The Most Successful Tyranny: Allan Bloom, Bernie Sanders, and History

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

This paragraph points to what a liberal arts education is all about. Freedom of the mind does not equal intellectual obstinacy- it is a historical awareness that frees us to see our place in the history of ideas. Bloom’s point is easily seen in our political landscape. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that his campaign signals the beginning of a political revolution. Revolution. Maybe our situation warrants this kind of change, but I doubt it.

French Revolution

My guess is that his supporters (comprised mostly of my generation I’m told) don’t have the sense of historical backdrop with which to compare their own political ideology. ‘Radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ are terms that might excite a young movement looking for something to live for, but we need to be able to properly judge whether we’re trading one tyranny (whether real or imagined) for a worse. Bloom says that endeavor will require an education.



Allan Bloom- We Are a Bit Like Savages

We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.  

~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.

This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.

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