The Closing of the American Mind is not conservative, especially not in the sense of preserving the foundational values and beliefs of Western Civilization. Nonetheless, it is most commonly understood as a conservative cultural critique. That was my understanding when I started it (in audiobook format, where I get much of my reading done during commutes). Coincidentally, about the same time I was also reading Leo Strauss (Natural Right and History) not realizing at first that Allan Bloom was himself a student of Strauss. Once I made the connection, it became clear that The Closing is best understood not as anything conservative but as a textbook example of Straussian cultural critique.
Leo Strauss’s cultural relevance and influence has only increased in the years since The Closing was published in 1987 and is more relevant today than ever as the conservative movement in the United States seeks new principles with which to redefine itself for our times. Tyler Cowen has helped to popularize the term “Straussian” on his blog Marginal Revolution, though he has (in typical Straussian fashion) failed to clearly define in his own words what he means by the term. Recently, he humorously posted an answer that seems to have been generated by ChatGPT. closing with the quip “Now you can stop asking!”
A more complete definition of what is popularly invoked by the term “Straussian” is found in the introduction to The Truth About Leo Strauss, by two of Strauss’s former students, Michael and Catherine Zuckert. The book was written in response to claims that the neoconservative direction of the Bush administration was heavily influenced by Straussians. This multifaceted description of Straussianism in the media, described by the Zuckerts as a “caricature” of the real Strauss, includes the following characteristics (my summary, in my own words):
The need for moral clarity in opposition to postmodern nihilism. (This does not necessarily mean advocacy for traditional Christian or Western values – see the next point.)
Not inconsistent with the first, a Machiavellian or Hobbesian “natural rights” morality in which what is expedient in the moment or natural is right (taking “nature” in the primitive sense, not the divine or teleological “nature” of Christian and Classical natural law).
An elitism based on a “philosopher king” ideal – the elites understand necessary truths that the masses do not know and cannot handle (e.g. “there is no God, and there is no divine or natural support for justice”) and are therefore the only ones fit to rule.
Due to the previous, an imperative for elites who understand the “true” nature of reality to deceive and manipulate the public in the public interest. This can take the form of esoteric writing that is outwardly aligned with the prevailing worldview but with deeper and potentially subversive meanings intelligible only to other elites and insiders.
Despite the Zuckert’s description of this set of ideas as a caricature, it is consistent with my reading of Strauss. Of course, not all subsequent Straussians fit this pattern in full – students of Strauss are not monolithic and have broken into more than one camp. Tyler Cowen, as another example, enjoys engaging in esoteric writing (4), and he advocates for a clear moral system (1) (Effective Altruism- style utilitarianism), but I don’t know that points (2) or (3) fully apply. That said, it is clear to me that Allan Bloom was a Straussian in the full sense of what I have written above, and this background helps to make sense of his most popular work.
To get to the point, The Closing of the American Mind is erudite and witty but its message is apalling. Dressed up to look like conservatism on the outside, it is far from it on the inside – like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Bloom appeals to religious conservatives with diatribes against rock music (a conservative boogeyman of the 1980s), the sexualization of adolescence, and divorce. He pans the absurdity of the lack of values and unnatural attitudes about our nature and relationships, the groupthink, and the undeserved entitlement of the rising generation (true then as much as now – or probably any generation, come to think of it). He had me nodding along for about the first third of the book, but then where the conservative writer would call for a return to family values and moral decency, Allan Bloom takes the reader on a very different moral journey in which rock music and adolescent sexualization are only negative influences because they remove the “longing” that should be a part of university life. The original title of the book was to have been “Souls Without Longing.” Accordingly, here is the central imagery of the book, and the only real glimpse of what the “open-minded” and “longing” student used to look like, according to Bloom:
A significant number of students used to arrive at the university physically and spiritually virginal, expecting to lose their innocence there. Their lust was mixed into everything they thought and did. They were painfully aware that they wanted something but were not quite sure exactly what it was, what form it would take and what it all meant. The range of satisfactions intimated by their desire moved from prostitutes to Plato, and back, from the criminal to the sublime. Above all they looked for instruction. Practically everything they read in the humanities and social sciences might be a source of learning about their pain, and a path to its healing. This powerful tension, this literal lust for knowledge, was what a teacher could see in the eyes of those who flattered him by giving such evidence of their need for him.
Bloom then extends the disgusting teacher/student sexual imagery and compares the professor to a “pimp” satisfying the students’ sexualized lust for knowledge. I think this is Bloom’s sense of humor, but the juxtaposition of the criminal, sexual, and intellectual makes for a disturbing ideal. Bloom claims an ancient Greek origin for his sentiments: “Aristotle said that man has two peaks, each accompanied by intense pleasure: sexual intercourse and thinking.” If Bloom’s model represents the wisdom of the ancients, then it is no wonder that Christianity’s brighter vision and higher aspiration spread with such force through the pagan world.
Bloom cites Plato and Aristotle, but really what he describes is Nietzsche and Heidegger viewed through Strauss. The Dionysian man lives by his passions. The Übermensch knows what he desires and has the will to take it. The “philosopher king” gains his elite education so he can use the lower ranks of humanity to satisfy his lusts and ambitions. Thus will he find his authentic existence, breaking free of the “constricted present” in which religion and society put unnatural bounds on man’s behavior. This is moral clarity of sorts, but not of the Christian conservative variety.
Christianity is barely mentioned in The Closing and when it is mentioned it is with indifference or negativity. Bloom’s world is atheistic. His hero is the anti-Christian Rousseau. He further claims that “Heidegger’s teachings are the most powerful intellectual force in our times.” Bloom describes the Rousseau/Nietzsche/Heidegger revolution in thought as being in the same magnitude as the Christian revolution overturning Classical paganism and opening up a new way of viewing the world and our existence in it. If the American mind of Bloom’s narrative is being closed, it is closed not necessarily to reason and virtue but to the authentic true human nature as Rousseau or Nietzsche or Heidegger would have it – unfettered by religion and conformist society which have worn down man’s true being and “impoverished his soul.” Bloom’s path forward is to replace the old morality of good opposed to evil with a new morality of authenticity opposed to conformity. His was a nostalgia for a supposedly more manly age when men knew their true inner desires and made the world conform to their own superior will and intellect.
Allan Bloom is not at all concerned with the family values issues he uses to hook superficial conservative readers. In true Straussian fashion, The Closing of the American Mind is the opposite of what it first seems – Bloom would have us undo all the positive effects of Christianity in the West and open the door to those that hate religion and want to remake the West in their own image. In short, The Closing of the American Mind is a joke – a dirty joke – on conservatives.
On the other hand, for elites (Bloom’s “philosopher-kings”) who can follow the esoteric philosophical direction of The Closing but are not firmly grounded in Christian and Western tradition, it represents a seductive call to transform and modernize conservatism. Bloom’s implied template for conservatism has the feature of retaining a fierce culture war against the extremes of liberalism but now shifted to a completely secular framework, casting off the religious baggage, jettisoning the old beliefs and values. For Bloom, postmodern nihilism and its discontents are judged not against the traditional standard of Christian good and evil, but against a standard of authenticity to the “true” human nature as determined by evolutionary psychology and contemporary social science. There is some overlap, but the implications of the change are huge – man is not meant to look upward and outward for aspirational guidance and divine example, but downward and inward to be guided by his own inclinations and ambitions. To be clear, religious and traditional values rhetoric can still be used by Straussian elites publicly as needed to satisfy the base until the masses eventually convert to the new system of thought, but the antiquated morality need not drive the agenda in practice.
In one aspect, the very success of The Closing of the American Mind among conservatives since its first publication is a highly visible demonstration that elites can use an outwardly traditional Christian moral posture to gain the attention of conservatives only to manipulate them in service of very different ends. Or, if I’m being pessimistic, perhaps the work is already done, and Allan Bloom’s non-conservative Heideggerianism is now, in fact, the new public face and spirit of what passes as conservatism throughout much of the Western world. In this sense, Bloom’s work has been extremely successful in such a short period of time.
The post Have Conservatives Misunderstood Allan Bloom? appeared first on VoegelinView.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More