The Magazine

Romantic at Heart

Bloom's critique of unreason, and what it owes to Santayana.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By JAMES SEATON
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The 20th anniversary of the publication of The Closing of the American Mind is a good time to ask whether Allan Bloom's bestseller was a book of its moment, or a work of permanent significance.

A 2007 rereading suggests that both the emotional power that made it a bestseller and its intellectual limitations derive from an aspect of the book neglected by both proponents and attackers: its unacknowledged but intense romanticism. This romanticism charges Closing with emotional authenticity, but also leads to an overrating of the esoteric wisdom and sheer intensity Bloom associates with true philosophers, and an underestimation of the common sense and practical wisdom of ordinary Americans.

Bloom's romanticism becomes clear if one compares The Closing of the American Mind to another famous analysis of American culture and society: George Santayana's Character and Opinion in the United States.

There are a number of striking parallels between Bloom's 1987 work and Santayana's 1920 analysis of American culture. Both stressed the impact of German philosophy. Bloom found "the master lyricists" Nietzsche and Heidegger at the source of some of the most pervasive aspects of American culture, while Santayana believed that the American genteel tradition was enabled by the academic prestige of German philosophical idealism.

Both Bloom and Santayana turned to their own universities to discern wider cultural patterns. Bloom found that intellectual trends at the University of Chicago, where he was a student and finally a professor, both influenced and reflected broader currents in American culture, while Santayana took Harvard, where he was both a student and a professor, as exemplifying the academic environment that allowed the genteel tradition to flourish. Both judged the American scene from the viewpoint of what each took to be the essential philosophical perspective: that of those whom Bloom called the "knowers" and Santayana the "true philosophers."

One important difference between the two analyses lies in their attitudes and judgments about those aspects of American culture remote from theoretical or philosophical discourse. Asserting in Closing that "an experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation," Allan Bloom is indeed contemptuous of many aspects of the life of ordinary Americans. His own relatives seem unable to talk without lapsing into trivialities: "When they [my relatives] talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire."

It isn't that people have hidden depths they are simply unable to express; the superficiality goes deep down. According to Bloom, "the dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief," and the college students trying to escape from the family's "dreariness" by way of casual sex are no better. He does not object to student sexual activity because it is irresponsible or immoral but because it is insufficiently passionate: "The eroticism of our students is lame." Bloom is disappointed that his students are not willing to risk everything for the sake of love: "Their lack of passion, of hope, of despair, of a sense of the twinship of love and death, is incomprehensible to me." He laments that "sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity."

Bloom wanted people to live intense, serious lives. He was not so much disturbed that American culture seemed ultimately nihilistic--he speculates in Closing that "nihilism is a dangerous but a necessary and a possibly salutary stage in human history" --but because Americans didn't seem to take nihilism seriously. "American nihilism," he declared, was "nihilism without the abyss." Americans in general are "easygoing" rather than "serious," and therefore arouse Bloom's contempt. He praises Nietzsche for replacing "easygoing or self-satisfied atheism with agonized atheism," but Americans haven't gotten the message. In the United States, acceptance of Nietzsche's thesis on "the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil" did not lead to agonizing reappraisal of the meaning of life, but instead "served the easygoing quest for comfortable self-preservation."

Meanwhile, Bloom singles out "the intransigent facing of death--in the sense of always thinking about it and what it means for life and the things dear in life" as especially "characteristic of a serious life." In every period and culture it is only a small minority--the true philosophers, the "knowers"--who have been willing and able to confront the reality of death and thus live lives that are truly "serious." A true philosopher of any school "looks at things under the guise of eternity," and thus "the essential difference between the philosopher and all other men is his facing of death or his relation to eternity." Bloom argued that this "essential difference" is just as real today as it was in the time of Socrates: "The great modern philosophers were as much philosophers as were the ancients. They were perfectly conscious of what separates them from all other men, and they knew that the gulf is unbridgeable."

For Bloom, "Philosophy is not a doctrine but a way of life," and thus "the philosophers in their closets or their academies have entirely different ends than the rest of mankind."

Like Allan Bloom, George Santayana thought of philosophy as a way of life, and when he asserts that "the true philosophers .  .  . have seen all things in the light of eternity," he sounds much like Allan Bloom emphasizing the difference between "the philosophers in their closets" and the rest of us. There is, however, a key difference of emphasis. Bloom's conception emphasizes not the knowledge that the philosopher achieves but, rather, the "intensity" and the "intransigence" with which he or she confronts "the alternatives .  .  . in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear." Bloom seems to assume that any true philosopher today will be an atheist, but the important question is whether it will be an "easygoing or self-satisfied atheism" or the truly philosophical "agonized atheism." Bloom's emphasis on "intensity," "intransigence," and an "agonized" outlook as goods in themselves reveals a perspective that can only be called romantic. He is not interested in happiness but in romantic assertion and aspiration, whatever they may cost.

It should be emphasized that there are passages in Closing that express attitudes far from romantic. Criticizing "the part of the mythology of the sixties" involving "the alleged superior moral 'concern' of the students," Bloom suggests the superiority of everyday, common-sense morality to what one might characterize (though Bloom does not) as the romanticism of the students of the 1960s:

There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in such things as telling the truth, paying one's debts, respecting one's parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little honor on the world. .  .  . This was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct, the kind that characterizes heroes in extreme -situations.

If Bloom had taken up this "perennial and unobtrusive view" and made it his own by defending it against the ideas of the thinkers whom he takes most seriously--Rousseau, Nietzsche, Heidegger, all three proponents of "histrionic versions of moral conduct" and connoisseurs of "extreme situations"--then The Closing of the American Mind would have been a more thoughtful, less romantic book. And probably not a bestseller.

Bloom applauds Nietzsche for seeking "with his value philosophy to restore the harsh conflicts for which men were willing to die" while lamenting that Nietzsche's "value philosophy was used in America for exactly the opposite purpose--to promote conflict-resolution, bargaining, harmony." Santayana, on the other hand, regards the romantic preference for struggle rather than fulfillment as an expression of an unphilosophical failure to consider human life and the universe as fully as possible--a failure to consider them "in the light of eternity." Thus Santayana criticizes Nietzsche's notion of the superman for its emphasis on mere intensity or "vehemence," rather than on the achievement of the serenity available when one renounces personal egotism and takes the viewpoint of God or eternity. In Santayana's view, Nietzsche's intensity is neither philosophic nor admirable: Nietzsche, Santayana comments, "loved mere life with the pathetic intensity of the wounded beast," while

The saints and the true philosophers .  .  . have seen all things in the light of eternity--that is, as they are in truth--and have consequently felt a reasonable contempt for mere living and mere dying; and in that precisely lies moral greatness. Here Nietzsche could not follow; rationality chilled him; he craved vehemence.

The "reasonable contempt" that the true philosopher feels "for mere living and mere dying" means that the philosopher does not regard his or her individual life as the center of all things and personal death as the ultimate catastrophe.

Yet the achievement of serenity through recognizing and accepting one's place in the universe does not translate, in Santayana, to contempt for nonphilosophers who have not made a comparable intellectual journey. Santayana does not claim that the intense seriousness of the philosopher gives him a ground for feeling that the lives of others are comparatively trivial, or that the philosopher is morally superior to others because of his intellectual courage. Instead, those with a philosophical bent are more fortunate than others; unlike other people, philosophers "have always had a royal road to complete satisfaction" since they are able to appreciate a pleasure one is always free to enjoy--"the pleasure of understanding."

Whereas Bloom suggests that philosophers deserve to be honored because they shoulder a heavier burden than the rest of us in confronting the reality of death, Santayana suggests that philosophy, properly understood, makes life more bearable. In Character and Opinion he comments that

If we define the intellect as the power to see things as they are, it is clear that in so far as the philosopher is a pure intellect the universe will be a pure good to the philosopher. .  .  . Wisdom counsels us therefore to become philosophers and to concentrate our lives as much as possible in pure intelligence, that we may be led by it into the ways of peace. .  .  . The universe will have become in that measure a good to us, and we shall be better able to live happily and freely in it.

While in The Closing of the American Mind Bloom suggests that the superficial absorption of German philosophy in the United States has led to a culture in which all but a very few lead lives devoid of significance, Santayana argues that American society and Americans deserve the respect of philosophers.

Santayana observes in Character and Opinion that, even as academic philosophers in the genteel tradition were congratulating themselves on overcoming common sense to reach "the remarkable conclusion that the human spirit was not so much the purpose of the universe as its seat, and the only universe there was," ordinary, unphilosophical Americans were successfully building a way of life "in harmony with the nature of things." In the United States he finds "the spirit of free co-operation" nurtured in England taken to a new level: "Everywhere co-operation is taken for granted. .  .  . The general instinct is to run and help, to assume direction, to pull through somehow by mutual adaptation, by seizing on the readiest practical measures and working compromises."

Santayana considers this union of spontaneous cooperation with individual liberty, which he calls "English liberty," something for a philosopher to wonder at: "If we consider human nature at large and the practice of most nations, we shall see that it is a very rare, wonderful, and unstable convention." The very unwillingness of Americans to formulate and embrace an overarching philosophy beyond their "constitutional religion" turns out to be an advantage: "In the end, adaptation to the world at large, where so much is hidden and unintelligible, is only possible piecemeal, by groping with a genuine indetermination in one's aims. .  .  . Co-operation is better than policy, and empiricism safer than inspiration." Ordinary Americans were, it turns out, more "in harmony with the nature of things" than were the accredited philosophers.

Allan Bloom ended The Closing of the American Mind by observing that "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 world had devolved upon our universities" and asserting that "the two are related as they have never been before." On his own telling, however, it is not clear what the connection between the two might be. According to Bloom himself, philosophers have for centuries "engaged in a gentle art of deception," since their connection with any particular political order is, if not hostile, not helpful either. The philosophers, after all, "have entirely different aims than the rest of mankind." Santayana, writing with "the tone and attitude of a detached observer," did not expect to influence the course of events. Nevertheless, he observed, "to take as calm and as long a view as possible seems to be but another name for the love of truth."

Today, Santayana's conclusion seems prescient: "Absolute liberty and English liberty are incompatible, and mankind must make a painful and a brave choice between them." Santayana would not be surprised to learn that, today, when "English liberty" is threatened by a fanaticism demanding the "absolute liberty" to remake the world with no compromises whatsoever, his judgment of their incompatibility is more likely to be shared by ordinary Americans than by the academic heirs of the genteel tradition at Harvard and elsewhere.

Allan Bloom's tone and attitude are neither detached nor calm and, indeed, much of the appeal of his work comes from its intensely personal tone and its honest indignation. The contemporary version of the genteel tradition is surely the collection of taboos known as "political correctness," most of which were violated with energetic aplomb by Bloom in his famous book. The Closing of the American Mind may not be a work for all time, but it was desperately needed in its own time, and 20 years after publication, its protest against "the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy" remains all too relevant.

The praise that George Santayana gave to William James is surely applicable to Allan Bloom as well: "An honest man has spoken, and the cant of the genteel tradition [today 'political correctness' in all its forms] has become harder for young lips to repeat."

James Seaton is a professor of English at Michigan State.