Irving Babbitt and the Crisis of Nationalism, 1915 ~ The Imaginative Conservative
In the 1910s, one of America’s greatest humanists, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), surprisingly decided to dive into the realm of political theory and, to a lesser degree, practical politics in his many writings. Up to this decade, Babbitt had written literary and cultural criticism, defenses of the liberal arts, and explorations of Chinese philosophy and religion, but little to no politics. This changed with the advent of World War I, and Babbitt decided to apply all that he had done prior to the decade to the political philosophies of Nietzsche, of internationalism, and, especially, of nationalism. In a series of articles in The Nation in 1915, Babbitt perceptively analyzed the world, its recent past, and its most likely future. Indeed, if anything, Babbitt’s words were deeply prophetic and should have been heeded by all.
All modern European history began, Babbitt declared, with the French Revolution. Though it had proclaimed a sort of radical internationalism, it had devolved very quickly into a brutal and violent nationalism, with “Viva la nation!” becoming its unholy war cry.
Infected by the ideologies and “isms” first propounded by the French, modern Europe had, too, devolved into particular chaoses of national units. “Europe is to-day less cosmopolitan in any genuine sense of the word than it was at almost any period in the Middle Ages. Moreover, the type of internationalism that has broken down so disastrously, as well as the type of nationalism that has overthrown it, are both of comparatively recent origin. ‘The sentiment of nationalities,’ says Renan, ‘is not a hundred years old.’ And, he adds that this sentiment was created in the world by the French Revolution,” Babbitt explained. The so-called brotherhood of the Jacobins, Babbitt reminded his readers, was not so much one of universal love, but rather an alliances of “Cains, men whose hands were stained with blood and who looked on one another with incurable distrust.” The French, Babbitt continued, moved from universalism to particularism to “bestiality.”
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