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 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.