Humanism--Attitude or Credo?


HUMANISM until recently has been regarded as an attitude too vague to invite definition. Those men of the Renaissance who first bore the name had at best a rather loose community of ideals. All expected to find spiritual nurture in the great examples of classical antiquity. They read the Greek and Roman historians and poets that they themselves might live more largely. But this reference to classical antiquity is weak in as notable a humanist as Leonardo da Vinci, whose interests were chiefly scientific.

The first humanists all sought a rich personal culture, a self-fulfillment not too much hampered by social, political, or ecclesiastical authority; but they made very different uses of their culture. Some, like Sir Thomas More, Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Lorenzo the Magnificent, applied it to public affairs. Others, like Petrarch and Erasmus, viewed the world from afar as secluded men of letters and detached critics. Some, like the tender-minded neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola, lived on ideal heights of intuition; others, like Machiavelli, whom I think the humanist must, however reluctantly, accept as a fellow, made tough-minded diagnoses of the behavior of men as individuals or in nations. Most of them were in their own fashion religious, but their faith ran from the mystic faith of a Marsilio Ficino and the hearty piety of a Colet to the decent conformity of the skeptic Montaigne, the thin if lofty Deism of Leonardo da Vinci.

If it is difficult to find a governing idea that reasonably covers the historic group, it is as hard to find a common practice. They were chaste or lewd, contentious or serenely peaceful, selfseeking or magnanimous — it all depended. If there be a common attitude, it is this: they were all what we should call to-day practical psychologists, keenly interested in man’s motives and behavior, upholders of the dignity of life on the mundane level, free and audacious analysts in disregard of mediseval limitations and proscriptions. They hoped to attain a good life by the study of man past and present. One would like to assert a common bond of tolerance, but, while a few were beautifully tolerant, many were of a bitterness of opinion that would justify our adding to the scholastic and philological hates also the odium humanisticum.

In short, for humanism as a historic fact only the loosest definition will serve at all. We might say that the humanistic attitude was to seek a fine worldly wisdom through direct study of man in thought and action, such study being powerfully reenforced from those precedents of great living contained in the literature of Greece and Rome — a fresh research balanced and somewhat directed and measured by a great tradition. I can find no stricter formula that seems to meet the case. The attitude adumbrated above seems compatible with many other attitudes, indeed with almost any attitude that is not dogmatic or fanatical, or life-denying. For example, to-day one might be an agnostic humanist, a Catholic humanist; a royalist humanist, a socialist humanist; a utilitarian humanist, an idealist humanist; conceivably a Mormon humanist or a liberal hard-shell Baptist humanist. That is, a quest of a fine worldly wisdom nurtured by tradition might in theory be compatible with any of these policies, philosophies, or faiths. Nor does this divest the notion of humanism of any real meaning if the main thing be the attitude, for the humanistic attitude may be after all simply a leaven which is potent in the most various materials. We do not deny the identity of yeast because it may work in bread, cake, or homebrew.

While the notion, and I think the word ‘humanism,’ hardly survived the third generation from Poliziano, the cast of mind having become widespread and of no news value, whenever the word was used until the present century it meant what I have tried to sketch above — the attitude of a cultured, curious person versed in humane letters and tolerantly studious of his fellow men. One may say that both the word and the attitude had a tendency to flatten out in the last century. Thoughtful people began to find greater hope in a more or less automatic progress based rather on science and invention than on scrutiny of human behavior; politically the interest was shifted from the man and the citizen to schemes and forms of government, to which it was assumed man would adapt himself, and even where study of the moral individual was still pursued, the quest was no longer helped by rich parallelisms from the funded experience of the race. Indeed, the mass of tradition tended to shrink. Very few knew it; fewer thought it of any practical avail. The word ‘humanist’ even went into a kind of confusion and disrepute. If you had called a man a humanist in the so-called ‘naughty nineties,’ at least half your hearers would have supposed that he was a Y. M. C. A. secretary, a social worker, or a prison reformer.

So, early in this century, Irving Babbitt found the word ‘humanism’ in the gutter, took it up, cleaned it, burnished it, defined it, and equipped it with a clear and simple set of principles which he has preached from his professor’s chair and from his books with a rare conviction and eloquence. For this act of salvage and rehabilitation he has been highly praised and even more extravagantly abused. Since he needs no praise of mine and is very able to bear abuse, I appear neither as his defender nor as prosecutor, but merely as a humanist in the ranks seeking the likenesses and differences between the old humanism and the new, and weighing the values involved.


The common objections to Irving Babbitt and his teaching fall into three singularly scholastic categories— namely, lexicographical, historical, and moral. The lexicographical objection is that Babbitt has taken a good word and slyly given it a new meaning which is helpful to his propaganda. Such an objection is hardly serious. We do not chide the Salvation Army for using the word ‘army’ in an unusual sense, nor an Atlantic passenger for ‘sailing’ in an electric-driven liner. Words have their fates, and it may seem lucky for the word ‘humanism’ that, falling into Mr. Babbitt’s hands, it came to have a meaning again.

More serious is the historic objection: Mr. Babbitt has affixed to the word a definition and a doctrine of which the historic humanists were not aware and to which they would not have assented. With such tender chivalry toward the historic humanists it is hard for one of their admirers and distant emulators to cavil. But since the old humanists did not ordinarily speak, think, or write of themselves as such, — it was their friends and foes who thus dubbed them, — it is hard to see that they suffer from having a label they never adopted shined up and perhaps slightly twisted and modernized by Mr. Babbitt. Nor again is the objection that the old humanists would have disowned the new humanism as defined by Mr. Babbitt really as weighty as it seems. He is not making an interpretation of the humanism of the Renaissance, but framing a set of principles for the humanism of the twentieth century. So it is really the coherence and value of the definitions and the few doctrines of Mr. Babbitt to-day that need consideration, and not their relevance to the undoctrinal historic phenomenon called humanism.

But I am again willing to meet a eaviler on an historic issue on his own grounds by insisting that, while perhaps none of the old humanists consciously worked on such principles as Irving Babbitt’s, none would have objected to them, none of those principles being in any way antipathetic to that Renaissance attitude which we loosely call humanistic.

To make good this assertion, I must restate Mr. Babbitt’s position, and since it has never hardened into anything like a code, but consists in a few principles, this can be briefly done. The prime articles of faith are man’s free will and his intuition of a higher and lower self. These are postulated, not proved; indeed, they probably do not admit of proof, being, like consciousness itself, immediate data of experience. The humanist technique is self-examination, self-knowledge, selfcontrol, emerging in conduct as moderation and a quest of the golden mean. As ethics this is Confucianism, and equally Aristotelianism. One attains the golden mean chiefly through avoiding excesses of whatever sort. Hence the ‘inner check’ (frein vital) is the indispensable monitor of all good living. There is a law for man and a law for things. The law for things is change and expansion; the law for man is centrality and a balanced character. One must work within wisely established limits, imposed by the higher self for the end of happiness. Such, roughly, is the teaching that for a quarter of a century Mr. Babbitt and his friend Paul Elmer More have reiterated with every resource of eloquent dialectic and with the widest enrichment of illustration from letters and from life.

The counsel, ‘Be wise, be moderate,’ is the most compact form of credo. It is in no sense a code. Merely to cite it is to rebuke those unreflecting critics who have attacked Mr. Babbitt’s humanism as ‘legalistic.’ Let us recall that Mr. Babbitt has been as roundly blamed by religiously-minded critics for failing to provide a technique, with humanistic equivalents of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount — that is, for failing to be legalistic. He has been sagacious, I feel, to stand on essential principles and leave their interpretation and application to individual discretion.

Now if I have learned anything whatever about the humanists of the Renaissance, and I have studied them off and on for thirty-five years, there is nothing in Mr. Babbitt’s principles to which they would not have subscribed. Rather few of them, perhaps, trod the golden via media, but from the magnanimous Sir Thomas More, through the shrinking ironical Erasmus, to the boisterous and vicious Aretino and the subtle skeptic Montaigne, there is no humanist who would not have approved, in principle, Mr. Babbitt’s credo. Did time and space permit, they could all be quoted in favor of the temperate life. That many of them actually lived inordinately has nothing to do with the case.


All this is secondary to the larger issue: Is the new humanism a real philosophy in the Greek sense of being a guide of life? Can one live by it? Or is it still, as it apparently used to be, merely a partial attitude needing the prop and aid of other more essential attitudes, say religious? Into this fundamental problem I cannot burrow deeply in a short essay, but I hope to touch at a few points the relation of humanism to religion, a relation obviously important to both. But before undertaking the main theme let me say that, despite the unintelligent cry of ‘legalism,’ it is no disadvantage for a sound attitude to find a credo. Indeed, if the credo be valid and appealing, it will in turn cause and enhance the attitude. I fancy that such ideals and words as courage, magnanimity, and truthfulness are really more efficacious in bringing any youth to take the attitude of a gentleman than is just the bare idea of being a gentleman. Far from compromising the future of humanism as an attitude, Mr. Babbitt’s brief credo should aid it, and it will really be displeasing only to such as object to putting behind the attitude any idea whatever. It would be hard indeed to show that in reformulating the old ideal of moderation Mr. Babbitt has either misrepresented the old humanism or done a disservice to the new.

The tempest of dispraise now whirling about Mr. Babbitt and Mr. More may be brought down to the following objections: (1) They have applied moral canons too strictly to literature.

(2) They have badly minimized the importance of science and invention.

(3) Here the criticism falls to Mr. Babbitt alone, since Mr. More has dug himself in at Chalcedon — that humanism is impotent without the aid of religion. My position as an eager camp follower of humanism becomes a somewhat delicate one, for I sympathize with some of those objections, while Mr. Babbitt and Mr. More are my dear friends. It is in the assurance of their generous sympathy that I seek to clear up misunderstandings without emphasizing minor differences of opinion.

Through the chance that both Mr. Babbitt and Mr. More were professional students of the history of literature and accomplished critics, they have conducted their campaign in morals largely with reference to great writers. Occasionally, when they discuss a poet, for example, they appraise his moral tendency or his moral professions somewhat at the expense of his entire literary accomplishment. This has through the whole fight given an unfortunate impression of narrowness in literary judgment, which has unfairly prejudiced the whole moral case. The golden mean has appeared not so much a straight and narrow path toward virtue as, condoning the metaphor, a bludgeon wherewithal to beat up such naughty poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. To feel this about the criticism of Mr. Babbitt and Mr. More is to have read them carelessly. They make their provisos, but the misunderstanding persists; and where a misunderstanding lasts through twenty-five years and many explanations and disclaimers some responsibility presumably attaches to the person or persons misunderstood.

I feel sure that neither of my friends would want the frein vital to work in the realm of theory and imagination as promptly and as sharply as it should in the realm of practice. I am sure that neither would deny a wide poetic license, that both would admit in the field of literary invention and theory a broad and audacious experimentation with final principles. But to the careless reader these critics seem often to equate the practical and theoretical faculty, submitting both to equal checks, restraints, and circumscriptions. Such an exaggeration of emphasis on their part and a misapprehension of its importance on the part of the reader have alienated on tactical grounds many who would naturally have agreed with Mr. Babbitt and Mr. More in principle. There is always a disadvantage in presenting any well-loved great writer primarily as a demoralizing influence. Great writers are so rare that we must take all the risks of them. Mr. More is entirely aware of the situation, and has recently told me that he would now rewrite his essay on Wordsworth with a somewhat different emphasis. These exceptions have already been taken with much overemphasis by an able antagonist of the new humanism, Mary Colum. I think the proper course for the new humanism is to admit the none-too-soft impeachment and, for the future, conduct what is essentially a campaign in morals in its proper field.

Obviously Mr. Babbitt’s and Mr. More’s occasionally too stepmotherly attitude toward the great romantic authors does not really vitiate their humanistic teaching, but it does somewhat impair confidence in their judgment generally, and to that extent it weakens the effect of their aggressive in the field of morals. Since I agree heartily with their ethical position, I feel free to note what seem to me infelicities in tactics. An effective humanist must be nothing if not a sure and delicate tactician. He needs more than most men to double his principles with the wisdom of t he serpent.

Something less than this wisdom has been shown in the recent symposium, Humanism and America, in the constant disparagement of what are vaguely called ‘the pretensions of science,’ meaning rather the illusions of the laity concerning science. By the eternal truism that, while science and invention multiply our facilities for action, neither is able to give us these values which should guide our actions, the humanist must firmly stand. Science as such has never made such a claim, and never will, but scientists now and then have traded on their professional authority to pontificate in the field of morals. Of course no humanist would bar the field of morals to the scientist, who is after all a man, and as much concerned with morals as the rest of mankind. All that the humanist really needs to maintain is that qua scientist the scientist has no prerogative whatever as a moralist. His standing is simply that of any other man of equal experience and competence. This, I think, will be generally admitted, and no offense taken.


Several critics of humanism, Dr. Canby in particular, urge something like an entente cordiale between it and science. This proposal seems to me to evince confused thinking; indeed, where it applies at all it applies not to science but to its application in invention. The humanist’s frein vital might conceivably forbid an invention providing a poison gas that would annihilate a city, an aeroplane which would go a thousand miles an hour, a regimen which would extend human life to five hundred years. But the frein vital would evidently have no jurisdiction over the scientific hypotheses that made such inventions possible.

The reciprocal relations between science and humanism may be about this. Since the scientist is as much concerned with the good life as anybody else, so far as humanism furthers the good life the scientist has a stake in it like the next man; the stake of the humanist in science is less direct and is really concerned with invention. Since humanism is an ethics and morality, — a way of living, — there might be a very good humanist who disinterested himself in science completely. He would act the same whether he regarded the atom as a very small pill or as a miniature whirling solar system, but he could not disinterest himself in invention. It would be constantly offering him new possibilities of action, to that extent complicating and confusing his field of choice — possibilities silently but effectually demanding his acceptance and putting increasing burdens upon his frein vital. Indeed the humanist’s plight before invention is every man’s plight, only he is supposed to have a superior method of dealing with the situation.

I have said there might be a good humanist who disregarded science, but his would hardly be a socially effective or successfully militant humanism. For contemporary society is largely, perhaps chiefly, shaped by science and invention. Badly shaped, perhaps, but the humanist who aspires to mend matters must first study and understand the case as it is. Misinterpretation of science and misuse of invention are indeed the most prevalent and formidable allies of amoralism and immorality. But it gets the humanist nowhere to attack science and invention. The true objective of attack is the erroneous use of both. The fault is with the people who err and not with the conditions behind this error. Error is possible from any antecedent. There is nothing especially heinous about errors derived from science. They are like any other sort of error, and call only for the same remedy of thorough exposure and substitution of better feeling and thinking. Sometimes I feel that the anti-scientific humanist is really shouldering off his own task on the scientist, or peevishly scolding the scientist for moral reverberations from his hypotheses and discoveries which he could not possibly anticipate or forestall.

Broadly speaking, the humanist as such cannot give the scientist a method of research, and the scientist as such cannot tell the humanist the way to a good life. Their attitude should really be hands off and mutual respect. Unquestionably science has, however innocently, immensely complicated the task of militant humanism, but this is plainly in the day’s work of any stalwart humanist, and is to be accepted cheerfully.

Moreover if psychology, still largely in the empirical stage, should ever develop into a science, that would put into the hands of the humanist new and most effective tools. It would not alter his main strategical position, but it would immensely enrich and strengthen his tactics. We are to-day a little in the position of seeking a centre and a golden mean without even approximate measurements. Where the humanist walks is asserted to be the golden middle path, just as where McGregor sits is de facto the head of the table. I hasten to add that I feel in practice the moral centre may be found with sufficient accuracy as it is. But in the broad field of human relations, individual and social psychology may give us at least working probabilities where we now have not much more than guesses. Thus the analysis and classification of behavior should provide most valuable material for the humanist to work on, even when the much reprehended ‘behaviorism ’ shall be forgotten. John Dewey’s counsel of experimentation, too, though personally I think it a doubtful and wasteful morality, may actually hasten, if tragically, the better adjustment of men to an age teeming with invention. In short, what are sore errors to the severe humanist — and, less sorely, errors to me — may incidentally serve the cause. Shall we humanists assume the attitude that no person in error shall be permitted to serve us?

It will do to ignore and belittle science if the new humanism is to be a small sect of forest sages with their holy places amid the elms of Cambridge, the maples of Princeton, and the live oaks of Chapel Hill. If humanism is to be more than that, if it is to be a broadly quickening power in a restless, confused, and somewhat wearied world, it must take science and invention very seriously into its account.


For over twenty-five years Irving Babbitt has been building up a ‘positive morality,’ a theory of a good life requiring only the sanctions this life and world afford. Now he finds such a positive morality poor and perhaps untenable unless there be also supernatural support and warrant. In moving emphatically toward ‘supernaturalism’ he does not define it, and he does not associate himself with any going religion. Some ten years ago, after spending himself in the creation of a similar system of morals on the mundane level, Paul Elmer More retreated, or advanced, to a mystical type of liberal Anglicanism. Thus the humanist group, which is largely agnostic, seems to have lost to religion both of its leaders.

I hasten to add that, if humanism be simply an attitude, our leaders are not lost. They have merely added a new to an old attitude. Very briefly, then, I must have a word on the relation of humanism and religion. If humanism be merely a personal disposition toward moderation, there is no problem whatever. This disposition could tie up with any religion that was not fanatical. If humanism is a selfsufficing credo, in its fashion a substitute for the historic religions, then the case is quite different. As usual, there are here both an issue of principle and a problem in tactics.

Dialectically it is hard to see how with any logical consistency a humanist can profess a religion. His values are by definition human and worldly, whereas those of any sincerely religious person are supernatural and otherworldly. Conceivably, a humanist, finding his bare credo too cold and unenergized, might call on religion to give him the incentive and the force to act humanistically. Probably this is about Irving Babbitt’s present position. But a religion which is merely an auxiliary of an ethical system is really not much of a religion. Mr. T. S. Eliot, in the humanists’ symposium, very correctly demands that the relation be reversed, humanism being for him a valuable auxiliary of religion, as keeping the devotee from superstition or fanaticism. But this relation logically leaves very little of humanism. None of its sanctions are regarded as sufficient; it is called in to do for religion what religion should do for itself. It becomes a sort of mustard plaster to draw off those humors and irritations which mysteriously occur even in the body religious.

No really good religion would need humanism. And the logical difficulty thickens when one contemplates alliances of humanism with particular religions. Doctrinally, every humanist is a probabilist, but if he is also a Roman Catholic he must accept the absolute authority of the Pope. Should Irving Babbitt, as seems possible, follow his friend More into some form of Christian belief, he himself would be in the very curious position of accepting a Christ who, according to all his own well-labored definitions and distinctions, is a humanitarian and by no stretch of thinking a humanist. Under these entirely possible conditions, what becomes of Irving Babbitt’s humanism ? Or is humanitarianism, which is sternly forbidden to a mere mortal, quite licit in a God?

I have wished to state these paradoxes frankly without trying to solve them. Nobody is obliged to hold strictly logical positions. Historically most humanists have been religious. There is often plenty of practical and personal good in adjustments that defy index, lexicon, and syllogism. It is not the moment for any humanist to berate his fellow either as a Christian or as an agnostic. Tactically we should all go ahead as if humanism were merely an attitude. Personally I believe it is more than that, and some day I may yet try to say why. Logic, however temporarily ignored in practice, in the long run has its revenges. If the new humanism shall have any future as an independent system of morality, history may well regard its founders as defeatists, and we shall have the very curious and otherwise unexampled phenomenon of a manner of religion virtually found wanting at its beginnings by its major prophets. If, however, humanism be merely an attitude, then the founders are acting in their good rights, and a true humanist should not characterize their transit, however paradoxical, otherwise than genially.

So, for the present, let humanism be simply an attitude. It will save us much profitless wrangling among ourselves, much uncharitableness toward such parallel activities as science and religion, much intolerance toward thinkers who are broadly in sympathy with our ideals. And I am satisfied that an attitude so flexible and, if you will, so yielding will not compromise the chance for an independent and militant humanism. If that is to be, it can come only as religion dwindles and humanism offers a reasonable and attractive equivalent. It will not come by demanding a strict orthodoxy now, nor yet by telling people who think they are and wish to be humanists that they really are nothing of the sort.