Re-Opening the American Mind
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind remains as important as ever, and as misunderstood, 25 years after the 1980s culture wars
The man who took the stage looked like he’d stepped out of the darkness and into some great light.
In part, that’s a physical description of Allan Bloom one evening in the winter of 1988 at Harvard. No sooner had Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government and the event’s moderator, concluded his introduction than Bloom awkwardly squeezed his way past Mansfield, seized the podium with both hands, as if to regain his balance, stood there for a moment with his shoulders hunched, fumbled for his glasses, peered at his papers, squinted, and, finally, lifted his eyes to the audience and delivered his first words. “Fellow elitists,” he greeted a room packed with students and faculty. They hooted and applauded wildly.
It was just the sort of performance they had come that evening hoping to see. There were other celebrated intellectuals on the panel, but none was more notorious than the bald, bespectacled University of Chicago professor who, less than a year before, had written The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that contemporary universities were failing students by plying them with relativism and historicism rather than feeding them the true manna of civilization, the Great Books. He had published it with difficulty. It took a promise of an introduction by Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow to convince Simon and Schuster to pay even a humble advance of $10,000 to an academic known primarily as a translator of Plato and Rousseau.
But obscurity never bothered Allan Bloom. “Bloom,” Mansfield said in his wry introduction, “has always behaved as if he were famous. And now that he actually is famous, you’ll see that fame hasn’t spoiled him a bit.” It hasn’t. He inhabited the Harvard stage the same way he had his own seminars: gentle and jovial, but so intense that, as one of his former students recalled, “there were moments of tension in the seminar when he would smoke the lighted end of a cigarette.” A minute or two after beginning his talk, the intensity and the humor were both on full display.
“I was suspect as an enemy of our democratic regime,” he said of the reaction to his book. “And the first and loudest voices in this chorus came from the Ivy League, particularly from those with some connection to Harvard—to the point where I thought of the old joke about the farmer who hears a thief in the chicken coop. Substituting the Harvard Coop, I imagined myself yelling, ‘Who’s in there?’ and getting the answer, ‘There’s nobody in here but us anti-elitists.’ ”
The bravado hid a far more serious vein. Those who accused him of elitism, Bloom argued, were getting it all wrong. He wasn’t a cranky conservative—a “grumpy guru,” as James Atlas dubbed him—who bemoaned the infiltration of alternative points of view into an ivory tower that had been, for the most part, a cozy bastion of privilege and patriarchy. In lecture as in book, Bloom promoted a far more radical idea: The main conflict of our time isn’t between Western dominant culture and its others, but between culture and civilization, two opposing concepts, one pointing the way to moral and intellectual decay and the other to the sound and everlasting paths previously trodden by our greatest philosophers.
The decades haven’t made Bloom’s argument any easier to follow. The same terms that dominated the conversation about his landmark book—ethnocentrism on the one hand, relativism on the other—dominate still. The same thinkers and disciplines that infuriated Bloom—Heidegger, deconstruction—still occupy the minds and the curricula of graduate students in the humanities. Roughly speaking, we still understand our moral and political choice as being between open-minded liberalism—which we understand to hold that all creeds were created equal, all cultures similarly rich and bountiful in meaning, and all people at once irreplaceably unique and, under democracy’s bright sun, equal and interchangeable—and conservatism—which we understand to hold that we Westerners are inherently more advanced, our culture more sophisticated and storied, and our way of life unquestionably true.
To Bloom, such a dichotomy was not only false but oppressive. Publicly, he was entertained by critical proclamations that berated him, like the memorable one, by David Rieff, that Closing was a morally corrupt book that “decent people would be ashamed of having written.” But listening to Bloom that night in Cambridge, and reading his book closely, you couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of profound sadness. The discussion, he lamented, had become about whether we should discard the classics for having been written by dead, white men, or preserve them as the pillars of a particular culture we revere. To Bloom, there was a third way, and it was much more attentive and instinctive: The great books matter simply because they matter, and we continue to seek them out not in order to reaffirm or reevaluate our own standing in the world—a myopic view based on understanding the progress of mankind as an ongoing power struggle—but because they remain instrumental.
“Nietzsche,” Bloom said toward the conclusion of his Harvard talk, “did not seek out Socrates because he was part of the classical canon German boys learned in school. He did so in spite of that fact. Socrates was necessary to him as the profoundest statement of what philosophy is and as the worthiest of rivals. Machiavelli was impelled by real need, not by conformism, when he sought out Xenophon.”
And Bloom was impelled by real need when he sought out Plato. He was 15 when the possibility of an intellectual life first occurred to him, reflected back from the pages of a Readers’ Digest article about the University of Chicago. “I had never before seen,” he wrote in Closing, “or at least had not noticed, buildings that were evidently dedicated to a higher purpose, not to necessity or utility, not merely to shelter or manufacture or trade, but to something that might be an end in itself.” He asked his parents if he could one day attend; the university, after all, wasn’t too far from the Bloom home in Indianapolis. His parents, social workers with a strong sense of the practical, dismissed the whole idea out of hand. It wasn’t until several years later, when they moved to Chicago and met wealthier Jews and realized that education could pave the path to a comfortable life, that they allowed Allan to register.
At the university, amid fake gothic buildings, Bloom met Leo Strauss, the immensely influential conservative thinker. Many of the teacher’s philosophical preoccupations soon became the student’s—Heidegger, Nietzsche, Locke—but none more wholly present than Plato.
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