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Alllan BloomSo I’ve gotten a lot (meaning several) emails complaining that I haven’t gotten around to keeping my promise of talking about Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Well, sorry. Here’s one reason why. I’m actually teaching that fascinating—and flawed—book right now, and I thought you’d learn more if I waited until after I read my students’ long essays on it. I don’t yet have any recent data on the book as a “teaching tool.” 

Don’t take my interest in Bloom’s book as evidence that I’m some kind of fundamentalist conservative.

Here are some facts on Bloom: He was an atheist, hyper-urban and urbane, secular Jewish, gay (and not in the closet), and dyslexic. He didn’t not think that his sexual orientation or disability or background defined him, and they, in fact, did not. But Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, based loosely but insistently on the final days of Bloom’s life, does seem to claim that Bloom’s atheism and homosexuality reached to the core of his thought.

A few more facts: The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987 and was a quite unexpected and quite huge best-seller. It is an unacknowledged source of much of the semi-conservative commentary of many public intellectuals of genuine distinction and staying power. I’ll mention only one: David Brooks.

One more fact: Bloom’s huge and virtually unacknowledged debt in The Closing is to the amazingly gifted but very controversial philosopher Leo Strauss, who’ll you remember from the polemics over the “neocons” and the invasion of Iraq. The truth is that there’s nothing in Strauss’s thought that would suggest anything definitive for or against the prudence of said invasion.

Nor did the Socratic teaching about the “noble lie”—as interpreted definitively by Strauss—have anything to do with any alleged deceptions put forward by President Bush on weapons of mass destruction or whatever. “Noble lie” is roughly equivalent to “comprehensive founding myth”—and all countries have something like that. And there’s a lot true about Socrates’s lie. Just as there’s a lot true about the devotion of some Americans to the absolute truth of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Bloom’s “data set” for The Closing was the smart and sophisticated students he taught at the University of Chicago. He begins by saying: “There is one thing professors can be absolutely certain of: almost every student believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

He adds: All the students, whatever their differences, “are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.”

There are obvious objections to this observation. Here’s one: The students at Chicago aren’t necessarily like most American students. None of Bloom’s students, for example, are religious. And here at my Berry College, religious belief is an obvious barrier to students’ moral relativism. Most of my students—even or especially the really smart ones—wouldn’t include themselves in the category “we relativists.”

Bloom’s response, I gather, is a kind of trickle-down theory. What’s believed and taught at our best, cutting-edge universities finds its way to the sticks soon enough. Well, that might often be true, but maybe it’s not always or inevitably true.

Notice Bloom’s instructive waffling, though: He says students either are or say they are relativists. Their environment leads them to mouth relativistic platitudes whether or not they really believe them, whether or not they actually correspond to their personal experiences. Bloom’s book might not do complete justice to that waffle: He might too quickly associate what students say to who they are.

The original title of the book was “souls without longing.” Bloom claims that American students have souls that are flat, that are emptied of distinctively human or polymorphously erotic longings. They’re erotically “lame.” That means that they’re curiously unmoved by love and death.

Another big influence on Bloom was the philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, the guy who claimed that history had come to an end and we’ve become just like the other animals again. Sometimes Bloom seems to be making about the same claim.

But if human longing has really disappeared, of course, there would no audience for Bloom’s book—and no audience for liberal education. Bloom must know he’s exaggerating. In my view, he’s exaggerating much more than he thinks. Today’s students, contrary to his claim, remain deeply moved by love and death, no matter what they might say.

Here’s another waffle: Their relativism is moral—or not theoretical. It’s less that students know relativism to be true than they must believe it must be true in the name of equality. They associate egalitarianism with non-judgmentalism.

Someone might say that means that students—as part of our founding myth—believe that “all men are created equal” is true. And relativism becomes a tool in the service of the dogma that unites all Americans.

Jefferson would say that relativism deprives students of the self-evident argument about rights—rooted in our natures as free beings—that proves equality to be true. But, in the students’ view, relativism rightly understood frees us from needing such a deep and questionable grounding for who we are.

There’s a lot more to say: But I hope I’ve given readers some incentive to give Bloom a second (or first) look.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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13 replies to this post
  1. Another observation, based upon a rather close reading of Ravelstein: Bloom as a teacher was a moral monster, hideous in his conviction that he must tear sons away from fathers, and away from God. He actually applauded their relativism, and hoped to create it as a first step toward the imprinting upon their "souls" (what could he possibly mean by this?) a reflection of his own.

  2. John, Strauss rejected all theories and philosophies of history, claiming the highest things remained impossible to understand if one had not rejected the impositions of revealed religion and the historical tradition. He wrote: Plato proved rather explicit in demanding “the indispensable doubt of author or freedom from authority” as a necessary prelude to “the discovery of natural right. In the Republic the discussion of natural right starts long after the aged Cephalus, the father, the head of the house, has left to take care of the sacred offerings to the gods: the absence of Cephalus, or of what he stands for, is indispensable for the quest of natural right." Cephalus, the father, represented, as Strauss understood the Platonic dialogue, tradition and well as religious belief. The dialogue, he continued, forced the men to miss the religious ceremony, thus allowing them to replace it with “the quest for natural rights.” Yours, Brad

  3. Bloom was a very well-read and cultivated man. In that sense he was from the Jacques Barzun and Gilbert Highet generation. He made original translations from the French and Greek (including Plato's Republic). These were great contributions to learning. But Bloom understood some things but seemed indifferent to other things. He always seemed very cold and intellectual to me without any passion for his country or any traditions. You might compare him to Barzun who had many enthusiasms including, for example, America and baseball. Brad you are right that Strauss -and here is a similarity he had with Bloom- believed that tradition and the authority of tradition especially religion were worthless compared to individual skepticism and individual thought. Great reference to the Cephalus incident in Plato. For what it's worth my mother said that if we miss out on church (religious services) we miss out on being more broadly connected to our community and we miss out chances for charity as well as broader associations. And it goes without saying if we are fishing or playing poker or shooting the breeze we are not contemplating God or the mystery of the universe. My mother always said there were seven days in the week and we could or should always find time for God.

  4. Having been a student of Bloom's when the Closing came out, I can say with authority that Bloom was not a "moral monster" as a teacher. To make such an accusation is as humorous as it is groundless.

  5. Here is a perfect expression of why I will no longer acknowledge any response by people who lack the courage, and the basic decency, to use their names. This post asks us to accept the authority of one who was supposedly "there," and who makes an assertion without argument and expects readers to believe what he says. My point was made "based upon a rather close reading of Ravelstein." Did Bellow know Bloom less well than Anonymous? Is it not true that Bloom insisted on his own authority replacing that of the family? Did he allow believing Christians to study with him once he became aware that their faith would not be replaced with "philosophy?" Was his own homosexuality consistent with what most readers take to be the main argument of "Closing?" I would have no difficulty at all engaging a credible response to the point I was trying to make, but to make a pathetic attempt to discredit me with an unsubstantiated and anonymous comment is beneath contempt.

  6. John , I agree with you that to respond without your name is someone disagreeable even cowardly. And you are right that person does not advance his argument one bit. There are times that we might be forced by the machine to be anonymous but we can always identify our remarks parenthetically. Your point based on your close reading of Ravelstein is well taken. Personally I had no idea -when reading his translations- that Bloom was a homosexual. His personal sexual preference did not seem to be an obsession with him. But the larger point -that many professors seek to undermine the faith of their students is almost certainly true. To take just one example: "Gay Marriage". No serious Christian could ever embrace homosexuality as a positive good or "Gay Marriage" as a positive good. Yet the majority of young people, especially university graduates support or tolerate the re-definition of traditional marriage to the point they believe those who support traditional marriage are "bigoted and racist." Such is the triumph of aggressive secular education (propaganda).

  7. Interesting. The point I took home from Closing was that contemporary Liberalism lacks a viable intellectual foundation and that Liberalism and nihilism are synonymous.

    The rest of the book, I view more as hand waving and loosely founded hopes along the lines of "let us have intellectual freedom in the University and we might come up with something better!", perhaps intended to make his rather devastating take on the current order go down easier.

    His atheism is not in contradiction with this view. I view myself as being in the same position – perhaps that´s why I feel as if the book speaks to me.

    A heartfelt, agonized (you might say Nietzschean) atheism is the first step to rebuilding a viable foundation of thought for the west. Only when the false God of Liberalism has been discredited once and for all can we collectively return to faith.

    And as for Mr. Bloom being a "moral monster", "moral cripple" is perhaps a more apt description. Unlike most in the west, he seems to have sensed the severity of his condition.

    /MrV

  8. MrV (that's the start of a name, I guess, and I am feeling charitable), you make a good point in the last two sentences. In even greater charity we may say that there was a large part of Bloom that was striving against "the severity of his condition."

    But "A heartfelt, agonized (you might say Nietzschean) atheism is the first step to rebuilding a viable foundation of thought for the west?" I don't think so. The only people who think that atheists are heroic are the atheists themselves. One does not discredit the eternal "I" of liberalism, with (which is exactly the same) the eternal "I" of atheism.

    Let me offer a specific example. Carlton J.H. Hayes was a convert to Catholicism as an undergraduate at Columbia. When the university which also produced our current President pioneered "The New History" in the teens and the 1920s (which essentially meant adopting the insights from the "social sciences" and turning the profession of historical study towards the progressive and Fabian agenda), Hayes, who was a tolerant and liberal-minded man, was able, with like-minded colleagues, to install an undergraduate curriculum based on the great works of the west. He also, grounded in the Church and in the created order, was able to use the new learning without damage to either his soul or the history profession. His steadiness enabled him to study nationalism, and "a generation of materialism, without resorting to the "Cry Havoc" of the Frankfurt School or the angst of destroying God so that we could rebuild Him in our own image.

    We didn't need a Bloom. We simply needed to read more carefully that which was already available, and with humility.

  9. @John Wilsson

    "MrV (that's the start of a name, I guess, and I am feeling charitable)"

    Anonymity enables me to think freely and without fear of reprisal, and that is something that I value greatly.

    "The only people who think that atheists are heroic are the atheists themselves."

    I made no claim of atheism being "heroic". The point is, on the contrary, that atheism fails as the basis for moral truth. Hence my use of the term "moral cripple", hardly a signifier of heroism.

    Atheism is a trap and an affliction, and one that is now nearly universal. It certainly is in my part of the world – faith is nearly extinct here.

    The problem is that escaping from nihilism is not trivial, and realizing the severity of your condition is the first step towards recovery. Hence the value of Bloom. It´s not as if the book stores are littered with philosophical bestsellers discrediting liberalism, atheism and nihilism.

    /MrV

  10. "Anonymity enables me to think freely and without fear of reprisal, and that is something that I value greatly."

    I too have chosen anonymity, but because I am a hit-man for a variety of Christian humanistic trad conservative websites. But when I think back to Mel Bradford first showing me how to field-strip a Kalashnikov, or Russell Kirk on how to clean the baffles on a silencer (otherwise one only gets off about ten quiet shots), I realize how the occupation has declined. TS Eliot (the best knife-thrower among 20th Century poets) or JRR Tolkien (fearsome with nunchucks) must be turning in their graves. Now my fee for bumping off a guy such as you would scarcely buy a half-clip for my Glock. So feel safe to sign your name; revenge is no longer affordable for any groups apart from Neo-Conservatives.

    S Masty

  11. "I too have chosen anonymity, but because I am a hit-man for a variety of Christian humanistic trad conservative websites."

    Trust me, having TradCon sympathies in my parts is not really good for your (professional) health.

    MrV

  12. By Anonymous (1)(/MrV): “The rest of the book, I view more as hand waving and loosely founded hopes along the lines of “let us have intellectual freedom in the University and we might come up with something better!”, perhaps intended to make his rather devastating take on the current order go down easier.

    His atheism is not in contradiction with this view. I view myself as being in the same position – perhaps that´s why I feel as if the book speaks to me. ”

    After reading the article and thread of comments, I have had to re-read the above. Is /MrV dosclosing that he ia atheist, or only that he is in the same position as Bloom to conclude “let us have intellectual freedom in the University and we might come up with something better!”?

    Disclosue: I am not well enough grounding in my education or reading to fully carry on a conversation about Bloom and the Closing, but I did take it of the shelf from where it has been since 1988 without reading, and read it fully a few months ago. With my limited background, I found it as better-grounded friend described it as being of “fairly high specific gravity.”

    Reading this article and the thread of its comments certainly confirm that I have a lot to learn, but in my ignorance, I have to say that I tend to concur with the comments of /MrV. (I, too, dislike the use of anonymity.)

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