February 07, 2005

Shadia Drury's Straussian puzzles#2: Allan Bloom

As I've mentioned before the Australian reception of Shadia Drury's Leo Straus and the American Right basically accepts her critique of Strauss's conservative politics, the noble lie and the Washington neocons.A good example is Mark Bahnisch's post at Troppo Armadillo late last year. What continues to be sidestepped is any account of the Straussian philosophical critique of modernity. There is no probing of the Drury's understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the Nietzsche, Heidegger, Strauss coupling

We can see this evasion by picking up on where we left off yesterday. After dealing with Jaffa in the 'American Applications of Straussian Philosophy,' chapter of her book, Leo Strauss and the American Right Shadia Drury turns to Allen Bloom's very popular The Closing of the American Mind as the exponent of the reaction of despair.

This view accepts that America is the embodiment of modernity and that this spells the death knell of classical wisdom. On this view, the principles on which America is founded are hopelessly modern and tragically flawed.Hence the reaction is understandably filled with despair and foreboding.

Let's accept that America is a liberal society grounded on Enlightenment values and so the embodiement of liberal modernity.

Drury says:

"Bloom portrays America as a polity grounded in the ill-conceived ideas of modernity, ideas that are engulfing the globe and shattering the glorious heritage of Western civilization.

According to Bloom, America's Founding Fathers were the heirs of early modern philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke. These moderns were not privy to the sublime insights of the classics or their recent heirs--Rousseau and Nietzsche. Instead, they looked at man in his brutishness: untamed, uncultivated, and self-centered. And, incredible as it may seem, the early moderns set out to create a society made up of these selfish creatures. The result was a society of individuals whose natural tendencies for self-seeking and self-satisfaction were not suppressed by culture, but simply rechanneled into commerce. In this way, man's natural egoism assumed a form that was not altogether destructive of social life. The result was a bourgeois society that is paradigmatic of American life."

Bloom portrays American society as a collection of solitary individuals with nothing to live or die for. American society is a vehicle for individual self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and the pursuit of wealth. America is little more than a collection of isolated, alienated, and disoriented individuals lost in a morass of cultural relativism and meaninglessness.

What has disappeared is the unified culture provided by myths and religion. So America is little more than an animal farm. So we have a critique of America society coupled to a critique of liberalism.

What does Drury make of this? She says that:

"One of the pervasive problems with Bloom's critique of American liberalism is that it confuses liberal reality with liberal ideals. In criticizing American liberal society, Bloom is under the mistaken impression that he is also criticizing liberal theories, ideas, and ideals. This confusion has its source in the assumption that American liberal society is the actualization of liberal ideals, or the logical and inescapable consequence of these ideas."
Drury defends American liberalism. She argues that liberalism is not itself nihilistic or relativistic in order to show the futility of the Straussian critique of American liberalism. It cannot provide America with a meaningful critique of her liberal tradition.

Bloom gives a onesided reading of US society. Is not the US after 9/11 a most religious nation in which religion is intermingled with nationalism, patriotism and the sacrifice of an eternal war against terror. I interpret this as a onsided response to cultural relativism and meaninglessness of liberalism; a response that arises from within American traditions. So what we have with Bloom is a critique of liberalism in terms of it giving rise to the kind of society that Bloom describes. So the flaw with Bloom's account is that America is not wholly modern. It is deeply conservative and deeply pre-modern.

It is Drury's claim that Straussian school cannot provide America with a meaningful critique of her liberal tradition that is debatable. The Straussian position is basically a Heideggerian one: modernity's nihilism & technological mastery is a lethal combination and it gives rise to the dark night of modernity. This account of modernity is never confronted, for she guns for the anti-democratic response of the Platonic philosopher kings. So how much purchase has the Heideggerian account of modernity? Should it be taken seriously?

Though Drury rejects the conservative response to nihilism of Nietzsche, Heidegger & Strauss she does not say how liberalism can deal with the process nihilism that hollows out liberal vlaues.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 7, 2005 05:14 PM | TrackBack


Thanks again for pointing toward Shadia Drury. Her insights on the neoconservative mind are dead on. I think Allan Bloom is a romantic misanthrope who longs for some pristine moment when higher learning was reserved for an elite and the masses knew their place. His analysis of 1980's America (Closing of the American Mind came out in 1986)is reductionistic but generally acurate. I think it is inaccurate to reduce any society to a caricature of itself, but Bloom does point to elements of the Zeitgeist. What he is lacking is an explanation of alternative tendencies and movements in America. That collective action for the common good is also part of US history (Labor and Civil Rights Movements for example) and that the American narrative cannot be summarized so neatly.

Obviously, post 9/11, reactive nationalism and xenophobia play a large part in the collective consciousness. But that is certainly not the whole story and many Americans are uneasy about the direction of the country. I believe the Bush relection is a testament to the politics of fear and psycho-social manipulation. What Strauss and his descendents understand far better than the left is that fear and tradition are powerful tools in gathering political support to a cause.

Posted by: Alain on February 8, 2005 01:52 AM

What I noticed when I read Bloom is that, unlike Strauss (as far as I know), he accepted the Enlightenment (in a disciplined, capitalist form.) In a way, he had to, if he was going to be a plausible American ideologist. The way he explained it is that at a certain point the True Philosophers switched their alliance of convenience from the nobility to the bourgeoisie.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 8, 2005 02:55 PM

Seems to me that Bloom is describing the America of the 1960s's with his sense of crisis, dread of nihilism and a world devoid of truth, religion and morality, and a collection of atomized, isolated unconnected individuals. Well, 1960s America is the example of the Straussian account of modernity.

It is the void. It is nihilism--not in the sense of the formless chaos; rather, in the Nietzschean sense of the devaluation of the highest values. It strikes me that much of the conservative recoil against liberalism is a recoil from the emptiness of liberal values--they have bene reduced to what Strauss called 'soapy advertising.'

Drury never really tackles this aspect of the Straussian critique. She tackles the elitist conservative response of the rule of the few (Plato's philosopher kings) against the democratic mob.

What does she make of Nietszche's nihilism argument? It is hard to say as she side steps it. She rejects Heidegger's ethical response to the void (an ethic of authenticity and Eastern mysticism) and that of Strauss (noble lies and opious frauds).

So how does liberalism respond to the process of nihilism? Drury does not say.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 8, 2005 07:58 PM


I appreciate your insight. While I agree with you that the Straussians abhor what they see as the nihilism of the 1960's, I question whether it is an accurate assessment of what happened. Was the civil right movement or the anti-war movement evidence of the void? Is the demand for equal treatment really a vacuous cause?

I understand that the 1960's were also about excess and self-indulgencce. But they were also about collective action, progressive movements and idealism. The fact that Strauss and company do not see the complexity of the situation does not give much credence to their larger world picture.

Posted by: Alain on February 9, 2005 12:58 AM

good point.
It would be hard to interpret the civil rights movement as nihilistic or a step into the void.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 9, 2005 02:28 PM


I know I have said this before, but I really appreciate your blog. It is thought provoking and insightful. I read your link on "Populism contra Liberalism" and I think your absolutely right. What you hit on, and what the neocons choose to ignore, is that a market dominated society inevitably erodes social bonds and traditions. The true "enemy", if you will, is not the "left wing academic" but the economic system that undermines all non-economic values and norms. As Marx said so eloquently, "All that is Solid Melts into Air."

Posted by: Alain on February 10, 2005 01:01 AM
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