A Voice in the Wilderness
I read this morning of the death of Professor leving Babbitt with regret and with the confirmed conviction that the great must always be misunderstood. I was surprised to find in the obituary which appeared in your columns so much that was unsympathetic to the personality of the great teacher and so much that was false to his teaching.
Babbitt's students never to may knowledge regarded him as a crotchety old man. In person and in speech he exhibited a gustiness which was always youthful and a sense of humor which always tempered his bitterest jibe.
He never held that man was vile. It was for this very reason that he found himself in disagreement with the teachings of Christianity. He spoke of the original sin as a "theological nightmare." La Rochefoucauld was as much his enemy as Rousseau. For him, man was neither bestial nor divine; he was human; that is, he was torn between a higher will and a lower one.
Your obituary states that although Babbitt's courses were well attended, no one claimed to get anything out of them. This is the most extravagant and most untrue reflection of all. Neither I nor my friends became humanists when we were under Babbitt, nor did we become more conversant with the great literary masterpieces because of the course than we were before. But all of us, whether we wanted to or not, took up a critical attitude toward literature and life which we were willing to and did defend. Babbitt made us ask ourselves why we were here and what we should think and do. He exhorted us to systematize the chaos of our "natural" thinking. I believe Babbitt to have been one of the most stimulating teachers who has ever held a university chair anywhere. The contemporary world is full of men who have been influenced unconsciously by him. Walter Lippmann contains more of Babbitt than either he or Babbitt would care to admit. In this case neither the debtor nor the creditor are heroes to one another.
The death of Irving Babbitt is in its way as great a loss to Harvard as the retirement of President Lowell. A great university derives its merits from its fostering of men who delight in fighting against the popular currents of the time. Babbitt was such a man and his voice cried in a wilderness. Robert B. Lisle.
A letter printed in the July 16 edition of the New York Herald Tribune.