Whatever passes for conservative thought in the American academy usually passes through the influence of Leo Strauss. In his teaching, the political philosopher combined an outward respect for liberal democracy with concern that this regime neutralizes the higher types of human beings, those capable of free thinking. Strauss, however, developed his ideas in an elliptical fashion meant to evoke the kind of thought he held to be the privilege of this type.
Out of the Straussian fold sometimes emerge singular thinkers who galvanize public opinion. One was Strauss’ student Allan Bloom, who in the 1980s transformed himself from a translator of Plato into a bestselling culture warrior with his book The Closing of the American Mind. Its success proved the truth of the Straussian insight that texts address multiple audiences, and that their perceptive readers are a small minority.
On the surface, Bloom offered Reagan’s America a defense of the literary canon and old-fashioned morality against the “relativism” of the post-’60s left. But perspicacious readers—including Bloom’s former student, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick—would notice he argued that the true pedagogue awakens intelligent young men to free thinking by inculcating contempt for democracy and mass culture, and that this awakening includes a (homo)erotic element. Closing of the American Mind was misrecognized by ordinary readers in something of the way that the Village People’s ode to gay cruising, “YMCA,” became the anthem of dorky straight people at sporting events. For all the absurdity of this situation, however, Bloom’s bestseller served a philosophical aim, directing a minority of readers to his studies of Plato’s Republic and Symposium, which are pinnacles of philosophical and political insight.
Bloom might have remained an isolated monument of reactionary homoeroticism, but our era has its own Closing of the American Mind and its own Bloom: Bronze Age Mindset and Costin Alamariu, who is widely understood to have been its author. Bronze Age Mindset, a campy, fascistic “exhortation” written half in internet slang, has by now been reviewed by every would-be intellectual trying to demonstrate his daring proximity to the limits of acceptable opinion. Alamariu, however, is no basement-dwelling “incel,” as some of his sneering critics would have it. He is an Ivy-educated political philosopher, trained in the Straussian tradition. His doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Tyranny and Philosophy in Plato and Nietzsche, deserves recognition as one of the most lucid reformulations Strauss’ teaching, and most bracing revivals of Bloom’s practice.
Alamariu lays out with great clarity what he takes to be Strauss’ views. Strauss, he argues, held that Plato took from Athens’ execution of Socrates the lesson that political life—perhaps particularly in a democracy—threatens philosophy, i.e., the free exercise of reason in search of truth. Because truly thinking people challenge convention, they appear wicked to their less-intelligent neighbors, who persecute them. A society, like that of classical Athens, in which public opinion finds ready expression in law, requires such thinkers to disguise themselves. To evade persecution, or perhaps even to rule the beguiled multitude, Plato secretly enjoined philosophers to wear a mask of virtue, conforming in appearance with—but quietly influencing—their neighbor’s beliefs.
Alamariu deserves credit for divining, and insisting upon, this aspect of Strauss’ thought—that Strauss was only a friend to our liberal democracy in an ironic, unstraightforward way, and that his praise or blame of our regime and its enemies must be interpreted with great hermeneutic finesse. Alamariu is a careful, thoughtful exegete—when it suits him to be. For this reason the superficial crudeness, even stupidity, of Bronze Age Mindset and Alamariu’s persona on Twitter (@bronzeagemantis), appear as a strategic dumbing-down of certain of the points made in his dissertation, as a tactic for generating interest in his work, or as a means of acting, in a peculiar fashion, on another, non-philosophical audience. In fact, his dissertation outlines, quite openly, the rationale for such an approach, which shows Alamariu to be a rogue disciple of Bloom.
Like many closeted gay men, and indeed many uncloseted ones, Bloom seems to have enjoyed little more than speculating on who else was secretly gay. As his friend Saul Bellow reports in Ravelstein, his novelized version of Bloom’s last days, the philosopher spent much of their conversations speculating about the sexuality of his students—and thus, potentially, their sexual availability. He had a passion for bringing young male minds to philosophy and young male bodies to his bed. Indeed, Closing of the American Mind and Bloom’s final essay in his less-read but far more brilliant Love and Friendship are semi-clandestine justifications for a postmodern version of the original “Socratic method” of combining erotic and intellectual approaches to pedagogy.
Recognizing kindred spirits was the core of Bloom’s pedagogy, and not only in the sexual sense. Bloom inherited from his mentor Leo Strauss a vision of teaching and writing that aimed at separating a handful of potential philosophers who could be awakened into original thinking from the vulgar mass of ordinary mortals. There was a gradation of human types, with people like themselves at the top; the primary purpose of education, as of eros, is of finding one’s type.
This was true not only in the libidinally charged space of the classroom, but also in the public sphere, where Bloom, through his bestselling Closing of the American Mind, could address two audiences. On the one hand were the conservative masses willing to pay for Bloom’s diatribes against the Rolling Stones, blue jeans, and oral sex, and his defense of traditional liberal arts education; on the other were the unbelieving few who, seeing through his moralizing bromides, could detect the transgressive sexual and intellectual exhortation at the heart of his teaching. The latter types would learn, ideally, not only this teaching, but how to conceal it from the former, following the political prudence inculcated by Strauss.
Bloom’s combination of culture-war sloganeering and philosophical eroticism, public success and private deviance, was unstable, even ridiculous, in his own work; since his death of AIDS in 1992 there has been no sequel to it among American Straussians. Following what seemed to be the message of Strauss’ famous 1941 essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” they have disguised themselves as—and, in the end, perhaps become—conventional conservatives and patriots. Alamariu’s dissertation advisor at Yale, Steven Smith, exemplifies the soporific dullness of this tradition.
At conservative gatherings I have twice struggled to remain awake through Smith’s presentations on the necessity of being moderately patriotic, loving America in a rational, genial fashion. Such sermons are not exactly wrong—it would be nice, after all, if we were more united with our fellow citizens in a not-too-energetic appreciation of our country. But they seem hopelessly ineffectual, unable to arouse conviction even in those, like me, who are sympathetic to their point. Indeed, they are not even able to convince other Straussians. In recent years, a set of wholly immoderate West Coast Straussians have convinced themselves that America needs a Trumpist revolution to reclaim “the republic” from the progressive-bureaucratic “regime,” election results notwithstanding. Divided between hapless moderates and unhinged reactionaries, the American Straussian project seems to be unraveling.
Strauss himself observed that his own “Platonic” approach to politics—of external caution and esoteric injunctions to inner nonconformity—had been powerfully critiqued by Friedrich Nietzsche a generation before him. Nietzsche, in Strauss’ account, noted that Plato’s followers had failed to preserve the independence either of their own thinking or of the Greek city-states. Both intellectual and political liberty were subsumed, eventually, in what Nietzsche regarded as the degenerate form of Platonism for the masses: Christianity.
A vulgarized Christian version of the Platonists’ own outward beliefs, made simple enough for ordinary people to understand—and with increasingly persecutory energy, to believe in and impose on others—may have first appeared to the philosophers as an instrument by which to govern. It became, in the end, an illusion in which they were ensnared. In Nietzsche’s telling, either the philosopher speaking to the public fails to capture its attention, and is thus unable to lead it, or, by lowering his own thought to the level of the herd, he does capture its attention—only to be captured by his audience in turn.
In contrast to Plato’s failed strategy of accommodation, Nietzsche implied that “free spirits” should adopt the pose not of the orator or preacher who address the multitude, but rather of the fool who scorns it. They should adopt wild, perverse rhetorical disguises to incite uncomprehending shock among the many—and thought among the few. The outlandish statements, self-contradictions, and incessant, boorish humor that Nietzsche used in his writing, Strauss insisted, conceal the depths of his thinking from all but the free spirits. Moreover, they are also intended to have an effect on a class of readers sensitive enough to be enlivened by such prose, but not insightful enough for philosophy. This intermediary human type was described by Strauss as the “gentlemen,” and by Alamariu as “aristocrats.”
Bronze Age Mindset, written in an internet pidgin reminiscent of the “Lolcats Bible,” uses the tactics of Nietzsche as described by Strauss. It is aimed—and has been quite successful at reaching—an audience of young men who imagine themselves as future or would-be elites constrained by the suffocating norms and pieties of our still-too-Christian culture. It urges them to undo the errors of Plato and of modern academic Straussians and throw off their allegiance to religion, patriotism, and other collective myths that restrain their own will to power.
Alamariu’s dissertation explains the rationale behind the strange, offensive style and content offered in Bronze Age Manifesto. In it, he elucidates Strauss’ interpretation of Nietzsche, and explains why he finds Nietzsche’s critique of Plato more convincing than Strauss’ own rearticulation of a Platonic, prudential politics. The modes of prudence that had characterized Strauss’ and Bloom’s writing—a stylistic caution that soothed the scruples of ordinary readers, a moral caution that seemed to affirm what most Americans believe, and a political caution that upheld our regime while quietly dissenting in private from its intellectual premises—must, he argues, be overthrown.
Alamariu continues his internal critique of Straussian tradition, and his frank assessment of its failures, by insisting that Bloom, in his attempts to seduce students and readers into the philosophical life, missed an essential point. The “type” of the philosopher, the person capable of freely thinking, is not one that randomly appears among a mass of duller fellows, to be separated from them by an attentive teacher. Rather, such people must be produced and perfected through an erotic education that aims at making young men more vigorous, physically perfect, and hostile to our supposedly feminized, egalitarian society (Alamariu, like Bloom, is frankly uninterested in women). Alamariu’s project involves a combination of erotic pedagogy, in the vein of the ancient Greeks and of Bloom, along with a program of eugenics, the outlines of which he only sketches but which resemble no less the ideal city of Plato’s Republic than the biopolitics of the Third Reich.
This is a deeply disturbing vision. It is perhaps even more disturbing that Alamariu forces us to recall how little distance separates the teachings of Strauss—on which much of modern American conservative intellectual life is based—from outright totalitarianism. Indeed, Plato, the cornerstone of Western philosophy, has often appeared to readers as a guide to utterly illiberal government. Strauss and Bloom, and their wiser students, take up Plato, and Nietzsche’s critiques of Plato, in a spirit of prudence, distancing philosophical thought from political action. They want to protect American liberal democracy, seeing it as a decent enough regime within which free thinkers like themselves could, sheltered by discretion, pursue their own way of life.
Our regime needs protection, they sensed, from its most dangerous enemies—those who imagine themselves as exceptionally intelligent and worthy, and unfairly restrained by the rules and standards of ordinary people. This type, which rebels against the conformism and mediocrity of democratic life, has to be coaxed back into the fold of convention, or at least into an outward, ironic acceptance of public norms. Such people can be made safe for, and perhaps even useful to, democracy, on the condition that they be convinced that they are in fact superior to the rest of us—so dangerously superior that they cannot even make their superiority known. Strauss’ and Bloom’s analysis of human types, by these lights, is to be read not as the self-affirmation of a philosophical elite, but as a ploy by which readers who take themselves to be stifled by the democratic herd can be reconciled to our society. The real esoteric teaching would be that the very idea of an “esoteric teaching,” and of a philosophical few who alone can divine it, is not addressed to genuine free-thinkers but to the “gentlemen” who naively take themselves to be intellectual elites. These are the enemies of democracy.
If they are not read in such an ironic light, Strauss and Bloom appear only as hesitant, timid pseudo-aristocrats of spirit, who do not dare to defy the herdlike multitude of their inferiors. This is the position taken by Alamariu, who writes in Bronze Age Mindset, “I don’t do irony! Learn that I don’t understand the gay idea of ‘irony.’” In his most decisive deviation from the Straussian approach to politics, Alamariu suggests that the philosopher should aim at seizing political power as a “tyrant.” He briefly notes, and rapidly dismisses, the critique of this ambition offered by Hannah Arendt, who had argued that the modern era differs from the classical in critical ways that make a revival of “tyranny” an absurd prospect.
In her analysis of the origin of totalitarianism, Arendt observed that modern dictators have little resemblance to ancient tyrants. If the latter possessed overweening ambition to demonstrate their excellence, the former are histrionic mediocrities pushed forward by the crowds they only imagine that they lead. The apparent weakness of modern democracies, whether in the early 20th century or our own day, does not create a situation ripe for the emergence of truly great men.
If the public sphere of ancient Athens could turn the potentially tyrannical he-man into a rent boy, just imagine what Twitter can do.
Arendt warned that the conditions that produced totalitarianism—which she argued threaten all modern societies—pose as much of an obstacle to the emergence of a true philosopher as they do to a true tyrant. In particular, mass media so warps our minds that we are becoming unable to think freely. Our most apparently private intellectual acts are shaped by our sense of how they will appear to other people. The latter are not, increasingly, specific others who might elicit, guide and refine our thinking, in the manner of Socrates, but anonymous, generic others. Life in this virtual multitude annihilates the possibility of either free thinking or political greatness.
Ironically, one of the critical passages in Alamariu’s dissertation concerns a moment in a Platonic dialogue when Socrates seems to best his interlocutor Callicles, whose views anticipate Alamariu’s own. Callicles calls for an aggressive, virile pursuit of open political power in the name of philosophical superiority. Socrates warns that such a course, in fact, will show Callicles to be the same type of person as an effeminate “catamite” who is guided only by his own pleasure.
Alamariu performs some awkward hermeneutic wrangling to argue that Callicles, “shamed” into silence by this comparison, should in fact be understood to represent what Plato took to be the better argument. This is just the point of view taken by another radical thinker inspired by Nietzsche, and usually identified with the left—Gilles Deleuze, in his 1962 Nietzsche and Philosophy. And indeed, the attacks that Deleuze and his co-author, Felix Guattari, would go on to make in such works as Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus against such supposedly “fascist” institutions as psychoanalysis, traditional party politics, conventional heterosexuality, etc., anticipate those made by Alamariu, our renegade Straussian fascist.
These readings that vindicate Callicles, whether from the “left” or the “right,” are a kind of covering one’s ears to Socrates’ warning that neither virility nor philosophy can avoid being corrupted if they display themselves openly—least of all, if Arendt is right, under modern social conditions and through contemporary social media. If the public sphere of ancient Athens could turn the potentially tyrannical he-man into a rent boy, just imagine what Twitter can do.
Socrates’ warning and Arendt’s pessimism are unlikely to bring sobriety to illiberals who dream of returning to a pre-modern age of tyranny and avowed hierarchies among human types, by which they imagine people like themselves will be placed at the top of a nakedly unequal society (as if our own hierarchies were not already brutal and obvious). But, for the remaining friends of liberal democracy, it may be at least a reminder that the problem is not, after all, one of finding the right message to inculcate our fellow citizens in civic virtue, to “deradicalize” them, or to awaken among them an enlightened few.
The problem, as Alamariu notes but cannot apply to his own case, is that the very conditions of possibility for thinking, alone and together, are being undermined—that whatever we attempt to express in public, whether intellect or eros or will to power, becomes an image of itself, in which we are narcissistically and fatally delighted. In our time, the social context for either of the Straussian solutions—rational collection action guided by political rhetoric or authentic private thought at a safe distance from public life—appears to be disappearing, if it is not already absent. In such an era, discursive games of seduction as practiced by Bloom and Alamariu may still be bring attention and profit to those who play them, but seem capable neither of defending nor truly endangering our decadent regime.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.