Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Allan Bloom and conservatives

Jim Sleeper, whom I last discussed many moons ago here has a longish essay on Allan Bloom in Sunday’s NYT Book Review. He argues, correctly, I think, that Bloom is not a movement conservative, but rather someone who would be a burr under the saddle of ideologues all across the spectrum.

Of course, Sleeper is not without his own agenda, which is in part to use Bloom against conservatives who would approvingly cite him, from Roger Kimball to David Horowitz. Sleeper’s portrait of Bloom (and his ideal university) is drawn largely to discomfit his (Sleeper’s) current bugbear--what he takes to be the alliance of corporate capitalism and conservative religion, which threatens his vision of American civic republicanism.

I suppose that having someone in the NYT present Bloom as, in effect, an anti-neocon is better than the more common alternative, which is to make him the villainous presence behind the neocon throne, as Anne Norton did. I suppose that it’s a measure of his greatness to be used for and against any number of positions.

I will not pretend to speak for him and only lament the fact that he’s not around to speak for himself.

Update: Roger Kimball has more, much of it very critical of Sleeper, whose moralistic version of leftish civic republicanism would be no more congenial to Bloom than the religious conservative alternatives against which he poses it. Hat tip: Power Line.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Thanks for linking this, Joseph. I’ve been struggling to undersrtand and articulate properly Bloom’s relationship to neo-conservativism. While he is clearly correct that Bloom was not "movement" conservative, I’m not sure Sleeper’s analysis is that illuminating as to what Bloom did stand for politically. At the same time, my own analysis is not yet complete. Perhaps, however, I can offer a few observations:

1) There was always some tension or distrust in regard to Bloom on the part of the dogmatists of neocon movement, people like Podhoretz and his wife. This was true even of conservative Straussians such as the Casses. When the Closing of the American Mind became a runaway success, some of these tensions got suppressed and papered over and and others actually became more intense. I think some of these tensions had to do with homophobia; others may have been connected to Bloom’s more or less in-your-face atheism. In any case, he was hardly a poster boy for "family values"; and here I’m not referring even to the sexual orientation issue but to Bloom’s educational formula that the first thing you needed to do to open student’s minds (at least HIS students) was to distance them from their parents. There was a kind of "patricidal" dimension to his pedagogy--very Freudian in a a way. Some neocons might have even sent their own children to be taught by Bloom and probably were none to pleased by his approach to paternal authority.

2) From his own students,Bloom demanded utter loyality and indeed no small measure of servility. But outside that context, Bloom was very tolerant of people with quite opposed ideas--Marxists, included--as long as he found them to be very smart. On this point, Sleeper is correct: he really did believe in a contest of ideas (outside his own cult of followers).

3) If I were to find a formula for Bloom’s own political outlook I would describe it as a melange of Socratic skepticism with political romanticism and postmodern street smarts. Bloom’s nature was passionate, not well equipped for what Montesquieu called a life of study. Yet a cerebal streak made him a constant questioner of the reality of the very grounds of the passions in question, the reality of love, virtue, patriotism. In his essay on Madame Bovary, Bloom points out a certain character, a great doctor, who practices virtue without really believing in it. If I recall correctly (the book is at the office) Bloom suggests this is a form a greatness, perhaps the only form left in (what for Flaubert) in already a post-modern world. The passionate soul, unwilling to be disarmed by relativism, nihilism etc, seeks objects worthy of attachment, struggle, commitment; and yet the mind is somehow aware all along of the questionable ultimate grounding or significance of any of these objects. In Rousseau, Bloom finds the possibility that the imagination can make the objects of its own heroic passionate striving--Germanized as "ideals" in Kant and Schiller. But from Platonism he asks perpetually the question, nay he doubts, whether an object imagined by the passionate soul, constructed by it, can be "real." HIs postmodern street smarts resist the Hegelian solution (i.e. "reality" is what we make: we can only know (wissen) what we make, our human world; nature is pure negativity). The Hegelian solution is outdated "therapy" for the divided self, Heidegger has shown the synthesis is constructed on air, hot air and semantics, and it’s laughable to today’s smart kids. So we are left at the core of Bloom with the tension between Rousseauian imagination and Platonic being/nature. Which in most of the students gets simplified. So you have political romantics like Wolfowitz and Platonic rationalists like Tarcov (the latter as little charmed by Rousseau as one could possible imagine). But the tension running through Bloom’s core made him particularly exciting, if sometimes hard to puzzle out how he came down on the specifics, the details. Unfortunately, by demanding subservience from his students and punishing dissent and originality in those ranks, he ensured that none of them would be a more than a fragment of himself. In trying in this way to have a mirror of the whole he produced only broken pieces.

3) Sleeper implies that neocons are all for capitalism. He forgets that the original neocon Irving Kristol was a Daniel Bell type critic of capitalism (Two Cheers for Capitalism).

4) At a pragmatic level, Bloom did maintain many contacts with fairly low level academic conservatives, because he needed to find jobs for his students and it was definitely not the aging 60s radicals that he attacked were going to be sympathetic in that respect. In most cases, even if not particularly "conservative" themselves in an ideological sense, Bloom’ students--having been trained to be submissive, polite, wear jackets and ties, etc.--fit rather well into conservative or catholic college environments.

Enough for now. Soon you will be able to read the 99 pages!!!

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