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Re-Opening "The Closing of the American Mind"Re-Opening "The Closing of the American Mind"

Re-Opening "The Closing of the American Mind"

On its silver anniversary, Andrew Fuyarchuk ponders new thinking about Allan Bloom's book.

Andrew Fuyarchuk
14 minute read

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom attacked Friedrich Nietzsche's anti-foundational philosophy as the source of moral relativism in the United States. Unless the influence of Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead" upon the youth could be defeated in the halls of the academy, the nation's most promising students would persist in their incapacity to defend the principles of their regime, liberty and equality, when they rose to positions of leadership in society. In a bid to rescue democracy from losing its bearings and falling into an ethos of openness, Bloom aimed to inculcate in youth the knowledge of universal and unchanging foundations—foundations transcendent to race, religion, national origin and class. On the silver anniversary of Bloom's book, perhaps the most poignant criticism has surfaced from the pen of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. In American Nietzsche, she argues that the anti-foundationalism of Nietzsche is, in fact, a catalyst for what she calls a "founding" of principles in action. For her, principles are not ideas known to the mind of a few alone, but rather are enacted in our relations with others in the concrete here and now. The dichotomy between Bloom and Ratner-Rosenhagen could not be wider. For Bloom, the fate of democracy depends upon the formal education of the ruling elite; for Ratner-Rosenhagen, upon a flourishing democratic culture, shared language and community. He tends to appeal to the conservative right in the United States; she, to the social democrats.

The opposition Bloom and Ratner-Rosenhagen represent between foundations housed in either the intellect of philosophers or the creative will of the people might, however, be false. According to Georg W.F. Hegel, for whom the inner life of the real is a contradiction, opposing positions have a dialectical relation to one another. That is to say, their juxtaposition is made possible by the fact, and therefore presupposes, they have something in common that is irreducible to either side. This common ground, once having been elucidated and recognized by the "opponents," elevates them to a higher level of consciousness and moral perfection. Thus are contradictions resolved to yield a higher degree of understanding and social harmony. Hegel's dialectical manner of reasoning is certainly pertinent to the debate between the said scholars and their respective notions of a foundation. It remains to be seen in what their common ground consists and how it might function in completing their incomplete thoughts about foundations.

Allan Bloom is a Platonic political philosopher committed to resisting the forces of historicism originating in modern German philosophy. While he is critical of Hegel's and Marx's historical dialectic and of Martin Heidegger's light of being for bringing the light of the good into the cave, Nietzsche is his primary interlocutor. More than any other philosopher, he exhibits the moral ramifications of equating that which is transcendent to history with the subjective, and therefore arbitrary, human will. Nietzsche had argued that foundations such as Plato's idea of the Good and God are created by us to justify a way of life. Accordingly, there is nothing intrinsically true and good about the so-called natural right to equality and freedom. They are simply fictions that "ground" a set of values, none of which can be rationally defended as being better than others.

Bloom was a student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1940s when "terms like 'value judgment' were fresh, and confined to an elite and promising special insight." But by the 1960s the situation had changed. Nietzsche's ideas had spread throughout society and, even worse, into the academy. The goals of the academy were being compromised by the only basis for thought Nietzsche could recommend—interest group politics (e.g. Marxists and feminists). Any theoretical argument against the trend was undermined by the retort that it was serving someone's interest. If those interests could be construed as being of the dominant class of white middle-class men and therefore chauvinists, so much the better. The only viable way in which to negotiate the clash of ideas was to embrace them all. Openness became the hallmark of the democratic ethos. Bloom comments on his students' education: "The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather, it is not to think you are right at all.... The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue—openness."

According to Bloom, Nietzsche's anti-foundation-alism and moral relativism had crept into the United States largely unawares because Americans, in contrast to Europeans, lacked a historical sense and had not the depth of character to understand what the destruction of objective standards would entail for their moral lives. Rather than plunge into the abyss when foundations disappeared, they immersed themselves in the diversions offered by popular culture. Bloom's answer was to fortify the souls of the most promising youth destined to define the spirit of the regime's laws when they assumed positions of responsibility and authority. For example, by studying John Locke's Treatise on Civil Government, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Baron de Montes-quieu's Spirit of the Laws, Bloom reasoned that the well-groomed student would develop the knowledge and mental skills requisite to defend the principles of liberty and equality upon which their republic was founded. The courage exhibited in the lives of David, Moses, Socrates and Jesus would inspire them to resist the tyranny of the majority, of which Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his book Democracy in America; specifically, the majority's devotion to Nietzsche's moral relativism that most people had bought lock, stock, and barrel. Like Socrates, who did not relent from pursuing the truth amidst flattery and temptations, Bloom's students would have the mental fortitude to withstand intimidation, character defamation and social gangsters at the university and beyond. Cultivating the citadel within, as Pierre Hadot says of the Roman Stoics, would ensure his graduates would become guardians of natural rights and as capable of defending them as was Socrates of virtue in Athens' 5th-century agora. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom explains his rationale for urging a "Great Books" education: "... nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man's art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness."

Bloom places his hopes for democracy in the educational system, just as Plato did when he founded the Academy; namely, in order to train the aristocratic youth to become statesmen. For both, the natural end for human beings is not to be found in the political order (which is Ratner-Rosenhagen's position) but in the study and contemplation of divine ideas (e.g. philosophy). Since it is students of philosophy, political philosophy alone, who are in a position to know the principles of a democratic regime, they ought to rule or partake in ruling society. But of course, they themselves do not want the work. They would prefer to have ample amounts of leisure time for study. Bloom addresses this problem in his "Interpretive Essay" to his translation of The Republic of Plato. He explains that philosophers can only be made to accept offices under compulsion from the hoi polloi. This is possible if philosophers can persuade the people that they would be like a ship without a pilot unless those in the know take the helm. Only when the security of the many is at stake will they force philosophers to return to the cave from contemplating divine ideas in the light of the Good (as Plato puts it in The Republic).

There are a couple of avenues by which to challenge Bloom's understanding of a foundation and how it might preserve principles of democracy amidst a social ethos of openness. In American Nietzsche, Ratner-Rosenhagen asks to what extent Bloom's endeavour to cultivate reverence for heritage betrays America by relying on traditions of the "old world." She questions whether Bloom is not a conservative reactionary motivated by a backlash against the wheels of time. These are viable questions, but they are posed from outside of Bloom's frame of reference. They point to Ratner-Rosenhagen's conclusion that philosophy is "friends with life," and thus presuppose what they are intended to prove. Her questions are rhetorical and exhibit the fallacy of circular reasoning. Another route by which to challenge Bloom works with his assumption that philosophers are contemptuous of the non-philosophical public because man does not put virtue before self-preservation, and instead "belongs to the realm of bodies in motion, and... like all other bodies, wishes to preserve his motion, that is, his life." By way of challenging him on this score I would ask why philosophers would rule for the benefit of people they consider inferior to themselves. If they believe in equality among equals, and genuine freedom for the few (themselves), why would they rule for the good of others? It would be that philosophers must cooperate with non-philosophers in order to survive. But as Bloom points out in his "Interpretive Essay," there are easier ways to make a living than by becoming involved in government administration. Moreover, such a motivation, called "enlightened self-interest," is ignoble and contrary to the philosopher's spirited and honourable nature.

The only viable reason for philosophers to rule for the good of others is if everyone's good is identical to the idea of the just State that philosophers truly love. However, if there is the slightest kink in their knowledge of the just State, including, above all, knowledge of different kinds of souls (since the State is ordered on that basis), then philosophers who rule will do more damage than good. They might mistake bronze for gold souls, botch their own marital arrangements, and mistake their utopia for reality. This can be expected to some degree. Human beings are fallible.

It is on such occasions that the problems for Platonic philosophers holding office of any kind come into view. If their own good is identical to the good of the State (because the just State is an idea they believe they were born to contemplate), philosophers are not likely to admit that something has gone wrong to a public they assume is intellectually ill-equipped to understand them, and in any event is prone to envy. Admitting a mistake publicly would only spark the people's cantankerous and rebellious nature. They love to bring down those who are better than themselves, often in the name of equality.

Foreseeing this danger, in The Republic, Plato recommended that the rulers lie to the many. Following his advice, in order to preserve the good of the State (i.e. their own good), Bloom's philosophers must resort to the very social manoeuvring and deception typical of the sophists they were educated to replace. In True Humanism, Jacques Maritain writes of purists who rule accordingtoabstractformulae:"Intruthmindsof thisclass make it a point of honour to declare that the first condition of existence for politics is a rejection of morality."

No one would discount the importance of the intellect in grasping foundations. Bloom cannot be completely wrong. But perhaps the extremities to which a philosophical life is prone is hazardous not only to the body, but to the possibility of learning from experience and changing oneself accordingly. Bloom's intellectuals tend to recoil from mingling with the run of the mill. They are more Platonic than Socratic, more likely to form thought enclaves than to debate anybody. In critical acknowledgement of this tendency, in his conversation with The Closing of the American Mind published in a 1989 issue of Critical Inquiry), Stanley Cavell wrote, "A devotion to thinkers by reading... will not count in my corner of things, as a philosophical devotion, unless it knows at each moment how to distrust reading."

Cavell recommends distrusting the wisdom handed down by the tradition in books insofar as it distracts from experience, and the ways in which experience can correct theories. For Cavell, thinking of foundations in terms of perfect ideas is tantamount to a flight into a pristine realm, an abstract "elsewhere," devoid of a relation to reality that could guide a responsible response to problems

Ratner-Rosenhagen's attitude to Bloom is in agreement with Cavell's. Against Bloom's criticism of Nietzsche being a moral relativist, she argues that Nietzsche returns Americans to the significance of experience to truth when he destroys foundations. By compelling Americans to question "religious ideals, moral certainties, and democratic principles," he challenges them to build those foundations anew in concrete relations with others. In contrast to Bloom, who believes that Americans do not have the depth of character to understand the significance of a life without first principles, she argues that anti-foundationalism is at the heart of the American way.

She writes in American Nietzsche,

"While Nietzsche provided [post]modern Americans with neither compass nor guide for the moral life, he also demonstrated to them that a life without meaning is not a life worth living."

More than anyone else, the peoples of the new world, estranged from Europe, without a strong heritage or sense of history, are primed to take on the task Nietzsche proposes. This is above all evident in the fact that Nietzsche was himself fascinated by America, and in particular by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

According to Ratner-Rosenhagen, the United States has forgotten the importance of Emerson for Nietzsche. She recounts the affinities the two philosophers had for each other, and traces the impetus for some of Nietzsche's most crucial insights to Emerson. Nietzsche encountered Emerson at a critical point in his life. In the midst of a crisis of faith in 1862, Emerson taught him that epistemology and ontology are "useful only insofar as they addressed the fundamental question of philosophy... 'How shall I live?' " This is the question Emerson poses in his essay "Experience," reconfigured by Nietzsche at the outset of The Genealogy of Morals as, "We [men of knowledge] have never sought ourselves—how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?"

Emerson's belief that philosophy is not an inheritance, without a past, and least of all a body of knowledge, instead a way of life, resonated with Nietzsche. For Ratner-Rosenhagen, Americans who lose themselves on the sea of indeterminacy, transfigure themselves and return home to "become who they are." Through Nietzsche, they learn to create their own destiny.

To recapitulate, for Ratner-Rosenhagen, principles are not enshrined in a constitution, preserved by an education in learning how to reason about Platonic ideas, universal and eternal principles that render intelligible the world of change and capacity to judge it. Principles are not transcendent to history or human making, and studying the works of great philosophers is incidental to performing the ideas of liberty and equality in our daily lives. Least of all is it the educated classes tethered to professorial chairs and the contemplative intellectual life upon whom the future of the nation depends. For Ratner-Rosenhagen, Nietzsche is critical to the preservation and revitalization of foundations precisely because he is the quintessential anti-foundational philosopher. His relentless attacks upon anything resembling an excuse not to take responsibility for one's life provoked the challenge to found (and not find as in eternal ideas) the bases for a just society here and now. No one would dispute the importance of enacting foundations, of actually exemplifying principles of liberty and equality in a community of speech and deed. Ratner-Rosenhagen cannot be wrong. But perhaps the extremities to which the creative will is prone are dangerous.

Creative self-transformation cannot be considered an end in itself; as a principle of life, it forms an attitude a former professor summed up as follows: "liberals don't know where they are going, they just keep moving." If, despite the wayward life and renunciation of the faculty of mind, a yearning for direction remains among them, they are inclined to follow a charismatic leader who can inspire their will to do something great, like manifest eternal ideas in speech and deeds. This is close to the people at large becoming those ideas—the very pretense Platonic philosophers require in order to justify their holding public office (which entails that they deny making any mistakes).

When examined thoroughly, Ratner-Rosenhagen's and Bloom's positions are mirror images of each other. Bloom idealizes foundations as ideas within the grasp of a few, and Ratner-Rosenhagen idealizes the will of the people. Were there nothing more to foundations than the binary opposition they represent, both the person and the nation would be divided against themselves, privately imagining themselves to be perfect while acting brazenly and rashly in public (without self-control). But surely the juxtaposition between the intellect and the creative will is false. Were principles ideas, known exclusively to the intellect, the will to enact them would be impoverished; were principles solely declared in the formation of a shared language, the capacity for critical self-reflection, deliberation and direction of one's endeavours toward an ultimate good would be compromised. This suggests that they have a hidden common ground, a ground about which they are silent yet nevertheless presuppose.

However much Bloom has a regard for tradition, he is silent about the relation of Christianity to liberal democracy but at the same time assumes the reason of rulers is informed by faith, otherwise they would become Machiavellian immoralists. Liberal democracy has, as Bloom reminds us, origins in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. However, the Enlightenment moralists were engaged in a secularization of Christian virtue. It is thus possible to find parallels between Cardinal Robert Bellarmine's political principles and the Declaration of Independence. Bellarmine writes, "All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind" (see Reverend John C. Rager's essay "Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence," available online). Bloom's overlooking the Christian background to the Declaration does not erase the fact that those drawn to principles of liberty and equality detect in them a ground or source of meaning in Gospel inspiration beyond the State; indeed, to which the State is held accountable by the Church. At the welcoming ceremony at the White House in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said, "From the dawn of the Republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator." Although an empiricist who believed that knowledge is derived from sense impressions, John Locke believed that the idea of God was innate. Bloom does not mention this, nor that Adam Smith was a devout Presbyterian and that The Wealth of Nations, a defence of capitalism, presupposes that everyone else was as well. These oversights suggest that Bloom's reading of the Enlightenment philosophers who founded the principles of democracy is overly determined by Plato's philosophy (for whom piety is a virtue replaced by wisdom). Unless one has faith in the goodness of liberty and equality, there is no reason to defend or uphold them other than for self-preservation, which is evident in the rhetoric of Platonists whenever their mistakes are in danger of being exposed.

Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a move toward the truths of democracy being self-evident to all. She believes that natural law is not a body of knowledge that can be known rationally and trusts instead the will of the people. As Jacques Maritain puts it in Man and the State, the Declaration of Independence is a common formulation of practical conclusions everyone can agree upon before a theoretical justification that tends to pit one person against another. But at the same time, she does not account for the good will of the people whom she assumes can agree in practical matters and create a flourishing democratic culture. She leaves open the question of that to which everyone is attuned and listens in order to make present their abiding tendencies.

Ratner-Rosenhagen's and Bloom's thoughts are related to one another by way of that which they presuppose but do not acknowledge: an inclination toward a foundation transcendent to the intellect and the will, but nevertheless a foundation in which they both participate. Attunement to the ultimate ends of human nature is known by reason and chosen by the will inclined toward it. On no other foundation, either intellectual or practical, can a divided nature be healed and the unity of either the person or the nation be established. In short, without a moral, natural end of intellect and the will, foundations become incoherent and self-destructive. In this regard, I am reminded of Stanley Cavell's words. In Emerson's Transcendental Etudes he quotes from Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance": "We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity." Like Cavell, Ratner-Rosenhagen would deny that "intelligence" is an allusion to God, but it is not clear that every American reader would agree. At least not those who do not take Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead" as seriously as either she or Bloom does. Or maybe they do and their faith is strengthened.

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