The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom is regarded by supporters and opponents alike as one of the most important modern works of conservatism. When it was first published, 25 years ago, it stirred up a raging storm of controversy and became a bestseller.
As noted before on the Deep End, the irony was that Allan Bloom wasn’t a conservative at all, but an avowed liberal who simply believed that liberalism was best served by teaching the established cannon of western literature and philosophy in place of the multiculural mish- that had become so fashionable in American universities.
Writing for the American Conservative, Patrick Deneen – a professor of political philosophy – has a fascinating postscript to this story:
- “I still assign the book with some regularity, especially in a freshman seminar on education that I’ve taught over the last half-decade. As the years have passed, I’ve noticed how the book has aged… [it still] continues to excite new readers—today’s students find it engaging, even if, unlike their elders, they don’t get especially upset by it and almost unanimously have never heard of it before.
- “…one is entitled to conclude that were Closing published today, it would barely cause a ripple.”
In other words, the triumph of cultural relativism is so complete that the academic elite don’t care much about anything anymore – not even an attack on their own attachment to relativism.
We can see this phenomenon at work in other cultural arenas. Consider comedy, for instance. Back in the 1980s, the likes of Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton challenged the sexism and racism of the Bernard Manning era. But now, bored with political correctness, the likes of Ricky Gervaise and Frankie Boyle delight in jokes about the disabled – not out of some genuine regression to the cruelties of the past, but simply because it amuses them and their audiences.
It was what Allan Bloom always feared would happen:
- “What is today called ‘tolerance’, Bloom rightly understood to be more deeply a form of indifference, the extreme absence of care…”
Bloom blamed this indifference on the “decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true.” His concern was not rooted in a commitment to any particular tradition:
- “…but because he believed that such inherited belief was the source from which a deeper and more profound philosophic longing arose. It wasn’t ‘cultural literacy’ he wanted, but rather the possibility of that liberating excitement among college-age youth that can come from realizing that one’s own inherited tradition might not be true. From that harrowing of belief can come the ultimate philosophic quest—the effort to replace mere prejudice with the quest for knowledge of the True.”
In other words, Bloom’s liberalism – the liberalism of the enlightenment – wass all about the discovery of meaning. However, what liberalism actually turned into was the destruction of meaning. Now, with seemingly little left to destroy, liberalism, like a parasite that has killed its host, has nothing to do but consume its own substance.