How Bloom damaged conservatism
I can’t resist commenting on the impact of Allan Bloom on conservative thinking. I was a political science undergraduate at the University of Chicago from 1991-1995. I was there when he died in 1992, attended many beautiful commemorations for the man and was influenced by some of his colleagues and students. I worked on the Tarcov/Mansfield translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses. Strauss’s executor, Joseph Cropsey, taught me Plato. They were all excellent teachers and I’m thankful for the experience. However, let me say this:
Bloom’s book may have been a welcomed contribution to the academic wars of the eighties and nineties, but the book’s final message was to divorce political thinking from any historical roots. The critique of historicism is so radical that his students were led to an unhealthy preoccupation with universal principles and a rejection of historically-dependent political phenomena. I think this is one origin of the neoconservatives’s obsession with creeds and propositions. Bloom throughout ignores the pre-political associations and instincts that are a precondition to the emergence of a unified nation-state, what we call culture in the broadest sense. Straussians are generally hostile to “culture,” for they see it a German construct used to discredit liberal democracy. The book’s introduction links the particularism of Southern culture with the cultural relativism of the Left. Whatever the merits of Bloom’s genealogical study, its net effect is to make universalism the only viable position, and once the state’s mission is universal rights, the state effectively destroys the culture from which it arose in the very act of declaring itself universal. Bloom was all about the “possibilities available to all men at all times,” the very opposite of Burkean conservatism.
I understand and appreciate why Bloom did what he did. Academic anthropology and sociology made a cult of “culture” and granted equal or higher dignity to tribal or drug or youth “cultures.” But the very universalist principles he exposes arose within a particular political and cultural context. Natural right is problematic in part because its ground is a particularism it must by definition deny. Only certain cultures have asserted such universality. Yet this cannot furnish a basis for universalism because it would deny universality upon asserting any cultural differences. Thus the culture’s importance is downgraded. It’s only a short step to believing Iraq can be made democratic at gun point. Whatever the link between the current administration and Leo Strauss, I have never met a Straussian who did not actively support the invasion and who does not get nervous when I speak of an immigration—cultural—problem. In Bloom’s eyes, America is a tabula rasa where all people can come and be Americans. In his own populist way, Buchanan noticed this about Bloom and drew a good connection between him and the public intellectuals who today refer to men like you as racist and xenophobic.
I do admit Bloom’s analysis of the student’s anodyne souls, their “niceness,” was brilliant. And he was also one of the last to openly talk of what divorce does to young people, especially girls. I never hear that today though I see it daily in my social life.
I agree with Sebastian’s critique of Bloom. Part of the skill of the book was that Bloom did seem in a genial way to be defending a particular American culture, though, as was seen by those who were reading him more deeply than I was at the time, his embrace of “natural right” (which I call natural-rights liberalism or right-liberalism) against “openness” (which I call openness liberalism or left-liberalism) lacked the necessary element of particularity. My own views of Closing are summarized in my Reading list.
Question: Did Sebastian understand these problems with Bloom when he was at Chicago in the early ’90s, or did that come later?
I only came to these realizations in the last few years. My political thinking changed when I left academia for good and started working in the real world. Reading Roger Scruton helped. But mostly my ongoing misunderstanding and disagreements with friends from that school, over Iraq and immigration, made me see things I had missed. Reading about Islam, reading your site, reading Paul Gottfried. Once I realized the Strauss school hates Europe and has no regard for non-abstract political traditions—but I love Europe and think it matters and love local little traditions in England and Italy—all of this caused me to rethink Bloom’s influence.
I repeat my earlier point that I don’t see these ideas in Strauss himself, though I take Sebastian’s word that all the Strauss followers he knows share these ideas.
It strikes me that it is very difficult for a Jew, or a person of Jewish descent, to depart from purely universalist assumptions. Thanks to the diaspora, Jews were scattered among established populations where they served in special roles which were economically necessary, but forbidden to the majority population (e.g., money lending) or not suited to the majorities’ settled agricultural way of life (traders and peddlars). Because they did not share the majority religion at a time when religious difference was unthinkable, they were frequently confined by rulers to ghettos to try to minimize violent persecution which nevertheless often took place.
When these constraints were lifted after the Enlightenment, many Jews threw in with the socialist left—the human universalists to whom they were immediately acceptable notwithstanding their background. In spite of the disappearance of the prejudice from which they suffered, many continue to regard universalism as the doctrine that stands between them and renewed persecution. As a result, they are often blind to the importance of specific historical influences. They continue to pursue the Enlightenment vision of a universal homogenous civilization based on a rational morality—in a word, socialism. Given their above-average intelligence, they have played a disproportionately large role both in the Marxist movement and in modern liberalism, which seeks the same thing, only through piecemeal social engineering rather than violent revolution.
There is a most valuable book on this, “The Jewish Century,” by Yuri Slezkine, a Russian Jewish immigrant and professor of history at UC Berkeley.
It seems the fatal flaw of the human race is the inability to count beyond two. For example, people act as though there are only two possibilities, particularism and universalism. The idea of a path for man and society that is neither one nor the other but a combination of the two occurs to way too few people.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 26, 2007 10:55 PM | Send
Thus Strauss criticized the dominant historicism which denied that there is anything that is right by nature and which is thus a stage of nihilism. He brought back the classic philosophical understanding of that which is right by nature. But Strauss’s followers turned his valuable critique of historicism and his revival of natural right into a complete rejection of particularism itself, so that the only natural right is an abstract universal truth disembodied from any actual society. We end up with the neocons and their opposites, the paleocons, each with a woefully incomplete vision of life.
The human race keeps oscillating idiotically and self-destructively between opposites instead of looking for the sweet spot where the opposites are combined and in proper balance. If there is a real human evolution to hope for, it is an evolution toward a humanity that can count to three.