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.