Renan

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Author: Irving Babbitt
Editors: Janet Mullane and Robert Thomas Wilson
Date: 1990
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,355 words

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[I With Paul Elmer More, Babbitt was one of the founders of the New Humanism (or neo-humanism) movement which arose during the 1920s. The New Humanists were strict moralists who adhered to traditional conservative values in reaction to an age of scientific and artistic self-expression. In regard to literature, they believed that the aesthetic qualities of a work of art should be subordinate to its moral and ethical purpose, and were hence opposed to Naturalism and to any literature, such as Romanticism, that broke with established classical tradition. The author of several books propounding his philosophy, Babbitt was more a theorist than a literary critic; most of the New Humanist criticism was written by More, T. S. Eliot, and—until the mid-1920s—Stuart P. Sherman. The following excerpt originally appeared in 1902 as part of Babbitt's preface to Recollections of My Youth. Describing Renan as a “scientist and positivist with a Catholic imagination,” Babbitt comments on the success of his historical method in The Origins of Christianity.

Renan says that his purpose in his Souvenirs is not so much to narrate the incidents of his youth as to trace his intellectual origins and “transmit to others his theory of the world.” The intellectual life he has thus recorded, extraordinarily rich in itself, derives an added interest from the fact that it is so largely representative of his age. He speaks in one of his essays of la pensé e délicate, fuyante, insaisissable duxixe siècle. These are the very epithets that best describe his own thought. He is a Proteus, whom no one has yet succeeded in binding. It would be possible to do justice to him, says Sainte-Beuve, only in a Platonic dialogue; but who, he adds, could be found to write it? If Renan is thus subtle and many-sided, it is because he embodies so perfectly the spirit of modern criticism. The first step in understanding him is to have clearly in mind the difference between this new critical ideal and the old. The critic's business as once conceived was to judge with reference to a definite standard and then to enforce his decisions by his personal weight and authority. The nature of the reaction against this conception is summed up in a phrase of Carlyle's: “We must see before we begin to oversee.” Flexibility of intelligence and breadth of sympathy come more and more to take the place of authority and judgment as the chief virtues of the critic. Mere judging—“the blaming of this or the praising of that,” says Renan, “is the mark of a narrow method.” If the weakness of the old criticism was its narrowness and dogmatism, the danger of the new is that in its endeavor to embrace the world in a universal sympathy, it should forget the task of judging altogether. Renan would rest his criticism on the “excluding of all exclusiveness,” on an intellectual hospitality so vast as to find room for all the contradictory aspects of reality. “Formerly,” he says, “every...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420017794