Book Review: The Closing of the American Mind

by Elusive Wapiti on May 14, 2012

The BookThe Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.

Summary:  In this 25 year old book, Mr. Bloom, a former college professor at the University of Chicago, argued that the minds of Americans have become ‘closed’ by being indiscriminately open to all comers. He explains this initially contradictory claim by comparing the textbook definition of openness…the search for the good, the correct, and the banishing of ignorance by applying reason…with what has become the conventional definition of openness in modern discourse: the openness of an mind that accepts everything equally and refusing to employ (or even suppresses) reason’s power to judge ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In Bloom’s characterization, the Western mind has regressed to a pre-Western Civ state…a mind characterized by openness is ‘beyond good and evil’ (a concept found in Classical and older civilizations), and because the good life neither valued nor actively sought, ideas are given more or less equal weight when encountered. The American mind first spurned, then forgot its heritage and consequently floats along, adrift in a stream of values about which it no longer cares (or is permitted) to discriminate. Thus, virtue in the mind of the modern American is no longer found in being right or correct, or in correcting past mistakes, but in being open, tolerant, non-judgemental. The open-cum-closed mind does not look back to analyze the past, only forward to the next judgement-free encounter.

In openness-land, the only real vice is intolerance toward the new. Mr. Bloom worried about this new openness and what it means for American and Western culture when the received wisdom of tradition and the acquired wisdom of over a millennia of Scholasticism is rejected in favor of all kinds of men, credos, and lifestyles. As America from its inception was a radical experiment in natural rights and natural equality, it did not possess an aristocracy per se, an elite class where culture and wisdom were maintained and transmitted to the next generation for the entire people. Instead, the American anti-aristocratic model depended on the university to educate its citizens directly, regardless of social class, to inculcate a desire to seek virtue, and to motivate them toward seeking and living the “good life”. Instead, today, “men are [no longer] permitted to seek the natural human good and admire it when found”, for that is discriminatory and intolerant. Thus tradition and Western natural law are neutralized and the Western tradition of critical self-reflection, a tool unique to Western Civilization (other cultures and civilizations see no reason to test their cultures or their habits, their cultures are just fine, thank you very much) and a feature that enabled its greatness, is reduced to merely critique. Our past is shameful because it was so ‘closed’, our culture is flawed (because its past is flawed), and our beliefs are merely accidents of our place in the stream of time and as a result, our preferences are only that…accidents.

Similarly, not only is the American university adrift, but when young Americans arrive at university, they are vessels largely devoid of a sense of virtue or moral clarity. Their minds are tabulae rasa and, mirroring the decline in the universities–nobody believes the old books written by dead white men could contain any truth useful for us know-it-all moderns–the family has also retreated from its traditional role as the transmitter of knowledge and tradition. In its place enters media and the schools, as parents seem to

lack self-confidence as educators of their children, generously believing they will be better than their parents, not only in well-being, but in moral, bodily, and intellectual virtue. There is always a more or less open belief in progress, which means the past appears poor and contemptible. The future, which is open-ended, cannot be prescribed to by parents, and it eclipses the past which they know to be inferior [emphasis mine]

A moral education, which to be effective, according to Mr. Bloom, must present to the pupil “a vision of the moral universe, reward for good, punishment for evil, the drama of moral choices”, and a sense of the stakes involved in such choices. Mere ‘values education’ in the school system does not suffice, it is but the wind, with no anchor to hold it in place. Furthermore, Mr. Bloom argues that the lack of exposure to great literature from the past stunts the educated citizen’s ability to identify evil, as those who have not read the great books doubt evil’s existence, despite the fact that they witness horrible crimes and see many many more on the news. The citizen-student, open and adrift as he is, lacks an awareness of both the depths and the heights.

Mr. Bloom argued that this openness of indifference extends to human relationships as well. The American mind has become sharply egocentric, self-focused, defensive, and inwardly directed. Openness as the ultimate virtue drives a radical egalitarianism, with the result that the culture no longer recognizes no practical differentiation between any persons. When observable differences do surface, as they do most often with race, ethnicity and sex, they are denied, engineered away, or made taboo. Truth and reason are abused to maintain the openness-egalitarian narrative when the facts say otherwise–“the recalcitrant matter of the is gave way before the practical and philosophical ought to be“–resulting in racial and ethnic bribery for NAMs and sex-based set-asides for women. All in the name of forcing the unequal to be equal, an attempt to restore the equilibrium of sameness the closed mind seeks.

In addition, this openness-egalitarianism has wedged the sexes apart. Bloom wrote, channelling Socrates, that “equal treatment of women necessitates the removal of all the old kind of sexual relations…and a consequent loss of the human connections that resulted from them which [Socrates] replaces with the common good of a city”. Men and women are thus undifferentiated in custom and in law, sex loses much of its significance for men and women, except as a purely recreational activity, and a feminism takes root hat denies nature, denies the truth of sexual differentiation, homogenizes and suppresses relationships between the sexes.

In Bloom’s account, this closing of the American mind has a long and distinguished pedigree. He locates it in three events, the Enlightenment, the absolute defeat of Rousseauean philosophy in favor of the Lockean variety, and a misinterpretation and misapplication of Nietzschean philosophy. The Enlightenment dethroned God and promoted man and his ability to reason in its place. Religion, by definition virtue-prescriptive, was marginalized to the realm of opinion and myth and, because it is but one opinion or creed among others, it has little definitive knowledge to offer about the human condition and the soul. Locke advanced this ball further downfield, realigning virtue from the difficult task of loving one’s brother to ‘enlightened self interest’. No longer was agape a virtue, no longer was the man who cared for others virtuous, but instead the most virtuous man became he who cared for himself the most:

The old commandment that we love our brothers made impossible demands on us, demands against nature, while doing nothing to provide for real needs. What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope, and charity, but self-interested rational labor. The man who contributes most to relieving human misery is the one who produces most, and the surest way of getting him to do so is not by exhorting him, but by rewarding him most handsomely to sacrifice present pleasure for the sake of future benefit, or so assure avoidance of pain.

Locke encouraged his fellow man to love life, liberty, and the pursuit of property above all other things. The protestations of his antithesis, Rousseau, that such a proto-utilitarian philosophy left man’s spiritual side unattended and bereft were largely ignored, leaving the modern man spiritually adrift, or as Mr. Bloom wrote, ‘flat-souled’. Into this nexus then came Nietzsche and other great German thinkers. Nietzsche recognized how Lockean philosophy stifled and hobbled man’s soul and encouraged him to become something bigger than a selfish economic agent. In writing about the new world that awaits the man that looses his spirit, Nietzsche wrote ” Gott ist tot ” in reference to the power that man has to shape his future were he to only will it so. Here, Mr. Bloom claims that Nietzsche’s prouncement was not so much a triumph, as is commonly thought, but was instead a lament…was this all there is? Bloom then asserts that the Enlightenment forces hostile to religion from the get-go seized upon this confirmation of God’s death and used that as the jumping off point for an aggressive religious and dogmatic atheism…thus transforming Nietzsche into a hero of the Left, where he would more properly be a Rightist. What started as an attempt to realize natural law, reason, ever the devil’s whore, slowly becomes an auto-immune disorder.

Enter now the Frankfurt School, a nihilistic leftist philosophic school that fled Germany in the 20s and 30s, ironically escaping an aggressive instantiation of their nihilistic and leftist philosophy. First coming to Columbia University, this cancer rapidly spread to the rest of the American academy, and the revolution that comes with the upending of one weltanschauung and installation of another came to a head in the 60s. In the 60s, American universities were experiencing the same turmoil and dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the 30s. The result was the same however…a levelling of the populace, and the distinction between the educated and the uneducated, the diversity of many differing opinions, had given way to homogenization. No vision–or even competing visions–of what constituted an educated human was on offer, merely a keen focus on equality, which “…for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made–art, religion, philosophy. [Furthermore,] no one can say what “civilized” means, when there are said to be many civilizations that are all equal”. Thus did the American mind close, the effect of a nihilistic abandonment of the Western rational tradition, a tradition that made room for both the mind and the spirit. Victorious, reason-based radical egalitarianism found that it had to suppress reason to maintain the hegemony of radical egalitarianist philosophy.

Commentary

One thing that is obvious to readers of this book is the inherent structural bankruptcy of the philosophy of openness. For if we are not to think our way better than others, then what tools do we have to tell right from wrong? Some of us have religion, the remainder of the polity has merely the direction of the herd to shape their values and ethics. In other words, there is nothing but the mob. Perhaps this is the very point…how easy it is to shape the behavior and tastes of a mob, what with compulsory public schooling, an agenda-driving media selecting what issues are worth discussing and which are not, and advertising that teaches what goods are to be desired and which are not. Freethinking? I think not.

Something else, too: What chance does Western civilization have if it is peopled by those who either think Western civilization should be destroyed or those who think it gauche to think it preferable to other civilizations. I think this has profound implications for the West as we adapt to challenges from Islamic and Sinic civilizations, two civilizations who do not suffer from the profound self-loathing that the West seems to have at the moment. Will the West summon the will to carry on?

Additionally, being an MRA of sorts, I found what Mr. Bloom had to say wrt relations between the sexes of particular interest. Of the state of the male sex in an egalitarian society, he had this to say way back in 1987:

de Tocqueville describes the tip of the iceberg of advanced egalitarianism when he discusses the difficulty that a man without family lands, or a family tradition for whose continuation he is responsible, will have in avoiding individualism and seeing himself to be an integral part of a past and a future, rather than as an autonomous atom in a merely changing continuum

On this point, Mr. Bloom was very prescient. 1987 was just a few years after ‘peak divorce‘, the revolution that divested men from their families and initiated a self-reinforcing cycle of family breakup, made both men and women both think that the male is not a necessary component to the family, a nice-to-have luxury, certainly not essential. We see now, 25 years later, the effects of advanced egalitarianism, most notably in rising rates of commitment avoidance and rational slackerhood. I do not think most men really see themselves as part of a living society, with a past and certainly a future that he can be a part of. Instead, he lives only for himself, and is wary of the sort of social entanglements that his forefathers took for granted as part of the role of a patriarch.

I found myself also wondering if the increasing lack of substantive differentiation among men and women, legally and socially, is fuelling the rise in availability and acceptability of pornography both for men (visual) and for women (romance novellas). It seems that, since sex differences are denied except for when advantage can be accrued to the female, genuine sex itself loses its power among otherwise undifferentiated men and women. What remains of the sex act then is a hollow shell, the industrialized rubbing of genitalia, somewhat satisfying but yet still leaving the practitioner wondering if there was more, wondering why their forebears fussed so about sex and relationships, not missing what they don’t know. Furthermore, perhaps men and women are increasingly turning to porn in an unconscious effort to re-establish that differentiation, to regain what they don’t know in their head they’ve lost but their flesh still cries for nonetheless.

An another thought that came to mind while reading Mr. Bloom’s manuscript was how adopting the virtue of openness replaced the old, former sex-differentiated virtues for men and particularly for women,  responsibility and modesty, respectively. Instead of modesty, female sexuality is instead ubiquitous…it is nigh upon impossible for a man to walk down the street without individual women or advertisements featuring women attempting to manipulate him through displays of sexual imagery. What’s more, the culture is absolutely unable to resist this trend; slut-shaming is not very tolerant, ergo verboten, and ‘blaming the victim’ is an offense of a very high order. Similarly, although somewhat less so, virtue for men does not appreciably contain elements of responsibility; indeed, responsibility is something to be avoided when possible, viz., the rise in cohabitative unions, low and falling levels of male community engagement, working only enough to satisfy one’s individual needs, etc. While the old patriarchal society is no more, it was replaced by a functionally matriarchal one, and male responsibility, unlike female modesty, is still enforced vigorously by the State through chalimony, property division, and state transfer payments.

In conclusion, I found this a very worthwhile book, although the writing was at times very difficult to penetrate and could be much more compact. That said, the author did an outstanding job of imparting to the reader a sense of history, of a thread leading straight from the Enlightenment through the social contract theorists to German philosophers and forward to the Frankfurt School to the state of modern American academia.


About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey charged with operating heavier-than-air machinery. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to three, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead. More of his intolerable drivel is available at the blog The Elusive Wapiti.

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