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Allan Bloom as Best Seller

August 30, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

The Australian novelist Patrick White once remarked that while good books sometimes make it to the best-seller list, it is rarely their goodness that puts them there. White was not talking about the many popular books that quite consciously and naturally aim for a low common denominator. He was talking about those occasional surprises that, written to all seeming for the few, somehow manage to reach the many.

Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students" (Simon & Schuster) is surely such a book. Studies of American higher education stream forth every year, and scarcely one makes it even to the bottom spot on the list, much less--as Bloom's has--to the top spot for a stay of many weeks. Bloom's book, moreover, would seem to enter the starting gate with a handicap, for its central chapters are a capsule history of European political philosophy--not a subject, to put it mildly, for which there has been any great public clamor. But, as it turns out, there is something precisely in this most forbidding part of the book that does indeed meet a public need.

Bloom makes the history of philosophy function as an etiological tale, a tale like "How the Leopard Got His Spots"--or in this case "How the American University Lost Its Soul." The story opens in the Enlightenment as philosophy first seizes its autonomy from religion and then secures it by the great and popular Enlightenment projects of Science and Law: Henceforth material improvement and domestic tranquillity are to provide a popular constituency so great that neither the church nor even the state will be able to put the genie of free thought back in the jug. But while philosophy has its defenses in place against church and state, it has not reckoned on an attack from within its own ranks, and Bloom's story here becomes a tale of treachery.

The attack on reason begins with Jean Jacques Rousseau and climaxes with Friedrich Nietzsche, who brilliantly exposes the inadequacy of rationalism's arguments for rationalism itself:

"Nietzsche surveyed and summed up the contradictory strands of modern thought and concluded that victorious rationalism is unable to rule in culture or soul, that it cannot defend itself theoretically and that its human consequences are intolerable. This constitutes a crisis of the West, for everywhere in the West, for the first time ever, all regimes are founded on reason. Human founders, looking only to universal principles of natural justice recognizable by all men through their unaided reason, established governments on the basis of the consent of the governed, without appeal to revelation or tradition. But reason has also discerned that all previous cultures were founded by and on gods or belief in gods. Only if the new regimes are enormous successes, able to rival the creative genius and splendor of other cultures, could reason's rational foundings be equal or superior to the kinds of foundings that reason knows were made elsewhere. But such equality or superiority is highly questionable; therefore reason recognizes its own inadequacy. There must be religion, and reason cannot found religions."

Where does reason turn when it recognizes that (1) there must be a religion but (2) reason itself cannot found it? It turns inevitably to man, but not to rational man. It turns to creative, artistic man, man passionately committed to his own human creativity: "It is Pascal's wager, no longer on God's existence but on one's capability to believe in oneself and the goals one has set for oneself." Men "touched by God," even if there is no God to touch them, can by their innate human greatness attract followers, organize whole societies around their key inspirations, and in the end provide culture with the coherence that neither reason nor religion can any longer supply.

Bloom finds the demagogic potential in Nietzsche's view horrifying; but Bloom is to Nietzsche as Milton is to Satan in "Paradise Lost." Though horrified, he is fascinated, and in his company so are we. His account of the Nietzschean critique of rationalism and of the afterlife of that critique in social science is the most compellingly written, swiftly moving portion of the book.

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