Allan Bloom on Our Moral and Political Language

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Maybe it’s his grouchy style, but I’ve found it enjoyably challenging. It’s the sort of book that I wish I could read with ease but can’t- considering the numerous threads of intellectual history that he is weaving into a coherent narrative. The quote below is an example of a typical passage. His comments about what our language reveals about our thinking are instructive.

41Q1DmHSlmLWhen President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union “have different values” (italics added), an assertion that those same persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing in both instances, and the different reaction to his different words introduces us to the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time, all the more astonishing in being almost unnoticed: there is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get “beyond good and evil” and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.

The new language is that of value relativism, and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.  A new language always reflects a new point of view, and the gradual, unconscious popularization of new words, or of old words used in new ways, is a sure sign of a profound change in people’s articulation of the world. When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth from the first.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 141

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