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Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Democracy and Leadership

One of the Century's Greatest Works of Political Philosophy

Dr. Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

First published in 1924, Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership remains one of this century’s greatest works of political philosophy. Combining philosophy of history, a philosophy of civilization, deep reflection on human nature, and keen insights into the psychology of belief, it diagnoses modernity with matchless prescience.

For Babbitt, man’s noblest characteristic is “a will to refrain.” Like Burke, he recognized that social existence requires checks on desire and impulse, and that true liberty therefore rests on self-control. Unfortunately, since the Renaissance the West has seen ever-increasing indulgence in desires and emancipation from authority, culminating in Rousseau’s advocacy of man’s natural goodness and yielding to one’s desires.

Rousseau’s expansive egoism gained dominion because, Babbitt divined, man’s main need is “to keep in good conceit with himself.” Unwilling to discipline himself to standards, preferring to “expand freely along the lines of his dominant desire,” man accepted Rousseau’s view “not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” Babbitt foresaw in consequence increasing self-indulgence and lawlessness; the advent of political adventurers; substitution of “compassionate” feelings for self-control as the index of virtue; and the rise of prophets of social service ravening for power and curtailing freedom.

Babbitt’s analysis rings truer daily. Skirting the pervasive errors of philosophical materialism, economic determinism, and preoccupation with politics, Babbitt fingers the true source of our woes: man’s infinite appetites and moral indolence. Hence his peerless explanatory power. Many observers now lament our decadence. None matches Babbitt’s profundity. Who would understand modernity must read this book.

  • John Attarian (1956-2004) was a free-lance writer with a Ph.D. in economics. He wrote for numerous national publications and was an editorial advisor to Modern Age.