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
In the Greek father of philosophy, and particularly in The Republic, Strauss and Bloom found something that few others saw: irony. While Karl Popper, in his The Open Society and Its Enemies, passionately attacked Plato’s vision of a society governed imperially by philosopher-kings as a nightmarish landscape of oppression and lies, Strauss and Bloom read the whole famous segment, sometimes referred to as “the just city in speech,” as having been written with a wink and a nod. What Plato really meant, they argued, was not to offer an actual blueprint for an actual society governed by philosophers. What he meant was to offer a sort of thought exercise for the young men sitting and learning at Socrates’ feet, forcing them to consider the wild utopian propositions their master was espousing.
From this difference, seemingly minute, entire worldviews unfurled. To Popper, Plato was power-mad: Having abandoned the benign teachings of his master, Socrates, he drifted away from the liberalism of Athenian democracy. It is only a return to such liberalism, Popper argued, to the open society and its democratic institutions, that could guarantee peace and progress.
It might be sidling a bit too close to the historicism Popper hated so much to suggest that such an idea might owe something to its originator hailing from an Austrian Jewish family that converted to Lutheranism before his birth. And it might be a bit too simplistic to suggest that such a background could fit snugly with the philosopher’s assertions that history is never governed by knowable patterns and has no determinate end, and that to think so is the philosophical underpinning of totalitarianism. In other words, and put simply, Popper rejected historicism because historicism rejected the possibility of change.
Strauss, born to an Orthodox Jewish Prussian family, had a similar disdain for historicism, but none of Popper’s belief in the inevitable beneficence of progress. Whereas one read Plato and took it to be an invitation to political reform, the other walked away from the same text with a heightened sense of vigilance. Summing up Strauss’ views of another book, Xenophon’s Hiero, the historian Mark Lilla captured the core idea neatly. To Strauss, he wrote, “Philosophy must always be aware of the dangers of tyranny, as a threat to both political decency and the philosophical life. It must understand enough about politics to defend its own autonomy, without falling into the error of thinking that philosophy can shape the political world according to its own lights.”
What, then, is a political philosopher to do if he sees his role as primarily that of a sentinel? The Princeton professor of philosophy Alexander Nehamas, in a fierce critique of Closing in the London Review of Books, argued that Bloom’s solution consisted of little but bowing before power. “Bloom,” he wrote, “considers that the great classical philosophers were aristocratic for two reasons. First, because they believed that reason, to which only philosophers are truly devoted, should rule, and second, because, realizing that philosophers would never rule, they allied themselves with the wealthy, since ‘such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it. Most simply, they have the money for an education and the time to take it seriously.’ ”
Such quotes, taken from Closing, don’t make it easy to defend Allan Bloom against the charges of elitism. Nor did his love for life’s finer things: Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s last and in some ways his finest novel, is a thinly veiled portrait of the author’s friendship with Bloom. “Ravelstein is large, flamboyant, and excessively clumsy,” the critic James Wood wrote in a review of the novel. “He loves fine clothes, Lanvin jackets, Zegna ties, but tends to spill food on them. Hostesses know to put newspaper underneath Ravelstein’s chair at a dinner party. At home, he wanders around in an exquisite silk dressing-gown, chain-smoking. His apartment is stuffed with beautiful glass and silverware, with the finest Italian and French linens, and thousands of CDs. He reclines on a black leather couch, listening to Baroque music, is enormously learned, and given to oration on a thousand subjects. … By all accounts, including Bellow’s, this is Allan Bloom as his friends knew him.”
It’s tempting to portray Bloom as the child of petit bourgeois parents who did his best to mask his common stock by claiming his place—in demeanor and thought alike—among the timeless aristocrats of philosophy. But that would be an unfair judgment, and one that would entirely miss the point of the man and his work.
Bloom was never interested in, nor ever a part of, the impoverished political spectrum that runs from democracy and equality to imperialism and control. Bloom believed in a higher order of living, a living that, like those University of Chicago buildings, is evidently dedicated to a higher purpose. He realized that a text was always a teacher, and that a wise man always a contemporary, no matter what the particular historical circumstances that shaped either one. Which, really, is to say that Allan Bloom was profoundly Jewish, a perennial outsider who, as Bellow once said in an interview, “inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air.” He understood that men interested predominantly in ideas would never take charge of the course of human events, and therefore settled for the secondary, yet not less important, task of cultivating wisdom.
Such a task, by definition, isn’t for everyone, and Bloom was always comfortable speaking of the few and the capable who would continue to tend to humanity’s garden while the rest of the species debased itself with vulgarities. For this, he was called an elitist. But his understanding of his special mission had very little of the exclusionary in it. Just like the Jewish idea of chosenness—a complicated notion all too easy to mistake for chauvinism—Bloom’s idea of culture revolved around a commitment to learning and a negation of prejudice. It required the charming naiveté of approaching every text without any preordained intellectual frameworks, asking only, as Socrates would, whether it is good or bad, needful or harmful. When we do that, Bloom believed, boundaries collapse.
He wasn’t alone in his faith. After an hour or so on the podium at Harvard, alternating between allusions to ancient Greeks and barbs at contemporaries, he was winding down. His hands once again grasping the podium, he delivered a lengthy quote by W.E.B. Du Bois.
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk. “Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”
That’s where Allan Bloom dwelled, too. And we owe it to him to remember him that way.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The skilled Israeli painter, a Holocaust survivor who died two years ago, has a major gallery show in New York. Plus: an interview with his daughter.