Elizabeth Cary
The War on Transitive Verbs

The Closing of the American Mind, Visited

"Visited" as opposed to "revisited," which is what most people who are interested in this book are doing now if they are discussing it. It was published over thirty years ago, in 1987, and attracted a great deal of attention then. I was aware of it, and had a rough idea of what it was about, but didn't read it. Over the past several years there has been some revisiting of it, with people saying that Bloom accurately diagnosed a number of bad tendencies which have only gotten worse since the book was published. 

So, better late than never, I've read it. A thorough consideration of it is beyond the scope of what I can do in a blog post, but here's my broad view.

TheClosingOfTheAmericanMindIt is a very good book, maybe in some ways a great one and a classic in a limited sort of way: at any rate a polemic that transcends polemic and has outlasted its occasion. Though it does begin and end with a discussion of higher education, it also takes in the last three centuries or so of Western intellectual history, and returns frequently to the Greeks, especially Plato. A good deal of what he says there is beyond my reach, dealing with figures of whom I've read little or nothing, and in some cases am only vaguely aware of. Nietzsche: I've read one book. Locke and Rousseau: I have a rough idea of what they're about. Max Weber: German? Something or other about capitalism?

Nevertheless, I recognize the malaise:

To repeat, the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it. Liberal education flourished when it prepared the way for the discussion of a unified view of nature and man's place in it, which the best minds debated on the highest level

A very good book, at least, and yet also a tragic one, and Bloom a tragic figure (in his public role, not necessarily his private life). Bloom might be thought of as the last public intellectual. Well, not the last, but one of the last. A celebrity, someone said, is a person who is famous for being well-known. Similarly, a public intellectual might be a person who is famous for  being an intellectual. That is, there is no requirement or even expectation of such a person that this exercise will result in any settled conclusion or permanent wisdom; the exercise, the wrestling with important ideas, is the essential thing. I'm thinking of real intellectuals, not the pseudo-intellectuals, entertainers, and political fanatics who tend to be given the title now but don't really deserve it.

Bloom is the kind of person who was once more common in our universities than now: a man pursuing, in absolute earnest, knowledge and truth, and following wherever they tend to lead him. Perhaps there were never really very many such people, but they were the ideal, at least. (And I know that at least one existed, because he was my teacher.) The contemporary university is now frequently inhospitable to them (which is probably to understate the case). The old ideal is more or less gone, and in its place is service to a quasi-religious political program. 

Bloom also represents what appears now to be the last gasp of the Enlightenment. His understanding of man and of the life of the mind in the modern world is explicitly rooted there. He sees history in the way of the Enlightenment and its apologists: there were the Greek and Roman classics, followed by roughly 1500 years of darkness, and then the dawn. He isn't naive enough to use the term "Dark Ages," but he treats the Christian centuries as such. And he is wise enough to note, in passing, that religion is a natural human phenomenon of which the loss is not necessarily a good thing. But nowhere in the book does he take religious ideas--that is, theology, and religious philosophy--seriously. In fact they are barely mentioned at all. He seems to take as an axiom that actual religious belief is intellectually untenable.

And so there is an enormous hole at the center of his understanding of the crisis. The passage quoted above would in its sense if not its style be more or less at home in Newman's view of liberal education. But for Bloom the unified vision for which he longs is impossible to achieve. There can only be a perpetual search and struggle, as he more or less acknowledges at several points. The search may be heroic, but the very best that can be hoped for is that now and then a gifted individual may arrive at a vision. I'm doubtful that anyone of much insight even believes any more that philosophy and the Great Books alonecan save our civilization. I wonder what Bloom would think if he were still alive (he died only five years after the book was published).

For some odd reason, almost the only specific thing I recall reading about the book when it was published is a comment from a liberal dismissing it as conservative crankiness (yes, the lines were already drawn back then). It went something like this: "Bloom is stupid because he thinks that the Great Books and other elements of western culture are the solution. The Nazis were cultured, and look where that got us."

The comment was itself cranky and reactionary. But it's at least half true. 

Bloom, by the way, denied that he was a conservative. And he was one only in the sense that he wished to conserve what he saw as the core of Western and specifically American civilization. 


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"Nihilism, American Style"? That's interesting because I have lately been saying to people that Trump is not a Republican, he is a Nihilist.

Trump has gotten way too far into your head. :-)

"Trump has gotten way too far into your head. :-)"

Perhaps true, but Stu point is also true, in my opinion.

A Postcard from the Volcano is a novel by Lucy Beckett that explores the idea that culture is not enough. It is set in pre-WWII Germany, and shows (painfully) the intrinsic value of classical culture and its inadequacies. It is a fantastic read.

Music cannot in itself save the world.

That looks very interesting, Robert. I didn't even realize that Ignatius Press published novels!

I've never heard "music can save the world"--well, maybe from some pop music types, not to be taken seriously. "Beauty can save the world" is a Dostoevsky line, or paraphrase thereof, that is sort of popular among Catholics in the arts, but I don't really believe it either.

The Lucy Beckett novel sounds interesting. I guess it's not connected to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano?--a novel which made a big impression on me 40+ years ago and which I'd like to re-read.

Is Trump a nihilist? [...shrug...] It doesn't strike me as an interesting question. "Nihilist" is too coherent a concept. I think the final word on Trump's general personality and outlook was given by someone at National Review: "Everything he says is more understandable if you imagine it preceded by 'Donny from Queens, you're on the air!'"

I suppose these days, as a "Donnie from Queens" (though the closest I've been to being "on the air" is commenting here :)) I should be offended and demand that whoever said that be fired, but I thought that was a perfect encapsulation of Trump.

It's only that because he is named Don(nie) and he is from Queens. Could just as well be Shane from Center Point, who used to be a regular on a regional sports talk show. But it does capture the essence behind the gold-plated airplane and all that stuff.

Perhaps narcissist is better for Donnie, but he seems to me to be operating from a self-constructed self-referential worldview without an underlying realist metaphysics. Isn't one of Bloom's main points that America's is a Nietzchean culture? Been too long since I read it.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

I need to read Under the Volcano by Lowry, it has been recommended many times to me. I have a copy, so that is a start.

I have tried out megalomaniac..


I am pretty sure that wasn't for the greater glory of God.


Janet, you are funny! It is increasingly difficult in our times (and probably in all times) to always be working for the greater glory of God, unfortunately.

It’s often debatable whether truth and charity are in conflict. In this case I think “megalomaniac” is justifiable. If someone he respected could tell Trump the truth, and he would listen....

Robert, I think that’s basically true about Bloom and Nietszche.


I recently read George Steiner's essay "In a Post-Culture" in his 1971 In Bluebeard's Castle book, in which he says it was the Enlightenment that put the idea into our heads that education would fix everything and that, if nothing else, the horrors of the 20th century should have blown that idea to smithereens.

Funny you mention that. I have an order form from Eighth Day Books which I keep forgetting to send in, and that book is on it.

Off topic, but the comments were disabled on your post from last year. Just wanted to say that Nan Vernon’s Manta Ray CD is outstanding. If you haven’t tracked down a copy yet, you should.

Glad you like it. I like to evangelize for little-known artists.

If the “you” in your last sentence is me, I did track it down:


Btw comments close automatically after some period, can’t remember exactly how long, to cut down on spam.

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