“The discussion is concerned with no commonplace
subject but with how one ought to live.”
During the month of June, Allan Bloom’s observations on the state of American education climbed their way dramatically toward the peak of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Why would such a book engage a mass readership? Bloom’s prose is neither light nor graceful, and his horror stories about the counterculture are certainly not fresh. These stories thematically overlap with Midge Decter’s Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975), in which Decter told of adolescents and young adults from permissive or experimenting homes who complicated their lives in quest of self-actualization.
The people described by Decter do correspond to types that Bloom (like myself) may have encountered as a professor, but it is hard to see why his reminiscences about burnt-out kids and their swinging parents should occasion such ecstatic approval from The New Republic, Commentary, Insight, The Nation, the Washington Post, and National Review.
Bloom never lets us forget that he was a student of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and had taken from this master a world view as well as a way of reading texts. The ancients, Plato and Aristotle, are praised for talking about virtue and truth—although it is never clear whether Bloom believes in either. He does argue that the most important contribution of classical philosophy was to have raised critical questions about the nature and ends of Man, whereas modern thought generally treats such questions as irrelevant. By a series of descents (what Straussians call “crises”), the Western world moved from classical morality through the scientific materialism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, down to the outright nihilism of the Nazis. “Value-free” social science, existentialism, and popular culture are all seen as symptomatic of the worsening crises that have engulfed Western culture even now in rebellion against classical thought.
This Straussian picture of gloomy and progressive decadence evoked by Bloom is broken by one ray of light. Though John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau are classified as modernists, disciples of Leo Strauss see one or the other as a virtuous pagan. Locke is praised as the Father of the American (democratic secularist) regime, while Rousseau is admired for combining a democratic and contractual understanding of government with a civic religion of sentiment. Most Straussians, including Bloom, try to incorporate one or the other into their pantheon of preferred sages. Despite their materialist views of human nature, either Locke or Rousseau is held up as a proponent of democratic—and therefore good—modernity. Straussians divide between the partisans of Locke and Rousseau, but Bloom transcends this difference by speaking well of both.
To his credit, he has used arcane Straussian concepts to produce a popular work of cultural criticism. While the Straussian scaffolding creaks occasionally, the tirades against rock music, mischievous Teutons, and sensual excess give the work a lighter (even voyeuristic) quality. It has paid off. An in-depth study of Bloom in the June 19, 1987, issue of the Washington Post depicts him as an international celebrity. Flying to dinner with the Mayor of Jerusalem and hobnobbing with academic leaders in France, Israel, and the United States, the author of The Closing of the American Mind seems to be less an ivy-tower scholar than someone with connections.
One self-described right-wing populist assured me that Bloom “is agin the counterculture.” I’m not sure he unequivocally is—or that his book would be selling so well if he were. For all his unhappiness with student manners, Bloom is no ally of middle-class values or of our commercial Protestant past as a nation. In a revealing attempt to explain European “revolutionaries who accepted our ideals of freedom and equality” but were (and still are) appalled by our unequal distribution of property. Bloom alludes to the efforts of our “domesticated churches in America” to preserve “the superstition of Christianity, [the] overcoming of which was perhaps the key to liberating man.” He offers, by contrast, no detailed presentation of the views of the “disinherited of the ancien regime.” When antirevolutionary ideas are given at all, they are described as “special pleading” and linked to the genealogy of Nazism. But there is one side of the American heritage that Bloom finds congenial: “Our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them [that] are rational and everywhere applicable.” Bloom notes approvingly that the United States fought the Second World War “as an educational project to extend them.”
His view of the American past is highly selective and has no place for either Puritan oligarchs or Southern gentry. Bloom is at bottom a welfare state Whig who welcomes the spread of modern progressive ideals as the actualization of both American and European revolutionary movements. At the same time, he laments the degradation of his ideals in the form of undisciplined students, jarring popular music, and falling educational standards.
There is a paradoxical, even contradictory, tone to his argument, which moves back and forth between praising and damning democracy, skepticism, the Enlightenment, and bourgeois attitudes. Bloom wants an orderly and prosperous society that supports philosophers in their academic redoubts. Significantly, he defines philosophy as “the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual reason” and repeatedly suggests that philosophy must challenge inherited ancestral truths. Never mind, he also tells us, that “concreteness, not abstractness, is the hallmark of philosophy.” Like Walt Whitman, Bloom appears to revel in contradiction: In one passage we are told, “The most important function of the university in an age of reason is to protect reason from itself, by being the model of true openness,” but elsewhere are warned, “In a democracy the university protects the life of reason by opposing the emergent [sic], the changing, and the ephemeral.” In the process, the university fights dogmatism. Its job, then, is to oppose “dogmatism” and support individual speculation—while resisting changing views. Through such resistance (assuming that universities can judge in advance what ideas will be ephemeral), academics uphold the “model of true openness.”
One reason for such bizarre reasoning is the pervasive Teutonophobia, which is apparent in his revulsion for the social sciences and most other 19th-century German academic inventions. Bloom scorns any systematic attempt to understand social phenomena that proceeds from data and methodological criteria. He denounces Max Weber, a creator of social science, as a “dogmatic atheist and nihilistic precursor of Nazism, without demonstrating either. Of course it was Weber and other 19th-century German professors who established professional standards of scholarship in the social sciences. They would no doubt have frowned on Bloom’s concept of the university as a place where one man’s speculative reason is made to exclude someone else’s—in the name of openness and fighting dogmatism.
A colleague of Bloom’s has observed that his true educational agenda is to replace modern scientific thinking with classical ideals. That much is true. Bloom does have reservations about scientific thinking; it is also clear that he has no intention of returning to the past, defined as the world before the 1950’s. He stresses the connection between scientific materialism and liberal democracy; and while he deplores the nihilistic thrust of “absolute science,” he is for democracy and the secular, demystified world to which he finds it related.
Bloom likes what he identifies with the left, rationalism, the Enlightenment, liberal (and even social) democracy. Regrettably, however, the progress of his side has led not to a high civilization but to dirty, drug-infested adolescents and to promiscuous and confused adults. Bloom must encounter these decadents even at the University of Chicago. He is properly alarmed that the new barbarians are threatening the university he once knew. Unfortunately, Bloom can never quite bring himself to recognize the close ties between his religion of democracy cum philosophical skepticism and the cultural trends he deplores.
In one particularly ill-reasoned section, he tries to link the student radicalism of the 1960’s to the German historicism of the early 19th century. He then goes on to rail against Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger as enemies of the “universality of the Enlightenment.” In the past, Marxists (most prominently from George Lukacs in The Destruction of Reason) have attacked opponents of 18th-century rationalism, but Bloom is the first (to my knowledge) to blame critics of the Enlightenment for the New Left as well as for Nazism. The hypothetical link between Romantic conservatives and Nietzsche, on the one side, and the Chicago Seven, on the other, is variously presented as antirationalism, value-relativity, and cultural primitivism.
The link is never convincingly established. Bloom argues without proving that behind our social ills are disagreeable reactionaries who flouted equality and social progress and who even, in some cases, defended the self-assertively heroic. These villains produced not only Auschwitz but also the student riots of the 60’s and the rock culture of the 70′”s and 80’s. Essential to modern cultural debasement, as viewed by Bloom, was the preaching of historical particularity and a will-centered ethic, which originated in 19th-century Germany. In one dramatic leap. Bloom goes from Nietzsche’s (reasonable) assertion that Plato thought as a Greek, not as a German, to value-relativity and to new leftist self-determination. (Among other things. Bloom does violence to Nietzsche’s brief against Socrates and Plato. In ø Nietzsche rejects Socratic inquiry not as un-German but as inconsistent with the tragic genius of the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche believed that Richard Wagner was reviving that Greek genius through music drama.)
Bloom’s polemic against German thought partly coincides with that of another troubled defender of the Enlightenment, Herbert Marcuse. As his student, I was struck by Marcuse’s tenacious and sometimes frenetic attempt to uphold the revolutionary heritage. This heritage went from the French Enlightenment and Jean Jacques Rousseau through an essentially rationalist Hegel down to what Marcuse thought was the critical, speculative spirit that he himself represented. Though Marcuse and Bloom would have disagreed on contemporary politics, they would have agreed about the goodness of Rousseau’s ethic of sentiment and about the universal applicability of equality. Moreover, most of Bloom’s tirade against Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Romantic conservatives, particularly the linking of Max Weber’s will-centered thought to Hitlerism, was heard almost verbatim in Marcuse’s graduate seminars at Brandeis and Yale. Unlike Bloom, Marcuse helped midwife the New Left. But also unlike Bloom, he did not attempt to attach a rightist legacy of ideas to what was clearly a leftist movement of the 1960’s.
For all their faults. Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger faced the consequences of a disenchanted-rationalist society. If none of them offered usable alternatives to the erosion of community and ethics, they knew that democratic equality, acquisitive individualism, and academic skepticism (even if presented as philosophy) would not produce socially virtuous men. Nor will getting students to read “great books” make them civilized, unless, as Alasdair MacIntyre teaches, a living civilization embodies and reenforces the values of its artists and thinkers.
Unlike Heidegger and Weber, Bloom does not take our decadence seriously enough. He is still mostly concerned about getting the students to sit up straight and to stop taking drugs—at least while he has to deal with them. He is also obsessively and perhaps self-interestedly worried about the university, which is only a small part of a much larger battle for civilization. Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Nisbet have both made attempts to relate our “cultural rot” to the breakdown of ancestral custom and social continuity. Nisbet in particular has
been struck (no less than Max Weber) by the inevitable relationship between communal disintegration and an unrestricted managerial state. Unlike traditional states which focus on “the political,” the managerial state seeks to reconstruct social relations and has become the agent of embattled reformers.
None of these counterrevolutionary ideas may appeal to Bloom and his admirers, but they do explain more about our social problems than do his attacks on the critics of the Enlightenment. As a young professor in the late 60’s, I heard radical students appealing to Rousseauistic compassion in the name of the suffering Just. Many of the same radicals proposed their own “educational projects” to extend democratic equality throughout all levels of American society. What I honestly never heard from a student radical was praise of tragic fatalism, or calls for a neo-medieval hierarchy. Perhaps things were different at Chicago!
[The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom; New York: Simon and Schuster]