Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom 1984.
In this seminal and provocative book, Bloom executes a powerful attack on what he sees as the cause of the contemporary intellectual decline of America’s universities, and, by diffusion, intellectual life in the United States. The source of this decline he claims is a crisis in Western philosophy emanating from Germany and permeating America’s universities since 1945. Indeed, Bloom goes so far as to say that Germany conquered America philosophically at the moment America conquered Germany militarily. Evil must have a face, and for Bloom the face is that of Friedrich Nietzsche, who appears like the proverbial villain behind every tree. Not to make light of his concerns. His critique is dead-on, and worthy of the most focused reflection, and multiple readings, and forces one to come to grips with the reality of what one’s philosophical choices truly entail.
Championing “pure reason” from his beloved Socrates to the chief exemplars of the Enlightenment, John Locke and the “Founding Fathers,” who built on “low, but solid ground” (by legitimizing greed), Bloom traces the growing “loss of faith” in the ideology of individual rights and in the capacity of human reason to address the problems that really matter. Beginning with Rousseau, who shattered the confidence of the Enlightenment “at the moment of its triumph” with his devastating critique of the society of dull shopkeepers constructed by Locke, Bloom holds Rousseau responsible for making “feelings” and intuition more fundamental than thought and rationality, and blames him for opening the door to totalitarianism by calling on statesmen to use the power of the state to remake human nature, which Bloom, like Socrates, sees as immutable, a permanent feature of “the human condition,” as are all our philosophical dilemmas. Moving to Kant, Bloom holds him responsible for rationalizing the irrational, for providing a philosophical justification for a growing dissatisfaction with the capacity and relevance of pure reason, a position that helped inspire the Romantic Era, which celebrated national cultures in opposition to the universality of the Enlightenment.
His true enemy, however, is Nietzsche. From perception colors reality, the central message of Kant, Nietzsche proclaimed perception is reality, and there is nothing more behind it. No more radical statement against the capacity and relevance of pure reason can be imagined, and Bloom points to this message of Nietzsche as the chief inspiration of the “fascist Left” that dominates so-called “liberalism” in the United States today, having long-since jettisoned the simplistic and bankrupt dogmas of Marx, who “does not speak to the souls of young Americans.” Bloom’s chief complaint focuses on the notion of “culture,” which Nietzsche raised to the status of holy writ. To Bloom, “culture” is not only indefinable, and something that permanently separates and divides humanity, but voids or cancels reason itself, the only truly universal language. Bloom equates culture with myth and posits science and reason in opposition to the cultural myths that Nietzsche loves so well. Bloom describes Nietzsche’s views on the spiritual emptiness of modern science and Nietzsche’s contempt for the economistic comfort-obsessed societies of the modern West, dismissing as impotent “decadents” the “last men,” (before the “overmen” to come) who have chosen a life of comfort, sterility, superficial equality, and atheism over a life of epic passion, struggle, and creativity, a decadence most evident in modern democracies. God is dead, he lamented, and for the good of our “selves,” which is Nietzsche’s updated version of medieval “souls,” we must reconstruct the social conditions of conflict and tension that are necessary for creativity and commit ourselves to the “values” which are necessary to re-invent God.
Encountering the ideas of Nietzsche via German refugees from the Nazis, the sociologist Weber, existentialist philosophers, and Freud, Americans found themselves speaking his language of irreducible selves, values, perception, and culture, without realizing their source. The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that Americans do not understand the power and implications of Nietzsche’s ideas, and, despite Americans’ attempts to democratize him, and despite their continuing democratic impulse to invite all other peoples and cultures to join the American melting pot, the repressive implications of Nietzsche’s ideas have come to dominate the intelligentsia in the U.S., infecting universities and intellectual life with an attitude of intolerance towards reason and rationalism, a disdain for the U.S. Constitution and the motives of the “Founding Fathers,” an obsession with “commitment” for commitment’s sake, and a growing cult of “authenticity of the self” with its superficial pop-psychology, talk of existential values, and the irreducibility of one’s feelings and perceptions. In the science-worshiping but “child-like” U.S., Freud became Masters & Johnson and Dr. Ruth; Nietzsche became Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil. On the darker side, the “will to power” implicit in Nietzsche’s social activism has resulted in competition among various “liberal” factions for political control of America’s universities, with a militant suppression of dissent and diversity of thought that coined the term “political correctness.” Again in Bloom’s view, Nietzsche’s ideas in the hands of naïve Americans make the U.S. vulnerable to Nazi-like “movements,” demagoguery, and tyranny of an entitlement-obsessed majority over rights-deprived minorities, who have no defense but reason. In short, we face the same Abyss that lies beyond good and evil that so terrified Nietzsche, but without the maturity and steady gaze that he possessed.
These are incisive observations from an eminent rationalist who wishes to preserve the independence of the academy from an American society that has little use or respect for ivory towers. It is certainly true that Nietzsche’s “self” is no more precise or demonstrable than was the “soul,” and each self may in fact contain a plurality of personalities. And what good is it to tell someone to “be yourself” if that person’s self is psychopathic, or a serial killer? The last thing in the world such a person should seek to be is “himself,” and the last thing such a person should be told is that his impulses are authentic and irreducible. It is also true that, in Nietzsche’s view, if values are to be shared then they must be imposed because reason cannot lead to values. Thus conflict on a grand scale is inevitable, and there can be no universal values without universal war, especially between civilizations, whose values by definition never coincide. Thus Nietzsche turns modern liberalism on its head: war is not an unfortunate and temporary interruption in universal peace; rather the reverse is true, peace is the exception to Humanity’s usual condition of universal war, which should be embraced by true creators as desirable and necessary to the progress of Humanity. Thus the incidental overlap with Marxist class dialectics which eased the generational transition among disenchanted Left intellectuals, faced with the problem of the incredible shrinking proletariat, from boring Marx to the much more interesting Nietzsche.
Bloom, however, has done his job too well. Nietzsche’s views may be misunderstood, or popularized until unrecognizable, or even dangerous, but in the end they are an accurate description of the human condition and especially of the position of highly creative individuals in modern democratic society. However, Nietzsche’s concern was not with justifying universal war, but with facing up to the inevitable conflicts and struggles of daily life instead of ignoring or pretending that real problems don’t exist, and with showing creative and intelligent individuals the way to self-assertion in the midst of democracy’s vast wasteland of mediocrity. He sought to show vigorous personalities how to think independently of society’s smothering prejudices, how to be a self-starter and reject negativity, and even how to summon the will to break free psychologically of society’s skepticism and crushing conformity and become an innovative Creator of Culture, the truest leader of men and founder of new civilizations.
Nietzsche had thinkers of great artistic creativity in mind and these do not prosper in modern America. In the current state of the Decline of the West, like a scene from THX-1138, no creator is permitted to create, much less be recognized as a creator, unless he first takes an accredited college course in creativity and passes a standardized test on creativity graded by a certified teacher with a PhD in creativity. But the very concept of creativity implies supreme originality, which means an absence of any such guides and a complete bar to social acceptance. Thus in the modern West, and especially in the U.S., the truly original cannot be found teaching college courses because such persons are not recognizable as “experts” in any particular subject. Modern society by its rationalized and bureaucratic nature necessarily precludes true diversity of thought, especially “elitist” thought that dares to assert that highly creative persons may somehow be special. Were they to appear today, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Homer, Leonardo da Vinci: each and all would be confined and given lithium as lunatics, or clapped in jail as tax evaders for failing to file their tax returns, or condemned to wander the streets as despised vagrants for unwillingness to adhere to a 9-to-5 work schedule. Including Bloom’s beloved Socrates, whom no university today would be allowed to put on its payroll, even if his talk about gods could pass the First Amendment Lemon Test regarding the establishment of religion.
The Culture Creator that Nietzsche wished to appear and renew civilization with a new religion cannot appear anywhere in the modern West because today’s world is opposed philosophically to creativity, not only in art, which is today subjected to the “blockbuster” test of a formulaic “greatest possible sales” potential, which can only occur if it aims at the pre-existing lowest common denominator of popular culture, but also in values, which is precisely why the intellectual class in the modern West is atheistic. God, after all, is merely short-hand for the eternal creative principle of humankind. Atheists do not create because creativity requires imagination, opening of the Id. Atheists do not intuit, they rationalize. They join teachers’ unions, embrace homosexuality, and promote abortion, congratulating themselves on their lack of contribution to the world’s population and carbon footprints. They worship wilderness that is off-limits to people, and lobby for ever-larger secure government checks levied from “developers” and entrepreneurs who “rape the earth.” Or they become lawyers, doctors, engineers, or other linear-thinking professionals and embrace elevated abstractions like “world peace” and shallow platitudes like “the rule of law,” expressing unbounded confidence in the ability of sincere communication to overcome all obstacles and find common ground where there is none. They are pro-choice regarding the abortion of babies, but virulently anti-choice regarding the education of those children who manage to survive their egoistic eugenics family “planning.” They take a principled stand against the death penalty for vicious murderers, but embrace assisted suicide and rationalize suicide bombers as the last acts in their agenda of conflict-free life-negation. They are captains on child-free Titanics proud of their ability to hit every iceberg.
Bloom accuses Nietzsche of preferring myth-making to science. But science cannot even explain consciousness, much less the mysterious elements of the Unconscious (the Id being another of Nietzsche’s innovations). Where in Bloom’s rationalism does room exist for divine madness, divination by dreams, meditation by chakra, the wahy of Jibriil, UFOs, will to power over a recalcitrant nature both inner and outer, ambition, curiosity, obsession, passion for a lover that can end only in death or madness if unsatisfied, or the ripping of the Veil from the face of Nature by one who will not be denied? There is room for all in Nietzsche’s Id. None in the cold rational world of THX-1138. Bloom repeats the tired over-rationalized distinction of science versus myth, overlooking with his academy-confined and over-dialecticized eye, however, that science and myth are not opposites but a continuum. Indeed they are siblings—even twins. Science is not against myth, but is merely myth armed with a greater store of accepted facts, while myth at its core is pre-science, or proto-science, or what is accepted by most as true in the absence of commonly accepted fact. Bloom equates myth with culture, and rejects both. But myth is the glue of culture, and human life without myth and culture is not merely impossible, but inconceivable. Man by definition is that animal that must supplement its nebulous fetal instincts with detailed social learning in order to live, and therefore must have culture, and must make myths to rationalize, organize, and perpetuate his culture. All humans therefore are myth-makers, and always have been, and always will be. Christianity without myth may be possible, but Humanity without myth is the ultimate self-contradiction. No human has ever lived who does not construct and organize culture with myths. Destroy these myths, and Humanity will not thank one. Humanity will destroy the destroyer—as Cedric Hardwicke indignantly smashed the moon-rocket of the scientist-dictator Cabell in the movie Things To Come—and return to its myth-making with a vengeance.
Thus the attacks of 9/11, which were a wholesale rejection of the modern atheistic West by people whose myths are infinitely more important to them than the rationalism and the contemptible lives of the cowering “last men,” who, in their Stockholm syndrome, are swept up with admiration for the commitment of their killers even as they themselves are killed. Thus the rotten front door of the West was kicked in, and its abortion-obsessed inhabitants distracted from their quiet discussions of peaceful suicide and a world cleansed of people. The US, if anything, should thank Osama bin Laden for restoring a sense of tragedy to the West, for shocking it out of its petty concerns, and proving that real conflicts and real differences still exist, of infinitely more consequence than America’s quadrennial furiously angry squabbling over tax codes and financial deductions.
Myths are not lies or falsehoods. Myths, in truth, are more truthful than facts, because they are facts presented in such a way that humans can grasp them at the deepest level and extract personal meaning. Myths have meaning where piles of statistics and charts and test-tubes fall flat. “Markets are self-correcting”, “women are paid less than men”, “the Mother of God had a virgin birth”, “global warming is destroying the Planet”, “aliens landed at Roswell”… Where does science enter into such? Facts may at some point, but do their believers really care? Whose attitude will a mountain of scientific facts change? Myths are far more than rationalisms for savages thrusting bones thru their noses, they are what induce Americans to hand their life-savings to men in white coats, asking “How long do I have to live, Doc? Can’t you give me just one more year?” Doctors are the priests of atheists and the imagination-challenged. Their myths are no different in kind or quality than priests of the old sort, they merely come armed with piles of charts and statistics instead of rosaries and crosses, but they cannot tell us any more about the path to happiness and the best way for humans to live than did the priests of old. That depends on values and personal insight on how to best live one’s life, and science has no answer for that. People want science; they tolerate philosophers—but they need their myths.
Bloom makes other errors. He credits the Greeks with the discovery of Nature. But the groundwork for the perception of nature as free of divine personality had its origin in ancient Iraq, which transmitted centuries of careful astronomical observations to the earliest Greek astronomers with tables of accurate predictions, and accurate calendars to organize those predictions. Again, the bridge from myth to science was not the light-switch that Bloom describes, but gradual, a continuum that deeply involves both. And Bloom claims that only rational philosophers truly face death. This too is palpably wrong. Religious zealots not only face it; they command it, embrace it, and use it. To call death to a zealot “eternal life” is to play with words. And Nietzsche was no stranger here either, for what else is the Abyss but death? Bloom thinks that the precepts of the Enlightenment and the People’s rights are within our grasp and determinable by reason. But Rousseau and his successors showed the error in this, and the political correctness and vicious in-fighting by gangs of ethnic and gender chauvinists in today’s universities, each attempting to excommunicate competing factions, shows how shallow the pool of reason really is even among the most privileged beneficiaries of America’s upper-class, who cannot resist posturing en masse as angry victims of “the system” as they matriculate with their Ivy League diplomas. If American universities teach anything at all, it is that people are not reasonable and do not compromise in the absence of guns, and both Kant and Nietzsche showed the unreasonableness of reason itself, which is why the academy has returned to its ivory tower, unlamented by anyone. The “low but solid ground” of the Founding Fathers was, in the end, too low. Their tolerance of a society of miserly money-obsessed shopkeepers gave way to a glorification of selfishness where accumulation of wealth became a religion and genocide of the poor a duty under the laws of Nature, thus the outrage of Marx; shopkeeper society gave way to a glorification of group chauvinism and universal claims to special privilege with extortionate financial subsidies and demands for “affirmative action” and “reparations”—but only for those who can control the streets with angry thugs and “muscle”. Thus the Left in the U.S. today is indeed “fascistic,” and Bloom’s outrage.
Bloom is certainly correct in pointing out the imperfect implementation of Nietzsche in America’s intelligentsia. Nietzsche challenged conformism to stir up passion and free thought; the modern Left uses his language to enforce conformity and suppress free thought. Nietzsche scorned the sexual act and called for sublimation of its energies into more substantial channels; to the Left sexual gratification is a right and a duty, and labels sexual repression a feature of “capitalist alienation” to disappear under “socialism,” whatever that tired term may mean. The modern Left still uses the language of democracy for public consumption; but “equality” in the U.S. is a corpse that every passerby studiously refuses to bury. Vast hordes of “liberals” squeeze into colleges, frantic in their desire to prove themselves superior to all others and claim greater privileges, each loudly proclaiming his love of Humanity while scorning those refused admission, and calling for redistribution of wealth and greater democracy while preserving tenure and strict hierarchy among educators. Each year witnesses the sorting of America’s neighborhoods into finer and finer gradations of income and status, with gate-guards and cul-de-sacs, and taxes based on market valuation designed to keep the riff-raff far away, while deed restrictions are joined with criminal enforcement to ensure that no American has to rub shoulders with anyone who makes one dollar less than he, or with anyone who might have attended a college of slightly lower rank, or whose kids may make occasional B’s instead of all A’s. What’s called for, if anything, in this most class-ridden society on the planet called the United States, is better implementation of Nietzsche’s ideas, with a new recognition of the illusory nature of peaceful “democracy” and the impossibility of “equality” so that the creative can “be themselves” without becoming enmeshed in the usual American past-times of chronic divorce, violent sex-saturated media, non-stop ID theft, and credit card usury. Efforts to achieve universal “equality” in a world where no two people can be found who are alike in any sense besides having the same number of chromosomes, have become so tortured and illogical that it begs to drop the charade. This would be more honest and more peaceful than the present predicament. It is not at all clear that the many American illnesses that Bloom decries are attributable to Nietzsche, or that a more authentic implementation of Nietzsche’s ideas would necessarily lead to a resurrection of the Nazis. There is a great distance between a Van Gogh and a Hitler, despite their common love of paint. But if so, it will be interesting to see what the fascist Left makes of true fascism after so assiduously annihilating all proponents of moderation and compromise in the U.S.
Admittedly, not all myths are good. We can do without Sharia law in the West, though the logic of American Empire and its necessary corollary of Multiculturalism will require its implementation in America’s courts in time. Nietzsche also rejected Christianity as too passive, and this reviewer sees more-than-coincidental parallels between the deaths of Socrates and Christ, which seem more akin to suicides than sacrifices, explaining perhaps why Christianity so successfully fused the two cultures, and why Nietzsche, the preeminent classical scholar, firmly rejected both. But again we see that reason and revelation are inextricably intertwined, another continuum. True knowledge, it seems, lies always just beyond our reach, lurking beneath, waiting for the revelation from Nietzsche’s Id to make itself known to the rational mind, coalescing just before sleep, or leaping from the confines of a dream. Bloom, again, is altogether too rational. Perhaps Timothy Leary could replace Bloom’s sterile skies of reason with the all-consuming passion of penetrating life’s mysteries, those effusions from the Id that make humans what they are. —Glenn Lazar Roberts for SiriusReviews.com.
Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom 1984.,