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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

Liel Leibovitz
April 11, 2012
(Collage Tablet Magazine.)
(Collage Tablet Magazine.)

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.

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.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.