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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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