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.
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.
When 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
Why do we put up with developing ‘acquired tastes’? What acquired tastes have you come to enjoy? Coffee, wine, diet soda- lutefisk? The first time that you tried it and found it wanting, what gave you the desire to give it another try? Acquiring a taste for something reminds me of a recurring difficulty I had as I began my flailing efforts at a liberal arts education. I was asked to read all sorts of things. So many times I was told to expect grandeur only to find a bore, or worse, a wall of esoteric inaccessibility. Take an example I’m not terribly proud of- I hated reading through my first two Charles Dickens novels. I can’t remember which novels they were, but something clicked with David Copperfield. I finally saw the light.
For other books, the ‘click’ took longer to arrive. My perennial question became how do you tell a dud before you spend time with it? There are so many books worth reading, surely, so how do you know when you’ve been given jug wine instead of a classic vintage? Starting out, it is sometimes hard to tell. Charlotte is still my only Bronte, and I can only read T.S. Eliot with Google close by. I have, however, stumbled onto a principle that has assisted me in trusting the annals of time with something I don’t immediately appreciate that I probably should.
Imagine writing that seemingly obtuse opening chapter, composing that quirky score, or creating that set for the initial scene. I remember recognizing the usefulness of this principle by remembering my baptism into the art of saxophone. I was immersed in the world of middle school symphonic band, back when it was ok that your saxophone sounded like a lawnmower. I wanted to play everything that came across my path. After a gloriously short stint in a jazz band (we did manage to play in a coffee shop), I came to appreciate the complexities that accomplished players would display in all sorts of performances. The hours of grueling practice across a variety of genres made it easy to imagine myself in this band, producing that tone. My experience made awe a possibility.
Imagine writing the piece that you are trying to appreciate. What would you do differently? Would you be able create the same intrigue that the author has? Listen to Bethoven’s 5th, imagining that you are the composer- beginning with that smallest initial motif that continues throughout the piece. Many times- not every time- you’ll get a glimpse of excellence that bids you plod along.
Unless you’ve tried to harmonize a choral in the style of Bach, you haven’t a clue how perfect this music is- how subtle are the inner voices, how wonderful the harmonic choices, how superb the baseline! It’s great art! ~ Robert Greenberg