each group might exert over the other. Much like a pendulum, the will of the majority tends to gravitate toward either a liberal or a conservative political party depending on the gravity of the issues upon which the people must decide at the ballot box. If it is seen by the public that liberals or conservatives have pursued dangerous policies, there is a tendency for the power out of power to be voted back in, with the presumption that this party will correct the policies of the party voted out. But each party, very naturally given human nature, will in its turn by its own policies commit actions that may result in the pendulum swing back and forth through history. As already pointed out, Babbitt was a conservative, and so it is that he sees in both Aristotle and Edmund Burke the principal arguments against the liberal politics of the early 20th century.

The Great Economic Divide

The socialist movement in America was in full swing at the time Babbitt was writing. But the socialist complaint against the excess of private property for the few was not a new complaint and had been dealt with over 2,000 years ago by Aristotle, who said: “Such legislation [against private property] may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially when someone is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states …. which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause – the wickedness of human nature.”

On this note again, Babbitt cites Edmund Burke, who reiterates in different language the policy of Aristotle: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it is there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.” To clarify, if we have control of our inner being, we will be free; if we give in to our passions, others will set out to curb them. The simplest case proves this: the person whose freedom is curtailed by being sent to prison because he did not curtail his inner passion to steal or kill. Now, is it conservatism or liberalism that tends to curtail our inner passions? Is it liberalism or conservatism that increases the government’s inclination to seize our property for the use of others?

For Babbitt, as for Aristotle, the essential defect of liberalism is that it tends to advocate the seizure of private property for distribution to those who have less rather than more. The instinct for altruism is a good instinct, of course, but altruism ceases to be an instinct, and ceases even to be altruism, if the properties in question (taxes, for example) are seized by the government rather than pledged as donations for the relief of others. Moreover, the mischief that can be accomplished by a government wielding the immense power of taxation is potentially enormous. For example, how much of the money seized in taxation that is supposed to assist those in need (the various types of entitlement) is actually intercepted by government agencies (or even by dishonest government employees) and confiscated by fraudulent claims for other purposes or for personal gain? The United States’ current national debt of more than 20 trillion dollars is sufficient proof that money is being spent on a good deal more than achieving the essentials of justice, harmony, and prosperity. The monarchy in France before the Revolution was entirely wasteful with taxes collected; so Babbitt asks, “Can those who tax in the name of the sovereign people be counted on to tax more equitably than those who alleged the royal prerogative?”

Inner and Outer Gardens

Babbitt returns again and again to the Confucian advice that everyone should mind his own business, cultivate his own inner and outer garden, and all will be well for him, his family, and society at large. The single condition that provokes meddling in the cultivation of other people’s gardens is that other people have declined the mandate to cultivate their own gardens … either through sheer laziness, or a corrupt and exploitative mentality that knows it can count on others to supply what one refuses to supply for himself … the freedom and the obligation to work. It is the persistent ruse of the underdog that he concocts reasons why he should be fed scraps (taxes) from the capitalist’s table, but “… a war on capital,” Babbitt insists, “will speedily degenerate as it always has in the past, into a war on thrift and industry in favor of laziness and incompetence, and finally into schemes of confiscation that profess to be idealistic and are in fact subversive of common honesty. Above all, social justice is likely to be unsound in its partial or total suppression of competition. Without competition it is impossible that the ends of true justice should be fulfilled – namely, that every man should receive according to his works. The principle of competition is, as Hesiod pointed out long ago, built into the very roots of the world; there is something in the nature of things that calls for a real victory and a real defeat. Competition is necessary to rouse man from his native indolence; without it life loses its zest and flavor.”


But the accomplishments of the industrialists who amass huge fortunes are also a problem for society at large. Babbitt agrees with Aristotle, who said of the remedy for economic disparity between rich and poor, that the solution is “to train the nobler sorts of natures not to desire more … for it is not the possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized.” Babbitt does not tell us how these desires are to be trained or restrained, but it is plain enough to him that if they are not restrained the “nobler” types will cease to be noble and will invite upon themselves the retaliation of the people they have exploited in their pursuit of “raw plutocracy.” According to Babbitt (perhaps thinking of Andrew Carnegie?) “A man who amasses a billion dollars is scarcely exemplary in the Aristotelian sense, even though he then proceeds [out of postponed guilt?] to lay out half a billion upon philanthropy.” Here Babbitt seems to suggest it would have been better for the philanthropist and for society at large had he spent his philanthropic second half a billion dollars on decent wages for those employees who had helped him make his first half. This would have been “nobler” and more consistent with Aristotle’s remedy.

True and False Liberalism

For Babbitt true liberalism means the same as liberation of the human spirit. But the spirit cannot be liberated except by the work of grace and self discipline required within the soul. That is the secret of Christianity, that a yoke must be imposed upon the self; but, as Jesus says in Matthew 11, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Thus Babbitt distinguished between the true and false liberalism. “Possibly the ultimate distinction between the true and false liberal is between the spiritual athlete and the cosmic loafer.” The “cosmic loafer” wants his pleasure and security to be imposed on him by secular, not religious, authority. What he seems not to recognize is that secular imposition invariably results in a kind of autocratic imperialism of the type proposed by Karl Marx, a communist or socialist imperialism that robs the soul of truly authentic liberation and submits it to the self serving authority of the State through its totalitarian ruling party.

As Babbitt points out, the title of a book by Karl Marx’s grandson, The Right to Idleness, goes a good way toward reminding us that if one has a right to be idle, one has a corresponding responsibility to work, and that the responsibility to work should precede the right to idleness. Babbitt drives home his message by showing the difference between Christian liberalism and purely pagan liberalism. “What man needs, if we are to believe the Lord’s Prayer, is bread and wisdom. What man, at least Roman man, wanted about the time this prayer was uttered, was bread and the circus. The gap between man’s wants and his needs has not diminished greatly, if at all, since Roman times.” Indeed, to bring Babbitt’s point closer to home, how different from the Roman’s bread and the circus are the American’s pizza and football? Wisdom requires interior work: reading, thinking, and praying. While the Roman circus wanted only the sight of the gladiator’s slaughter, American football craves only the thrill of the touchdown. In neither case is wisdom desired so much as mere cleverness and brute strength.

Babbitt sees one of the main fault lines of liberalism to be the assertion that, so far as truth is concerned, reason trumps everything. Liberalism is most often opposed to faith for the reason that faith requires the suspension of reason to grasp divine truths. Liberals appear to despise the mystical aspects of religion. But Babbitt declares this to be man’s presumptuous brain demanding that what it cannot completely grasp cannot be worth the grasping. As Babbitt remarks, the liberal determinist might say there is no such thing as free will because reason leads us to believe that the chain of causality is so infinite that we delude ourselves into thinking we begin our own actions, when they really began at the beginning of the world. Against this argument Babbitt cites the refutation of the great Dr. Johnson: “All theory is against the freedom of the will, all experience for it.” And so liberal naturalism, having put a check on free will, supposes that man  is subject not to his inner powers but to the outer ones. We heard this logic before when Eve told God the serpent tricked her, rather than admitting that she freely chose to sin. Surely it is a very short step from this faulty logic to the liberal’s demand that all our thoughts and deeds should be recognized as originating elsewhere, either in the classrooms of the academy, or in the news reports of the media, or in the halls of Congress. False liberals will not be satisfied until they get our tacit admission that we are all marionettes whose strings they can pull this way and that. The most recent incarnation of that phenomenon is called “political correctness.”

Is Liberalism Progressive?

A gross mistake of false liberalism, according to Babbitt, is that it predicts the inevitability of progress. Progress toward exactly what is left to be defined. But progress is predetermined; it just remains for the liberal to guide us there even though it be done by inevitable drift toward some “far-off divine event … usually conceived as a paradise of peace and brotherhood.” But, Babbitt rightly objects, progress never arrives by drift. Only barbarism arrives by drift. “Civilization is something that must be deliberately willed; it is not something that gushes up spontaneously from the depths of the unconscious. Furthermore, it is something that must be willed first of all by the individual in his own heart…. In the words of Rivarol, barbarism is always as close to the most refined civilization as rust is to the most highly polished steel.”

Liberalism tends to be subjectively godlike in its selection of what is to become the “far-off divine event” of progress. Indeed, if liberalism is not supported by traditional religion, it fancies itself supported by an imaginary God, one full of nice ramifications for the liberal. The best of these ramifications is that the liberal gets to worship a God made in his own image, and any other God must take a back seat behind the imagined Deity. If God is now personified in the State or the General Will, the liberal is glad to announce himself the prophet of that God, much as Marx professed himself both an atheist toward old time religion and the prophet of the new gods, those Proletariat Dictators who, in his writings, were created out of his own imagination.

But the secular optimists of material progress never seem to take into account the necessity of moral progress. They merely conflate their material progress with moral progress. Anyone who looks around at the world can see how many materially successful people are so often seen to be victims of moral regress, rather than progress (see Matthew 19:24). Moral progress as an issue to be dealt with is notably absent from Marx’s materialistic ideology. We also see moral theology notably absent in the behaviour of communists like Stalin and Mao, who together managed the extermination of millions to make way for the coming of the Marxist God, the almighty Proletariat. Then there was yet another religion of progress toward the collective Superman envisioned by Hitler, who promised utopia and delivered hell. Babbitt, though not himself a Catholic, with a deferential nod to Catholicism, concedes that the modern tower of Babble emerging from all the other -isms fail to compete with Catholicism on the grounds of pure rationality. Whereas the prophets of secular modernism are full of confusion as to how we should progress toward our personal happiness (the only kind of progress that matters) the Catholic Church declares with certainty that it knows not only the path to peace of soul, but also the way to salvation itself in the world beyond this material vale. None of the much vaunted secularist isms seem to have the foggiest idea of how to promise and guide souls to their personal “far-off divine event.”

Standards in a Democracy

In the final lengthy chapter of Democracy and Leadership Babbitt tackles the difficult question of how a democracy can represent the various and conflicting demands of the masses without caving in under the weight of so burdensome a task. By what standards can a democracy achieve political justice and prosperity without being caught up, confused, and subverted by the chaos of opposing wills? Those standards, if they exist, must be discovered and persistently applied by the leadership of the democracy. Plato (no friend of democracy) in The Republic declared he had found a possible solution to the dilemma: kings should become philosophers, or philosophers should become kings. He saw, in fact, what hardly anyone can deny; that rulers should be filled above all with wisdom. But even the wisdom of King Solomon (without integrity to go with it) could not save Israel from its later decline and conquest. In America there is no king. Or more correctly, the people are king in that they shall choose who will lead them. So the real question becomes: What will be the standard the people will use to judge who should rule?

Is there even a standard? About this Babbitt is somewhat cynical. Thomas Jefferson was less cynical about the future of democracy, but in his day the electorate were entirely white European men, most of them educated to a degree and self reliant. In modern times, Babbitt believed, the rules of the political game had changed sufficiently to suggest that Jefferson’s admired good sense of the masses, who now enjoyed universal suffrage, might be diluted by widespread ignorance and a vulgar self-serving apathy toward wisdom. To bolster this point, Babbitt cites Goethe: “There is nothing more odious than the majority; for it consists of a few powerful leaders, a certain number of accommodating scoundrels and subservient weaklings, and a mass of men who trudge after them without in the least knowing their own minds.”

Managing the Masses

One of the many symptoms of cultural decline among the masses in Babbitt’s day, the 1920s, was the public’s preference for a sensationalized press. “Commercialism is laying its great greasy paw upon everything, including the irresponsible quest of thrills …. The tendency to steep and saturate ourselves in the impression of the moment without reference to any permanent pattern of human experience is even more marked, perhaps in our newspapers and magazines. It was said of the inhabitants of a certain ancient Greek city that, though they were not fools, they did just the things that fools would do. It is hard to take a glance at one of our newsstands [or we today glance at one of our television channels] without reflecting that, though we may not be fools, we are reading just the things fools would read.” The point being that, if our thoughts and passions are being manipulated by a vulgar and sensationalist media, how can the masses be expected to recognize, develop, and insist upon high enough standards for their rulers to exhibit, standards that demonstrate good sense and integrity in the ruling class? Had Babbitt lived in our time, he would have had an even better case to make about the vulgarization of the media, not to mention the plethora of “fake news” used by the mass media to help elect or to destroy political candidates.

Massaging the Masses

We see, then, that the triumph of materialism has resulted in the decline of the inner life, not only of the older ruling class, but of the masses as well. Babbitt believed the progressive liberal is obsessed with the redistribution of wealth in the name of a false altruism. But ultimately all this does is to raise the flag of class warfare, the haves against the have-nots. The progressive liberal does not recognize that forced redistribution of  wealth through some political device does nothing to build up the inner self, but rather encourages the inner self to be increasingly dependent on the outer forces at work in society. These forces are genuinely not acting on the part of the masses, but rather on their own part to be brokers in the redistribution of wealth (a good amount of which is going to end up in their own hands). They cannot function continually except by counting on the masses to maintain their supine reliance upon the outer forces rather than cultivating reliance upon the inner self. “There may be truth in the saying that the devil’s other name is inertia.” Why should a man bother to cultivate his own garden if others will cultivate it for him? This is the fundamental result of our fallen human nature, that we prefer our lazy fallen state to the effort required to rise above our vice to acquire the virtues that bring us closer to the angels than to the devils. Certain politicians know they can count on the inertia of many voters to keep them in office.

Religion always used to be identified with uplift of the inner self. But in materialistic times religion will be scoffed at and dismissed as irrelevant. What then is to take the place of religion as the source of uplift for the inner self? One can hardly expect the masses to find their moral uplift in Socrates or Confucius, intellectually uplifting as they may be. The reason is that the desires of the heart trump the demands of the head. Love trumps reason. We find that lesson more profoundly stated and guaranteed in the Gospels than in the sayings of philosophers ancient or modern. This is not to say, Babbitt insists, that Confucius and Socrates cannot be put in the service of Christ; but it is still Christ whom they will serve, not Christ who will serve them.

Philosophers and Prophets

There can be no doubt among critical observers of the past two centuries that progressive liberalism prefers philosophers to prophets (indeed, there has been a studied campaign by critical analysts to discredit even the authenticity of the prophets and their writings); and, so far as the secularists are concerned, the more diverse an assembly of confusing philosophies, the better, since confusion again requires the helping hand of the liberal progressive to make sense of anything. Thus, not only the media, but academia has given itself over to stamping on the public mind a surrender to all things liberal, and a condemnation as evil, or at least ignorant, all things hinting of God’s saving grace for the salvation of the inner self. The liberal humanitarian is harshly judged by Babbitt: “In substituting the love of man for the love of God the humanitarian is working in a vicious circle, for unless man has in him the equivalent of the love of God he is not lovely.”

One thing very clear for Babbitt is that the decline of religion leaves private and public morality in a confused state. How are people to find their morals, and the public binding power of morality, if there is no commonly accepted religious foundation for the source of authentic morals? Is the omnipotent liberal state to assume the responsibility of teaching morals by publishing manuals of morality and teaching morals in the classroom? The opportunity for mischief there is alarming, as the Nazis proved in the Hitler Youth Movement of the 1930s and 1940s. We have, in our own time, seen manuals on sexuality that have been distributed in public schools even at the elementary level. If political correctness is already oppressive, how much more so will it be when the morality the masses are expected to learn is decided and taught by the forthcoming commencement class of future professors touting their Masters of Morality diplomas across the stage? What criteria for moral integrity will future voters use to elect their leaders? What kind of moral criteria will future leaders use for ruling the people? These are all question that can hardly be decided by the democratic process, since that process deals strictly with how to govern by a majority, as opposed to how government can rule with justice and peace.

Liberal Altruism

The supposed liberal and altruistic policy of “service to the people” Babbitt regarded as entirely suspect. Of such a so-called “progressive” ruling class Babbitt opined: “Unfortunately, those who represent society at any particular moment and who are supposed to overflow with a will to service will be found by the realistic observer … to be developing under cover of their altruism, a will to power. On the pretext of social utility they are ready to deprive the individual of every last scrap and vestige of freedom and finally to subject him to despotic outer control…. He is prone in his furtherance of his schemes of ‘uplift’ not only to ascribe unlimited sovereignty to society as against the individual, but also to look upon himself as endowed with a major portion of it, to develop a temper, in short, that is plainly tyrannical.” Babbitt noticed in his day what we have noticed a good deal more so in our time: some judges are so confident in themselves as philosopher/kings, they have begun “to fall into a veritable confusion of the legislative and judicial functions,” thus fulfilling Jefferson’s fear that the “Courts love the people always, as wolves do the sheep.”

Ethical Leadership

Thus, all the governing class, and the people governed by them, require standards that are permanent and do not shift with the prevailing winds. The false liberal believes in the ultimate supremacy of change (sometimes even change just for its own sake). Conventions that have proven themselves valid through thousands of years are abandoned to the flux of mere desire. For this reason, conventions, and the habitual loyalty necessary to sustain these conventions, will be imperative. This cannot be accomplished without a conscious policy of preserving conventions. Babbitt cites Aristotle: “The best laws will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the constitution.” That Aristotle’s advice is not followed today can be proven by a simple civics quiz for high school graduates. Moreover, if the older education was a training for wisdom and character, the newer education is a mere “training for service and power.” The older education of the young presumed some permanent ethical center, but the newer education presumes only the politically correct ethical center, which again is decided and defined by those who train for service and power. Today efficiency, not wisdom, is at the center of leadership ethics. If wisdom, character, and efficiency were ever combined on a permanent basis among both leaders and followers, some semblance of utopia might at last be found. But the conditions required for utopia must begin to exist most of all among the leaders themselves, who will set the right tone and example for the masses to follow. A corrupt leadership will encourage mass corruption. As the old Italian proverb goes, “The fish first rots from the head.”

Draining the Swamp

The most significant conclusion to be drawn from Babbitt’s book is that the purification of the inner life alone will drain the swamp of human lawlessness. “It is growing only too evident, however, that the drift toward license is being accelerated rather than arrested by the multiplication of laws…. The time may come, with the growth of a false liberalism, when a dominant element in our population, having grown more and more impatient of the ballot box and representative government, of constitutional limitations and judicial control, will display a growing eagerness for ‘direct action.’ This is the propitious moment for the imperialistic leader.”

While Babbitt was not himself a religious man, but more so a humanist, he could see in religion, and especially Christianity, the path by which the fetid swamp of the inner life produced by naturalism could be drained. Naturalism (the dogma that there is nothing transcendental about human nature) has displaced Christianity as the dominant force in the macrocosm of the Western World. This could be fatal, Babbitt warns. Long before nuclear weapons were developed, Babbitt wrote: “Moreover, the latter stages of the naturalistic dissolution of civilization with which we are menaced are, thanks to scientific ‘progress,’ likely to be marked by incidents of the almost inconceivable horror. The danger of power without wisdom, of a constantly increasing material organization combined with an ever growing spiritual anarchy, is already so manifest that unless there is serious search for a remedy we may conclude that the instinct for self-preservation that is supposed to inhere in mankind is a myth.”

The remedy Babbitt proposed was the restoration of humanistic values. But his proposal suffers from a lack of authority that is final and convincing. All purely humanistic values will be founded on human authority, rather than on a supernatural foundation. It stands to reason that Reason itself, malleable as it is, can produce many versions of humanism, with the unfortunate consequence that one man’s humanism might be another man’s living hell. It was Einstein who professed himself to be a humanist; but it was also Einstein who prompted President Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb (something the scientist later regretted), an implicit invitation to hell on earth. It was Jesus Christ who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which words cannot possibly be a humanist warrant for justifying Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet, in a moment of noteworthy candor and grace for one who was bereft of Christian faith convictions, Babbitt concludes: “The insistence on the putting aside of spiritual indolence and the exercise of the higher will is found in genuinely spiritual doctrine, above all in Christianity. Traditionally the Christian has associated his liberty and his faith in a higher will with grace. ‘Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’” Those words, written nearly one hundred years ago by one outside the faith, ring more true today than ever before.

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics