The Opening of Americans' Eyes
The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, New York: Simon and Schuster, 432 pages, $18.95
Admittedly, it is not an event that ranks in publication history with the day in 1455 that Johann Gutenberg pulled the first sheets of the Mazarin Bible off his press. Nor do the numbers quite equal those compiled by Gone With the Wind, the rendition of an earlier American tragedy. Nonetheless, against all expectations Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students has swept through the mass market to become the publishing event of 1987.
As I write, it is perched atop the New York Times bestseller list, where it has comfortably resided for 23 weeks. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold—Simon and Schuster told me that the precise number is "classified information"!—newspapers have printed lengthy excerpts, and TV talk shows more accustomed to sensitive explorations of eating disorders and the plight of celibate clerics turn their attention to the state of the American mind. If nothing else, Bloom's brew is a cultural phenomenon of the first rank. It is, however, considerably more than that. The Closing of the American Mind offers a diagnosis of current maladies that is meticulously grounded in 25 centuries of the Western intellectual tradition. It is both polemically cutting and reflectively articulate. It is popular philosophy in the best sense of that term.
But philosophy does not sell—at least not in America. So commentators adamantly resist accepting the work on its own terms. Instead, it is treated as a political broadside. From the left Bloom is excoriated as a still-cranky-from-the-'60s crony of nefarious Education Secretary William Bennett, from the right as a revealer of the rot that liberalism has wrought. Once pigeonholed, the book can comfortably be accommodated in conventional terms.
Although this represents monumental confusion, I suspect that it appeals to Bloom's keen ironic sense. Quite unwittingly, the pundits have provided striking confirmation of his indictment of the American mind. It is simply unfathomable to them that someone may be primarily motivated by a passion to uncover what is true and thus valuable; rather, it must be direct and primitive advantage that is sought. What possible reason could one have to invoke Plato if not to further the causes of the Republican Party?
Like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, Bloom's critics have perceived a shadow and proclaim it to be real. The Closing of the American Mind is indeed a deeply conservative document, but it is a conservatism distant from that of the Reagan White House. There exists, Bloom reminds us, a tradition of inquiry born and brought to a wondrous vitality in Athens, nurtured through inhospitable environments by such successors to Socrates as St. Thomas, al Farabi, and Maimonides, and consigned by them to the safekeeping of the moderns, in whose hands it has not fared well.
Here is how the story proceeds: The ancients had failed to secure for civil society a rational basis, failed to release it from childlike dependence on myth and putative revelation. The "new political science" of Machiavelli and Hobbes claimed success where their philosophic predecessors had faltered, and the era that would spread the new, scientific gospel to the world confidently named itself the "Enlightenment." That confidence proved, however, to have been misplaced. The first decisive blow to the pretensions of the moderns was struck by Rousseau, and not even the ministrations of Kant and Goethe sufficed to restore to the Enlightenment project its earlier luster. The emptiness at its heart is perceived by Max Weber, Nietzsche delivers the killing thrust, and the obituary is intoned by Heidegger.
As Bloom tells it, not until the curtain has come down in Europe does America appear on stage. During the 1930s, the great wave of intellectual refugees from Hitler brought to the American university the legacy of the last great philosophers. Like the Indians who lacked antibodies against syphilis strains brought from the Old World and so were decimated by it, the American universities found themselves unable to offer any resistance to the German infusion. The result has been nothing short of disastrous. Campus paroxysms of the 1960s demonstrated that the university was no longer about anything that could open the minds of America's young. Instead, it churns out football players and MBAs. Only a recovery of the tradition of the philosophers (Bloom is not sanguine) can feed anorexic souls.
Why, though, should the classic works matter so much? Bloom's answer is that they are the repository of the human quest to uncover a world order that is natural, not merely the contrivance of artifice, and to see it whole. Within that order, human beings too are conceived to have a nature, and it determines for them which sorts of lives are worthy of pursuit and which are base. Examination, as practiced by Socrates in the Athenian agora, represents the highest in man because it is fueled by attention to that which is in itself good. The successors of Socrates do not speak in a unified voice as to what that good is, and indeed, like Socrates himself they may profess ignorance concerning its contours. They are, however, united in believing that there does exist a better and a worse for man, that reason is the distinctively human tool by means of which that discrimination is to be made, that people can be either correct or mistaken in the gods to which they swear allegiance, and that which they are matters a great deal.
All that, says Bloom, has changed in the past three and a half centuries—and not for the better. Only the natural sciences still conceive of their job as the elucidation of an objective natural order, but it is a nature from which all that is distinctively human has been expelled. The obverse side of our intellectual fragmentation is the expulsion of nature from human studies. For Hobbes, nature becomes not that which is to be sought but rather evaded. The state of nature is the state of war, overcome only if the fear of violent death spurs individuals to set aside vain quests for honor and self-transcendence.
Similarly, John Locke depicts the rational man as one who tidily conserves and expands his endowment of property rather than engage in wealth-squandering quixotic escapades. The utilitarian masters teach that there neither is nor can be any good other than the satisfaction of desire, whatever the object of desire may be. Achilles and Oedipus would have demurred, but Freud reduced the heroic stature they sought to repressed libidinal energies. And today in our schools earnest holders of education degrees assist their students in performing "values clarification" exercises but would never dream of suggesting to their charges the need to inquire into which of these values is truly worth valuing.
This is the failed vestige of the Enlightenment project. It is a failure because, as Weber and Nietzsche recognized a century ago, there is a part of the human psyche that is not satisfied to perform a dreary accountancy over transient desires that aim at nothing other than their own satisfaction. Human beings, and especially the young, have an appetite for enterprises bigger than they are themselves, but there is nowhere in the contemporary university where that appetite is encouraged and fed. Instead, students encounter a relativism whose only absolute value is to recognize no values as absolute, and a maze of blinkered specializations that stand as way-stations between high school and professional training.
So, when the campuses erupted in the '60s and trashing deans' offices and brandishing guns became the definitive badge of authenticity, the universities supinely acceded to their own dismemberment because they possessed no alternative standard of moral excellence with which to fend off snarling 19-year-olds who professed to see through the hypocrisy of their elders, the global wickedness of racist America, and the irrelevance of the curriculum. Yet even this had been anticipated by the great thinkers: Heidegger's Rector's Address announced that moral vitality was not to be sought in an external natural order but rather in the mass will of the nation's young. And so, from a privileged vantage atop two millennia of philosophical investigation, he welcomed National Socialism.
Today the universities are for the most part calm, but that, suggests Bloom, is because there is so little life left in them. Is there an antidote? Perhaps, but it is not one that the temper of the contemporary university is likely to embrace. He maintains that the best chance to restore what modernity has squandered lies in a return to the classical concern with the great questions. And that requires a return to the g classics themselves, to the "Great Books." This is, of course, a profoundly conservative stance. A wide gulf separates it, however, from the dogmatic conservatism of the nativist right that professes a wisdom entirely innocent of any prior disciplined inquiry. It was, after all, a conservative impulse to shield the city and its gods from philosophical scrutiny that generated the trial and execution of Socrates. Bloom does not maintain that the answers to all that is wrong in 1980s America is stored up in a few Great Books; what they do provide, however, are the appropriate questions.
Careful readers of The Closing of the American Mind will have their own questions. Allan Bloom tells an important story, and he tells it superlatively well. But is it true? Plato recognized that the poets weave fables that captivate the young, but the poets need not tell the truth in order to exercise that power. So they were to be expelled from the Republic. It is not entirely clear whether Bloom is ultimately to be placed with Socrates or with the poets. Not all that he claims rings true.
For example, his account of the decline of the tradition is, from 1700 on, almost entirely a Continental tale. David Hume and the logical empiricism he fathers is conspicuous by its absence. (The book contains one scant mention of Hume but several pages devoted to Mick Jagger!) But surely the influence within the universities of Humean empiricism is no small thing, is fully comparable to that of the German romantics who populate so many of Bloom's pages. Similarly, he gives short shrift to modern thinkers such as J.S. Mill who attempt to combine liberal tolerance with the recognition of an objective good. And in his rendition, the abandonment of the classical conception of a prescriptive nature is made to appear something of a fit of pique by willful usurpers of the tradition, a sort of Mephistophelean venting of pride, rather than a movement that itself has deep and well-considered philosophical roots.
These items are not merely dry scholarly minutiae; they are central to the plot Bloom develops. The telling of the story could hardly have been better—as hundreds of thousands of American book buyers attest—but the question remains: is it to be believed?
That question too is philosophical, philosophical in just the same sense that the tradition Bloom catalogs is. Philosophy, though, is a discipline to which the talk show hosts and newspaper columnists are, to put it mildly, not inclined. Prospective readers should not be dissuaded by their tendentious bromides. The Closing of the American Mind deserves reflective consideration and criticism by those whose minds are not vestigial organs.
Loren Lomasky teaches philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and is the author of Persons and Rights (Oxford University Press).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Opening of Americans' Eyes".