Slinging Classical Texts

Edmund Wilson, Notes on Babbit and More:

THE FOLLOWING NOTES deal with the essays by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More which appeared in the humanist symposium called Humanism and America.

Humanism: An Essay at Definition

By Irving Babbitt

(1) The law of measure on which it [humanism] depends becomes meaningless unless it can be shown to be one of the “laws unwritten in the heavens” of which Antigone had the immediate perception, laws that are <( not of to-day or yesterday,” that transcend in short the temporal process.

This seems to me a grotesque misapplication of the famous speech from Sophocles. Let me point out, in the first place, that what Antigone says is “ἄγραπτα κἀσφαλῆ θεῶν νόμιμα” “unwritten and unfailing laws of the gods” and that Professor Babbitt, in changing “gods” to “heavens” (which is particularly inappropriate in this case, since Antigone has just specified the gods of the underworld), is following the Victorian tradition of Jebb and Jowett, who, by substituting such Christian words as “God” and “heaven” for the pre-Christian conceptions of the Greeks, almost succeeded in giving Sophocles and Plato the aspect of pious English dons. But Babbitt has turned Sophocles into something worse and even more alien to his true nature: he has turned him into a Harvard humanist. In the scene in question, Antigone is not talking about the law of measure or anything remotely resembling it she has disobeyed Creon’s edict by performing funeral rites for her brother and she is justifying herself for her insubordinate conduct. There is no self-control about Antigone’s behavior: she has committed an act of passionate personal loyalty, regarded as excessively rash and wrong-headed by everybody else in the play, including her own sister, whose “inner check” is more highly developed than Antigone’s. When Creon demands how Antigone has dared to break the law, she answers fiercely that such a law as his edict is contrary to the laws of the gods.

The romantic might, in fact, turn this scene against the humanist with more appropriateness than the humanist can use it against the romantic. Antigone has the same hasty insolent intemperate nature as her father Oedipus we are told so explicitly in the play and she is asserting her individual will in defiance of law and expediency she is making an impulsive and desperate gesture. Aristotle “a true humanist,” according to Babbitt says of this passage, in showing the distinction between conventional and natural law, that Antigone vindicates the latter in asserting “ὅτι δίκαιον ἀπειρημένου θάψαι τὸν Πολυνείκη, ὡς φύσει ὂν τοῦτο δίκαιον” that her act, though it violated the prohibition, had the sanction of natural right, was “right according to nature.” Now Antigone, of course, is not a nineteenth-century romantic, and Aristotle does not mean by “nature” quite the same thing that Rousseau does. But what Rousseau means does have something in common with what Aristotle means that Antigone means, whereas what Antigone means can’t by any possible stretch be associated with Babbitt’s “law of measure.” Babbitt grossly misrepresents Sophocles when he applies Antigone’s speech in this way: “The laws unwritten in the heavens” is one of Babbitt’s favorite quotations: he has used it again and again in order to give us the impression that Sophocles has endorsed the humanist “will to refrain.” Yet, as I say, if it is a question of slinging classical texts, the old-fashioned romantic who is Babbitt’s bugbear if there be any such still alive might turn Antigone’s outburst against Babbitt and, relapsing into the truculence of the age of Bentley, which the manners of the humanists invite, might add, as Antigone does:

       Σοὶ δ’ εἰ δοκῶ νῦν μῶρα δρῶσα τυγχάνειν,

       σχεδόν τι μώρῳ μωρίαν ὀφλισκάνω.

Babbitt elsewhere in this essay says that Sophocles “ranks high among occidental humanists,” though he admits making reservations in regard to the opinion of Matthew Arnold that “perfect poise is no doubt impossible; not even Sophocles succeeded in seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.” I don’t know in precisely what respect Professor Babbitt considers Sophocles to have fallen short of perfect poise; but it is certainly true that Sophocles’ characters are usually remarkable for anything but poise – they are as violent and as harsh as the people in the plays of Eugene O’Neill. Where the “law of measure” comes in is certainly not in connection with the conduct of Sophocles’ people: the hot-headed overconfident Oedipus; the “fierce child of a fierce father,” Antigone; the relentless and morbid Electra, etc. but in Sophocles’ handling of his material the firmness of his intellectual grasp, the sureness of his sense of form, the range of psychological insight which enables him to put before us the rages, the ambitions, the loyal ties, of so many passionate persons, that spend themselves against one another and expire in the clear air, leaving only with the echo of their tirades the vibration of the taut verse. In a world dominated by the law of measure, there would, however, be humanist masterpieces such as the tragedies of Sophocles since Babbitt claims them, with reservations, as humanist masterpieces because there would be no violent passions to write about. This might be a good thing perhaps we ought to be glad to do without the Sophocleses if we could get rid of the unruly passions. But, on the other hand, we ought perhaps to think twice before letting ourselves in for a world where the sole masterpieces were humanist symposia.

Lytras nikiforos antigone polynices.jpeg
Antigone in front of the dead Polynices by Nikiforos Lytras

Leave a Reply