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Allan Bloom and Souls Without Longing

So I’ve gotten a lot (meaning several) emails complaining that I haven’t gotten around to keeping my promise of talking about Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Well, sorry.  Here’s one reason why.  I’m actually teaching that fascinating—and flawed—book right now, and I thought you’d learn more if I waited until after I read my students’ long essays on it.  I don’t yet have any recent data on the book as a “teaching tool.”

Don’t take my interest in Bloom’s book as evidence that I’m some kind of fundamentalist conservative.

Here are some facts on Bloom:  He was an atheist, hyper-urban and urbane, secular Jewish, gay (and not in the closet), and dyslexic.  He didn’t not think that his sexual orientation or disability or background defined him, and they, in fact, did not.  But Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, based loosely but insistently on the final days of Bloom’s life, does seem to claim that Bloom’s atheism and homosexuality reached to the core of his thought.

A few more facts:  The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987 and was a quite unexpected and quite huge best-seller.  It is an unacknowledged source of much of the semi-conservative commentary of many public intellectuals of genuine distinction and staying power.  I’ll mention only one:  David Brooks.

One more fact:  Bloom’s huge and virtually unacknowledged debt in The Closing is to the amazingly gifted but very controversial philosopher Leo Strauss, who’ll you remember from the polemics over the “neocons” and the invasion of Iraq.  The truth is that there’s nothing in Strauss’s thought that would suggest anything definitive for or against the prudence of said invasion.

Nor did the Socratic teaching about the “noble lie”—as interpreted definitively by Strauss—have anything to do with any alleged deceptions put forward by President Bush on weapons of mass destruction or whatever.  “Noble lie” is roughly equivalent to “comprehensive founding myth”—and all countries have something like that.  And there’s a lot true about Socrates’s lie.  Just as there’s a lot true about the devotion of some Americans to the absolute truth of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Bloom’s “data set” for The Closing was the smart and sophisticated students he taught at the University of Chicago.  He begins by saying: “There is one thing professors can be absolutely certain of: almost every student believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

He adds: All the students, whatever their differences, “are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.”

There are obvious objections to this observation.  Here’s one:  The students at Chicago aren’t necessarily like most American students.  None of Bloom’s students, for example, are religious.  And here at my Berry College, religious belief is an obvious barrier to students’ moral relativism.  Most of my students—even or especially the really smart ones—wouldn’t include themselves in the category “we relativists.”

Bloom’s response, I gather, is a kind of trickle-down theory.  What’s believed and taught at our best, cutting-edge universities finds its way to the sticks soon enough.  Well, that might often be true, but maybe it’s not always or inevitably true.

Notice Bloom’s instructive waffling, though:  He says students either are or say they are relativists.  Their environment leads them to mouth relativistic platitudes whether or not they really believe them, whether or not they actually correspond to their personal experiences.  Bloom’s book might not do complete justice to that waffle:  He might too quickly associate what students say to who they are.

The original title of the book was “souls without longing.”  Bloom claims that American students have souls that are flat, that are emptied of distinctively human or polymorphously erotic longings. They’re erotically “lame.”  That means that they’re curiously unmoved by love and death.

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Another big influence on Bloom was the philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, the guy who claimed that history had come to an end and we’ve become just like the other animals again.  Sometimes Bloom seems to be making about the same claim.

But if human longing has really disappeared, of course, there would no audience for Bloom’s book—and no audience for liberal education.  Bloom must know he’s exaggerating.  In my view, he’s exaggerating much more than he thinks.  Today’s students, contrary to his claim, remain deeply moved by love and death, no matter what they might say.

Here’s another waffle:  Their relativism is moral—or not theoretical.  It’s less that students know relativism to be true than they must believe it must be true in the name of equality. They associate egalitarianism with nonjudgmentalism.

Someone might say that means that students—as part of our founding myth—believe that “all men are created equal” is true.  And relativism becomes a tool in the service of the dogma that unites all Americans. 

Jefferson would say that relativism deprives students of the self-evident argument about rights—rooted in our natures as free beings—that proves equality to be true.  But, in the students’ view, relativism rightly understood frees us from needing such a deep and questionable grounding for who we are.

There’s a lot more to say:  But I hope I’ve given BIG THINK readers some incentive to give Bloom a second (or first) look.


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