From the Notebooks
The Nock on Babbitt?
It’s interesting that Sinclair Lewis labeled the repressed character in Babbitt after Irving Babbitt, the Harvard professor from Ohio who emphasized that, for America to survive, men must restrain their appetites. Lewis’ use of the eponym was meant as an insult to Professor Babbitt. The term “Babbitt” subsequently became synonymous with a narrow-minded sort of smalltown provincialism that is more concerned with how the local high school football team does than with art and higher pursuits.
Nock repeatedly knocks “Babbittry,” so much so that I have taken my copy of Babbitt off the shelf and have started reading it. He, for instance, says “I am all for frying Babbitt over a slow fire.” In this and other passages, I believe he is referring to the symbol “Babbitt,” rather than Irving himself, but at times, it’s difficult to tell.
If Nock disliked Professor Babbitt, it seems odd. I’m not well-acquainted with Babbitt’s philosophy, and I don’t see myself ever reading his seven volume Democracy and Leadership (such a pursuit is reserved for that day when a private patron decides to subsidize my leisure for the greater good of mankind), but the general tone of his thinking, at least as presented in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, seems to overlap a lot with Nock’s.
Babbitt, Kirk wrote, believed that preoccupation with things economic would make our culture superficial. He referred to the “great greasy paw” of commercialism, lamenting that it was sullying everything in America. Such a lament is wholly consistent with Nock’s observation that “economism” (the belief or attitude that the material things in life are paramount) was ruining America.
Babbitt also pointed out that it’s a mistake to think that democracy and imperialism are inimical . . . just as anyone in Periclean Athens knew, and just as any reasonably-astute American sees today. Nock made similar points in his writings (though, at this sitting, I couldn’t put my finger on one).
Finally, Babbitt scorned the idea that “social reform” can substitute for “self-reform.” And that might be the apex of Nock’s thought, who, near the end of his life, emphasized that it is each person’s job to present society with one improved unit. Each person owes society nothing more nor nothing less. It’s a point with which I whole-heartedly agree, and if we could make such thinking a staple of our cultural landscape, we would have a fine society, indeed.