The Closing of the American Mind

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These students will assiduously study economics or the professions and the Michael Jackson costume will slip off to reveal a Brooks Brothers suit beneath. They will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind. The choice is not between quick fixes and dull calculation. This is what liberal education is meant to show them. But as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is a book by Allan Bloom that is a critique of the contemporary university and how Bloom sees it as failing its students. In it, Bloom criticizes the modern movements in philosophy and the humanities.

Quotes[edit]

  • There is no real teacher who in practice does not believe in the existence of the soul, or in a magic that acts on it through speech.
    • Preface.
  • Only Socrates knew, after a lifetime of unceasing labor, that he was ignorant. Now every high-school student knows that. How did it become so easy?
    • Introduction.
  • Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise ... specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.
    • From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede, pt. 3.
  • Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them autonomously to seek that completion.
    • Books, pt. 1.
  • We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.
    • Our Ignorance, pt. 2.
  • The history of liberal thought since Locke and Smith has been one almost unbroken decline in philosophic substance.
    • Values, pt. 2.
  • When the liberal, or what came to be called the utilitarian, teaching became dominant, as is the case with most victorious causes, good arguments became less necessary; the original good arguments, which were difficult, were replaced by plausible simplifications—or by nothing.
    • Values, pt.2.
  • There is no real education that does not respond to felt need; anything else acquired is trifling display.
    • p. 19.
  • No real teacher can doubt that his task is to assist his pupil to fulfill human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice.
    • p. 20.
  • These are the reasons that help to explain the perversity of an adult who prefers the company of youths to that of grownups. He prefers the promising “might be” to the defective “is.”
    • p. 20.
  • Liberalism without natural rights, the kind that we knew from John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress. No attention had to be paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them.
    • p. 29.
  • The regime established here [in the U.S.] promised untrammeled freedom to reason—not to everything indiscriminately, but to reason, the essential freedom that justifies the other freedoms, and on the basis of which, and for the sake of which, much deviance is also tolerated. An openness that denies the special claim of reason bursts the mainspring keeping the mechanism of this regime in motion.
    • p. 39.
  • Merely methodological excision from the soul of the imagination that projects Gods and heroes onto the wall of the cave does not promote knowledge of the soul; it only lobotomizes it, cripples its powers.
    • p. 42.
  • They [students] learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything.
    • p. 42.
  • Nietzsche … argued that the spirit’s bow was being unbent and risked being permanently unstrung. Its activity, he believed, comes from culture, and the decay of culture meant not only the decay of man in this culture but the decay of man simply. This is the crisis he tried to face resolutely: the very existence of man as man, as a noble being, depended on him and on men like him—so he thought.
    • p. 51.
  • Nietzsche said the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life.
    • p. 59.
  • The distance from the contemporary and its high seriousness that students most need in order not to indulge their petty desires and to discover what is most serious about themselves cannot be found in the cinema, which now only knows the present.
    • p. 64.
  • The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.
    • p. 64.
  • Civilization or, to say the same thing, education is the taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions—not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy—but forming and informing them as art.
    • p. 71.
  • Students are not in a position to know the pleasures of reason; they can only see it as a disciplinary and repressive parent.
    • p. 72.
  • Mick Jagger played the role in their [students’] lives that Napoleon played in the lives of ordinary young Frenchmen throughout the nineteenth century. Everyone else was so boring and unable to charm youthful passions.
    • p. 79.
  • The sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was—a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important.
    • p. 99.
  • Modern psychology at its best has a questionable understanding of the soul. It has no place for the natural superiority of the philosophic life, and no understanding of education. So children who are impregnated with that psychology live in a sub-basement and have a long climb just to get back up to the cave, or the world of common sense, which is the proper beginning for their ascent toward wisdom. They do not have confidence in what they feel or what they see, and they have an ideology that provides not a reason but a rationalization for their timidity.
    • p. 121.
  • What is so intolerable about the Republic, as Plato shows, is the demand that men give up their land, their money, their wives, their children, for the sake of the public good, their concern for which had previously been buttressed by these lower attachments.
    • p. 130.
  • Nietzsche said, “the greatest deeds are thoughts,” that “the world revolves around the inventors of new values, revolves silently.” Nietzsche was such an inventor, and we are still revolving around him. … The spectacle consists in how his views have been trivialized by democratic man desirous of tricking himself out in borrowed finery.
    • p. 148.
  • Americans … do not naturally apply the term “bourgeois” to themselves, or to anyone else for that matter. They do like to call themselves middle class, but that does not carry with it any determinate spiritual content. … The term “middle class” does not have any of the many opposites that bourgeois has, such as aristocrat, saint, hero, or artist—all good.
    • p. 158.
  • Locke … wanted to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature in the civil order, and the result of his mistake is the bourgeois.
    • p. 168.
  • If Rousseau is right, man’s reason, calculating his best interest, will not lead him to wish to be a good citizen, a law-abiding citizen. He will either be himself, or he will be a citizen, or he will try to be both and be neither. In other words, enlightenment is not enough to establish society, and even tends to dissolve it.
    • p. 168.
  • Plato would have united with Rousseau against the bourgeois in his insistence on the essential humanness of longing for the good, as opposed to careful avoidance of the bad. Neither longing nor enthusiasm belongs to the bourgeois. The story of philosophy and the arts under Rousseau’s influence has been the search for, or fabrication of, plausible objects of longing to counter bourgeois well-being and self-satisfaction.
    • p. 169.
  • It is easy today to deny God’s creativity as a thing of the benighted past, overcome by science, but man’s creativity, a thing much more improbable and nothing but an imitation of God’s, exercises a strange attraction.
    • p. 182.
  • Universality and rationality were the hallmarks of all these teachings. But very quickly culture—which was for Kant and, speaking anachronistically, for Rousseau, singular—became cultures.
    • p. 191.
  • Honesty compels serious men, on examination of their consciences, to admit that the old faith is no longer compelling. It is the very peak of Christian virtue that demands the sacrifice of Christianity.
    • pp. 195-196.
  • Marx denied the existence of God but turned over all His functions to History, which is inevitably directed to a goal fulfilling of man and which takes the place of Providence. One might as well be a Christian if one is so naive.
    • p. 196.
  • Psychology … finds causes of creativity that blur the difference between a Raphael and a finger painter. Everything is in that difference, which necessarily escapes our science.
    • p. 199.
  • Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values. It is Pascal’s wager, no longer on God’s existence but on one’s capacity to believe in oneself and the goals one has set for oneself.
    • [describing Nietzsche’s view] p. 201.
  • When the liberal … teaching became dominant, as is the case with most victorious causes, good arguments became less necessary; and the original good arguments, which were difficult, were replaced by plausible simplifications—or by nothing. The history of liberal thought since Locke and Smith has been one of almost unbroken decline in philosophic substance.
    • p. 210.
  • “The last man” interpretation of the bourgeois is reinforced by a certain ambiguity in the meaning of the word “bourgeois.” ... The capitalist and the philistine bourgeois are supposed to be the same, but Marx presents only the economic side, assuming, without adequate warrant, that it can account for both the moral and esthetic deformities of the bourgeois described by the artists
    • p. 223.
  • Gide … latches on to Nietzsche’s immoralism for the sake of leveling bourgeois sexual morals, using a cannon to kill a gnat.
    • p. 232.
  • I fear that the most self-righteous of Americans nowadays are precisely those who have most to gain from what they preach. This is made all the more distasteful when their weapons are constructed out of philosophic teachings the intentions of which are the opposite of theirs.
    • p. 236.
  • We now take what were only interpretations of our souls to be facts about them.
    • p. 237.
  • The university was part of growing up, but it was not looked forward to as a transforming experience—nor was it so in fact. No one believed that there were serious ends of which we had not heard, or that there was a way of studying our ends and determining their rank order. In short, philosophy was only a word, and literature a form of entertainment.
    • p. 244.
  • I bless a society that tolerates and supports an eternal childhood for some, a childhood whose playfulness can in turn be a blessing to society.
    • p. 245.
  • Democratic concentration on the useful, on the solution of what are believed by the populace at large to be the most pressing problems, makes theoretical distance seem not only useless but immoral. When there is poverty, disease and war, who can claim the right to idle in Epicurean gardens, asking questions that have already been answered?
    • p. 250.
  • Reason is only one part of the soul’s economy and requires a balance of the other parts in order to function properly.
    • p. 251.
  • The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.
    • p. 253.
  • Reason transformed into prejudice is the worst form of prejudice, because reason is the only instrument for liberation from prejudice.
    • p. 253.
  • All the terms discussed in Part Two are evidences of this abstractness, simulacra of thought and experience, hardly better than slogans, which take the place of reflection.
    • p. 254.
  • I have included among the Enlightenment philosophers men like Machiavelli, Bacon, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza and Locke, along with the eighteenth-century thinkers like Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire, whose teachings are usually held to constitute the Enlightenment, because these latter were quite explicit about their debt to the originators of what the Enlightenment was in large measure only popularizing.
    • p. 262.
  • It is Enlightenment that was intent on philosophers’ ruling, taking Socrates’ ironies seriously. If they did not have the title of king, their political schemes were, all the same, designed to be put into practice. And they were put into practice, not by begging princes to listen to them but by philosophy’s generating sufficient power to force princes to give way.
    • p. 266.
  • Philosophy is not a doctrine but a way of life, so the philosophers, for all the differences in their teachings, have more in common with one another than with anyone else, even their own followers.
    • p. 271.
  • The theoretical life … cannot, at least in its most authentic expression, be, or seriously be understood to be, in the city’s service. It therefore has an almost impossible public relations problem.
    • p. 274.
  • Ancient political philosophy was almost entirely in the service of philosophy, of making the world safer for philosophy.
    • p. 276.
  • The form and content of the writings of men like Plato, Cicero, Farabi and Maimonides appear very different, while their inner teachings may be to all intents and purposes the same. Each had a different beginning point, a different cave, from which he had to ascend to the light and to which he had to return.
    • p. 283.
  • The utilitarian behaves sensibly in all that is required for preservation but never takes account of the fact that he must die. He does everything reasonable to put off the day of his death—providing for defense, peace, order, health and wealth —but actively suppresses the fact that the day must come. His whole life is absorbed in avoiding death, which is inevitable, and therefore he might be thought to be the most irrational of men, if rationality has anything to do with understanding ends or comprehending the human situation as such.
    • p. 290.
  • The Ciceros and Bacons would not have been what they were if they had been professors. It was in living life as it really is, rather than in the artificially structured and protected universities, that they were able to grasp the human situation as a whole.
    • describing Rousseau’s view, in The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), p. 298.
  • In antiquity there had also been mere scholars, studying Homer and Plato without knowing quite why, and without being interested in the questions the writers raised, fascinated by meters or the reliability of texts. But the objection to these scholars was that they lacked the urgent desire to know the most important things, whereas the modern objection to scholarship is that it lacks the urgency of commitment to action. … If deeds are the most important thing, then the scholar is by definition inferior to the doer.
    • p. 303.
  • The university began in spirit from Socrates’ contemptuous and insolent distancing of himself from the Athenian people, his refusal to accept any command from them to cease asking, “What is justice? What is knowledge? What is a god?” and hence doubting the common opinions about such questions.
    • p. 311.
  • Socrates thought it more important to discuss justice, to try to know what it is, than to engage himself in implementing whatever partial perspective on it happened to be exciting the passions of the day.
    • p. 314.
  • The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old.
    • p. 314.
  • … the casuistry of weakness …
    • p. 317.
  • The strength of his soul is a result of the part of it that makes him proud and ambitious, that seeks an autonomy not dependent on others’ opinions or wills.
    • p. 329.
  • The avant-garde (usually used in relation to art) and the vanguard (usually used in relation to politics) are democratic modes of distinguishing oneself, of being ahead, of leading, without denying the democratic principle. The members of the vanguard have just a small evanescent advantage. They now know what everyone will soon know. This posture conciliates instinct with principle.
    • p. 331.
  • The students [of the 60’s] substituted conspicuous compassion for their parents’ conspicuous consumption.
    • p. 331.
  • The university has lost whatever polis-like character it had and has become like the ship on which the passengers are just accidental fellow travelers soon to disembark and go their separate ways. The relations between natural science, social science and humanities are purely administrative and have no substantial intellectual content.
    • p. 350.
  • Social science and humanities … have a mutual contempt for one another, the former looking down on the latter as unscientific, the latter regarding the former as philistine. … The difference comes down to the fact that social science really wants to be predictive, meaning that man is predictable, while the humanities say that he is not.
    • p. 357.
  • Man is the problem, and we live with various stratagems for not facing it.
    • p. 359.
  • Economics has its own simple built-in psychology, and that provided by the science of psychology … flatly contradicts the primacy of the motives alleged by economics.
    • p. 359.
  • The issue is what is the social science atom.
    • p. 360.
  • The expectation of substantive unity between natural science and social science has faded. ... Gone is the cosmic intention of placing man in the universe.
    • p. 369.
  • True liberal education requires that the student’s whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation. Liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students who are able to risk everything.
    • p. 370.
  • Philosophy was architectonic, had the plans for the whole building, and the carpenters, masons and plumbers were its subordinates and had no meaning without its plan.
    • p. 377.
  • When people speak vaguely about generalists vs. specialists, they must mean by the generalist the philosopher, for he is the only kind of knower who embraces, or once embraced, all the specialties, possessing a subject matter, necessary to the specialties, which was real—being or the good—and not just a collection of the matters of the specialties.
    • p. 377.
  • Positivism and ordinary language analysis … repel students who come with the humanizing questions. Professors of these schools simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students.
    • p. 378.
  • The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good.
    • p. 381.

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