Babbitt versus compassion

In response to the previous entry, “A theory of Madoff,” where I mentioned Irving Babbitt’s criticism of liberal compassion, Mark Jaws asked me to explain “in a concise paragraph” Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership. Mr. Jaws also asked me to explain the Jewish idea of rachmones. I think I did supply a capsule summary of Babbitt’s idea in that entry. As for rachmones, all I know is what I said, that it means compassion and is a key concept to Jews, particularly liberal Jews.

Rather than writing something new about Babbitt at this moment, below I’ve collected various comments at VFR about him, as well as something I’ve previously written dealing with rachmones.

From “The Real PC” (talk given in 1991):

As can be gleaned from Plato’s incomparable analysis, a society’s openness to unlimited diversity is not primarily a question of economics or ideology or class; it is at bottom a moral phenomenon, connected with all the other moral concerns of society.

In the classic and Christian view, man’s moral nature is understood as a hierarchy. Justice means the proper ordering of the parts of man’s nature and of society. The love of the good is higher than the love of pleasure. But the radical democratic morality—which dominates our politics, our popular culture, our schools and even our churches—denies the existence of a moral hierarchy in man and society. In the modern democratic view, the chief moral principle is compassion, Rousseau’s natural virtue of “pity.” As the 1920s literary critic Irving Babbitt pointed out in Democracy and Leadership, Rousseauian pity is not a virtue in the classic sense; it is an expansive instinct, indistinguishable in its essential form from other expansive appetites such as greed and power. Thus, in democratic society, we have the phenomenon of conspicous compassion, whether for the homeless, or immigrants, or whatever. Traditional morality contains our natural impulses and directs them toward the good; it discriminates. But the essence of egalitarian morality is its indiscriminateness. Instead of loving something that represents our highest values or that is most intimate with us personally, egalitarian morality serves the “Other,” and more “other” the Other is, the more “moral” is our service of it.

From “Why liberal society makes Christianity almost impossible” [June 2008):

What I’ve just said is in accord with Irving Babbitt’s seminal book Democracy and Leadership. Babbitt speaks of two kinds of self. There is the liberal or Romantic self, which is led by expansive appetite—and further, as Babbitt makes clear in a brilliant insight, liberal compassion is itself an expansive appetite, just as desire for fame, wealth, power and sex are expansive appetites. And there is the Aristotolian or Christian self, which is controlled and checked by a higher truth.

Bill Clinton vs. Bill Clinton (January 2008):

When I first saw Bill Clinton address small groups of voters in 1991-92, the combination of his amazing skill at policy-wonkery with his amazingly fluid, empathetic persona made him one of the most formidable politicians I had ever seen. In this current election campaign, it is as though Clinton has been split into two opposing personalities. Hillary has his policy-wonkery, Obama his empathy and charisma.

Or, as Irving Babbitt put it, liberalism since its origins in the 18th century has consisted of two different liberalisms, which are sometimes at war with each other: the rationalistic, aimed at re-engineering society, and the romantic, aimed at some collective experience of liberation or human oneness. Hillary embodies the first liberalism, Obama the second. And the two are now indeed in a war.

From “The nestling learns to fly, and lie” (November 2006, about Tamar Jacoby.)

[For some chronological perspective on the below quoted comment by Conservative Swede, this entry was posted about eight months before Conservative Swede suddenly realized that I am a sinister figure standing in the way of a true defense of the West and “destroying” the anti-jihad movement; that I am “best understood as a cult leader”; that I am “prepared to go to any length” in defending my cult and my “cultish status” among my “acolytes,” and that I am without “any shame or any limits in how deeply [I will] degenerate into dirty games” in defense of my cultish status; that I can only accept myself “as the only prophet”; that “my main achievement has been in the past,” and “is rapidly becoming insignificant”; and that my “true egomaniac agenda has come up nakedly into the open, for everyone to see.”]:

Conservative Swede writes:

You wrote: “Leftists are driven by spiritual greed—the greed to transform and control society. They hate the society that actually and historically exists and they lust for the day when it will have become something unrecognizable from what it now is and once was. They will say anything to advance their purposes.”

I must second Howard Sutherland in applauding your phrase “spiritual greed.” It makes it very clear. It’s brilliant. I have made similar attempts myself to summarize the essence of a mind-set, e.g. when describing Islam as Arabic Nazism or neoconservatism as macro-Communism. Works as mnemonics….

LA replies:

Thanks to Conservative Swede and to Mr. Sutherland for the compliments. I didn’t think “spiritual greed” was a particularly new phrase or concept, I thought I had used it for years. A Google search turns up 1,500 instances of it. But it turns out that I have only used it once before in print, in a VFR entry where I spoke of the “spiritual greed” of Andrew Sullivan in his unrelenting push to institute homosexual “marriage.” But maybe the phrase works especially well in describing the open borders people.

Also, I should add that I might have been helped in understanding the idea of spiritual greed by my reading of Irving Babbitt’s indispensable Democracy and Leadership (1928). Babbitt had the original insight that liberalism is not just an innocent and virtuous desire to do good, but an expansive appetite, indistinguisable in its basic structure from any other expansive appetite, including all manner of sins. He distinguished this romantic, expansive type of liberalism, which he associated with such figures as Rousseau, and perhaps Jefferson, with the restrained type of liberalism, represented by Washington and Lincoln, in which one’s impulses (whether political or personal), are governed from a center….

From “Majority-minority relations: a non-liberal view” (January 2007):

[Regarding the atheist position that atheism can supply sufficient moral guide to man and society,] Perhaps the simplest way to state the issue is Irving Babbitt’s distinction between our ordinary self, and our higher self (whether defined in Christian, Aristotelian, or other terms) which checks and guides our ordinary self and its expansive and self-aggrandizing impulses. That is the basis of morality. Atheists—and liberals generally—have no way of articulating that duality in man’s nature between the ordinary and the higher. They believe man is naturally good, and doesn’t need God or a higher self to control his ordinary self. But if man is naturally good, whence come our bad impulses, and whence comes the power that restrains our bad impulses and seeks something better? Atheism and liberalism really have no answer to these questions.

As for rachmones, I first came upon this word in Alan Dershowitz’s 1991 Chutzpah, a book I discussed at length in a so-far unpublished essay on Jews. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Note [Dershowitz’s] all-consuming narcissism. Judaism is his religion, so he can define it according to his whims—a most convenient philosophy for a man who abandoned his family’s orthodox Judaism but still insists on his total Jewishness. In the same way, America is his country, therefore America is anything he feels like saying it is—a convenient philosophy for a man who is openly hostile to America’s historic civilization. “We need not compromise either our Americanism or our Jewishness,” Dershowitz declares. “Nor can anyone else define our Americanism or our Jewishness for us.” [Ibid, pp. 4-5]. This, in brief, is chutzpah, which Dershowitz sees as self-assertion and boldness in the face of authority, but which most people regard as unmitigated, brazen arrogance. However defined, it is a quality Dershowitz celebrates in his fellow Jews and urges them to cultivate.

Thus he writes admiringly of David Bazelon, former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, for whom Dershowitz worked as a law clerk:

Judge Bazelon rarely went to synagague, but he was a Jewish judge in every sense. He saw the world through his Jewish background. His humor was frequently in Yiddish. His speeches referred to the rabbinic literature. He described himself as a secular American with a “Jewish soul.” If a defendant deserved compassion but no writ of habeas corpus—or other formal legal remedy—was technically available to him, Bazelon would wink at me [italics added] and order that I find some ground for issuing a “writ of rachmones.” Rachmones is the Hebrew-Yiddish word for “compassion.”…

Bazelon was always an outsider, a questioner, even as one of the most influential jurists of his time. [Ibid., pp. 58-59].

In this inadvertently devastating portrait, we see the chief judge of America’s second most powerful court busily reshaping Anglo-American Constitutional law according to his Jewish outsider’s sense of compassion, while conspiratorially winking at his young law clerk. Equally revealing is Dershowitz’s tribute to Bazelon and his other mentor, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg: “[T]heir Jewishness—their rachmones—resonated in me more powerfully than the Jewishness of ritual.” [Ibid., p. 60]. It is clear that these secular Jews, leading architects of the modern omnicompetent state, regard the liberal agenda as an emotionally fulfilling substitute for the religious tradition they have cast aside.

December 15 Robert R. writes:

Will you expound on, or explain, Babbitt’s reasoning behind his claim that compassion “is an expansive instinct, indistinguishable in its essential form from other expansive appetites such as greed and power”?

For quite a long time I have tried to convince people that acting from a sense of compassion is not a form of selflessness but rather selfishness. A highly compassionate person, when exposed to some sad situation, experiences psychic pain and it is that person’s desire to eliminate that pain that is their motivation in acting compassionately—hence the selfishness. This is why Liberals are not receptive to statements that their actions, in many cases, actually make things worse. They’re interested in themselves feeling better. Is this what Babbitt what getting at?

LA replies:

No, not exactly. Other readers have asked for more explanation of Babbitt’s ideas, so I need to write a full length entry on Babbitt beyond the brief summaries I’ve provided.

For the moment, the simplest way to understand him is what I’ve already said. According to Babbitt, virtuous activity is activity that is guided and checked by a higher part of ourselves. Babbitt calls this the inner check. It can be described in Christian, Aristotelian, or Confucian terms. However it may be described, it’s a principle higher than our ordinary self. The ordinary self, in the absence of the higher self, is expansive and self-aggrandizing; it contains no principle within itself to check itself. This self-aggrandizing activity is found in particular in Romanticism and in the Rousseauian, liberal compassion that is a key aspect of Romanticism. This is an experience in which the self enhances itself, expands itself, in its feeling of compassion for others, rather than being guided and contained by a higher principle. And this makes liberal compassion similar in its structure (though not in its content obviously) to greed, egotism, and lust. Without the higher check, compassion becomes a form of self-aggrandizement.

December 16

Clark Coleman writes:

You have recommended this book several times, and I plan to read it soon.

I notice that it has no customer ratings at Amazon, and no customer reviews! Perhaps you could be the first.

LA replies:

The book is not perfect, it’s written in essay form and meanders, and you have to stay with it. But Babbitt is a first-rate, original mind. What I need to do is write up on article summarizing his main ideas by going through my copy and quoting and commenting on the key passages and quoting my marginal notes. In fact, what would be very helpful would be a radical condensation of the book to 25 or 50 pages for readers who wouldn’t have the patience to read the whole thing.

I purchased Democracy and Leadership because in the 1980s I saw an ad from Liberty Books with a quotation by Russell Kirk saying that this was an indispensable conservative book. Later, in the early ’90s, I saw him at a conservative conference and after introducing myself thanked him for getting me to read Babbitt’s book which had been so important to me. To my shock, he recoiled from me and looked at me with cold disapproval. I guess he was annoyed that I didn’t thank him for his own books, but, to tell the truth, I’ve never read any of his books, except for his book on the meaning of American culture and multiculturalism around 1990 that NR had given me to review. After reading it I got back to them and told them that if I reviewed it, I would be critical of it because I thought it was mediocre and unsatisfactory; so they gave the book to someone else who puffed it.

I got a great deal out of the Portable Conservative Reader, which Kirk edited; in particular his excellent and extensive selections from Burke, with which the Portable Reader begins, got me to read Reflections on the Revolution in France. I’ve gotten a lot out of Modern Age, which Kirk founded. But as for Kirk’s own books, The Roots of American Order, etc., I never got into them. No offense intended, but the truth is that Russell Kirk’s single most important contribution to my intellectual life was his recommendation of Democracy and Leadership.

Clark Coleman replies:

I read The Roots of American Order in its entirety and will probably read it again some day. I think it is an indispensable book for American traditionalists. We must know what we are trying to conserve beyond a Proposition Nation, and what our heritage is, and I found this book to be very informative in that respect. I also enjoyed Kirk’s essay in Freedom and Virtue by ISI Books (a collection of conservative-libertarian debate and dialogue) in which he addressed the differences between conservatism and libertarianism and firmly stated that there really is no possible fusion of the two.

I am not familiar with his book on multiculturalism, and even before hearing your thoughts on it, it would not have ranked very high on my future Kirk reading list.

LA replies:

I tried it a couple of times years ago but had trouble getting into it. I will try again.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 14, 2008 02:39 PM | Send

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