Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” has met with enormous popular, thought not much critical, success. At least four major reviews — by Martha Nussbaum in the “New York Review”, Alexander Nehamas in the “London Review”, George Levine in “Raritan”, and Benjamin Barber in “Harper’s” — have suggested persuasively that Bloom’s understanding of classical thought is deficient, his account of modem intellectual history implausible, and his willingness or ability to argue his opinions, rather than merely announce them, no better than intermittent. In the “Times Literary Supplement”, David Rieff was less polite: “Closing”, he concluded, is “a book decent people would be ashamed of having written.” But inasmuch as half a million Americans have not been ashamed to read, or at any rate buy, Bloom’s book, it seems worth considering why “Closing” has spoken so compellingly, if misleadingly, to so many. Even a mediocre book may ask excellent questions.
“Closing” has two strains: contemporary culture criticism, based largely on Bloom’s observations of college students and including a long maledizione directed at the Sixties; and underlying the first, though at a great distance, a disjointed meditation on the history of political philosophy. The culture criticism, which undoubtedly accounts for most of those half-million buyers, is often shrewd, but just as often glib, even mean-spirited. Occasionally Bloom sounds like Christopher Lasch, who is, surprisingly, not mentioned in “Closing”. But Lasch is a vastly more discriminating (as well as profound and original) critic, incapable of such simplifications as: “The bad conscience they [i.e., the “radicals in the civil rights movement”] promoted killed off the one continuing bit of popular culture that celebrated the national story — the Western” or “All literature up to today is sexist” or “As I have said many times and in many ways, most of the great European novelists and poets of the last two hundred years were men of the Right” or “The July 14 of the sexual revolution was really only a day between the overthrow of the Ancien Regime and the onset of the Terror.” The “Terror” is feminism. My favorite Bloomism: “I cannot forget the Amherst freshman who asked in naive and good-natured bewilderment, ‘Should we go back to sublimation?’ . . . I was charmed by the lad’s candor but could not regard him as a serious candidate for culture.” This is harmless, almost engaging malice; not so amusing are Bloom’s references to “the Nietzscheanization of the American left” during the Sixties, meaning that a new existentialist discourse of “commitment,” “will,” and “values” allegedly displaced the traditional radical language of rights, justice, and equality. To anyone familiar with the theory and practice of participatory democracy within the New Left, or who has read its founding document, the well-known Port Huron Statement, Bloom’s notion is a half-truth, all the more irritating for his condescension to ward so much honest, earnest confusion.
Still, there is much insight and even pathos in Bloom’s characterization of students at elite universities, who often arrive jaded at adolescence, for whom “survivalism has taken the place of heroism as the admired quality,” and who display the early, poignant effects of what Lasch has called “the narcissistic personality of our time.” In particular, “Closing” contains a fine evocation of naiveté as a desirable educational disposition. Bloom points out that the capacity to be transformed by new knowledge is not a constant capacity, automatically triggered by encounters with great books, but is a fleeting and easily aborted developmental stage. Premature exposure to advanced ideas, like too-early exposure to sexual or emotional complexities, may generate defenses against hyperstimulation. The typical form of this defense is a flattening of affect, manifested at present, according to Bloom, in a too-easy tolerance, an unreflective cultural relativism—what he calls “openness” and describes ironically as “our virtue.”
It is not, he acknowledges, that such openness is not valuable, but only when earned by living down one’s prejudices. And prejudices presuppose myths, which enlightened educational theory proscribes. Bloom’s argument about education is parallel—though he seems unaware of it—to a now-familiar psychoanalytic one: just as emotional maturity requires the gradual mastery of illusions about an internalized omnipotent father, so intellectual maturity requires gradual emancipation from inherited political and religious myths. In both cases, eliminating these painful struggles also eliminates the possibility of depth, emotional or imaginative. Bloom’s extrapolation of his observations about education to marriage and family life, contemporary literature, attitudes toward death, and practically every other aspect of present-day American culture is a little indiscriminate, even reckless. But here, too, “Closing” has its moments. For example, concluding a paragraph of otherwise simplistic anti-feminism, Bloom asks: “What substitute is there for the forms of relatedness that are dismantled in the name of the new justice?” It is clear that Bloom himself will be no help whatever in answering this question; yet it is an urgent question, and could hardly be formulated better.
Now, it is not obvious that the argument considered above actually has the conservative political implications generally drawn from it— for Christopher Lasch, among others, the reverse is true. One reason for this political disagreement among cultural conservatives may be methodological: While Lasch provides a subtle, synthetic account of the rise of narcissism and its relation to mature capitalism, dense with historical detail and analytic interconnections, Bloom insists that the source of the cultural relativism he deplores “is not social, political, psychological, or economic, but philosophic.” Bloom himself claims, dubiously, to be not conservative but antipolitical: the root of all contemporary troubles, he contends, is our neglect or misunderstanding of the wisdom of the Greeks. Only they rightly understood “the relationship of the philosopher to the political community”; and this relationship is the really important thing, the alpha and the omega of political theory.
For Plato and Bloom, the ideal form of this relationship is straightforward enough: “Unless philosophers rule as kings, or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, there is no rest from ills for the cities. . . nor, I think, for human kind” (“The Republic”). Since this fortunate or unfortunate condition never has been or will be realized, the responsibility of intellectuals is to look out for themselves:
“The toleration of philosophy requires its being thought to serve powerful elements in society without actually becoming their servant. The philosopher must come to terms with the deepest prejudices of men always, and of the men of his time. The one thing he cannot change and will not try to change is their fear of death and the whole superstructure of beliefs and institutions that make death bearable, ward it off or deny it…Changing the character of his relationship to [other men] is impossible because the disproportion between him and them is firmly rooted in nature…[I]n antiquity all philosophers had the same practical politics, inasmuch as none believed it feasible or salutary to change the relations between rich and poor in a fundamental or permanently progressive way.”
(Closing, 282, 289, italics added)
Neither, it appears (despite much hedging), does Bloom. It would be interesting to know whether Saul Bellow, who wrote an admiring Foreword to “Closing”, and Secretary of Education William Bennett, who has championed the book, also endorse these profoundly illiberal — indeed, downright un-American — sentiments.
Epithets, however richly deserved, are not arguments. To dismiss Bloom out of hand as elitist, authoritarian, antidemocratic, regressive, and a crank would be, in a way, to repeat the error of our noble democratic and modernist forebears, the citizens of fourth-century Athens. Bloom is indeed all those unpleasant things; so was Socrates.* But by making a clever and influential, though specious, case against popular sovereignty, they offer its defenders an opportunity to refine and deepen the case for equality.
By now, if not already by the fourth-century B.C., it is apparent that refinements are necessary. For modernity has not turned out altogether well. To the pioneers of Enlightenment, it appeared that false certainties and artificial hierarchies were the chief obstacles to general happiness. To many the suspicion has by now occurred that there are no true certainties and no natural hierarchies, yet also that individual and social well-being require some certainties, some hierarchies. The rapid increase in mobility and choice, in sheer volume of stimuli, that followed the erosion of traditional ways of life and thought has taxed, and occasionally overwhelmed, nearly every modern man or woman. This no longer seems, even to the most optimistic partisans of modernity, merely a phenomenon of transition. It may be that just as in any generation there are broad limits to physical and intellectual development, so also there are psychological limits, which likewise alter slowly. “Human nature,” in short, though man empirical rather than a metaphysical sense; not eternal and immutable, but with enough continuity — inertia, to be precise — to generate illusions of essence and a need for roots.
Bloom repeatedly invokes Nietzsche, whose lifework was a supremely effective demonstration that humankind — most of us, at any rate — cannot bear very much reality. Like Socrates, Nietzsche believed that only those who could endure complete disillusionment ought to rule. But since, like virtually every other modern thinker, he could not take Socratic/Platonic metaphysics seriously, he assumed that Socrates was motivated by spite, by resentment of aristocratic exuberance, which could dispense both with democratic solidarity and with metaphysical mysticism. To this perennial exuberance of the few, incarnated henceforth in the warrior/artist/statesman/seer, Nietzsche ascribed political sovereignty, warning that self-rule by the unheroic, uninspired many must result in universal mediocrity. “The happiness of the last man” (a prosaic contemporary translation might be “the welfare of the average citizen”) was Nietzsche’s name for the goal of democratic regimes, which entailed social tolerance, rough material equality, and other policies designed to minimize suffering and risk. But though suffering and risk may crush ordinary natures, they stimulate great natures; and the latter alone produce culture, which alone makes life worth living.
Equality or excellence: what now sounds like the stale formulation of educational bureaucrats was an anguished dilemma for Tocqueville, Carlyle, Nietzsche, even John Stuart Mill. If it is now no longer a live question, that is only because belief in equality has triumphed completely in the United States, has become what Bloom would call a democratic dogma, along with our near-reflexive cultural relativism. It is thus open to gadflies to gibe that the question has been buried, not answered. Apart from pointing out that (with a few glorious exceptions, like classical Athens) democracy is a rare and recent experiment, fully entitled to the benefit of doubts like Bloom’s, what can a non-dogmatic democrat reply?
He or she might reply with Shelley that the moral and the aesthetic or theoretical faculties have the same source: “Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. . . A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination....” (“A Defense of Poetry”, I). A passionate democrat, Shelley would have denied the incompatibility, which Bloom assumes, between creativity and happiness as cultural imperatives, between the needs of the philosopher and the needs of the many. In this Shelley was relying on the eighteenth-century doctrine of “sympathy”: that fellow-feeling is innate, grounded (by mechanisms still imperfectly understood) in human physiology. As expounded by Ferguson, Hume, Adam Smith, and others, this doctrine seems to me true and its implications egalitarian.
But suppose Socrates, Nietzsche, and Bloom are right, and the truth about our moral psychology is less benign? Suppose that solidarity does inhibit sublimity? Democrats must face this possibility; fortunately, one of the greatest already has. Around the time Nietzsche was writing “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, throwing down the gauntlet to democratic humanism, Walt Whitman wrote “Democratic Vistas.” which met the challenge:
“America. . . must, for her purposes, cease to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or formed by merely literary standards, or from any ultramarine, full-dress formulas of culture, polish, caste, &c., and must sternly promulgate her own new standard, yet old enough, and accepting the old, the perennial elements, and combining them into groups, unities, appropriate to the modern, the democratic, the west, and to the practical occasions and needs of our own cities, and of the agricultural regions. Ever the most precious in the common.”
The genius or splendor of the few may afford the rest of their society a sense of participation in infinity and immortality. But if the maturation of a people requires the exchange of this vicarious experience for the direct experience by the many of their own, more limited individuality, then such an exchange should — with a proper sense of the genuine loss that maturation always involves — be accepted. Growing up (remember Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: “humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority”) has its compensations. Whitman describes those of democratic society with incomparable verve:
“I can conceive a community, to-day and here, in which, on a sufficient scale, the perfect personalities, without noise, meet; say in some pleasant western settlement or town, where a couple of hundred best men and women, of ordinary worldly status, have by luck been drawn together, with nothing extra of genius or wealth, but virtuous, chaste, industrious, cheerful, resolute, friendly and devout. I can conceive such a community organized in running order, powers judiciously delegated — farming, building, trade, courts, mails, schools, elections, all attended to; and then the rest of life, the main thing, freely branching and blossoming in each individual, and bearing golden fruit. I can see there, in every young and old man, after his kind, and in every woman after hers, a true personality, develop’d, exercised proportionately in body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine this case as one not necessarily rare or difficult, but in buoyant accordance with the municipal and general requirements of our times. And I can realize in it the culmination of something better than any stereotyped eclat of history or poems. Perhaps, unsung, undramatized, unput in essays or biographies — perhaps even some such community already exists, in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or somewhere, practically fulfilling itself, and thus outvying, in cheapest vulgar life, all that has been hitherto shown in best ideal pictures.”
And in an essay written shortly before the appearance of Bloom’s book, a contemporary democrat with a sensibility that could hardly be more different from Whitman’s, the incomparably subtle Richard Rorty, dotted the last i and crossed the last t:
“From Plato through Kant down to [Habermas and Derrida], most philosophers have tried to fuse sublimity and decency, to fuse social hope with knowledge of something big…My own hunch is that we have to separate individual and social reassurance, and make both sublimity and agape (though not tolerance) a private, optional matter. That means conceding to Nietzsche that democratic societies have no higher aim than what he called “the last men” — the people who have “their little pleasures for the day and their little pleasures for the night.” But maybe we should just make that concession, and also concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by “rationality”). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it in their own time, and within the limits set by “On Liberty”. But such opportunities might be quite enough.”
Plato is a peerless philosopher-poet. But Whitman is a better poet, Rorty a better philosopher; and their efforts, seconding and supplementing each other (which is a fitting relation for democratic thinkers) can help emancipate the rest of us from Plato’s and Bloom’s radical doubts about our capacity for autonomy and solidarity. Bloom would “open” a few American minds by chilling a great many American hearts. Unfortunately, a great many Americans, including some very influential ones, appear to be tempted by this proposition. That is a reminder — and here is the chief value of Bloom’s book — that democracy really is still an experiment.
* For the sorry truth about Socrates, see I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (Little, Brown, 1988)