American Philosopher, Classicist, Academic and Author
Allan Bloom, fully Allan David Bloom
American Philosopher, Classicist, Academic and Author
The current generation  of students is unique and very different in outlook from its teachers. I am referring to the good students in the better colleges and universities, those to whom a liberal education is primarily directed and who are the objects of a training which presupposes the best possible material. These young people have never experienced the anxieties about simple physical well-being that their parents experienced during the depression. They have been raised in comfort and with the expectation of ever increasing comfort. Hence they are largely indifferent to it; they are not proud of having acquired it and have not occupied themselves with the petty and sometimes deforming concerns necessary to its acquisition. And, because they do not particularly care about it, they are more willing to give it up in the name of grand ideals; as a matter of fact, they are eager to do so in the hope of proving that they are not attached to it and are open to higher callings. In short, these students are a kind of democratic version of an aristocracy. The unbroken prosperity of the last twenty years gives them the confidence that they can always make a living. So they are ready to undertake any career or adventure if it can be made to appear serious. The ties of tradition, family, and financial responsibility are weak. And, along with all this, goes an open, generous character. They tend to be excellent students and extremely grateful for anything they learn.
The fact-value distinction admits that values are essential to life and shape the way facts are seen and used. Therefore values are primary. And if they do not come from reason, then they come from passionate commitment, the essence of morality. Of course, since commitment did not really produce values, the values adopted were the remnants of old reasoning, values with fallen arches, reaffirmed by claims of passionate commitment.
The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.
The philosopher ? applies what he sees in nature to his own life. As are the generations of leaves, so are the generations of men, ?a somber lesson that is only compensated for by the intense pleasure accompanying insight. Without that pleasure, which so few have, it would be intolerable.
The scholar cannot understand the will to power, not a cause recognized by science, which made Alexander different from others, because the scholar neither has it nor does his method permit him to have it or see it.
The uncompromisable difference that separates the philosophers from all others concerns death and dying. No way of life other than the philosophic can digest the truth about death. Whatever the illusion that supports ways of life and regimes other than the philosophic one, the philosopher is its enemy.
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 in the world.
Tocqueville found that Americans talked very much about individual right but that there was a real monotony of thought and that vigorous independence of mind was rare. Even those who appear to be free-thinkers ? are creatures of public opinion as much as are conformists?actors of nonconformism in the theater of the conformists who admire and applaud nonconformity of certain kinds, the kinds that radicalize the already dominant opinions.
When a poet writes about a poet, he does so as a poet. When a scientist talks about scientists, he does not do so as a scientist. If he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science.
Thales ? was the first man to have seen the cause of, and to predict, an eclipse of the sun. This means he figured out that the heavens move in regular ways that accord with mathematical reasoning. He was able to reason from visible effects to invisible causes and speculate about the intelligible order of nature as a whole... This moment contains many elements: satisfaction at having solved a problem; pleasure in using his faculties; fullness of pride, more complete than that of any conqueror, for he surveys and possesses all; certitude drawn from within himself, requiring no authorities; self-sufficiency, not depending, for the fulfillment of what is highest in himself, on other men or opinions or on accidents such as birth or election to power, on anything that can be taken from him; a happiness that has no admixture of illusion.
The de-eroticization of the world, a companion to its disenchantment... seems to result from a combination of causes our democratic regime and its tendencies toward leveling and self-protection, a reductionist-materialist science that inevitably interprets eros as sex, and the atmosphere generated by "the death of God" and of the subordinate god, Eros.
The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency - the belief that the here and now is all there is.
The liberals? beliefs do not entitle them as individuals, or collectively as a nation, to think they are superior to anyone else. John Rawls is almost a parody of this tendency, writing hundreds of pages to persuade men, and proposing a scheme of government that would force them, not to despise anyone. In A Theory of Justice, he writes that the physicist or the poet should not look down on the man who spends his life counting blades of grass or performing any other frivolous or corrupt activity. Indeed, he should be esteemed, since esteem from others, as opposed to self-esteem, is a basic need of all men. So indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination. This folly means that men are not permitted to seek for the natural human good and admire it when found, for such discovery is coeval with the discovery of the bad and contempt for it. Instinct and intellect must be suppressed by education.
The philosopher must come to terms with the deepest prejudices of men always, and of the men of his time. The one thing he cannot change and will not try to change is their fear of death and the whole superstructure of beliefs and institutions that make death bearable, ward it off or deny it. The essential difference between the philosopher and all other men is his facing of death or his relation to eternity. He obviously does not deny that many men die resolutely or calmly. It is relatively easy to die well. The question is how one lives, and only the philosopher does not need opinions that falsify the significance of things in order to endure them. He alone mixes the reality of death?its inevitability and our dependence on fortune for what little life we have?into every thought and deed and is thus able to live while honestly seeking perfect clarity. He is, therefore, necessarily in the most fundamental tension with everyone except his own kind. He relates to all the others ironically, i.e., with sympathy and a playful distance. Changing the character of his relationship to them is impossible because the disproportion between him and them is firmly rooted in nature. Thus, he has no expectation of essential progress. Toleration, not right, is the best he can hope for, and he is kept vigilant by the awareness of the basic fragility of his situation and that of philosophy.
The self must be a tense bow. It must struggle with opposites rather than harmonize them, rather than turn the tension over to the great instruments of last manhood?the skilled bow unbenders and Jesuits of our days, the psychiatrists, who, in the same spirit and as part of the same conspiracy of modernity as the peace virtuosos, reduce conflict.
The university began in spirit from Socrates' contemptuous and insolent distancing of himself from the Athenian people, his refusal to accept any command from them to cease asking, What is justice? What is knowledge? What is a god? and hence doubting the common opinions about such questions.
There is no more foundation to legitimacy than the inner justification the dominated make to themselves in order to accept the violence of those who dominate them. These justifications are, according to Weber, of three kinds: traditional, rational, and charismatic. Some men submit because that is the way it has always been; others consent to obey competent civil servants who follow rationally established rules; and others are enchanted by the extraordinary grace of an individual. Of the three, charismatic legitimacy is the most important. No matter what conservatives may think, traditions had a beginning that was not traditional. They had a founder who was not a conservative or a traditionalist. The fundamental values informing that tradition were his creation.
Tocqueville shows how a democratic regime causes a particular intellectual bent which, if not actively corrected, distorts the mind?s vision. The great democratic danger, according to Tocqueville, is enslavement to public opinion. ? The external impediments to the free exercise of reason have been removed in democracy. ? Since very few people school themselves in the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest encouraged by the regime, they need help on a vast number of issues. ? Some kind of authority is often necessary for most men and is necessary, at least sometimes, for all men. In the absence of anything else to which to turn, the common beliefs of most men are almost always what will determine judgment. This is just where tradition used to be most valuable. ? Tradition does provide a counterpoise to and a repair from the merely current, and contains the petrified remains of old wisdom (along with much that is not wisdom). The active presence of a tradition in a man?s soul gives him a resource against the ephemeral, the kind of resource that only the wise can find simply within themselves. The paradoxical result of the liberation of reason is greater reliance on public opinion for guidance, a weakening of independence.
When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately-available obvious things for him to learn were the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market?
That gray net of abstraction, used to cover the world in order to simplify and explain it in a way that is pleasing to us, has become the world in our eyes. The only way to see the phenomena, rather than sterile distillations of them, to experience them in their ambiguity again, would be to have available alternate visions, a diversity of profound opinions. ? Souls artificially constituted by a new kind of education live in a world transformed by man?s artifice and believe that all values are relative and determined by the private economic or sexual drives of those who hold them. How are they to recover the primary natural experience?
The defenselessness of philosophy in the city is what Aristophanes points out and ridicules. He, the poet, has much sympathy with the philosopher?s wisdom but prides himself on not being so foolish. He can take care of himself, win prizes from and be paid by the people. His stance is that of the wise guy in the face of the wise man; he is city smart.
The family spiritual void has left the field open to rock music? The result is nothing less than parents' loss of control over their children's moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.
The man without ideology, the one possessing science, can look to the economic infrastructure and see that Plato?s political philosophy, which teaches that the wise should rule, is only a rationalization for the aristocrats? position in a slave economy; or that Hobbes?s political philosophy, which teaches man?s freedom in the state of nature and the resulting war of all against all, is only the cover for the political arrangements suitable for the rising bourgeoisie. This point of view provides the foundation for intellectual history, which tells the story behind the story. Instead of looking at Plato and Hobbes for information about what courage is?a subject important to us?we should see how their definitions of courage suited those who controlled the means of production. But what applies to Plato and Hobbes cannot apply to Marx; otherwise the very assertion that these thinkers were economically determined would be itself a deception, simply the ideology for the new exploiters Marx happens to serve. The interpretation would self-destruct. He would not know what to look for in the thinkers who were inevitably and unconsciously in the grip of the historical process, for he would be in the same condition as they were.
The philosopher wants to know things as they are. He loves the truth. That is an intellectual virtue. He does not love to tell the truth. That is a moral virtue. Presumably he would prefer not to practice deception; but if it is a condition of his survival, he has no objection to it. The hopes of changing mankind almost always end up in changing not mankind but one?s thought.
The sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was?a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important.