Friend and Teacher: Allan Bloom, 1930-1992

With the untimely death of my friend Allan Bloom on October 7, 1992, America lost one of its finest and most brilliant teachers. At the same time, and by more than mere coincidence, higher education lost its most courageous and incisive critic.

My friendship with Allan goes back to the mid-’50s when we were in Paris together, he as an exchange student from the University of Chicago and I as a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne. We met for the first time at a seminar on Plato’s Laws that the distinguished French Dominican and classicist A.-J. Festugiere happened to be teaching at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études. As the only Americans in the class, we inevitably gravitated toward each other and were soon having tea after class in nearby sidewalk cafes, going out for an occasional meal (never a very lavish one in those days), or attending some play or other in one of the city’s many theaters.

Funny things almost always occurred, about which we were still laughing years later. One evening in a small restaurant on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, we spotted frog legs on the menu and promptly ordered them as an appetizer. Two older ladies there kept eyeing us suspiciously. Perhaps, I thought, they resented the presence of a couple of loudmouths intruding on their privacy and only too eager to offend their sensibilities by speaking a language they did not understand. But no, it was not that at all. They were just curious to know what we were eating. Imagine two barbarians savoring a local delicacy in the hub of the civilized world and being asked by the natives themselves what we were munching on.

This was Bloom’s first triumph in Paris, but it was not to be his last. The incident was still fresh in his memory when, following the publication of the French edition of The Closing of the American Mind, pictures of him, often against the background of the Eiffel Tower or the dome of the Invalides, appeared in virtually all of France’s major journals and newspapers. For an obscure Midwesterner far removed by his origins from the glamour of one of the world’s great capitals, the new triumph was an unbelievable achievement.

 

It was on informal occasions such as lunch and tea that, instinctively and without my being aware of it, Bloom took over my education. Reluctant as I was to admit it, I found myself learning more about Plato from him than from anyone else around, including our common teacher, Festugierè, of whom we were both fond. To say that Allan defended his ideas with vigor would be an egregious understatement. His method was to hit you over the head with them, a practice that he raised to the level of a fine art. Clarity about fundamental issues was paramount. One had to be made to see things. Philosophers hate nothing more than the penumbra of the proverbial cave or the night in which all cows are black. Resolving conflicts by the favorite American technique of splitting the difference between the conflicting positions, rather than on the basis of principle, was loathsome to him. Being a sensible man, he sometimes retreated from his most outrageous pronouncements, but only after having assured himself that this was not just a compromise born of cowardice.

One of the things that surprised him was that I knew next to nothing about politics and showed no interest in it. In this I was not alone. Few Catholics of my generation fared much better in that regard. Our teachers dutifully repeated what Aristotle says to the effect that politics is the queen of the practical sciences and the one in which all others culminate; after which they proceeded to ignore politics completely. The situation now, though slightly improved, still leaves much to be desired. To this day, it pains me to see how inarticulate Catholic churchmen can be when called upon to address publicly the great political issues with which the Church is now confronted on an almost daily basis, both internally and in its relations with the rest of society.

For the 23-year-old Bloom, learning political theory meant reading Leo Strauss, some of whose books and unpublished articles he had brought with him from America. I still have some of them, which he sold to me when, as not infrequently happened, he was broke. Here all of a sudden were plausible answers to many of the questions that kept coming up in my work. Strauss knew something that neither I nor my Sorbonne professors, world-famous scholars all of them, knew. A new world had opened up with which it would take me a long time to become familiar. The rewiring had barely begun.

Bloom’s efforts paid off in other ways as well. I began to glimpse what education already meant for him—a consuming, life-long, and all-encompassing enterprise. Aristotle thought that on it depended the fate not only of individuals but of cities and nations. Allan later became a master at it. As a teacher, he had the knack of identifying the most promising students and provoking in them the root-and-branch change that one must undergo at that age or forego the possibility of ever undergoing it. Americans tend to go through school like a letter in the mail, the same at the end as they were at the beginning, with nothing but a diploma—a canceled stamp, if you wish— to show for their efforts. Not so with Allan’s students, who experienced firsthand what Plato’s Republic describes as a periagôgê, a conversion or turning-around of the soul. The underlying image is that of Athena twisting Odysseus’ head and forcing him to look in another direction. As a result, they were able to see on their own that true education had nothing to do with what was being peddled under that name by our most popular gurus.

Effecting this kind of conversion in another person is not an easy task. Allan had been taught by Plato and soon discovered for himself that in order to learn, one has to begin by unlearning, that is to say, by shedding one after another all of the partially false opinions with which one grows up. The problem he encountered is that today’s students, brought up as most of them are in an ultraliberal atmosphere, rarely carry with them any firm convictions from whose tyranny they can be freed. A new pedagogical strategy was required, one that consists of inculcating a set of prejudices in their largely empty heads as a means of recreating the conditions under which the liberating experience is apt to take place. It dawned on me that this is what lay behind Allan’s nasty but in the long run endearing habit of driving his points home with a sledgehammer.

The process was greatly facilitated by his love of literature, which he used as a tool both to overcome the abstractions of modern thought and to enable students to gain self-knowledge, something they were prodded to do, not by narcissistically gazing at themselves on somebody’s couch, but by looking outside of themselves and allowing themselves to be mirrored in the literary characters with whom they were coming into contact. I have no idea of how many of Allan’s students found themselves by reading Shakespeare, Swift, Flaubert, or Stendhal under his guidance, but my guess is that the number is quite large. Literature was indeed a privileged instrument with which principles could be taught and taste developed. The two went together. Principles without taste, he said, are crude; taste without principles is trivial. The trouble with the modern academy was that it had neither.

For a man who surrounded himself with books, Allan was anything but a voracious reader, a fact for which he blamed his dyslexia. This did not prevent him from posing as an authority on all sorts of books when summoned to do so. One day in my presence a student asked him whether he had read a particular book. He replied good-naturedly and with his usual aplomb, “No, but I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about it.”

When he did read books, it was with extreme care and an uncommon sensitivity to the nuances of the text. Three authors define the coordinates of his intellectual orientation: Plato, the exponent par excellence of classical education; Rousseau, the greatest authority on modern education; and Nietzsche, whose own educational program is an effort to rescue the thought of his illustrious predecessors from the clutches of modern science, but not without reinterpreting it in the light of his own extraordinary project. All three authors have something in common: they are obsessed by the mystery of the human soul and, by securing the reader’s erotic involvement, manage to enlist him as an accomplice in their endeavor to penetrate its recesses. One either likes these authors or dislikes them with a passion, but one cannot remain indifferent to them. Few thinkers in our tradition belong to that category. Bloom was attracted to them because of an inborn affinity with them. He himself confessed to an “insane” fascination with the soul and its endlessly varied epiphanies through the lives and actions of human beings.

It is no accident that the books for which he is best known are his translations and interpretations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Émile, along with his surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, written so to speak in the shadow of Nietzsche. Because he understood Nietzsche so well, Allan has been mistaken for a nihilist by people who have forgotten or never knew that his first and last love was Plato. His forthcoming book on love and friendship, completed just before his death, will, I think, set the record straight on that score.

For all its astonishing popularity, The Closing was not well understood by most readers. Reviewers responded to the culture criticism with which it begins and ends but skipped over its difficult and highly original central section, which contains the most acute diagnosis by any contemporary writer of the intellectual crisis of our time. I refer to the crisis precipitated by Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and characterized by a keen sense of the terribleness of life in the absence of any compelling metaphysical or religious horizon. Rousseau’s Émile was a heroic attempt to reconstruct the Platonic soul in its wholeness, with all its longings and aspirations, and, by so doing, to restore some meaning to human life on the basis of our modern scientific understanding of the universe. The attempt, later pursued and supposedly brought to completion by German Idealism, had failed. As Nietzsche pointed out with implacable logic, it was predicated on the false assumption that one can jettison classical speculative thought and preserve the morality that is rooted in it, or get rid of the architect and keep the building. The jig was up. All of our most cherished ideals could be seen to be at risk. Sad to say, hardly anyone was willing to face up to the situation. Instead, an unconscious, debonair, or as Bloom put it, “laid-back” nihilism had settled over the land.

Not surprisingly, the cultural Left was quick to declare the author of The Closing guilty of racism, sexism, and elitism, the three great sins of the modern world, all of them sins against equality. Undaunted by this blistering assault, Bloom remained steadfast in his conviction that greatness is our true vocation and that no amount of propaganda or social conditioning will ever succeed in obliterating from our consciousness the natural differences that distinguish us from one another. In this he spoke as a true liberal. The fanatics, he said half-jokingly, “are all on the other side.” They are the ones who, in the name of freedom, inflict on students a politically sanitized curriculum and ostracize them if they fail to comply with their wishes. The educator in Bloom was appalled to see that, just as the weakest among us had once been openly discriminated against by society, so now the best had become the victims of a vastly more subtle brand of discrimination.

His job as he saw it was not to arouse the moral indignation of his charges—at Cornell in the ’60s he had seen where that could lead, and there is nothing he detested more—but to enlighten their minds and lead them out of the cave of an ever more ideologically driven public opinion. It was to imbue them with a spirit of moderation and show them, as Swift had once done, how one can live in one’s time without sharing its principles.

His own deepest satisfactions in life were not satisfactions that could be taken away from him. They were bound up with the life of the mind, and hence of the kind that can be enjoyed even in the midst of great disappointments. And enjoy them he did. His exuberance, his love of life, his irrepressible good humor, above all his extraordinary ability to inspire students and friends alike, have placed us forever in his debt. Much as he liked Rousseau, he thought there was something “crabbed” about him. There was nothing crabbed or ungenerous about Bloom. He always gave more than he got in return.

Thomas Aquinas, admittedly more my mentor than his, explained somewhere that a teacher can never receive adequate payment for his services because what he offers to others, namely, truth, is incommensurable with any material good. Today, we can do no more than lament Allan’s passing and, without any possibility of repaying him, express our gratitude for his innumerable benefactions. I know of no more appropriate way to honor his memory than by continuing to do with the resources at our disposal what he himself was able to do so much better while he was still with us.

Ernest Fortin

By

Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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