The reaction of putative conservatives to the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 was symptomatic of deep intellectual confusion. They treated the book as a defense of the American political tradition and the values of Western civilization--as a work of conservative thought. Some of these conservatives may have based their assessment only on excerpts from the book in which Bloom criticized spineless academic administrators and the drug and rock culture, but not even these sections were a clear indication of conservatism. Sentiments of this kind could have been expressed by people ranging from moderate liberals to communists and reactionaries. Although some on the left attacked the book, it was very different from its reputation among supposed conservatives. Curiously, it did not make them suspicious that a book by one of their own should receive an extraordinary amount of attention and be treated with high respect in places where conservative ideas were ordinarily disdained.
When Modern Age invited this writer to contribute to a symposium on The Closing of the American Mind, I tried to show that it was not a defense of the traditional American mind with its classical, Christian, and British lineage and resonances, but was largely a defense of the Enlightenment mind. (1) What Bloom bewailed was that the Enlightenment mind, which he rather loosely and arbitrarily equated with the American mind, was closing. That mind was being threatened, he argued, by the more extreme radicalism in American universities and elsewhere that had earlier manifested itself in the New Left and counterculture of the late 1960s and early '70s. According to Bloom, this extremism had roots in certain European, especially German, intellectual currents. In typical Straussian fashion, Bloom obfuscated by implying a connection between the Enlightenment he favored and the so-called "Ancients," as he interpreted them. For instance, he treated Socrates as a kind of pre-Enlightenment figure.
None of this should have surprised anyone. As a Straussian, Bloom had long sought to appropriate certain iconic historical figures, giving them new intellectual profiles that would support his intellectual agenda. His likes and dislikes were revealing. His fondness for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, if nothing else, should have tipped conservatives off to his philosophical leanings. Though a complex thinker not easily classified, Rousseau had long been seen as a major influence on leftist-revolutionary movements and as a theorist of so-called totalitarian democracy. He inspired the French Jacobins, including the notorious Robespierre. (2) But no--when The Closing of the American Mind enjoyed its great success, conservatives wanted to celebrate a supposed breakthrough for conservatism.
Bloom's book actually took its place within an old, large and familiar genre, that of turning America and its origins, especially the so-called Founding, into something different from what they actually were. Intellectuals uncomfortable with America's traditional culture had long tried to recast and replace it. Because Americans were, when these efforts first got underway, strongly attached to that culture and had a particular fondness for the Constitution as the political essence of the American tradition, attacking these head-on was not a very promising way of weaning Americans off traditional allegiances. Instead, these intellectuals adopted a strategy of deception and, in some cases, perhaps self-deception. Great energy went into persuading Americans that America's pedigree was not what it had seemed to be. America, they asserted, was not an outgrowth and continuation of Western classical and Christian civilization, as mediated by British culture, and affected also by more recent ideas. America represented a departure from or outright rejection of the bad old days of Europe. America was based not on a rich, complex, slowly evolved European heritage, but on abstract, ahistorical principles.
A prime example of this genre was Louis Hartz's 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, which declared that America is quintessentially liberal and that John Locke is pervasively paradigmatic for America. All the more thoroughly to sever America's connection to the old world, Hartz assumed an ahistorical, secularized, "enlightened," quasi-capitalist Locke. This Locke suited his intellectual purpose better than the actual Locke, whose ideas had a connection, however tenuous, with medieval thought. Bloom's book, like those of other Straussians, was yet another example of the effort to give America origins that would make it more appealing and favorable to people of enlightened views.
Whole ideologies and mythologies have grown up that draw attention away from America's actual past and make Americans of an older type, the WASPs in particular, feel defensive and even out of place, certainly not entitled to any special status. The desire to have America be something different from its historical past and to make it perhaps also more palatable to an aspiring new elite is probably most evident and explicit in Bloom's fellow Straussian Harry Jaffa. Jaffa has made a career of asserting that America must not, repeat, not, be understood as owing anything of importance to an old historical heritage. It must be seen as born out of a radical break with the past and as based on abstract principles of an essentially Lockean cast--Lockeanism understood concomitantly as a departure from earlier thought. The American Founding, Jaffa asserts, "represented the most radical break with tradition ... that the world had seen. ... [T]he founders understood themselves to be revolutionaries, and to celebrate the American Founding is therefore to celebrate revolution." The American Revolution "embodied the greatest attempt at innovation that human history had recorded." This revolution was somewhat mild, Jaffa concedes, but belongs with "subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba or elsewhere." (3) There is in such statements not so much as a hint of the deep roots of the American rebellion in the old English tradition of constitutionalism and resistance to tyranny. That a particular heritage--classical, Christian, and British--decisively shaped American society and politics is for Jaffa evidently a distasteful notion. Far from being conservative of an ancient inheritance, Jaffa wants to be rid of America's actual past--a goal that he has pursued by arguing among the historically uneducated for his notion of an ahistorical, radical, revolutionary Founding. Bloom's view of America is similar. In The Closing of the American Mind he even asserts that the American Revolution was fought for the same principles as the French Revolution. (4) Putative American conservatives still sensed nothing particularly wrong with the book. They seemed to have been already affected by such a view of America and to have but a passing familiarity with the history of their country. (5)
Analogously, Bloom contends that Plato, whose iconic status and authority he would like to invoke on behalf of his own beliefs, is markedly different from how a long tradition of classicist scholarship...