Asked whether women as well as men should study philosophy, the distinguished Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, teacher of Epictetus, replied as follows:
Women have received from the god the same rational faculty as men, the faculty that we use in communicating with one another and in reasoning about each matter, as to whether it is a good thing or a bad. Similarly, the female has the same faculties of sense perception as the male: seeing, hearing, smelling, and the rest. Similarly, they both have the same number of bodily parts, and neither has any more parts than the other. Furthermore, desire and natural orientation towards excellence belong not only to men, but also to women; for not less than men they are naturally pleased by fine and just deeds and repelled by the contrary. Since things are this way, why on earth should it be fitting for men to examine and inquire into how one should live well—which is what it is to do philosophy—and for women not?1
This passage states a conception of “higher education,” and the place of philosophy in that education, that can be found not only in Stoic texts but in the writings of many of the greatest philosophers of the Greek and Roman world. This conception of philosophy has three elements, closely connected, and all traced by Stoics to Socrates, their model and hero:
1) Philosophical education is practical. It is the rational search for the best human life. Its subject is, above all, the study of moral and social conceptions, and its purpose (as Musonius later makes plain) is, through reflection, the amelioration both of the individual student’s life and, through the choices of educated individuals, of the surrounding society.
2) In philosophical education the pupil is active. It is not the passive reception of external truths, but the following out of paths of rational and critical argument—indeed, the enlivening and developing of the pupil’s rational soul. (For this reason, Musonius later stresses, it must be closely tailored, in each case, to the needs of the particular student, like the prescriptions of a good doctor.)
3) Philosophical education should be broadly distributed. It is appropriate to all who are by nature rational beings, that is, beings capable of practical and ethical reasoning. (Epictetus was a slave when he attended Musonius’ lectures. Later he became a free man and a distinguished philosopher.)
These three elements are connected. It is because philosophy’s practical content is so important for human life, both individual and communal, that making it widely available is so important—fulfills, indeed, a basic human need. And it is central to Stoicism’s conception of philosophy’s practical purpose and of the reasons for its broad distribution to insist that philosophical education is not abstruse contemplation but the development of each human being’s capacities for active practical reasoning.
This picture of philosophy opposes itself, on the one hand, to conceptions of education that do not take philosophy seriously as a subject for human study. On the other hand, it also sets itself against all conceptions of philosophy that make of philosophy a purely theoretical and contemplative discipline and (usually for reasons closely connected with this conception of its function) limit its pursuit to a narrow favored elite. Philosophy is the critical reflection about human life; and this reflection is essential to the full health of all human beings and of society in general.
Allan Bloom, like Musonius, has written a book that defends the central role of philosophy in higher education, and defends it as essential for the health of human souls and human society. Like Musonius again, he initially presents the philosophical activity he praises as a search, through active critical argument, for the best human life; he praises as the founder of his ideal university Socrates, the paradigm of tireless rational searching to whom Stoics also appeal. But in Bloom’s book the Socratic conception is in conflict with another very different idea of philosophy: the idea of a study that is open only to a chosen few specially suited by nature (and to some extent also by wealth and social position) for its pursuit; the idea of a philosophy that is concerned more with revealing fixed eternal truths than with active critical argument; of a philosophy that not only does not aim at justice and practical wisdom, individual and/or communal, but actually despises the search for social justice and beckons chosen souls away from social pursuits to a contemplative theoretical life.
To understand these contradictions, and their relation to Bloom’s practical proposals for a reform of the university curriculum, we must begin with his diagnosis of contemporary American culture, for whose diseases philosophy is supposed to provide the cure. As Bloom sees it, the central problem in higher education today, and in American society more generally, is widespread relativism. Both teachers and students have been taught that all conceptions of the good human life are equally valid, and that it is not possible to find an objective view-point from which to make rational criticisms of any tradition or any study, however apparently trivial or even base. The most any such criticism can be, according to this prevalent view, as Bloom reports it, is an expression of unenlightened prejudice.
In education, however, so goes the prevalent view, we should refrain from such expressions of prejudice and cultivate “openness,” which really means, Bloom concludes, a suspension of critical judgment and a laissez-faire attitude to all pursuits and all kinds of knowledge. The expression of relativism in the college curriculum, as Bloom sees it, is the removal of core requirements, whose absence encourages students to believe that no studies are more central to human life than others. As a result of this ethos of openness (which, Bloom argues, is really a kind of closing of the mind, incompatible with a true Socratic openness to reasoned arguments about the good), students have abandoned the idea on which the university (which Bloom traces to Socrates) was founded: the idea of a rational search for the best human life.
In support of this argument, Bloom constructs a colorful and highly rhetorical portrait of today’s university students, who by his account seem to be pathetic characters indeed. Cut off from the nourishment of old religious and even secular traditions, their souls made small by the view that anything is as good as anything else, these students are rootless and enervated. Their personal relationships, devoid of lasting commitment, are further undermined, Bloom claims, by the excesses of feminism, one of his central targets, which he accuses of using “force” against “nature.” Unable to pursue anything with passionate devotion, these students seem to live only for the “premature ecstasy” of rock music. Empty and selfish, “they can be anything they want to be, but they have no reason to be anything in particular.”
Bloom now offers a historical argument that attempts to explain how the relativism he deplores became such a pervasive influence on American society. It is an idiosyncratic account, based almost exclusively on influences from the high intellectual tradition of nineteenth-century continental Europe. (Bloom, surprisingly, is silent about the influence of utilitarianism on American cultural and economic life—an influence that surely has a part in explaining why many Americans believe that all satisfactions are equally valid.) The account examines several key terms that the American social vocabulary has inherited from the continental tradition—terms like “the self,” “culture,” and “values,” showing us both their original philosophical use by writers such as Nietzsche and Max Weber and how they have been democratized by American relativists. Now, he argues, this vocabulary corrupts students’ perceptions of the world to such an extent that they cannot make sense of the ancient idea of a rational search for the best way of living. They speak of “my values,” thinking of them as expressions of subjective preference that cannot be criticized with reference to any objective norm. They prefer the radical individualism of the term “self,” with its emphasis on the subjective and idiosyncratic, to the ancient idea that human beings have a “nature” that can be objectively specified.
In order to give us a clearer idea of the ancient conception of education from which the modern university has allegedly fallen away, Bloom now offers a history of the university that traces its foundation to Socrates’, and in general ancient Greek philosophy’s, questioning about the best life. He then gives his own strangely un-Socratic account of the university: the university exists within democracy to call chosen “natures” away from the corrupt judgments of “the many” and teach them the superior value of the contemplative life. Bloom then tries to show us how the university, as he conceives of it, has been corrupted by contemporary democratic demands for equality, with the consequent erosion of intellectual standards. There follows a bitter account of the student movement of the Sixties, during which Bloom, lonely opponent of corruption, attempted to stop various changes that he deemed pernicious, such as the changing of curriculum requirements and even of faculty appointment procedures in response to student demands. To this time of timidity and lowering of standards he traces today’s rootlessness and narcissism.
A survey of today’s university departments yields, Bloom now argues, the conclusion that only the natural sciences are healthy—respected by all and flourishing in their research activities. The humanities, on the other hand, are, as he sees it, very badly off. Humanistic research lacks passion, quality, and focus; and, partly in consequence, humanities professors do not inspire respect either in their students or in society generally. Particularly weak and neglected, according to Bloom, is philosophy, which really ought to be leading the university, on account of its dedication to the deepest questions about how human beings should live. Philosophy must, he argues, be returned to its proper place as the leading force in the university. Universities should seek a remedy for their diseases in the establishment of required (and apparently uniform) core curricula based upon the Great Books of the Western tradition and principally on the central works of Western philosophy, and in particular ancient Greek philosophy, in which Bloom finds the antidote to the relativism that infects today’s students.
We shall later see what he expects these curricula to accomplish, and for whom. And we can see by now some of the elements that explain his book’s enormous appeal—its assault on cultural confusion and the lowering of standards, its defense of an education that will, allegedly, be a source of community and vitality, and its opposition to a narrow pre-professional specialization that cuts students off from one another and many ideas of lasting value. But in the very singleness and simplicity of Bloom’s solution, so uninterested in the needs of different souls, and in the dogmatic complacency with which it is announced, so far removed from the Socratic demand for ceaseless self-questioning, we begin to sense the tension between Bloom’s official allegiance to Socrates and the more dogmatic and religious conception of philosophy to which he is deeply drawn. Such simple prescriptions need careful scrutiny.
Bloom delivers a blistering indictment of contemporary society and recommends a cure. The indictment is based upon his experience, the cure upon his understanding of the texts of ancient Greek philosophy and of the nature of the philosophical life. So we are invited to assess the quality of his observations of life, his readings of ancient texts, and his philosophical contribution. Bloom himself praises precision of description as an essential philosophical virtue:
Concreteness, not abstractness, is the hallmark of philosophy. All interesting generalizations must proceed from the richest awareness of what is to be explained, but the tendency to abstractness leads to simplifying the phenomena in order more easily to deal with them.
This precision is, indeed, both an important philosophical virtue and, we might add, an essential component of the Socratic (and more generally ancient Greek) conception of moral argument. But if Bloom has this sort of rich awareness of the lives of American university students, it does not emerge in this book, which is written, almost throughout, in unqualified universals. “Students…,” “The humanities scholar…”—such are, throughout, the subjects of his sentences, sentences that do not even suggest that they might not cover all the cases, or that they might be in some other way imperfect. Bloom knows that he knows. Socrates knew that he didn’t.
We have reason for unease from the very beginning, when Bloom describes his “sample” in this study:
It consists of thousands of students of comparatively high intelligence, materially and spiritually free to do pretty much what they want with the few years of college they are privileged to have—in short, the kind of young persons who populate the twenty or thirty best universities. There are other kinds of students whom circumstances of one sort or another prevent from having the freedom required to pursue a liberal education. They have their own needs and may very well have very different characters from those I describe here. My sample, whatever its limits, has the advantage of concentrating on those who are most likely to take advantage of a liberal education and to have the greatest moral and intellectual effect on the nation. It is sometimes said that these advantaged youths have less need of our attention and resources, that they already have enough. But they, above all, most need education, inasmuch as the greatest talents are most difficult to perfect, and the more complex the nature the more susceptible it is to perversion.
Here students who are materially well off and academically successful enough to go to a small number of elite universities and to pursue their studies there without the distraction of holding a job are equated with those having “the greatest talents” and the “more complex” natures. They are said to be the people who are “most likely to take advantage of a liberal education,” and to be the ones who “most need education.” It would seem that the disadvantaged, as Bloom imagines them, also have comparatively smaller talents, simpler natures, and fewer needs. But Bloom never argues that they do. He simply has no interest in the students whom he does not regard as the elite—an elite defined, he makes plain, by wealth and good fortune as much as by qualities of mind that have deeper human value.
The population of American universities has changed rapidly and dramatically since the 1950s (the time to which Bloom nostalgically refers as a time of greatness). Since 1950, enrollment in undergraduate higher education in the United States has increased by almost 400 percent, while the number of institutions of higher education has increased by 60 percent. (In the period between 1870 and 1940, the number of students increased by 3000 percent.) These changes, about which Bloom is utterly silent, reflect a judgment in our society that higher education is an important human need, and that it should be made available to anyone who can take advantage of it. Many capable and highly motivated students cannot attend elite universities such as the ones Bloom describes. Some, for example, must hold a job and attend school part time, something that the schools in Bloom’s sample on the whole discourage; others must live at home and have no such school in their region.
Nationwide 40 percent of undergraduates in colleges and universities are over twenty-five years old; fewer than 60 percent study full time. The comparable statistics from Harvard, to take one representative example of a university in Bloom’s sample, are .03 percent and .03 percent.2 And even at elite universities, many students fail to fit Bloom’s description, since they hold one or even several jobs. Bloom’s indifference to the situation of all but a few highly atypical students should make us wonder about all general statements about “students” and about American culture in this book.
Now let us turn to classical philosophy. For Bloom presents himself as someone whose insights come from a lifetime spent studying the texts of the ancient Greek philosophers, in whose writings he finds a view of human nature that is the antidote to contemporary relativisim about the good human life. “The substance of my being,” he writes, “has been informed by the books I learned to care for. They accompany me every minute of every day of my life.” His special love for these books has certainly prevented him from attending to works of literature and philosophy that lie outside the tradition they began. For he makes the remarkable claim that “only in the Western nations, i.e., those influenced by Greek philosophy, is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way.” This statement shows a startling ignorance of the critical and rationalist tradition in classical Indian thought,3 of the arguments of classical Chinese thinkers,4 and, beyond this, of countless examples of philosophical and nonphilosophical self-criticism from many parts of the world. (Bloom usually forgets that nonphilosophers can also be rational.) It shows as well a most un-Socratic unwillingness to suspect one’s own ignorance. I have rarely seen such a cogent, though inadvertent, argument for making the study of non-Western civilizations an important part of the university curriculum.
How does Bloom treat the books that he does read? Usually, it must be said, in a vague and offhand way. We find many statements about “the ancients.” We find frequent appeals to their authority—something that is extremely odd in view of the insistence of every great ancient philosopher on the priority of rational argument to traditional authority. We find, as well, a few statements about particular writers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch, and, on rare occasions, a remark about a specific work. But there are almost never quotations or references to passages, and never an effort to discover the structure of an extended pattern of argument. Nor is there ever any indication that these texts are difficult to interpret, that scholars differ about their meaning. Bloom always knows what they mean, and so authoritatively that he does not need to support his statements with arguments or even precise references. In short, there is no indication that in practice Bloom accepts his own dictum that “learning must and can be both synoptic and precise.”
This is all the more remarkable since in the one case, Plato’s Republic, in which Bloom does advance a definite interpretation of a text at comparative length (which is to say, about a page and a half), he presents (following his teacher, Leo Strauss) an interpretation that is both bizarre and not accepted by any major non-Straussian interpreter of the text, beginning with Aristotle. He alleges that the Republic does not seriously propose the ideal city, the rule of philosophers, or the equal education of women. The Republic, he writes, ironically undercuts itself, and actually teaches to those in the know the impossibility of what it seems to advocate.5 Why doen’t Bloom think it important to defend such controversial textual claims with arguments? Not to do so seems curiously lacking in respect for the text that one loves, and also for the readers with whom one is trying to converse.
Where Bloom makes authoritative claims about “the ancients” in support of his central moral and political conclusions, his argument contains extraordinary gaps and errors, of which I will mention only a few examples. In an important passage on the function of moral education, Bloom represents Aristotle’s Poetics as saying that the fall of tragic heroes is due to “a flaw in their characters”—a mistaken Renaissance interpretation of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia (“error,” “mistake”) that has been vigorously rejected by modern scholars with a remarkable degree of consensus. Aristotle, in fact, explicitly distinguishes such “mistakes” from flaws in character.
More prominent still in Bloom’s central argument is his claim about ancient views of emotion. The modern feminist attempts to encourage men to be less “macho” and aggressive is criticized on the grounds that “the psychology of the ancients” shows the futility of this “nasty” attempt:
Machismo—the polemical description of maleness or spiritedness, which was the central natural passion in men’s souls in the psychology of the ancients, the passion of attachment and loyalty—was the villain, the source of difference between the sexes…. A host of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep types invade the schools…and it is indeed possible to soften men. But to make them “care” is another thing, and the project must inevitably fail…. It must fail because in an age of individualism persons of either sex cannot be forced to be public-spirited, particularly by those who are becoming less so.
Here, as so often, one senses an absence of philosophical argument. The appeal to the authority of “the ancients” is no substitute. But if in fact Plato, Aristotle, and the major Hellenistic philosophers, Epicurean, Skeptic, and Stoic (Hellenistic philosophy is explicitly included in the category “ancients” by Bloom’s numerous references to Cicero and Plutarch), had all arrived, by agreement, at Bloom’s conclusion about the moderation of “spiritedness,” this would be an interesting fact, and would call for reflection.
Do they? Not in the least. All major Greek thinkers about the passions of the soul—including Plato, Aristotle, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics—agree that beliefs that are learned, and are not “natural,” are important elements in the formation of passions such as anger, fear, and grief. For this reason, the passions can be modified by a modification of belief. Furthermore, all hold that the grief, fear, anger (etc.) that most people feel are based, to one or another extent, on beliefs that are false, and that the passions, therefore, should be modified by a modification of belief. “Spiritedness” is Bloom’s translation of Plato’s words thumos and to thumoeides; these are generic words for the part of the soul that is the seat of the emotions, as opposed to the appetites—of, for example, anger, pity, grief, fear, as opposed to hunger and thirst. These words are also used to refer in particular to one of the soul’s passions, the passion of anger. Plato shows in Republic II–III how the modification of beliefs can transform both men’s and women’s experience of many kinds of thumos—especially of fear and grief. He does allow certain members of the city (there is no reason to think them all male) to retain the capacity for anger—this is the part of Plato’s view that I suppose Bloom is alluding to in his talk of “spiritedness.” They retain that passion for military purposes.
All Greek thinkers after Plato, however, agree that this angry and reactive aspect of the soul (which they find in both men and women) is one of the central dangers in human life. Aristotle and his Peripatetic successors urge that it be retained but moderated, by cultivating correct beliefs about what is really an insult or damage, and what is not. They praise the virtue of “mildness of temper.” The three Hellenistic schools denounce the passion far more strongly, as part of a general condemnation of the passions, treating all of them as artificial creations of corrupt society, and obsessively flecting on devices to bring about their complete elimination.
A thinker who truly loves ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, whose “substance” has been “informed” by its greatest books, could not fail to be aware of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, Philodemus’ On Anger, Plutarch’s On Being Without Anger, Seneca’s On Anger and On Mercy, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Pyrrho, Zeno, and Chrysippus, and the fragments of Chrysippus’ On the Passions. These works argue with commitment and precision against Bloom’s view of the passion of “spiritedness,” denying both its naturalness and its value. Such a thinker would surely remember Seneca’s Letter 22, in which the voice of nature herself speaks, telling the reader that she is not responsible for the passions, which she calls “plagues” infecting human life. Such a thinker would be aware that Diogenes’ Life of Pyrrho makes explicit the connections between eliminating the passions and altering some of the ways men and women conventionally behave. The philosopher Pyrrho, in his improved and “mild” state, is praised for helping his sister with the dusting and marketing. These are not out-of-the-way texts. They are well-known and central. But Bloom, while claiming to be a lover of the ancients, simply ignores all texts that contradict his thesis.
The same question arises in connection with Bloom’s more general assault on feminism as contrary to nature. Bloom tells us that feminism is “not founded on nature,” and that it ends “in forgetting nature and using force to refashion human beings to secure that justice.” Here again he refers to the ancient Greek tradition: not to Aristotle, who would have subscribed to this view, but whose supporting arguments about female biology are too evidently false to support a contemporary claim. Instead he appeals both to the ancient tradition in general and especially to Plato, arguing in his characteristic fashion that the explicit proposals of Socrates defending the equal education of women in the Republic conceal Plato’s real meaning, which is actually to attack, as impossible and bad, the idea that females might “have the same education, live the same lives and do the same jobs as men.”
Bloom does not mention here the evidence of Aristotle, who, after having lived and talked with Plato for twenty years, takes these proposals absolutely seriously and argues against them. He is silent about the actual lives of Spartan women, who exemplify certain of these freedoms, and are criticized by Aristotle on this account. He does not mention the well-known evidence of Oxyrynchus Papyrus 3656, which establishes firmly that Plato took the radical step (for Athens) of teaching women in his philosophical school—a fact that surely sheds light on the Republic’s intentions.6
In his general discussion of “the ancients” on this topic he is entirely silent about Epicurus’ support for the teaching of women; and, above all, about prominent Stoic arguments concerning women’s nature, well summarized in the passage of Musonius Rufus that I have already cited. Musonius argues that nature actually requires that both men and women pursue philosophy, and pursue it in a way that connects it to practical and social activities. When Bloom is silent about evidence such as this, evidence that is not obscure, but is well-known and essential, what are we to think of his attitude toward his readers, and toward the books with which he claims to live?
Still, it is not Socratic to rely on the authority of texts. If Bloom’s own philosophical reasoning were precise and cogent, we could forgive him these historical failures—even though he himself rests his case on appeals to historical authority. How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom? The answer is, we cannot say, and we are given no reason to think him one at all. His book is long on rhetoric, painfully short on argument. Central terms such as “relativism” go undefined and unanalyzed, in a way that would have caused Socrates to ask many irritating questions. “Relativism,” Bloom writes, “has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.” Yet nowhere does Bloom bother to describe the many distinct varieties of relativism that have been defended and criticized by philosophers. The contemporary philosophical scene in America (which, Bloom alleges, is largely “bleak”) is in fact rich in arguments on exactly this question, among many others. And the analytic philosophers who, according to Bloom, “simply would not and could not talk about anything important” are addressing this very problem with arguments of considerable depth and complexity, since any good defense of or attack on conceptual relativism must deal not only with ethical questions but also with questions in the philosophy of science and of language.
Bloom has presumably studied the works of W.V.O. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and the many other serious writers on these problems; for he claims to tell us what is going on in contemporary American philosophy, and to be a lover of “knowledge and certitude.” How could he make such negative judgments without knowing the arguments he attacks? It would have been a public service if a book on philosophy and on relativism had explained these difficult debates for the general reader, letting the reader assess their significance. Bloom, once again, is silent. He does not even give us his own arguments for his antirelativist position—except by linking relativism, somewhat obscurely, to practical consequences that seem to him self-evidently deplorable. But surely we cannot assess Bloom’s contribution to philosophy—to the rational search for truth about the good life—until we have those arguments before us.
But if we approach Bloom’s book expecting it to be a work of Socratic philosophy, answering the Socratic demand for definitions, explanations, and rational arguments, we may be mistaking its purpose. Portions of the book, especially in its early chapters, do indeed seem to defend a conception of philosophy much like that shared by Socrates and the Stoics, according to which philosophy is each individual person’s search for the good through active reasoning and critical argument. On this view of philosophy’s role in human life, we would expect the claim that philosophy should be at the heart of the university in American democracy to be a claim that in this democracy each and every person ought to have both the opportunity and the incentive to engage in studies that awaken the rational search for a good life. But in the later chapters of Bloom’s book, in which Bloom turns from negative argument to the statement of his own position, a very different conception emerges both of philosophy and of the university as teacher of philosophy in a democracy. This conception, which is the one Bloom seems most deeply drawn to when speaking in his own voice, is of a philosophy that is not practical, alive, and broadly distributed, but contemplative and quasi-religious, removed from ethical and social concerns, and the preserve of a narrow elite.
This shift is prepared for earlier, since from the opening of the book, Bloom presents himself to us as a profoundly religious man, who deplores the decline of revealed religion and of the Bible’s authority in American society. He speaks with nostalgia of “the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible.” He praises the life of his grandparents as a life “based on the Book”; and for him “a life based on the Book is closer to the truth” and “provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things.” He approves of the old idea that the highest aspiration one might have for one’s children “is for them to be wise—as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise”—not suggesting that there is any salient difference between the philosopher and the other two. For his own description of “the philosophic use of reason” he cites Maimonides:
This then will be a key permitting one to enter places the gates to which were locked. And when these gates are opened and these places are entered into, the soul will find rest therein, the eyes will be delighted, and the bodies will be eased of their toil and of their labor.
This is a conception of philosophy quite alien to the Socrates of the Apology and the Euthyphro—and, indeed, to very many of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, for whom the essence of philosophy is not mystical wisdom but careful reasoning, and for whom there is no rest and no ease so long as any intellectual or moral challenge remains, as it always does for human beings, to be seriously examined.
The Socratic conception of philosophy naturally led, in the practice of the Greek Stoics, to the conclusion that each and every human being can have and ought to have the chance to have a philosophical education. For Socratic philosophizing is based on nothing more specialized than the active use of practical reason, which seems to be the common and universal possession of all humans. And if, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” it might seem to follow that a society dedicated to securing, for its members, the conditions of a full and worthwhile life would have a duty to make sure that they could get this higher education.
The pressure for degrees and credentials has many sources in our society. But it is this Socratic idea, I believe, that gives fundamental legitimacy to democratizing higher education in America. It is an idea deeply connected with democracy’s respect for each person’s rational powers. Bloom’s final rejection of democracy, and of the democratization of philosophy, are connected, I believe, with his very different conception of philosophy’s nature and role. Because philosophy is not the active development of each person’s own practical reason, but a specialized search, carried on through esoteric books, for a contemplative theoretical wisdom, it is, according to Bloom, open only to a few specially equipped “natures,” and cannot be democratized without loss of standards. And because it cannot be democratized, and because its protection is, Bloom argues, the essential function of the university, he concludes that the university, in its essential nature, is, though within democracy, an undemocratic and even antidemocratic institution.
Early in his book Bloom criticizes today’s students by citing Plato’s description of the democratic man from Republic VIII; later on, he makes Plato’s attack on the democratic soul apply to modern democratic society in general. “The deepest intellectual weakness of democracy is its lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life,” he writes; and he concludes that the function of the university in a democracy is to create a living alternative to democratic leveling and debasement, making it possible for “the rarest talents” to turn to the best way of life, the philosophical life (also called “the highest life”). The Bloomian university does not see itself as having any practical social aim, even the aim of educating citizens so that they will govern their own ethical lives better and more reflectively. For according to Bloom the aim of the “highest life” is to depart from the ethical and social life altogether, to find a permanent “wisdom,” and to “find rest” in it.
Furthermore, Bloom derives from his idiosyncratic reading of “the ancients” the tragic moral that the relationship between the true philosopher and the “many” in a democracy must be hostile; and it must be hostile by “nature,” since the “many” always fear death and therefore seek only “vulgar” satisfactions. The philosopher alone is above such fears. Being above them, he is also, says Bloom, above the moral and political life, and will seek to live apart from the people. “Changing the character of his relationship to them is impossible because the disproportion between him and them is firmly rooted in nature. Thus, he has no expectation of essential progress.”
Bloom’s contemplative conception of philosophy seems remarkably empty of content, since his account of philosophical activity evinces no interest in the traditional subjects of “the contemplative life,” such as metaphysics, cosmology, and mathematics. Nonetheless, in the name of the contemplative, his conception teaches the would-be philosopher to look down on ethical concerns and the search for social justice. Universities, standing in the midst of corrupt and hostile democracies, must not, Bloom argues, seek to improve them—even, apparently, by training citizens to be more ethically reflective or by searching for better moral or political or economic theories. They must simply protect the nonethical life of wisdom, as Bloom understands it, making sure that the few specially chosen “natures” who are suited for this life will be able to lead it. Thus, Bloom is really proposing that the function of the entire American university system should be to perfect and then protect a few contemplative souls, whose main subject matter will, apparently, be the superiority of their own contemplative life to the moral and political life. Now we see why Bloom talked only about the elite from the beginning: because his “highest” goal has nothing to do with the good life of anyone else, and, indeed, nothing to do with morality and justice.
Bloom’s proposals can be criticized on many fronts. But above all it is important to see plainly what he intends the university to be. Those who believe that the highest search for the truth does not turn away from concern for the quality of moral and social life and that the universities of America should exist for the sake of all its citizens, not only for the sake of a few, must find themselves opposed to Bloom’s conception. In defending their position, they will find, contrary to Bloom’s claims, strong support from the arguments of the ancient Greek thinkers, and especially of the Stoics, who spoke so eloquently of practical reason as a universal human possession, whose cultivation is a central human need.
And what of the curriculum? The Stoics saw that, in order to extend the benefits of higher education to all human beings, teaching would have to be responsive to the needs of many different types of human beings. This is why they held that a good teacher is like a good doctor, flexible and responsive to individuality. Bloom is concerned with only one narrow group of students; even in discussing this group he does not seem interested in their individuality. Thus it is easy for him to believe that a single simple solution will suffice for college teaching.
Even for the narrow group described, it is not at all obvious that the best way to induce genuine reflection is to make a list of the Great Books of the Western tradition and to require their study of all students. There are many evident problems with that approach, even apart from the special aristocratic use to which Bloom himself wishes to put it.7 The study of great works of philosophy can indeed enliven the mind. But required lists of Great Books encourage passivity and reverence, rather than active critical reflection; they inevitably select certain texts over others of equal intrinsic worth for reasons having to do with fashion and prejudice, and then tend to tell the student that these are the really “Great” ones, and all that he or she centrally needs to know. (This is the way to Bloom’s contemptuous ignorance of non-Western traditions.)
Such courses, furthermore, are likely to be taught without sufficient grounding in the historical setting and even the languages of the texts studied. (For even if one shares Bloom’s opposition to relativism and historicism, as I do, one needs to know a great deal of history to know what a text of an ancient author is actually asserting.) The advantages of the Great Books approach in encouraging cohesiveness and community among students who will share knowledge of central texts—advantages which are genuine enough—may be offset by these disadvantages. Perhaps they can be overcome; but Bloom does not show us how.
But the real problem with Bloom’s advice on curriculum is the problem of the book as a whole: that it is not informed by concern for the diverse needs of diverse groups of American students. If we follow, in place of Bloom’s aristocratic argument, the Stoic argument I have described, we will surely require a quite different approach to teaching. Such an approach, combining a universal and nonrelative account of human needs with a refined sensitivity to students’ actual social situations, can be found, I suggest, in the wise and humane book, General Education in a Free Society, written at Harvard in 1945 by a committee including Paul Buck, John H. Finley, Jr., I.A. Richards, George Wald, and others.8 This book invites comparison with Bloom’s because of its praise of ancient Greek models, and its rejection of an education based on narrow specialization in favor of one that is “preparation for life in the broad sense of completeness as a human being.” But it is miles away from Bloom’s in its evident affection for the entire country of diverse people whose education it proposes to discuss, and in the tentative subtlety with which it investigates the problem of creating a program of general education in college and university curricula for this diverse population.
The report opens with the affirmation of a statement by the then president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant: “The primary concern of American education today is not the development of the appreciation of the ‘good life’ in young gentlemen born to the purple. It is the infusion of the liberal and humane tradition into our entire educational system.” And the authors describe their conception of education’s central purpose in a way that both explicitly refers to the Socratic-Stoic tradition and links that tradition, plausibly, with the American democratic belief in the equality of citizens and in the equal need of all for rational education:
The task of modern democracy is to preserve the ancient ideal of liberal education and to extend it as far as possible to all the members of the community…. To believe in the equality of human beings is to believe that the good life, and the education which trains the citizen for the good life, are equally the privilege of all. And these are the touchstones of the liberated man: first, is he free; that is to say, is he able to judge and plan for himself, so that he can truly govern himself? In order to do this, his must be a mind capable of self-criticism; he must lead that self-examined life which according to Socrates is alone worthy of a free man. Thus he will possess inner freedom, as well as social freedom. Second, is he universal in his motives and sympathies? For the civilized man is a citizen of the entire universe; he has overcome provincialism, he is objective, and is a “spectator of all time and all existence.” Surely these two are the very aims of democracy itself.
But this application of the Socratic-Stoic tradition leads the authors to reject a single curricular solution, as insufficiently attentive to the needs of different groups of students. Instead, they describe several essential human capacities that education ought to develop, and the sorts of knowledge that, in general, will be suited to the development of these abilities in various parts of life. Then they sketch tentatively a variety of different ways in which curricula might, in different circumstances, approach this common task, speaking in detail only about the special case of Harvard, whose students’ needs are not alleged to be either the same as or any more important than those of any other group.
An important difference between their curricular proposals and Bloom’s is their insistence on the importance of history, both as a subject of study in its own right, and as a component in the study of philosophical and literary texts. Bloom gives history little place in the curriculum—apparently because he believes that it will distract students from the realization that the greatest truths are timeless. The Harvard authors plausibly insist that we cannot see how to bring timeless standards of goodness to our own society unless we have understood what possibilities historical change have made available to human beings at different times and in different places. Thus the Stoic goal of becoming a citizen of the entire universe not only does not undermine but actually promotes the claim of history to a central place in the curriculum.
There are difficulties with the Harvard report’s approach; there is much vagueness. And in the author’s silence about the education of women they do not follow well the Stoic thinkers whose views about rational self-government they so eloquently invoke. But the report should be revived for our close study, as an example of genuinely democratic thought about higher education in its relationship to human diversity and human need. And its hopeful humility, in the face of the complexity of this problem, should provide a counterpoise to Bloom’s stridently confident pessimism, and encouragement to those of us who do not accept Bloom’s conclusion that real philosophical education must be at odds with democratic values.
According to Bloom’s dark vision, the Muse who inspired the Great Books of the ancient Greek world would be horrified at the chaos of contemporary America. She would surely flee for comfort, if she could, behind the walls of a privileged elite university, there to talk about hidden truths with a few chosen souls. Walt Whitman, a different sort of admirer of ancient Greek traditions, imagined the ancient Greek muse actually choosing America as her home, on account of its active vitality and its commitment to the worth of each human being’s self-development. In his poem “Song of the Exposition,” he imagines this Muse migrating and settling down, not deterred from her inspirational role by the presence of rough conditions, creating, like this democracy, in the midst of labor and alongside laboring men and women.
We see her
vigorously clearing a path for herself, striding through the confusion,
By thud of machinery and shrill steam-whistle undismay’d,
Bluff’d not a bit by drain-pipe, gasometers, artificial fertilizers,
Smiling and pleas’d with palpable intent to stay.
This is democratic romanticism. That does not make it either false or impossible. It expresses a noble wish for a country in which the souls of all citizens would flourish, each in its own setting, and find respect. We might consider it, as an antidote to Bloom’s apocalypse, and as the opening to a genuinely democratic discussion of democratic education.
November 5, 1987
Musonius Rufus, Should Women Too Do Philosophy?, Teubner edition by O. Hense (Leipzig: 1905); see also C.E. Lutz, Yale Classical Studies (1947), p. 3ff. ↩
For the national statistics, my sources are Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education, Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education, sponsored by the National Institute of Education, October 1984, and General Education in a Free Society: Report of the Harvard Committee (Harvard University Press, 1945); the particular statistics about universities in Bloom’s “sample” have been obtained from admissions offices and/or dean’s offices. ↩
See Martha Nussbaum and Amartya K. Sen, “Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions,” a Working Paper of the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, and to be published in Relativism, ed. M. Krausz (Notre Dame University Press, 1988); also Bimal K. Matilal, Perception (Oxford University Press, 1985). ↩
See especially Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Harvard University Press, 1985). ↩
The same view is asserted in Bloom’s notes to his translation of the Republic (Basic Books, 1968), without any more satisfactory argument than what is presented here. ↩
For this and other related evidence, and a discussion, see Mary R. Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 144. ↩
A different and genuinely democratic approach to core requirements (at the level of elementary and secondary, not university, education) is carefully argued for in E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Mifflin, 1987). ↩
See reference above, note 2. The committee that prepared the report was chaired by Paul H. Buck; John H. Finley, Jr., was vice-chairman. Its members were: Raphael Demos, Leigh Hoadley, Byron S. Hollinshead, Wilbur K. Jordan, I.A. Richards, Phillip J. Rulon, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Robert Ulich, George Wald, and Benjamin F. Wright. ↩