U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bloom Beyond the Culture Wars, or How The Closing of the American Mind Changed My Life: a Testimonial

Guest post by Rivka Maizlish, University of Wisconsin-Madison

One of the things I most appreciated about the U.S. Intellectual History Conference’s annual return to the CUNY Graduate Center was my faithful pilgrimage up the thirty blocks from the conference to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I would sit before Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, and listen. People rarely walk by this painting in silence. Young students attempt to impress their parents by rehearsing lessons from history class about Socrates and Plato. Older visitors recall their education, uncovering buried memories of the Phaedo or the Apology and the philosopher’s final words. Gazing at Socrates’ hand over the cup, people often ask a companion, “remind me again why he was put to death?” It’s always a “remind me,” as if the story was already within them, but lately lost somehow (in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno, Socrates suggests that all learning is remembering). A few people stop at the painting just long enough to murmur “the unexamined life is not worth living,” while cantankerous philosophy students pass by shaking their heads, declaiming to their friends that Socrates need not have died, if only he hadn’t been such a jerk to the jury that sentenced him. 

Sometimes, sitting in front of the painting, I overheard a question and offered an answer, starting a conversation about democracy or the soul. It seemed fitting to end an inspiring day at a conference about ideas in America by descending into the agora (or ascending the steps of the Met) to observe Americans confronted with philosophy– at least in the form of David’s painting, the story it tells, and the figure of Socrates. The dozens of visitors who stop and consider this painting experience a rare, if brief, interaction with the meaning of philosophy.


I made my first pilgrimage to visit Socrates after a conference panel discussion about Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind left me frustrated. Amid snickers and one whispered, “he was gay!” panel attendees mocked Bloom’s description of his excitement when his college girlfriend explained that the University of Chicago clock-tower was a phallic symbol. This admittedly silly line is followed by a more serious declaration. “It was hard to tell whether the meaning of it all was that I was about to lose my virginity or penetrate the mysteries of being,” confesses Bloom. “An admirable confusion,” he adds. (1) The discrepancy between these two lines from Bloom’s infamous best-seller— the goofy business about the clock-tower phallus on the one hand, and the embrace of a salutary confusion between sex and education on the other— illustrates the mistake historians have made in considering Bloom and the meaning of Closing. Jumping at the easy opportunity to ridicule this book, they have neglected its more compelling themes. 

Sure, much of Closing is absurd at best. Exhibit A: “Women,” Bloom asserts, “have no basis for claiming that men should share their desire for children or assume responsibility for them.” (2) This is one of the least sexist statements in Bloom’s published works; his words about rape in Love and Friendship would have the RNC clamoring for his resignation, were he a Republican candidate. And let’s not forget my favorite line in Closing: “Richard Nixon, with his unerring instinct for the high moral ground . . .” (3) Part of me still thinks this must be a joke. But all this is the Culture Wars Bloom, the only Bloom present when the conference panel attendees discussed and ridiculed Closing. Behind this Bloom is the Bloom that asks “Are we lovers anymore?” and then boldly declares, “this is my way of putting the educational question of our times.” (4) Without impugning the value of studying Closing in connection with the contest to direct American values in an anti-foundationalist world that became known as the “Culture Wars,” I submit that this book inhabits several other contexts, and that historians have much to gain—both personally and professionally—from considering Bloom beyond the Culture Wars.
My first encounter with Closing, in the middle of the last year of my undergraduate studies, was liberating. Naive and privileged, I had come to college convinced that I could change the world, and spent most of my time telling myself it would happen if I just kept doing useful things like knocking on doors, registering voters, and reminding my classmates how much money the U.S. government had spent in Iraq. Closing showed me that if I could follow Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself,” and encourage my peers to do the same by building intellectual community based on friendship and pursuit of truth (even unto its innermost parts), I would be doing more good than could ever come from my political work. Furthermore, Closing suggested that I had my whole life to conform to some external notion of justice. College education was about creatively challenging conventional ideas of the good, the just, the virtuous. And one did not have to do this alone. Past thinkers, from Homer to Nietzsche, could help my friends and me explore different ideas and re-imagine what was possible (“So this has existed once, at least—and is therefore a possibility, this way of life, this way of looking at the human scene,” wrote Nietzsche). (5) As a freshman I had been assigned Plato’s Republic in an introduction to political theory course. I never opened it. I think I figured that something so old couldn’t possible be of any use to me. Three years later, I was home for winter vacation when I finished Closing. The first thing I did after putting the book down was frantically search my parents’ house for anything by Plato. Bloom wrote so lovingly about reading the ancient philosopher, I wanted to experience the pleasure myself. I found a copy of the Apology and have been hooked on Plato ever since. 

This, then, is the value of Closing. It can be read as a Culture War document. But Bloom intended it to be nothing less than a gateway drug to philosophy, literature and the examined life (plus a way to finance his Emma Bovary-esque spending habits). An appreciation of the book on this level can lead intellectual historians to do much more with it than they have by simply placing it in the context of the Culture Wars. Carrying Caroline Winterer’s work into the second half of the twentieth-century, historians could examine Bloom’s rhapsodic endorsement of Plato in terms of the reception and use of the Classics in America. One could fit Bloom into the postwar literary turn that Michael Kimmage describes, and examine him as one of several intellectuals, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Peter Viereck, who found meaning in poetry and philosophy, as opposed to politics. Bloom also belongs in the anti-historicist tradition of his teacher, Leo Strauss. Writing that education is about satisfying erotic longing for completeness, Bloom complains in Closing that “the university does not see itself as ministering to such needs and does not believe the mummies on display in its museum can speak to the visitors or, horrors, go home to live with them.” (6) Here is the Bloom whose main concern is the tyranny of the living over the dead, and who belongs in an intellectual tradition that transcends the Culture Wars and the “Great Books” debates. 

In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has demonstrated how historians could examine Bloom in new contexts. Placing him in an American intellectual tradition that far transcends the Culture Wars, she reveals Bloom “enacting an American way of knowing Nietzsche, or an Emersonian way of thinking.” (7) Indeed, in the tradition of Emerson, Closing contains fascinating thoughts on the fate of philosophy in America. “Contrary to the popular prejudice that America is the nation of unintellectual and anti-intellectual people, where ideas are at best means to ends,” Bloom argues, “America is actually nothing but a great stage on which theories have been played as tragedy and comedy.” “This is a regime,” he continues, “founded by philosophers and their students. All the recalcitrant matter of the historical is gave way here before the practical and philosophical ought to be, as the raw natural givens of this wild continent meekly submitted to the yoke of theoretical science.” (8) Bloom, therefore, is valuable to U.S. intellectual historians for his understanding of the relationship between ideas, intellectuals, and democratic society in America, as well as his views on the role of educational institutions, such as the university, and cultural institutions, such as music and the family, in negotiating this relationship. “This is the American moment in world history,” Bloom concludes his book, “the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the word has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before.” (9)
Historians can, and should, criticize Closing. We can, and should, oppose Bloom’s sexist conviction that women are bound by nature, while the purpose of education, for men, is to overcome nature. We can scrutinize his arguments in favor of a core curriculum founded upon the Western cannon. And, of course, we can bristle at his critique of pop music (I write this while listening to Exile on Main Street). But historians should not dismiss this book; nor should they reduce it to a Culture War document. In a recent article, David C. Engerman argues that historians should broaden the intellectual context of the Cold War, in order to understand certain figures as intellectuals in the Cold War, instead of “Cold War intellectuals,” whose work is reducible to reigning U.S. geopolitical concerns. Similarly, Closing may be a key document in the Culture Wars, but it is so much more than a “Culture War book.” We remain under the shadow of the Culture Wars until we can broaden Bloom’s intellectual context and tap the full potential of this remarkable book.

After my first read of Closing, I sought out one of my professors, who had been a student of Bloom, to ask what the man was like, explaining that I was deeply moved by his best-seller. I will never forget my professor’s response: “Hmm, so it still works,” he said simply, suggesting that Bloom’s ability to inspire undergraduates to pursue the examined life— or at least to read literature and philosophy—survives him. When I left the U.S. Intellectual History Conference panel, where attendees went to court about Bloom’s wisdom, and connected with visitors at the Met over the life and death of Socrates, I continued Bloom’s true legacy. The Closing of the American Mind did not make me stop listening to the Stones, but it has inspired me to read Plato, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Shakespeare, to connect with friends and strangers in pursuit of new ideas, and to think creatively about justice, virtue, the good life, and, indeed, about how historians conceive of intellectual context. 

Notes

1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks), 1987, 136.
2. Bloom, 114
3. Bloom, 329.
4. Bloom, 133.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Marianne Cowan, trans. (United States: Regnery Publishing, Inc.), 1962, 23-24.
6. Bloom, 136.
7. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2012, 312.
8. Bloom, 97.
9. Bloom, 382.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve only encountered Bloom in the guise of student of Rousseau. He wrote a lot about Rousseau, (his translation of Emile is the standard English version, for example). I can’t say I agree with all of his conclusions, but there’s no denying he knew what he’s talking about. Do scholars of Bloom ever pay any attention to that stuff? At any rate, one of Bloom’s chief arguments for studying Rousseau can be summarized as, “He’s a great thinker who spoke greatly about the greatest things.” (That would accord with what’s said here.) There are certainly worse reasons to study Rousseau, or Plato, or . . .

  2. Rivka, thanks for this. Idealism without naivete is tricky, but I think you manage it pretty well here.

    Varad writes:

    At any rate, one of Bloom’s chief arguments for studying Rousseau can be summarized as, “He’s a great thinker who spoke greatly about the greatest things.”

    This, in a nutshell, is my (latest) problem with Allan Bloom — though, as you’ve phrased it here Varad, it sounds like my problem with Bloom might be a problem with Matthew Arnold.

    But I don’t think that’s the case lately, for it’s not the idealism of/in Bloom that bothers me. That’s one of his redeeming qualities, as Rivka highlights here. What bothers me is that he can’t manage the idealism without also expressing an accompanying contempt for everything and everyone who somehow falls short of his vision of the good life.

    I have seen a similar dynamic at work in some of the boundary disputes and border wars regarding the practice of intellectual history, what is and isn’t worthy of study, etc. And I’ve come across a similar dynamic in some other contexts. And lately it really rankles — perhaps more than it should.

    Or perhaps I should have been more bothered by it long before now.

  3. “This, in a nutshell, is my (latest) problem with Allan Bloom — though, as you’ve phrased it here Varad, it sounds like my problem with Bloom might be a problem with Matthew Arnold . . . What bothers me is that he can’t manage the idealism without also expressing an accompanying contempt for everything and everyone who somehow falls short of his vision of the good life.”

    Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a problem with Matthew Arnold so much as a problem with Plato and Aristotle. Arnold wanted the middle classes (the Philistines) to aspire to more than the crass, banausic materialism that he thought was coming to define Victorian culture. But he thought they should aspire for better because they could aspire for better. Plato and Aristotle would have never made such a claim. They would have found it preposterous, Plato especially. Arnold has a, let’s call it “democratic” faute de mieux, quality utterly alien to classical thought. That is one of the deepest ruptures separating our modern age from antiquity.

    My understanding of the Straussians is that one of their guiding principles is that that rupture was a huge error. I don’t know enough about Bloom to address where the stands on that issue. How hostile is he to modernity? At any rate, we can take Rivka as one datum (and it’s no more) that Bloom can be read in a “democratic” way. Or perhaps “popular” is the more appropriate term.

  4. This is a thoughtful post–makes me want to read Bloom. Not having yet done so, and coming at this from a different place, I was struck by this passage:

    “My first encounter with Closing, in the middle of the last year of my undergraduate studies, was liberating. Naive and privileged, I had come to college convinced that I could change the world, and spent most of my time telling myself it would happen if I just kept doing useful things like knocking on doors, registering voters, and reminding my classmates how much money the U.S. government had spent in Iraq. Closing showed me that if I could follow Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself,” and encourage my peers to do the same by building intellectual community based on friendship and pursuit of truth (even unto its innermost parts), I would be doing more good than could ever come from my political work. Furthermore, Closing suggested that I had my whole life to conform to some external notion of justice.”

    Don’t people hold against Bloom (and many other *ironists*) just this sort of reaction? Isn’t the argument exactly over whether or not “building intellectual community based on friendship and pursuit of truth” is really a more laudable, really a more moral, even, goal than “doing useful things like knocking on doors, registering voters, and reminding my classmates how much money the U.S. government had spent in Iraq”?

    So, similarly, the elegantly made claim at the end of the piece about continuing Bloom’s legacy not by arguing in the setting of an academic panel at a conference, but rather encountering individuals in the field of David’s Socrates…This seems like a profound difference of value. I’d be tempted to say even that these values are incommensurable rather than simply different. maybe between them is the rupture that Varad mentions above?

  5. Varad, from my (limited) experience, I think your understanding of Straussians is probably correct, though I don’t think the elitism falls along (socioeconomic) class lines. My impression is that there’s a fervent belief in a kind of aristocracy of the mind, and that the sacred gnosis of Philosophic Truth is not to be sullied by contact with the hoi polloi. Something like that. But Ben is the guy to ask here.

    Speaking of hoi polloi, I need to write a blog post about the educative function of Bugs Bunny cartoons (which is where I picked up and learned to use the term, long before I learned its literal meaning). How many of my fellow gate-crashers in the sacred groves of academe were introduced to Mozart and Wagner by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd?

    Oh mighty warrior of great fighting stock, might I inquire — eh, what’s up, Doc?

  6. Thanks, Eric, for this great comment. I think this is THE problem with Bloom, or at least the problem that follows from what I’ve done with Bloom. It is also the central problem of Plato’s entire body of work. Can one be a good philosopher and a good citizen? Can one be radically committed to the life of the mind and to the life of one’s city/nation? Can one be committed to pursuing truth no matter the consequences and committed to fulfilling one’s civic obligations? (I see this theme throughout American Intellectual History as well, particularly with Emerson, with the radical abolitionists, and with questions about the role of education during the Cold War.) Plato’s Symposium begins with one of Socrates’ friends saying about Socrates almost exactly what I said about Bloom in the paragraph you quoted. Apollodorus claims that he “used to run ’round and ’round aimlessly,” engaged in the politics of the city. But Socrates inspires Apollodorus to quit the business of the city and start engaging in the business of philosophy. This is why Socrates is executed– for corrupting the youth and turning them into bad citizens (as perhaps Bloom did to me). Curiously, however, Socrates seems to think he’s engaged in the work of the ideal citizen (when asked to suggest a proper punishment for his crime of corrupting the youth, he declares that he should be fed at public expense)! Nevertheless, he has to die, suggesting, perhaps, that the citizen-philosopher combination is doomed. Is it? I don’t know. As you pointed out, it’s clear that when I first read Bloom I revolted against the citizen in favor of the philosopher. At the time, this was incredibly liberating and edifying. But Bloom, a reader of Plato and Rousseau (whose work also deals primarily with this very question), would probably urge us to continue struggling with what makes a good citizen and what makes a good philosopher, and to continue to ask questions about the role of the intellectual in democratic society.

  7. An interesting and thought-provoking post, Rivka. Thanks for it!

    I would join you in urging those reading Bloom to treat him as a complicated thinker and not reduce him to a culture-war cartoon. But I suppose I feel that, if we want to understand Bloom as he understood himself, the culture-war aspect of his thought (properly understood) cannot be done away with or ignored. His misogyny is deeply interwoven with his understanding of Plato. His criticism of youth culture is absolutely central to what he believes ails this country. Taking Bloom seriously entails, among other things, taking his misogyny and his views about rock-and-roll seriously.

    I agree with Bloom that it is worthwhile to read and take seriously the “Great Books” (though I suppose I’m a little uncomfortable removing those quotation marks). In fact, I teach a “Great Books” course (that even includes those words without quotation marks in its title) in the Honors College here at the University of Oklahoma. And to the extent that Allan Bloom is encouraging his readers to seriously engage with Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau and other canonical DWEMs, more power to him! However, I disagree with Bloom about (among other things): who ought to be reading these books (or more precisely who is fit to understand them in all their dimensions), how they should be read (and, as a result, to a certain extent what they mean), what the good society looks like, and what the problems with American society and culture are. These are not little things and they are all connected with Bloom’s ideas about the “Great Books.” As it turns out, Allan Bloom was an absolutely central figure in the education of a number of prominent neoconservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz and Alan Keyes. This, too, tells us something about how Allan Bloom reads his books.

    As it turns out, however, the “Great Books” have many advocates besides Allan Bloom. Some of them–I’m thinking of Mortimer Adler, Earl Shorris, and Martha Nussbaum, e.g.–are even openly hostile to Bloom. One of the things that really separates Bloom from these other thinkers is his deep pessimism about America, a pessimism that is as important to The Closing of the American Mind as is the call to read the Great Books. (Recognizing this pessimism, which is somewhat disguised, is, in fact, part of understanding Bloom as something other than simply a creature of the Culture Wars as they are usually understood.) At any rate, seeing Bloom as a complicated figure necessarily involves seeing him as more than simply a generic advocate for Great Books.

  8. As for the Philosopher and the City: Strauss’s (and I think Bloom’s) view is that there is an inevitable tension between philosophy, which is radically skeptical (or zetetic), and the city, which relies on necessary fictions for its survival. In typical Straussian fashion, this binary cannot be resolved in favor of one or the other, nor can any synthesis take place. Instead, in order to preserve the best way of life (philosophy) and the natural way of life for all men (including the vast majority unfit for philosophy), the two must, in effect, remain in tension. Philosophers are men and their natural home is still the city. Moreover, they rely on the city as a recruiting ground for future philosophers. But their activity is potentially threatening to the city. As a result, philosophers need to practice philosophical politics, they must satisfy the city (this is Strauss from his rejoinder to Kojeve’s review of On Tyranny) “that philosophers are not atheists, that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences, that they are not subversives, in short, that they are not irresponsible adventurers but good citizens and even the best of citizens. This is the defense of philosophy which was required always and everywhere, whatever the regime might have been.” This is, I think, what Bloom is up to when he appears to praise the American political tradition on pp. 54-56 of Closing.

  9. Thanks for your response, Ben, I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this, particularly your point that it should not be as easy to ignore Bloom’s misogyny as I may sometimes want to make it. I think we agree on your first main point. As I suggested, all of Bloom should be taken into consideration when historians treat his ideas; my main concern is that none of it become grounds for dismissing him or Closing, as I have seen happen. I would like to see historians consider Bloom as a public intellectual, a thinker, an “American Scholar.” The sexism, the critique of the Stones, the clock-tower phallus, and even, maybe, Wolfowitz and Keyes, are all part of Bloom the thinker. But Bloom the thinker is not reducible to the standard politics of the Culture Wars, a litany of “neoconservatives,” or some of the sillier lines in Closing. Nor, of course, is he merely a “Great Books” enthusiast, as you point out. If it is important that historians not reduce Bloom to a culture warrior, it is equally important that they not reduce him to a guy who happened to love Shakespeare. Ultimately, I am interested in Bloom’s “philosophy of America”– what he thought this country could do, how he thought it ought to be– and how he used figures like Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Nietzsche to frame his thoughts and his longings. I believe this involves seeing him as a figure whose concerns and interactions include, but are not limited to, the politics of the Culture Wars.

    Thanks also for your explication of Strauss’ thoughts on the philosopher and the city. This is very helpful to thinking about how one might approach the problem Bloom presents (I should check out Kojeve– another of Bloom’s “contexts” that goes beyond the Culture Wars). I guess I’m not totally prepared to follow you to Bloom merely “appearing” to praise the American political tradition, however, not least of all because pages 54-56 are nowhere near the middle of Closing, which, as we know, is where Straussians are supposed to hide the key to what they’re up to!

    • It’s a minor point, but the appearance of Bloom’s praise for the American political tradition at the beginning (rather than at the center) of the book is, if anything, evidence that we should not take it so seriously (for the very reason you mention). The more “exposed” parts of a text are exactly where one would expect an exoteric text to repeat conventional truths that the careful reader knows not to take at face value. (What does appear at the center of the book is the one appearance of Leo Strauss’s name).

      (Incidentally, Bloom’s fellow Straussians Catherine and Michael Zuckert share my sense that his celebration of the American political tradition is a matter of misdirection. See their The Truth About Leo Strauss, p. 234.)

  10. Rivka, after reading your response to Ben above, especially your admonition that people not be reductive or simplistic in categorizing Bloom (or, by implication, anyone else), I have to ask: have you read Age of Fracture? Now that’s a gateway drug!

  11. Has anyone looked at Arnold as a culture warrior? The political context in which he wrote has largely fallen away for us, so much of what we still see in Arnold is his views of culture as a moral and philosophical category. Having said that, I’ll now pose what is probably a naive question. Looked at from that perspective, what would be gained – if anything – from looking at Bloom not as (or not only as) a culture warrior in the political sense – that is, someone who wields culture in debates about contemporary politics – but as someone who is a warrior for culture, that is, someone who advocates and defends a particular conception of culture? I know it’s hard to extricate the political stuff, but as Rivka indicates, that’s neither the whole nor even the half of it. So what is the culture that Bloom is going to war for?

  12. You were listening to Side 2, right? I have a hard time picturing someone writing this to the tune of “Rocks Off.”

  13. Is it possible that resistance to the “reduction” of Bloom to the status of Culture Warrior adumbrates criticism of the Culture War construct itself; that, to use Ben’s terms, it implies a cartoonish potential in Culture War historiography?

    Rivka implies as much in suggesting a parallel with Cold War historiography, citing David Engerman’s distinction in “Social Science in the Cold War,” Isis 101, 2010, between social science in the Cold War and Cold War social science.

    I wonder which has more reductive potential — the lower-case version that might see culture wars in other contexts, or the Culture War designation that features its particularity?

  14. This is an interesting post, but I think that you haven’t understood enough of Bloom, partly because you’re trying to make him into more of a right-wing strawman than he really was (the line about Nixon that you quote actually WAS a joke). Ben Alpers’s comments are helpful on that point. There are also some very thoughtful conservative critiques of Bloom, which do a better job of showing what was actually challenging about his book:

    http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/2012/03/socratic-philosopher-and-american.html#.ULlycoWLEy4

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/who-closed-the-american-mind/

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