The Closing of the Catholic Mind

Allan Bloom’s important but flawed book, even 20 years later,
gives American Church academics who slavishly copy
secular higher education much to ponder.

It is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth or the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith that stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good, and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason.

John Paul II,
Fides et Ratio (1998)

In this passage from the encyclical treating of faith and reason, John Paul II insists not only that faith and reason are compatible but also that faith must come to the aid and defense of reason. There is a certain irony here. The modern period, which began with a series of philosophical attacks on faith (particularly in its Catholic form), comes to an end with the Church reaching out to save reason from its selfdestructive tendencies, its crippling reduction in the wake of historicism, scientism, relativism, and pragmatism.

Some of John Paul II’s concerns were anticipated in America by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, a book that became a surprise best-seller and made, at least for a moment, the topic of higher education a hot topic in popular discussion.

A renowned professor at the University of Chicago, Bloom, who died in 1992 and whose life was memorialized in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, sought to defend reason against both its contemporary corruption and against its subordination to authority, particularly religious authority. If his views part from those of John Paul II, they share a common starting point. In The Closing, in words John Paul II would have welcomed, Bloom speaks as a teacher who sees the fundamental question for contemporary education as: “Are we lovers anymore?”

Re-reading the book 20 years later reveals how well much of its basic argument holds up. Despite the now somewhat dated references—for example, to Mick Jagger in the discussion of the evils of rock music—Bloom’s cultural analysis of students remains astonishingly penetrating. Indeed, Bloom’s book, lambasted by liberal academics after its initial release, can now be said to have anticipated a host of recent writings, which now include even some from mainstream liberal professors at Harvard and Yale, decrying the state of higher education.

From the concerns over faculty specialization, the desuetude of a common core curriculum, and the dangers of dogmatic multiculturalism, to handwringing about the exclusively careerist ambitions of students and the sexual libertinism embodied in the practice of what the novelist Tom Wolfe calls “hooking up”—all these and more are part of Bloom’s devastating diagnosis of contemporary academic pusillanimity. But Bloom’s book is most notable for the way it weaves together contemporary observations with a complex account of the history of political philosophy, indeed, the way it uses the latter to shed light on the former.

For all its cogency, at the core of Bloom’s book is a conception of liberal education that is at once tantalizing and problematic. In what follows, I will consider both the strengths and weaknesses of Bloom’s book, what remains of enduring value and what is in need of questioning, even repudiation. I want to suggest that what is problematic in Bloom’s own account and what renders dubious his proposal for remedying our current educational malaise is precisely his adamant opposition to any kind of compatibility between faith and reason.

As Bloom puts it bluntly and dismissively, the subordination of reason to faith generates nothing more than a “phantom of philosophy.” If my account of the limitations of Bloom’s position is on the mark, then it might turn out to be the case that the best hope for true liberal education would be the Christian university. Reform of the university might well come ex corde ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church, in the title of another of John Paul’s writings.

Paradoxically perhaps, the closing of the American mind, in Bloom’s view, is the result of a certain kind of openness, a sort of banal toleration that atrophies the ability of the intellect to distinguish noble from base, the perennial from the evanescent. It is not merely a decline in intellectual standards that afflicts us. Bloom’s central claims repose upon a contrast between ancient and modern eros. Understood in the classical era as a longing for the good and beautiful, rooted in recognition of the incompleteness of human nature, eros underscores the openness of human reason to the whole. In the modern period, eros points not above us to that which completes and ennobles but rather downward, toward the base desires of the Freudian id that we suppress for the sake of civilized life.

Engaged in a project that undermines its own foundations, academic liberalism has committed a kind of intellectual suicide, the result of which is the increasing incoherence and irrelevance of the humanities. Bloom puts his finger on one of the oddest features of the current academic scene, the gleeful embrace of Nietzsche by the left, whose egalitarianism would seem to be deeply contrary to Nietzsche’s aristocratic scorn of the leveling impact of liberal democracy. The Nietzschean notion of “value creation,” Bloom observes, is antithetical to “democratic rationalism.” How did we get to this point in American thought and life? Bloom insists in a number of places that the transformation is the result of a German invasion; we have, he remarks, been “corrupted by alien views, alien tastes.”

However, on Bloom’s own terms, this is not quite credible. In the modern view of political thought, which in large measure informs the American founding, the political order is not—as it was for the ancients—natural, but artificial. According to social contract theorists, such as Hobbes and Locke, nature is silent concerning the social connectedness of human beings and any claims of rank in goodness or excellence. Indeed, in the state of nature described by modern political theorists, human beings are not envisioned as existing in families and other communities, but rather as isolated individuals, abstracted from all social relations.

As Bloom sees it, the hope of Locke and others, most notably the famous French commentator on America, Alexis de Tocqueville, was that the subpolitical society of families and local communities would remain intact even as the overarching political order was informed by a thoroughly individualistic bent. Locke writes about the importance of education as a means of forming responsible citizens and Tocqueville encourages the sacrifices of American women as essential to the moral education of democracy. Bloom laments that these hopes have failed miserably, and gives us reason to think that their failure was inevitable. Whatever the dominant conception of nature may be in a particular regime— in this case a radically individualistic one—it will ultimately infiltrate all the parts of the regime.

In Bloom’s most perspicacious chapter on students’ souls, entitled “Relationships,” he makes clear that the social contract conception of human social relations has worked its way from the whole into the parts, indeed into the very hearts and minds of today’s students. He writes, “The aptest description I can find for the state of students’ souls is the psychology of separateness.” He expands,

This continual shifting of the sands in our desert—separation from places, persons, and beliefs—produces the psychic state of nature where reserve and timidity are the prevailing dispositions. We are social solitaries.

The proximate source of the psychology of separateness is the widespread acceptance and practice of divorce. “Divorce in America is the most palpable indication that people are not made to live together, and that, although they want and need to create a general will out of the particular wills, those particular wills constantly reassert themselves…. In the absence of a common good…, the disintegration of society into particular wills is inevitable.” Bloom’s stunning diagnosis of the effects of divorce on children anticipates what sociologists and psychologists have only recently asserted without equivocation,

To children, the voluntary separation of parents seems worse than their death precisely because it is voluntary. The capriciousness of wills, their lack of directedness to the common good, the fact that they could be otherwise but are not—these are the real sources of the war of all against all. Children learn a fear of enslavement to the wills of others, along with a need to dominate those wills, in the context of the family, the one place where they are supposed to learn the opposite.

Bloom’s language here is the language of the social contract theorists, the language of those who view human beings as naturally isolated and as entering into relations with others based on a self-interested calculus. This is the language not just of Hobbes, who advocated a stark view of the state of nature as a condition of war, but even of Locke, who construes marriage as but a contract and who conceived of the human body itself as a form of property.

On Bloom’s own terms, value creation is but the logical term of democratic rationalism, and is thus not the result of an alien invasion but of a playing out of tendencies latent within the founding principles of the regime itself.

If Bloom’s own narration of the history of modern philosophy seems to take ground out from under modern politics, he would also seem to offer refuge in the form of pre-modern philosophy, exemplified in the life of Socrates. What distinguishes ancient from modern philosophy is its holding firm to certain important distinctions, between the eternal and the temporal, the theoretical and the practical, essential being and accidental being. The classical philosopher takes his bearings not from the flux of history and the multitude of cultures but from invariant nature; he seeks not to alter the world but to understand it; his orientation is toward the whole in relation to which he understands its parts.

The philosopher’s transcendence of the Cave (to use the Platonic image), his opposition to the unreflective mores of the society, is grounded in the distinction between nature and convention, knowledge and opinion. The philosopher puts into question the conventional opinions of his society. He aims to know the eternal, to discover the causes of the phenomena he sees around him, to answer the question “why?” The problem is that philosophy never transcends basic options. It cannot hope to know the truth about nature; instead, liberal education involves an awareness of the basic options for understanding nature, human nature, and politics. These options are finite; they are crystallized in the great texts composed by the great authors: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.

To be liberally educated is to know, not the truth about nature, but the truth about these differing accounts of things; it is to engage in a comparative analysis of them. This can hardly be equated with an apprehension of the eternal; nor can it provide us with an insight into nature, since the positions themselves about nature, human nature, and politics are fundamentally contradictory of one another. To put this in classical terms, the intellect never achieves knowledge or the rest that accompanies insight, because the activity of the intellect is essentially discursive, not contemplative. What is even more troubling is that the philosopher never transcends the realm of opinion because he cannot decide among the various claims about nature. He merely substitutes deep (one of Bloom’s favorite words) opinions for shallow ones.

The philosopher of course knows that he does not know, but in Bloom’s view he is not even sure of what he does not know, since he cannot even be confident that there is a whole, in the sense of an intelligible order of parts rather than a mere heap of unrelated stuff. From the equally deep, but inherently contradictory, opinions of the philosophers concerning nature, we might reasonably conclude, not that nature is invariant, but that it is chaotic and unintelligible.

If this is right, then Bloom’s conception of philosophy would be subversive, not just of conventional opinion, but of philosophy itself. Thus Bloom’s promising protreptic—the ancient genre of speech that aimed to persuade potential philosophers to take up the life of wisdom—ends up as a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophical life. This is perhaps why Great Books education can often have the effect, not of curbing relativism but of replacing a superficial, mindless relativism with a sophisticated, reflective version of the same.

The pondering of variant and contradictory philosophical positions confirms only the futility of the attempts of the greatest intellects to give an account of nature and human nature. This calls to mind Pascal’s terse description of the philosopher as the one who “wearies the man who seeks.” And Pascal in turn calls to mind a trenchant passage from Fides et Ratio,

Of itself, philosophy is able to recognize the human being’s ceaselessly self-transcendent orientation toward the truth; and, with the assistance of faith, it is capable of accepting the foolishness of the cross as the authentic critique of those who delude themselves that they possess the truth.

To recognize the human aspiration for transcendence and the failure of reason to fulfill it, philosophy must be credited with the achievement of certain truths, particularly concerning human nature, but also concerning nature and the divine. For Aquinas, it is precisely in the highest achievements of philosophy— in establishing the immateriality of the intellectual soul and providing proofs of God’s existence—that its limitations are simultaneously made manifest. It can tell us that the intellectual soul is immaterial and thus separable from the body, but not how it could know apart from the body; it can tell us that God exists, but not what he is.

In its engagement of philosophy, revelation invites reason to transcend its own limits and thus to fulfill its aspiration to know the cause of the whole, to realize its love of wisdom, the very definition of philosophy. Bloom’s relentless insistence that reason can “accept no authority above itself and is necessarily subversive” places more emphasis on protecting reason from faith than on the fulfillment of reason’s deepest longing. John Paul II acknowledges philosophy’s legitimate claim to “autonomy,” but he also is aware that the human person is ordered to more than what austere, philosophical reason can supply. An affirmative answer to the question, “Are we lovers?” naturally leads to the question, “What do and should we love?”

If this assessment of Bloom and contemporary liberal education is accurate, then Catholic universities and colleges would seem to be wellequipped to offer a counter to the dominant trends of the age. What we find, however, is a failure to do so. Many Catholic institutions of higher education simply adopt secular models.

The more successful the university, it seems, the more craven and obsessive is the longing. The painful irony is that Catholic schools look to these models at precisely the moment when the most wealthy and influential secular universities have lapsed into utter inarticulacy about the point and purpose of their very existence.

Questions about the order of our loves, as Augustine would have put it, are now as alien to faculty meetings in most Catholic universities as they are to the dorms of the students whose education is entrusted to the faculty. Faculty and administrators, who have a penchant for complaining about students, mirror in their own vapid deliberations the very vices they identify in their pupils.

Accurately surveying the faculty and curricular scene, Bloom concludes that a general reform of higher education is not in our short-term future. As Catholics, we not only can hope for more, we ought to demand it of our universities and colleges. We might take our cue from Bloom’s admiration for Socrates. A version of his public avowal of his own ignorance is perhaps the best place to start. Many Catholic universities are neither Catholic nor universities. The Socratic remedy is clear. Better the public admission of current failure than the fraudulent trading in half-truths that passes for promotion of the Catholic mission at far too many schools.


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 21 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.