The Closing of the Western Mind
by Keith Hopkins (April 2014)
In the tide and course of human affairs, at epiphany-like moments, rare books appear that shine a light so dazzling on the falsehoods on which our modern world is founded that we are momentarily blinded. The late Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was, is, such a book. To this reviewer it is, with the Warren Commission Report, the most important document to appear in the last 50 years. It was published in 1987 but, even today, it’s unclear whether we have the book, whose importance has only increased over the years, entirely in focus. Its appearance was a defining moment in our collapsing culture. It was hailed by what might be called all true libertarians as THE book of the times, a mighty, coruscating attack on the aetiology and epidemiology of cultural Marxism. The comparison with the Warren Commission is not fanciful. That report, of course, chronicled, in oceanic depth, the Marxist pathways and pathology of one Lee Harvey Oswald whose cry “I’m just a patsy!” (endlessly misinterpreted) accurately codes for “I’m just a patsy of the capitalist system!” The ‘liberal’ Left, predictably, came not to praise Bloom, but to bury him, employing every abusive term in the socialist lexicon against both book and man. Condemned, you could say, by bell, book and candle. But what received insufficient attention at the time, and which time has only confirmed the accuracy of, is Bloom’s remarkable analysis of Nietzsche and the crucial significance of the whole concept of values and validation. I would like to say just a few words on this which hopefully may contribute to a deeper appreciation of Bloom’s insights and the campaign to save our culture (and accepting, as I think we must, that all conflict is theological).
Bloom was the first to understand and to apply, in contemporary terms, the importance of what Nietzsche said on the subject of values. As we all know, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. However, Nietzsche was no triumphalist. He was, firstly, one of the greatest of all Greek scholars. He understood, at a profound level, the importance of belief in any, viable, culture. You simply had to have beliefs in something. If you didn’t believe in something, to paraphrase Chesterton, you ended up believing in anything because Nature abhors a vacuum. Crucially, reason was not a belief. It was an attribute or function of the mind and intellect. That, effectively, scuppered the Enlightenment which, anyway, had forgotten the importance of the insight of Hume:
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” (A Treatise of Human Nature)
Not ‘passions’, it must be added, in the sense of concupiscence, but, more, sentiment and desire, and with the proviso that the passions themselves are of a calm and mild nature. This was what Adam Smith called, ‘the great demi-god within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct’ (The Theory of Moral Sentiments). These were ‘selfish’ interests in that all civilized people felt better, were better, when they were kind and generous towards others. This was what civilization was all about. It had little to do with altruism, being humble and lowering one’s sense of selfhood. It took an atheist, Hume, to recall us to the importance of belief.
With the French Revolution organized religion, and with it, the unitary sense of western culture, essentially, collapsed. Nietzsche, inhabiting the world of ancient Greeks, identified the unhooking of reason from belief as the culprit, then as now. A belief is a value. Man chooses values, what is good and what is bad, through an exercise of the will. The problem is we can choose ‘bad’ goods just as easily as we chose ‘good’ goods. The ancient world had always discussed the good life in terms of the knowledge and the virtues appropriate to it. To make good choices you first need to know what is right. This was where, Nietzsche said, something had gone terribly wrong. Because religion had declined, man had elevated reason in its place but the deep lessons of the Enlightenment, that belief is irreplaceable, had not been absorbed. Instead, man had pursued ‘material’ and empirical conceptions about nature and earthly Utopias that reduced human beings to automata. (William F. Buckley Jr. amusingly referred to this as a process to ‘immanentize the eschaton’). A huge and terrifying revolution now gathered pace. Darwin and, even more devastatingly, Marx enthroned materialism as the only religion for the ‘new’ man and woman (or should that be person?). Everything else was old hat, trash.
Marx professed to have discovered the ‘scientific’ laws of human development and triumphantly declared that these were material and dialectic. Man’s consciousness, the super-structure of belief, was a product of, and determined by, the structure of the mode of production of any given society. Being determined consciousness. Who you were in the capitalist pecking order determined what you were, your beliefs and values, your selfhood. Revolution would right all wrongs and usher in the communist society where we would all be free to do just what we liked when we liked. Anything goes. Here was a new religion. A religion of man. Philosophy joyously embraced the new creed. What was now important was not to understand anything. All that mattered was to change it.
True, the revolution, when it came, did not occur in the decadent west but in the peasant societies of Russia and China. Then, the workers had horribly succumbed to nationalism in two world wars and had actually fought one another. After 1945, conditions had even improved, the workers were better off materially than they had ever been. This was a huge source of anguish for the Left. Had Marx been wrong? The Frankfurt School re-examined the propositions of Marx in the light of recent history (it is, perhaps, significant that the Frankfurt School thought there was something worth saving). Marcuse, in particular, noticed something astonishing (Eros and Civilization,1955).
Freud, who, of course, was unknown to Marx, proclaimed that he had discovered a phenomenon he called the subconscious. Like an iceberg where nine-tenths projects below the surface, we are all secretly guided, he said, for good or ill, by the deep and huge reservoir of our inner feelings, impulses, desires but which we dare not acknowledge. Marx had said that corrupt capitalist society had contaminated man. In a clever insight Marcuse proposed a ‘marriage’ of Marx and Freud. Why could Freud’s ‘discovery’ not be hitched up to classical Marxism? Then, the theory of the subconscious could be applied to every area of our (capitalist) life. What if even, or more especially, our subconscious, our whole personality, has been corrupted by capitalism to such an extent that we all now stand in need of liberation? Bloom saw that this was the revolution to end all revolutions, the end-point of the gloomy prognostications of Nietzsche. The whole notion of values, so important for the maintenance of anything that resembles civilized society, was detonated by Marcuse’s critique. Marcuse saw things in Marx and Freud that no one else had seen. Bloom saw things in Marcuse that no-one else saw or perhaps wanted to see.
The human subconscious, at its deepest level, requires liberation. This was the clarion blast of Marcuse. So, any behaviour is permissible. Violence is simply the cry of the oppressed. Drugs can help in the process of finding oneself (how Aldous Huxley must, one trusts, have regretted his early experiments if he could have lived to see the result). Promiscuity is mandatory. Abolish the family. Father’s only half-abuse their daughters, they can be more thoroughly abused by the State. Western civilization was based on ‘psychical’ oppression. Overthrow the oppressors. Here is an endless revolution, a revolution for the ages. And it avoids all of those problematic changes to the institutions that had so bedevilled Marxist thinking. Who cares about Congress, parliaments, the courts? Here is the new Marxist man and woman who has been purged from the inside. Institutions can even play a useful role in the revolution. Stuff them full of Marxist appointees, require then to promulgate socialist ideology, then we have a ‘virtuous’ cycle of propaganda which radicalizes the masses who, in turn, incite further change. The old sign posts will remain in place. But the commissariat will ensure they point nowhere, give misleading information, in a world inhabited by the new Marxist creation. Like the lost hikers on the mountain top who shout ‘We are here,’ the whole world will be filled to the uttermost with meaningless statements (texting, anyone?).
The greatness of Bloom’s book, if it only stopped there, would have ensured its place in the fast vanishing canon of great books of the west (Bloom has some wise words on the whole notion of the canon of great western books). But Bloom’s work is no mere exercise in horripilation. He provides a wonderful and hopeful corrective to the bottomless mendacity of the Left. Bloom explained that Marcuse was mistaken, dreadfully mistaken, because he had not understood another important German thinker, Max Weber. For Weber, like Nietzsche, had identified values to be key to any society. There must be a notion of right and wrong. Weber saw the rise of Capitalism, which filled Marx with such loathing, as the triumph of what he called the ‘protestant ethic.’ A particular group of Christians applying the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (each of which has a significant emotional component) had changed the face of the earth. Marcuse simply thought Weber was condemning religion, in the same (wrong) way Marxists thought Nietzsche had. But Weber was making a very profound point. Weber was referring to the ascendancy of spirit over matter. Man creates his culture. In every important respect, men and women are free. This is nothing less than a huge, devastating rebuttal of Marxism. More complete than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which we now see had been merely the fall of bricks and mortar.
Ethics are the key to the de-marxification and de-toxification of our society.
The question we have to consider was put by Socrates.
‘If virtue is knowledge, will it be taught?’
Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of 'The History Plays.'
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