“ The university is nothing less than the institutionalization of Socrates. So the end of philosophy in the university portends the subversion of democracy itself.”
ellow elitists,” thus began philosopher Allan Bloom’s lecture before a packed audience at Harvard University in 1988. The audience hooted and applauded. Bloom’s opening salutation was a tongue-in-cheek evocation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own ironic opening of “fellow immigrants” before The Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938. (1) Bloom, the bald, bespectacled professor, seemed to be enjoying himself.
The publication of his The Closing of the American Mind the previous year had struck a cultural nerve. A highly respected but obscure academic, Bloom never expected his book to create a cultural firestorm. Bloom’s lecture touched on ideas evoked in the book that concerned the emergence and dominance of certain ideas in academia. The most elite people on the planet were now all committed to an egalitarian, anti-elitism. The new true way was to recognize that there was no one true way.
I suspect The Closing of the American Mind may well be one of the most bought but least read books of our time.
Living in the area, I happened to attend Bloom’s Harvard lecture. Bloom’s speech was indeed colorful and, at times, even mocked his audience. But I must admit that most of it went over my head. Intrigued by the controversy Bloom had generated, I had begun reading The Closing of the American Mind. I found the book provocative but also daunting. Much of the book was not simply a description of the current state of higher education but, rather, an intellectual history of how we got where we were. Only after spending years reading many classic thinkers did I feel comfortable following Bloom’s arguments.
The Closing of the American Mind would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. It seemed most well-educated people and most academics, particularly in the humanities, felt a need to be familiar with the book. Over the years in my interactions with such people, Bloom’s name would come up often. He was almost always referred to as a “conservative,” which was interesting as this was a label he specifically rejected. Over time, I began to realize that few people actually had read the book. I suspect The Closing of the American Mind may well be one of the most bought but least read books of our time.
Whether The Closing of the American Mind was read or not, something more was going on: Allan Bloom was becoming an icon. Whatever was going on in academia, Bloom, as its foremost critic, was its nemesis. Those who bought into the new “openness” did not need to actually understand Bloom. This was because, apparently, becoming aware of the relativity of ideas ends up dividing the world neatly into two great factions: those who understand this truth and those who do not. “Skepticism,” “historicism,” “egalitarianism,” “deconstruction,” “postmodernism,” and the like were all words identified with this emergent and now dominant shift in thinking.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom addresses these issues head on by observing the nature of the souls of his students. The introduction begins with this blunt observation:
“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…That anyone should regard this proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2=4. These are things you don’t think about.”
Bloom understands the profound implications of this insight since it is not so simply a “theoretical insight” but a “moral postulate”:
“That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged—a combination of disbelief and indignation: ‘Are you an absolutist?’”
The dominance of relativism tends to render the relativist unaware of the historically peculiar nature of his kind of consciousness. Having lost a sense of the history of ideas, the relativist is no more aware of himself as a relativist than a fish is aware of itself as an aquatic creature. The question “Compared to what?” has no answer. The relativist can only understand himself and what is not himself. And what is not himself is—and must be—the absolutist. Thus Allan Bloom, as the great questioner of moral relativism, became the arch absolutist.
Unfortunately for a philosopher, life is never so simple. Human beings, observes Aristotle, are animals capable of reason. We, humans, are capable of actually looking at reality, observing relationships and patterns, and adjusting ideas to actions.
Our reason tends to suggest that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as relativism. There are ideas of relativism, and there are attempts to enact those ideas. But the moment those ideas are enacted, everything ceases to be relative; discriminations are made, and a hierarchy of values appears. Relativism is not the cure for absolutism but may merely be a new species of absolutism.
There are then “two threats to reason,” observed Bloom in his Harvard lecture:
“…the opinion that one knows the truth about the most important things and the opinion that there is no truth about them. Both of these opinions are fatal to philosophy; the first asserts that the quest for the truth is unnecessary, while the second asserts that it is impossible.”
Philosophy is what tempers the excesses of the relativist and the absolutist. Philosophy keeps all questions open. This openness is embodied in the figure of Socrates who questions everything:
“The Socratic knowledge of ignorance, which I take to be the beginning point of all philosophy, defines the sensible middle ground between two extremes, the proofs of which demand much more than I can know.”
Socratic knowledge is an awareness of limitations and of alternatives. The so-called “canon” is the history of this awareness.
Bloom, following Tocqueville, argues for the necessity of philosophy in a democracy. Unlike a theocracy or a traditional monarchy, a democracy is not guided by any revealed truth. Democracy, as Ortega y Gasset once said, is a “high wire act” in perpetual need of new ideas. A democracy requires persistent questioning, a persistent openness to new ideas. A democracy requires Socratic knowledge. The university is nothing less than the institutionalization of Socrates. So the end of philosophy in the university portends the subversion of democracy itself.
The subtitle of The Closing of the American Mind is: “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” What concerns Bloom in his book is not simply the state of the souls of his students but how this came to be.
Bloom’s relativist students of the 1980’s did not appear out of nowhere; they were the culmination of a much longer process. Even by the late 1960’s, widespread campus revolts revealed that universities had been hollowed out and had largely forgotten their greater purpose. Professors had apparently forgotten the seriousness of their own subject matter and were easily intimidated by righteous students. Professors and administrators were easily transformed into what Bloom describes as “dancing bears.”
What Bloom communicates about philosophy is that it teaches that the great acts of history are always informed and guided by some set of ideas. These ideas evolve and shift over time, and, in turn, an awareness of these processes involves a study of others who contemplated these ideas. The canon consists of the writings of the most powerful minds contemplating the most elemental questions. To philosophize is to participate in this ancient tradition of contemplation in order to cultivate an awareness of the nature of one’s own historical moment.
The Closing of the American Mind involves a kind of profound forgetting and being swept up in our own historical moment. Questioning ends and philosophy seems irrelevant. The threat to the university is, in effect, an attack on Socrates. This attack mostly comes from Europe and is epitomized in the person of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche becomes for Bloom a major force in the modern world and ultimately instrumental in the demise of philosophy in academia. Bloom appreciates the explosiveness of Nietzsche insights, and he understands the seriousness with which Nietzsche takes Socrates. Nietzsche’s “problem” with Socrates is that questioning—in itself—does not generate culture or necessarily explain what motivates people to action. Questioning breaks things down; it destroys one illusion after another.
Nietzsche realizes that unrelenting questioning, the unrelenting pursuit for truth, ends in the dissolution of all truth (the quest for truth is impossible). Nietzsche well understood that the death of God is nothing less than the fall from absolutism into relativism, and this was to have world historical consequences. This logic of unrelenting skepticism is a bottomless rat hole to nowhere, to nihilism. Unrelenting skepticism cultivates a hyperawareness of the ambiguity of all forms and ideas, which produces the illusion of liberation from nature and history. Nietzsche’s self-satisfied “last man” is the culmination of this process.
What would be ignored about Nietzsche by his postmodern acolytes was that he ultimately rejects this runaway skepticism as itself a kind of escape from “reality as it is.” Nietzsche ridicules the “educated” and abstracted last man, who has lost all sense of himself as a living power in a living universe. Nietzsche turns back to experiential reality and affirms the unity of all existence.
Bloom argues that what has been going on in academia was not simply a rejection of Socrates but a vulgarization of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s incredible critical powers have been appropriated and transformed by postmodern ideologues ultimately for their own egalitarian agenda. In his essay “Commerce and ‘Culture,’” Bloom writes:
“Deconstruction is a kind of circus performance in which Nietzsche is sawed into many pieces, and then the magician miraculously puts him back together and, lo and behold, Nietzsche is a Marxist, albeit not a ‘vulgar’ Marxist.”
Questions Nietzsche raise become conclusions not to be doubted. The new relativism keeps looking an awful lot like the old absolutism.
Woke is the inevitable and perfect unity of theoretical relativism and moral indignation. Woke is absolutized relativism.
It has been over three decades since the publication of The Closing of the American Mind. We might well wonder what has become of Bloom’s young relativists. Bloom taught at the top universities in the United States, and his students were not simply a random sampling of Americans but the elite of the elite. We can be assured that the students Bloom describes did not graduate to become plumbers and truck drivers. No doubt they have become CEOs, doctors, lawyers, bankers; they run the editorial boards of our great media giants; they founded and oversee international nonprofits, and one even became President of the United States. In short, they would go on to dominate virtually all the great institutions of the globe.
And Bloom’s students are now themselves the professors and administrators of our great universities. Taught by relativist teachers and encouraged by relativist administrators, more recent students are now “woke.” Woke is ready-made relativism. Woke is the inevitable and perfect unity of theoretical relativism and moral indignation. Woke is absolutized relativism.
Apparently, philosophy has largely vanished from many universities and is barely recognized as existing. Philosophy is a refugee with no institutional home, mostly surviving in the “dark” corners of the Internet. It has been replaced by “theory.” Philosophy has to do with ideas of how things do work; theory has to do with ideas of how things should work. Once the most important questions cease to be problematic, everything becomes programmatic.
Allan Bloom retains his iconic status, and his name does still come up now and then. Bloom is still routinely referred to as a “conservative,” which I suppose today is not inaccurate, given that conservative has simply come to mean anything which is not progressive. And to this day, evoking Allan Bloom still communicates a level of intellectual gravitas.
Not long ago, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, credited Allan Bloom with documenting the rise of relativism in the university. Unfortunately, according to Brooks, Bloom was not really aware of its moral implications. “Bloom’s thesis was accurate at the time,” writes Brooks, “but it’s not accurate anymore. College campuses are today awash in moral judgment.” This is rather an odd observation since any philosopher would understand that ideas have consequences. Bloom understood quite well that the “theoretical insight” of relativism was inevitably a “moral postulate.” Philosophy is, after all, not simply concerned with abstract ideas but with the relationship of ideas to actions. Bloom’s writings brim with associations of ideas, as well as their political and moral consequences. What does David Brooks think Bloom is talking about when in the very subtitle of The Closing of the American Mind, he claims “higher education” to have “failed democracy”? We might wonder what David Brooks has been reading, though we need not doubt that he, of course, owns a copy of The Closing of the American Mind.
Relativistic ideas have been set in motion; the college campus has been globalized, and the world is being made over in its image. Buoyed by the tremendous generation of wealth and power, Bloom’s relativists and elitists presume to rule the world. Liberated from all traditional ideas of good and evil, they apparently feel free to will their ideas of the Good onto the benighted. And anyone who expects to thrive in any of our great institutions had better be prepared to acknowledge this new “openness.” As Allan Bloom anticipated, we are all dancing bears now.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.
- President Roosevelt’s precise words were “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” However, the quotation, in popular usage, has been shortened to “My fellow immigrants.”