The editorial staff of Public Discourse is deeply saddened to learn that Peter Lawler has passed away.
The Closing of the American Mind is both deeply radical and hugely questionable. It’s radical, because it tries to explain all of contemporary American life in terms of a single principle—the solitary choices of the free individual. It’s questionable, because Bloom seems to shy away from following his key insight to its logical or existential conclusion.
In Bloom’s eyes, all of the institutions Tocqueville identified as ways that Americans combat individualism (local government, family, religion, etc.) have been defeated by a transformation that has permeated every feature of the lives of sophisticated Americans. It’s hard to tell whether Bloom means his book to be simply empirical—an account of everything he can see with his own eyes—or a kind of thought experiment. In either case, he seems to explain everything human through the lens of longing (eros) or its absence.
Bloom and His Students
The original title of Bloom’s book was, in fact, “Souls Without Longing.” In its first part, he describes the elite students he teaches and the sophisticated, faux-cosmopolitan world they inhabit as full of flat—or completely unaroused—souls. Those students—who now compose our “cognitive elite”—are presented as totally unmoved by love and death and thus incapable of being anything more than clever, competent specialists. The polymorphous eros once thought to be characteristic of human beings as such has become one-dimensional. That’s why the music favored by students is dominated by the rhythm of the mechanical rutting of animals, and why romantic relationships have been replaced by hook-ups.
Bloom’s students are all post-Biblical or post-religious, but without being miserable in the mode of Pascal in the absence of God. They weren’t about the seeking and searching recommended by both the Christians and the existentialists. Tocqueville’s claim about Americans being restless in the midst of prosperity—much less St. Augustine’s claim that everyone has a hungry heart—is disconfirmed by thoughts and deeds of today’s sophisticated Americans. Anguished atheism has been replaced by complacent and dogmatic atheism, what Nietzsche meant when he reported the death of God. Bloom’s students are completely “spiritually unclad” and unashamed of their nakedness.
Not only are love of God and romantic love alien to these young people, it would seem, so is any form of heart-enlarging experience that would threaten one’s independence and personal survival. They are, deep down, social solitaries, and that fact informs every facet of their lives. There is no place in their hearts for romantic love and enduring marriages built around child-rearing.
The kids Bloom describes are also post-political. The political life of free and equal citizens has been displaced by the administrative state, which treats people impersonally as clients with entitlements. Our elitist students have no particular attachment to their country or their fellow citizens. They are incapable of being citizens or statesmen. They are meritocrats who believe they deserve what they have, and so their privileges don’t come with civic responsibilities. And they certainly don’t think of themselves as sharing the proud burden of military service with those not of their kind. All in all, “neither pleasure nor duty involves students in the political,” in their country. They are egalitarians in principle, but they aren’t idealistic (or erotic) enough to embrace a Christian, civic, or socialist case for the justice of redistribution. They have none of the longings that make bourgeois society repulsive for those romantic enough to aim higher, and they have no desire to revolt against the “system” that allows them to flourish unconstrained in peace and prosperity.
The elite kids are displaced persons, at home everywhere and nowhere. Nothing stands “between cosmic infinity and the individual,” nothing “provid[es] them some notion of a place within the whole.” Every experience of home has been “rationalized” out of existence for them, and they don’t care. They are at home with their homelessness, with their emotional detachment from their fellow citizens and even friends and family. They think of themselves as self-sufficient wholes. How can an individual be a whole? Only by being without the longing for relational love and by being unmoved by the invincible fact of personal extinction.
For Bloom’s students, virtue has been replaced by an easygoing egalitarian non-judgmentalism. That’s why it’s so easy for them to be nice. Being nice isn’t being noble, but it also isn’t cruel. And that’s the point: Souls without longing are the price to be paid for a free, comfortable, and secure life.
The Limits of Bloom
For all his insight, Bloom does contradict himself at one critical juncture, as he calls attention to the feelings of betrayal experienced by children of divorce. The resulting numbness and fear of a second betrayal, he suggests, may be the real basis for students’ avoidance of romantic love and the sort of erotic development that might lead to genuine philosophic insight. The child of divorced parents is taught to mouth therapeutic platitudes about what’s best for everyone, but they are but “a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt, and fear.” Being nice, from this view, is only a display of the self-protective surface of his students’ hugely disordered souls.
Maybe if his book had been based on that insight about rage and doubt, Bloom’s general theme might have been that his students’ therapeutic words are contradicted by their real experiences. He might even have taught us to hear, with Solzhenitsyn, “the howl of existentialism” just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism. Instead, Bloom’s official line is that the niceness of these students is free from all bourgeois duplicity, and they are truthfully oblivious to eternity or Being or any form of real transcendence. Yet the soul, as Tocqueville says, has needs that can’t be denied, but only deformed and distorted. That’s why, if you look closely, lives driven by diversions that barely conceal despair are common among sophisticated Americans.
Had Bloom followed the complicated psychological path traced by Tocqueville and, more recently, by Walker Percy, his book might have been more empirical and more compelling—not to mention a more deeply authentic criticism of the empty irrelevance of most American higher education. One explanation for why he doesn’t is his anti-theological or anti-Christian ire. Unlike Percy, Bloom’s good news is impersonal philosophy, not the person Christ. Bloom really does conclude that the choices today are philosophy or nothing—a choice that Percy assumes is a craftily concealed nihilism. For Percy, the best clue we have about who we are is love in the ruins.
Contrary to Rousseau, Aristotle says that the healthy human being is a gregarious mammal. As Bloom illustrates through his description of radical individualism and its deconstruction of all our relational attachments, almost all that is natural about being human can be suppressed by philosophic propaganda. The unnatural existence that Bloom’s students live is very bad news for the future of our species or, more precisely, the future of our sophisticated way of life. That sophisticated life can’t be sustained by niceness alone, even as a quality of highly productive meritocratic specialists. Safe sex, for example, is detached from the bare act’s natural function for an animal born to die; it serves the highly self-conscious individual and is perfectly contrary to nature. And the cure for niceness—economic collapse and war—is surely around the corner.
Nature can be cast out with a pitchfork, but it’ll always come running back in. Thank God for that.
Transhumanism and the Populist Revolt
Let me conclude by mentioning two trends that seem to modify Bloom’s account of American sophisticates today: transhumanism and the populist revolt against political correctness.
The most cognitive part of our cognitive elite—found in Silicon Valley—has become transhumanist. They’re spending lots of time and treasure attempting to literally put death to death. Their top theorist, Peter Thiel, knows that no self-conscious being can be authentically satisfied with “liberal democracy” or “the End of History.” Thiel’s whole life has been shaped by the trauma he experienced as a young boy when he found his destiny was personal extinction. Death, for a pragmatist like Thiel, is a problem that technology may well be able to solve. The world won’t really be governed by choice unless we can become pro-choice on death itself.
Bloom might wonder what will happen to philosophy if we are no longer struck with death. Others might wonder what will happen to the virtues that ennoble loving, relational life. But the genuine individualist would respond that dead people can neither philosophize nor love. If life is good, let’s get as much of it as we can, and eventually we’ll become so self-sufficient that we won’t even need any more kids. Personal survivalism needs to free itself from the illusions that generate complacency and self-satisfaction.
Thiel’s imagination may be somewhat flat, but it’s not listless. And it is quite distinctively human in its longing to transcend the real limitations of being human.
When it comes to the less elite sectors of our society, resistance to the linguistic therapy of the cognitive elite’s newly aggressive niceness takes a different form. Our anti-elite perceives itself as being stripped of the dignity that comes with being responsible citizens and having the wherewithal to raise a family. Their revolt is not only concerned with the compensation, security, and status of “skilled labor.” It also attempts to defend the opinions and beliefs of loving spouses, parents, citizens, and religious believers from corporate scripting. From the perspective of these rebels—Trump voters in our country and Brexit voters in Great Britain—the nice are lacking in real virtue, particularly personal courage and civic commitment. And they have been parasitic for their defense on those who orient their relational lives by God, country, and family.
I’m far from endorsing Trumpism, which attempts to counter being nice with being brutal. But there’s a lot to be said for any effort that restores the country as a real source of human loyalty and reminds us of the nobility and indispensability of relational virtue.
Bloom believed that, in an enlightened country, the thoughts of the sophisticated eventually transform the lives of everyone. We might have more reason than he did to hope that our story won’t be that simple. Now’s the time to praise manliness, but only in the context of showing the road from anger, meaninglessness, and despair to a world once again full of ladies and gentlemen—people who know who they are and what they’re supposed to do as beings born to know, love, and die, and designed for more than merely biological existence.
Peter Augustine Lawler was the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. His most recent book is American Heresies and Higher Education.