on 22 March 2010
This book, written more than 20 years ago, remains extremely relevant for today. The basic thesis of the book is that what happened in the 60s to the cultural and educational landscape (particularly in the universities) and has since then gathered pace, has undermined the foundations of American civilisation (and I would add Western Civilisation). But what is the problem. For Bloom it is the ideology of relativism - where there were once share values and mores, the only thing now shared by all is that "there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or visions of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?" Writing here from the UK, it is astonishing how successful the new ideology has been; thus here in the UK, all the major political parties (including the conservatives) buy into the ideology of the primacy of the individual's right to be whatever wants to be. Thus, all parties advance the most flaky notions of what the basic foundation stones of society are - the most obvious one is that the family has become well just whatever you want it to be, constituted by whoever, whether transient or permanent, who cares: lets call it family if the participants wish it to be so called. This is an excellent book and one wonders what additional barbs Bloom would have to make about the state of the culture more than 20 years. No doubt he would be as entertaining as ever.
What Bloom is really almost angry about is that the new relativism embracing an openness to all things inevitably leads to what the ancients called acidie - a kind of spiritual indifference to life or what Bloom refers to as listlessness or a deformity of the spirit. If all things have the same value, why seek and search for truth - why seek to live a virtuous life, why seek to learn from the wisdom of the ancients, Socrates, Plato, Artistotle, Aquinas etc - all those who have contributed so much to our understanding of what it means to be a human being. By contrast, for Bloom, "True openness means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present". What Bloom is getting at is the danger of a basic ideology which makes us crassly indifferent to the grandeur of being. And Bloom says something that will get people's hackles up: "Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are...The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty." But, the curious thing is that no one including our relativist political leaders really has no values. Thus, here in the UK, "tolerance" for all types of lifestyles has become the Great Value - it literally towers everything - thus a UK minister tells catholic schools that it must now give information about abortion facilities and their access and should provide information about sexual lifestyles in a non-judgemental value. But where is the philosophical basis for making this so called "tolerance" an overarching value? As Bloom notes "It is not the immortality of relativism that I find appalling. What is astonishing and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives".
Bloom's canvas is a large one - not just education but practically every foundation stone of life is examined, noting that "The dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief". But Bloom's primary focus is undoubtedly education. He notes that "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" and "deprived of literary guidance, students no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even image that is such a thing". . But for Bloom: "the substance of my being has been informed by the books I learned to care for"
I noted his comments on music with interest but did not feel he had much to contribute.
Bloom's most pointed comments are on eros and relationships, noting that "Students these days are pleasant, friendly, and if not great souled, at least not particularly mean-spirited. Their primary preoccupation is themselves, understood in the narrowest sense" - he notes later: that they are "flat-souled". He notes that students "can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular". He notes that as sex has become "no big deal", it has also become passionless, trivialised, de-eroticised and demystified, leading to a "crippled eros". He laments the loss of modesty. But the key issue is provisionality in sexual relationships: "To strangers from another planet, what would be the most striking thing is that sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity" and a young person "can now choose, but he finds he no longer has a sufficient motive for choice that is more than whim, that is binding". But Bloom is not just interested in the deterioration in sexual relationships but he notes the loss of symbolism for fathers: "There is nothing left of the reverence towards the father as the symbol of the divine on earth, the unquestioned bearer of authority". And Bloom notes the wreakage created by divorce: "The important lesson that the family taught was the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings". But, also the impetus for marriage has disappeared as men have their cake and eat it.
I am not at all qualified to give an opinion on his philosophical analysis of what is the causation of all this, particularly his analysis that the importation of German philosophy into a culture ill-suited to digest and understand it is the principal cause but I did find his comments on Locke and Rousseau to be both interesting and entertaining. But, I feel that he is right when he says "the novel aspect of the crisis of the West is that it is identical with a crisis of philosophy".
Bloom takes a big swipe at the ideology of "the self": "To sum up, the self is the modern substitute for the soul". He notes that "America has no-fault automobile accidents, no-fault divroces, and it is moving with the aid of modern philosophy towards no fault choice". But the so called "life-style" choice comes in for his greatest criticism: "lifestyle is so much freer, easier, more authentic and democratic. No attention ahs to be paid to content". Thus the word "lifestyle" becomes the democratic abstraction for justifying all sorts of hedonistic behaviour.
Democracy comes in for criticism and in this respect Bloom echoes CS Lewis. Democracy "causes a particular bent which, if not actively corrected, distorts the mind's vision" and "The deepest intellectual weakness of democracy is the lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life". He notes the use of "slogans" and the chasing after the "shiny new theory".
Bloom the reminds us of the fear of death and the relation to eternity and notes man's grandeur: "Man is the particular being that can know the universal, the temporal being that is aware of eternity, the part that can survey the whole, the effect that seeks the cause".
The sixties come in for particular attack, One comment I found most interesting was his noting that sacrificial morality "was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct". I was reminded of the attacks on Pope Pius XII which began in the sixties and continue unabated to this day. The fact that under Pope Pius XII's leadership, the Catholic Church managed to save about 800,000 Jews is regarded as not significant - rather Pope Pius XII is derided and regarded as shameful for not attacking Hitler and his regime publically from the balcony of St Peter's i.e. Pope Pius XII did not engage in moral histrionics, ergo he is not moral!
The University, as an institution, comes in for the greatest criticism - he deals with so many issues, grade inflation, the fragmentation of philosophy departments into specialism, preferences for certain sections of the community but generally one gets the impression that philosophers in universities no longer believe in living the Socratic examined life or at least have no passion for it.