Pluralism, Religious Belief, and Civic Virtue: How to Reopen the American Mind

Everyone is reading Allan Bloom. It is not necessary these days even to mention the title of his number one best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. Simply mention Bloom’s name and somebody else is also reading his book.

That this book has become a best-seller is no surprise. No one who reads it comes away unmoved. It is a highly disturbing work. Even for a reader whose family has escaped some of the grimmer effects of modernism — divorce, for example — which Bloom depicts so devastatingly; or even for any reader who tries to maintain philosophical principle amid our pervasive pluralism the Bloom book will be nonetheless troubling. My own copy bears more of my underlining, asterisks, marginal notes, exclamation points, and question marks than any book I have read in a long time. One cannot ignore Bloom or hide from the truth he presents. Even his detractors will have to face him.

What makes The Closing of the American Mind so disturbing? The chapter on books, certainly, in which we realize that, because we ourselves do not know the staples of mythology, literature, and history as well as we should, we have succeeded only feebly in passing on to our children the literature of our civilization. The much-publicized chapter on music, though probably less universally applicable than the chapter on books, is also perturbing.

But beyond these and other chapters that depict the soul of American youth there is a far more gripping chill in Bloom’s book. For me it strikes most forcibly at the beginning of Part III. There, after a crescendo of unsettling discussion through nearly 250 pages, Bloom describes how Tocqueville’s portrayal of American intellectual life jars students into alarm over the tendency of democracy to distort the mind toward relativism. If a student is troubled by the picture of democracy painted by Bloom and Tocqueville, an adult will be more so. An adult will have seen at close range how, even in the most innocent circumstances the democratic enthusiasm for accepting any opinion bears down nearly inexorably upon an attempt to define the good. Alarmed though a college student may be by Tocqueville’s analysis, he has not yet lived through much proof of it. An adult, on the other hand, has seen plenty of evidence that Tocqueville was right, and that Bloom by referring to him most starkly draws the democratic dilemma.

The brilliance of Tocqueville’s intellectual portrait of America becomes even more poignant when we realize that Tocqueville was not hostile toward America but had the greatest affection for this country and its people. Moreover, he concluded, admittedly reluctantly, that he preferred a democratic society to an aristocratic one. “A state of equality is perhaps less elevated,” he said, “but it is more just: and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty.” He further saw that a democratic society is what we have been given in this moment in history. Though we are not historically determined, we do live within the limits of our particular moment in history. It is this very givenness of our democratic moment — the hard recognition that, as we rush toward the third millennium, this is what we have, what we must work with — that makes Bloom’s section on Tocqueville in my view the summary of his entire thesis on our philosophical crisis in the West, especially in America and in our universities.

One fears —and this is why both Bloom and Tocqueville are so disconcerting — that we may be caught up so tightly in our rejection of an objective standard of the good and true that we may no longer be able even to discern the difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood. One fears an icy inevitability about the destructive effect of openness in a democracy. For that reason there is a great temptation to read doom in our society, to write it off as finished or, worse, to cave in to the natural tendency of democracy to set up a system in which, in the name of pluralism and tolerance, the good is never allowed to exist for its own sake, but must always be harnessed to utility. This temptation to cave in hounds us who live in a democratic society and who may be discouraged by the constant submergence of the excellent man in favor of the emergence of the mediocre man. Yet, when we give in to this temptation to let the mediocre or the caprice of public opinion define what our social order should be, we become part of the very relativism we denounce.

Tocqueville, however, knowing this temptation and acting against it, was not only brilliant but also noble and heroic. Refusing to succumb to the lure of historical determinism — which he described as, oddly enough, a peculiarly democratic temptation — he believed, as he said in the moving finale of Democracy in America, that “we have not to seek to make ourselves like our progenitors, but to strive to work out that species of greatness and happiness which is our own ” Though Tocqueville was both apprehensive and hopeful about the future of democracy, he insisted that “for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, they require but to will it.” Nations are not enslaved by “some insurmountable and unintelligent power, arising from anterior events, from their race, or from the soil and climate of their country.” He despised such principles as “false and cowardly,” resulting in “feeble men and pusillanimous nations.” “Providence,” he said,

has not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free. It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced beyond which he cannot pass; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free; as it is with man, so with communities. The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.

These are the words of a man schooled in the Great Books of the Judeo-Christian tradition, who realizes that the world bears the effects of sin and imperfection and that even the best of man’s projects for governing himself will remain merely human, therefore imperfect, systems. Yet these are the words, too, of a man who knows the drama of redemption, of redemption won finally on the cross but also held out again and again to each generation to accept or not. Each generation rediscovers the truths of the tradition or it rejects them; there is nothing predetermined about the choice of this reclamation.

Eric Voegelin, in a little book, Conversations with Eric Voegelin, reinforced the dramatic character of Tocqueville’s theme when he said, “Civilizations as such are never static because every man is a new element of revolution in the world. Just stop being static and do something . . . Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of our time. He can do something else.” He can, in other words, do something to help counter the crisis.

Tocqueville had the wisdom of the truly hopeful man. He knew that in order to preserve and protect from aberration a standard of good it is necessary, first, to know what the standard is which is held up for emulation and, second, what perversion of the standard would be. If Bloom is frighteningly accurate in his description of our loss of a common vision of the public good and in his framing of the question whether a social order can exist without that common moral vision, then Tocqueville was likewise accurate in predicting how the loss of a common purpose would come about.

A democratic society more than any other form of social order requires a common goal and vision among its people. In order to remain healthy it requires that its people have a high degree of common purpose. Yet at the same time it contains within itself a momentum which runs counter to a common vision. Since equality is the principle of democracy, then each man’s judgment becomes equal to the judgment of another. Thus there is a built-in resistance to see any standard as superior to one’s private judgment. One’s own reason becomes the final arbiter of truth. Whatever one decides the truth to be becomes preferable to any objective standard of truth outside one’s own mind. Hence democracy tends to foster both relativism, in which truth is whatever one decides it to be, and individualistic rationalism, in which one’s own reason as the sole authority is far more important than a common purpose or idea of civic virtue.

As Tocqueville explained the democratic logic, because “no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority” are perceived in anyone, people “are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up tightly within himself and insists upon judging the world from there.”

Both Tocqueville and Bloom devote their books to the exploration of the subtle ramifications of this idea of each person as his own little god. Some principle of authority must prevail, however, in any regime. Consequently, it prevails, too, in a democracy. In a democracy, we might expect independence of mind, since individuals are likely to become isolated atoms; we see instead a strain of docility and dullness of mind. The reason, as Tocqueville explains, is that the guide for belief and behavior resides not in one man or in a class of men but in the multitude, which results in an “almost unbounded confidence in the judgment of the public,” in the common opinion, for it seems to everyone in a democracy that because of the equal ability of everyone to judge, “the greater truth should go with the greater number.”

What happens, then, as an outgrowth of this power of majority opinion to define what society should be, is tremendous pressure upon the individual intelligence to conform. The insidious kind of tyranny that gently but thoroughly suffocates people in a democracy is not so much majority persecution of minorities but, as Bloom puts it, a quiet pressure to conform that “breaks the inner will to resist because there is no qualified source of nonconforming principles and no sense of superior right. The majority is all there is.” Furthermore, there comes a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness on the part of individual men, who feel too weak to exert their own judgment against the majority of public opinion. Knowing themselves to have no real power, individuals then look for interest groups with which to align themselves, groups that have no sense of civic purpose but merely push for some narrow and short-term interest.

Thus Bloom’s and Tocqueville’s picture of democracy, appalling as it is, is perilous to ignore Chesterton, who had such an uncanny way of analyzing in a few sharp words what we most worry about, expressed the dilemma of living in a democracy as being unable to live with it and unable to live without it. In other words, even if we could, would we choose any-thing else? Chesterton doubted it. “The difficulty of believing in democracy,” he said in Divorce Versus Democracy,

is that it is so hard to believe- -like God and most other things. The difficulty of disbelieving in democracy is that there is nothing else to believe in. I mean there is nothing else on earth or in earthly politics. Unless an aristocracy is selected by gods, it must be selected by men. It may be negatively and passively permitted, but either heaven or humanity must permit it; otherwise it has no more moral authority than a lucky pickpocket. It is baby talk to talk about “Supermen” or “Nature’s Aristocracy” or “The Wise Few.” “The Wise Few” must be either those whom others think wise — who are often fools; or those who think themselves wise — who are always fools.

And so, here we are with a democracy, albeit one with grave signs of decay. Yet it is our given fact at the moment; we might even say that to live in a democratic society is part of our incarnation. Now what do we do with it? How do we begin the slow, painful labor of counteracting what has made us ill? How do we provide the antidote for the mindless acceptance, in the name of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance, of “anything goes”?

Bloom’s analysis of the pluralistic problem is as masterful an exposition as we could have. But his remedy is less satisfying. Our hope, he rightly believes, lies in the restoration of the Great Books, particularly the works of classical Greek philosophy, to their pivotal position as the basis of the philosophical discussion that has continued throughout Western history. He believes that somehow the liberal arts, as exemplified in the Great Books, must be restored to their elemental function of examining things for their own sake rather than for the sake of utility. Yet after building his American Mind to the point where he recommends a renaissance of the liberal arts, Bloom offers only a disappointing non-conclusion. He envisions the university in its pristine state as a hothouse in which a Socratic dialogue continues endlessly with no real hope of finding an answer. One cannot escape the hunch that, in this framing of the ongoing Socratic dialogue as the model of the intellectual life, Bloom is actually part of the problem of relativism that he decries. One senses that as Bloom might likely frame the Socratic discussion we would find it, at least by itself, too thin to sustain life.

Though a Socratic examination of the Great Books is indeed the proper method of reading the works of our tradition, we nonetheless can conduct the dialogue in more than one way. One suspects that, although Bloom mentions the role of religion in our intellectual life, he is too stymied by the reason/revelation issue to allow religion to have any more than a cultural influence upon us. One would doubt that he takes seriously the notion that the very essence of faith is, first of all, the assent of the mind to a revelation that can be grasped intellectually. For that reason we might assume that Bloom expects his students in a Socratic dialogue to operate in a condition of suspended belief, always holding out for further discussion.

It is human, however, to rebel at this mildly -enforced agnosticism. Is this all there is, a student may ask himself — merely one long Socratic discussion with no end in view? Are we doomed never to know at least partial truth? Can we be sure of nothing? Must a student be a disbeliever? Can he be allowed to believe, to see with the eyes of faith — credo ut intelligam — and then witness the continual unfolding of the truth of this astonishing world that comes to a person after he believes? If this world is teleological, if it has a purpose and end, then we are a teleological people. We do require, then, else we despair, some hope of knowing our end. The modern intellectual objects to belief on the grounds that belief cuts off openness to truth. On the contrary, however, belief opens the world and the mind to the transcendent end of things. Belief permits the mind to open to the astounding hugeness of creation. Belief excites the mind; unbelief dulls it. Hence even the most comprehensive Great Books program, if undertaken with no view to glimpsing the end of knowledge (the reason for which we want to know at all) is hardly more enlarging to a young mind than the usual humdrum cafeteria-style undergraduate program — and may actually be more harmful to it.

Though implying that religion has been important in American life, Bloom seems to doubt that a believing mind can also be firmly grounded in what is reasonable; thus he ends up minimizing religion as a key to the philosophy of the American Founders. When he refers to the sources of the Founders, he seems to assume that they all were Lockeans. Yes, they knew Locke and incorporated Lockean language into their treatises and documents. Yet the Founders drew on classical and medieval sources far older than Locke — such as Aristotle and Polybius, Plutarch and Cicero, Glanville, and Bracton — and on Scripture. Moreover, one has but to read not only some of their public papers but their letters written to their wives and families during the tense times of the Continental Congress, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitutional Convention. Here were men who labored and suffered under their responsibility, who felt the weight of the dramatic moment, who anguished over the risk to themselves and their people, who had no illusions about the dangers of framing a government to check the power of democratic interest groups, who nevertheless sensed that their moment was providential and that if the new order were to survive, it would be only at the mercy of God. If the Founders were not all formally denominational they were all the same markedly religious men. For them indeed religious faith was so crucial to the survival of the new republic that they did not risk the sanctity of it by uniting it with the state. To insure its protection it was to be outside the authority of the state, from which point it would be safe from attack by the secular authority.

The founders understood a mystery of democratic society. On the one hand, democracy calls for tolerance of all creeds. It calls for tolerance of all expressions of religious faith. On the other hand, tolerance of these expressions does not mean hostility to faith but rather recognition of particular expressions of universal faith. If democratic society is to flourish, faith must flourish. The Founders knew the paradoxical reason for the link between democracy and faith. If the principle of equality leads to authority only of private judgment, then there is inherent in democracy no real principle of a common purpose or of public virtue. In other words, there is within democracy no source of independent life. By itself democracy is a vacuum. Thus it is absolutely essential, in order that the secular power does not fill that vacuum, that the faculties which foster a common vision, a principle of civic virtue, be developed outside and beyond the state: that is, in the church, the family, the university. The animating principle of religious faith informs all of these institutions. Only by private judgment being informed through religious faith and then acting through the church, the family and the university can a democratic society receive any life. The source of life in a democracy is outside itself. Its infusion of life depends on a life of the spirit above, beyond, and outside it. So well did the Founders understand this mystery that they devised a unique procedural and structural system of federalism to protect the source of life in a democracy.

Allan Bloom obviously understands that life in a democracy depends in huge measure upon the strength of the family, the church, and the university. Yet he may not altogether understand that if these institutions are to remain healthy, they need the underpinning of a religious faith that is more than a cultural appendage, that takes as its source the intelligence of the Creator communicating to our own human intelligence. This phenomenon must be taken seriously as fundamentally the greatest of all exercises of reason.

Tocqueville understood exactly the role of religious faith in a democracy. Religion furnishes precisely the answers about God and man which private judgment cannot decide on its own. When the religion of a democratic people is destroyed, “doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Every man accustoms himself to having only confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself.” His opinions thus become so difficult to defend that he gives up thinking about the hard problems of his destiny. He gives up, in other words, the philosophical life.

“Such a condition,” said Tocqueville, “cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude.” In such cases not only do people allow their freedom to be taken from them but “they frequently surrender it themselves.” A dangerous propensity of democracy, Tocqueville thought, is the tendency to isolate people from each other, “to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification,” But “the greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles,” to raise the soul to concentration on something transcending this world. “Religious nations,” Tocqueville insisted, “are therefore naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are weak; this shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal.”

If religion, as the Founders and as Tocqueville believed, provides the source of life in a democracy, then it ought not to be regarded in the university curriculum as some cultural accident. Instead it should be a study that encompasses the highest contributions of human reason contemplating a reality that includes us but exceeds us. Moreover, in order to give all the life to our society of which it is capable of giving, religion needs the serious treatment that the intellectual life of the university can provide.

Bloom stresses that the modern university requires a unifying principle which presently it altogether lacks. I would suggest to him that theology has the possibility of becoming that unifying principle. If religion is looked upon not as antithetical to reason; if, because God the source of faith is the most reasonable of beings, religion is seen as being in harmony with reason, then the Great Books read with an openness to faith might again spring to life as the backbone of the liberal arts. The Great Books read with awareness of our teleological nature might revolutionize academia.

We would be naive to think, however, that such a renaissance might occur in our universities as they are presently constituted. The modern university is not about to deny its own legitimacy. Even what is generally considered to be a fairly small liberal arts college is in practice a lumbering, inert leviathan of bureaucracy. If we think we can effect a large-scale change in this lumpish giant which has no inclination to speak of anything higher than diversity, then we are probably spending our energies fruitlessly. Nobody realizes this fact of life better than Bloom, and so he is sharply pessimistic about the university.

But does the intractability of the university mean that we can do nothing to aid academia in America? I do not think so. How is change effected in history? Not by wholesale transfusions into a deadened body. Rather by little mustard seeds that are carefully planted and nourished by one or two people, by a tiny pocket of virtuous people who have decided to strive for a higher life. A book here, a conversation there, a little gathering that bears fruit in a serious, perhaps prayerful consideration of what can be done. Real moral change comes not through largeness but through smallness. Our Lord showed us again and again that it would be this way. We recall, for example, that when Yahweh came to Elijah, he came not in wind or earthquake or fire but in a mere rustle of breeze.

If we but look and listen, we may find small but strong signs of hope in the university. On at least some faculties there is at least a handful of teachers who understand that openness to truth implies recognition of revelation. If we look specifically to sectarian schools, the signs of hope are greater. I would agree with Gilbert Meilaender, who argues in his excellent book, The Theory and Practice of Virtue, that to recover a moral consensus in our democracy our attempts at moral education should be “frankly sectarian.” Bearing out the hope of the avowedly sectarian school, some colleges, Catholic and otherwise, without federal or state aid, are offering an education in the classics of Judeo- Christian tradition that is a breath of fresh air. Within some larger Catholic colleges, too, there have sprung up pockets of the classic liberal arts: institutes and Great Books programs which attempt as they explore the great works to be open to the tradition of revelation. It is an unfortunate fact of this imperfect world that these inner sancta of classical education are often viewed by the larger university which houses them — Catholic though it be in name — as the enemy. Yet it is nonetheless true that if these little bastions of education can survive within the modern Catholic university (which is so often merely a secular university tagged to a religious order), if they can hold out against the pressure to join the pluralism of the larger university, then these programs have enormous influence far beyond anything their size would lead us to expect.

Among individual scholars and writers are further signs of hope. From their pens and journals and books is coming a flowering of a body of literature relating the American Founding to the Catholic tradition. Even allowing for John Courtney Murray, we have never seen the quality, quantity, and depth of work on this most important to the Catholic in America of all topics. One hopes that shortly there will be an effort to consolidate and publish in book form the wise essays that are now scattered throughout various journals.

Finally, the greatest sign of hope in our time is surely Pope John Paul II. One has the distinct notion that as we struggle to analyze what has happened during two centuries to democratic society, what is happening now, Pope John Paul is far ahead of us, gazing almost clairvoyantly into the next century. While we labor to keep (or perhaps to re-open) our democracy to religious faith, this pope may already have provided part of our solution. Could it be that his theology of Christian personalism, in which he emphasizes with unceasing vigor the uniqueness of each person, may be exactly the logic that can tie democratic individualism to Christian faith? Could it be that, if we listen, he may give us more than a clue of how we may recover our common moral vision?


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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