Alan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind*, has staying power. It’s still a much talked about book 30 years after it first appeared. That’s because Bloom’s description of his elite students on the several elite college campuses where he taught seems to be even more true today. The zeitgeist of academia is even more ridiculous now that it was in 1987. Bloom thought Great Books education would be the way out of the mess he described, but he was of slender hope that it would happen. He still might be surprised how far down into the swamp of moral nihilism and intellectual corruption American higher education has fallen. Or he might not since it’s the same generation of soulless, colorless, dullards that were his students then who are now running the show on most college and university campuses. The pathologies he wrote about have long since metastasized.
Academic philosopher Peter Lawler tragically died too young (65) this last Tuesday. His last essay appeared on the same day he died, Alan Bloom’s Souls Without Longing, All Grown Up. It’s recommended reading, as is everything Peter Lawler wrote in his lifetime. Here is a critical passage:
The original title of Bloom’s book was, in fact, “Souls Without Longing.” In its first part, he describes the elite students he teaches and the sophisticated, faux-cosmopolitan world they inhabit as full of flat—or completely unaroused—souls. Those students—who now compose our “cognitive elite”—are presented as totally unmoved by love and death and thus incapable of being anything more than clever, competent specialists. The polymorphous eros once thought to be characteristic of human beings as such has become one-dimensional. That’s why the music favored by students is dominated by the rhythm of the mechanical rutting of animals, and why romantic relationships have been replaced by hook-ups.
Bloom’s students are all post-Biblical or post-religious, but without being miserable in the mode of Pascal in the absence of God. They weren’t about the seeking and searching recommended by both the Christians and the existentialists. Tocqueville’s claim about Americans being restless in the midst of prosperity—much less St. Augustine’s claim that everyone has a hungry heart—is disconfirmed by thoughts and deeds of today’s sophisticated Americans. Anguished atheism has been replaced by complacent and dogmatic atheism, what Nietzsche meant when he reported the death of God. Bloom’s students are completely “spiritually unclad” and unashamed of their nakedness.
Peter Lawler ended his essay with a note that seems to be addressed to today’s soulless snowflakes:
Bloom believed that, in an enlightened country, the thoughts of the sophisticated eventually transform the lives of everyone. We might have more reason than he did to hope that our story won’t be that simple. Now’s the time to praise manliness, but only in the context of showing the road from anger, meaninglessness, and despair to a world once again full of ladies and gentlemen—people who know who they are and what they’re supposed to do as beings born to know, love, and die, and designed for more than merely biological existence.
More of Peter Lawler: Conservative Postmoderism — Postmodern Conservatism
* “Souls Without Longing” was the original title of The Closing of the American Mind