37 years ago Allan Bloom warned us that our education institutions were failing to instill the virtue of pursuing the truth. What did this pursuit of cultural relativism beget?
The Closing of The American Mind
Allan David Bloom (September 14, 1930 – October 7, 1992) and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago. He as a champion of American and Western culture, promoting what he called the study of the Great Works of the Greeks, The Enlightenment and the writing of the Founding Fathers. In 1987 Allan Bloom wrote a controversial book that addressed what he was a threat to not only our education system, but to our abilities to exercise our reason. Bloom judged the state of American Education not by the programs but by the outcomes, and his shocking prediction was the suspension of judgement had fostered an environment that did not pass on the values of our achievements to generations.
What are the things that sustain a society, and what duties lie with the individual and what mechanism should be kept in place to foster a health society? Should we train our future generations who to use their reason and ensure their conscience is active and strong? What happens when sectors of society are adverse to that cause? While focused on the state of American education in 1987, years before the Politically Correct movement was recognized by that name, Allan Bloom’s book painted a dismal picture of the rise of relativism.
A Debate Between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Regarding Liberty and Preservation
What makes a strong and free society, what fosters the continuance of that society? Our founders John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, architects of the American Revolution and Constitution, provide contrasting views. A stark contrast. Jefferson’s views paralleled what we could call creative destruction. Those views became harsher at the close of the American Revolution and the birth of America. He failed to see the radical view of Robespierre, who ultimately was for tearing down a society and instituting a completely socialist and totalitarian state.
When the execution of French aristocrats escalated in 1792, Jefferson remained committed to the cause of revolution: “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”
John Adam very eloquently countered with the argument that the strengths of the cause of liberty, manifestation of Natural Law and states rights were to be enshrined in the Constitution. A framework of balance that was to be preserved to provide an environment to exercise freedom.
A Moral Imperative for Society
Liberty is a choice, the individual must ascent to accept their fate into their own hands. But before that choice can be made, a person has to be taught to exercise their mind. On the highest ideal a society can have, and some would argue should have as a moral imperative, is to pursue Truth. Truth creates a high trust society, cohesive and strong. Without the pursuit of truth through the use of reason and rational thought it can be said that a person’s conscience has been stunted.
Jefferson recognized that as an integral part of Natural Law – you can’t be free if your conscience is under the yoke of falsehoods. There is no justice without truth. There is no self determination if your mind cannot grasp truth and justice. These fundamental principles must be present if the Founding Father’s vision of freedom is to be kept alive.
It is debatable what type of mechanisms that are needed to engender these principles to keep society free and strong. There are many. In the end there must be a litmus test, a judgement that is rationally made to discern if those mechanisms promote the ideals of the pursuit of truth through the use of reason. The pursuit of true is not a value, a value is a neutral thing. Pursuit of the truth, being demonstrably good, is a virtue.
The goal for a virtuous society should be it to enable people to pursue truth. “Should” compels an action because it is good, it is a virtue.
A Time Capsule: The Closing of the American
In many ways Bloom’s book can be seen as a warning about the effects of post modernism and relativism. Published in 1987, it presaged much of we now witness in academia as the result of post-modernistic thinking where everything is deconstructed because there are no good or bad values, let alone virtue. All is relative, there is not moral imperative.
The main theme of the book can be summed up with this statement:
Openness used to be the virtue permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social, and cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless.
The open mind must avoid using judgement. So essentially an education became a mere recitation of differences, a collection of facts with connection to any values, good or bad. And this in turn means excluding and discuss of the virtues of cultures, works, ideas and philosophies.
Equality 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, and philosophy. When Weber found that he could not choose between certain high opposites—reason vs. revelation, Buddha vs. Jesus—he did not conclude that all things are equally good, that the distinction between high and low disappears. As a matter of fact he intended to revitalize the consideration of these great alternatives in showing the gravity and danger involved in choosing among them;
Bloom was a critic of the facets of the Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, that turned away from religion in favor of a pure natural science. The Bible was a good source for people because it was founded in serious topics and righting so people
found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duty in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past… When [graduates from modern universities] talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing by cliches, superficiality, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics, and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.
Who Were The Dead White Guys?
You can well imagine which works Bloom thought were important, and they were those of the Enlightenment, classics of western religious thought and the philosophical works of the Greeks. This looks like the reading list of most of the Founding Fathers, and one would argue they are a Christian-centric view. If you look at the home school curriculum called Classical Conversations.
For Bloom culture was a result of the denial of the base nature of man, it is a function of reason and spirit to aspire to ideals:
Culture is everything that enables man to live in society in spite of his desires, which pull him in uncivil directions. For example, all men feel sexual desire, which “is promiscuous and inclines man toward freedom.” However, “the free choice of marriage and the capacity to stick to it…is proof of culture, of desire informed by civility…. Something of [this] kind must occur in all aspects of man’s life in order to produce a personality, the fully cultured human being.”
The Fruits of German Philosophy of Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx
Hegelian dialectic and the concept of embracing Nihilism in order to create a new order out of nothing proposed by Nietzsche the main influences of German philosophy on the American mindset that fostered an acceptance of suspending judgements. If there are no anchors to the virtue of truth, if you are the Nietzschean Superman / Uber Mensch forging a new society, you get to break some eggs in order to serve up an omelette. With nothing of value, the bigger mean dog gets a chance to establish a new order.
The question isn’t even asked whether the German doctrine of value-creation is contrary to democratic and egalitarian ideals; but it certainly seems to leave room for their opposites and perhaps promote them—i.e., value relativism seems to allow for fascism. p. 154
In general, sophisticated Marxism [turned into] cultural criticism of life in the Western democracies…. But none of it came from Marx or a Marxist perspective…. It was, and is, Nietzschean, variations on our way of life as that of ‘the last man.’”
Pathway to Relativism
Read this sentence and imagine if Bloom could be transported to 2024 he may made his statement stronger:
“Value relativism has sunk so far into the American consciousness that its vocabulary has become colloquial: we talk about ‘charisma,’ ‘life-style,’ ‘commitment,’ ‘identity,’ etc. “Although they, and the things to which they refer, would have been incomprehensible to our fathers, not to speak of our Founding Fathers.”
For Bloom if you abandon the Enlightenment you lose one of it’s great strengths, the promotion of for ALL to exercise their rational gifts.
Enlightenment thinkers essentially agreed with the Ancients that the philosophic life was the highest life; what they disagreed about was how philosophy applied to society. The Ancients thought that philosophers alone could become enlightened, and would never be fully appreciated by those who could not escape Plato’s proverbial cave. But the Moderns believed that it was possible to enlighten all men.
By not being able to judge what is strong about our culture, we give up the ability to judge what is ultimately bad for our society. In 1987 Bloom warned of the seeds of relativism, today we see the result: there is NO value to western culture in a relativists view, and since we have not spent the time to teach what was better, what was superior in the development of America, we can not defend it against the attack for post modernist collectivists who tear down statues. The movement to outlaw the writings of the Founding Fathers because they were supposedly racists is that attempt to replace the empty box of values with new judgments ushering the control of speech, the control of thought. The void of any positive value leaves room for a new fake virtue.
What Fills The Void?
If relativism has cleared the virtue from our minds, is it so hard to see why we seek acceptance from other means? Note that among conservatives the need to hear their “values” echoed. It’s as though heroes are needed to add a positive light to their values. It has become a war of ceaseless arguments with those who do not have to tools to even make distinctions, nor to understand why a virtue is positive.