Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Patrick Deneen Misunderstands Allan Bloom

This misunderstands Bloom.  The criticisms would be more apt if they were directed towards Harry Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians.

Some thoughts.  Dr. Deneen writes:
"... Bloom himself was not an admirer or supporter of the multiplicity of cultures. Indeed, he was suspicious and even hostile to the claims of culture upon the shaping of human character and belief—including religious belief. He was not a conservative in the Burkean sense; that is, someone apt to respect the inheritances of tradition and custom as a repository of past wisdom and experience. Rather, he was at his core a liberal: someone who believes that the only benefit of our cultural formation was that it constituted a 'cave' from which ambitious and rebellious youth could be encouraged to pursue a life of philosophy."
I think we have to define "ambitious and rebellious youth" here.  Bloom thought "philosophy" -- especially what he regarded as that containing the esoteric truths which he taught his "circle" -- was a calling for an elite few.  Not even the typical Cornell or University of Chicago student; but an elite selected from those schools whom he deemed worthy.  An elite of the elite (perhaps Dr. Deneen was not elite enough for Bloom).  Moreover, he thought the "cave" needed vibrant cultures that taught useful fictions to sustain it. So for the 99% of the population who weren't his philosophic proteges, he supported Burkean fictions of the cave.  This is why Straussians support the religious conservatives whose faiths they don't share.  It's for the effect, yes.  But they still support the politics.

Deneen continues:
"Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of 'neoconservatism,' a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst."
This is where the criticism might be more apt if directed against Harry Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians.  They defend the timeless truths of the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence in an almost fanatical sense and claim to believe in the objective truth of natural rights.  Though, they would note, the "right" kinds of traditions and religion are compatible with DOI's essences.  And it's all compatible with social conservatism.  Bloom and the East Coast Straussians understood a fanatical natural rights ideology leads to social liberalism.  So they sought a balance between the claims of natural rights and the claims of religion, tradition and culture.  They understood that reason and revelation were at base in conflict (and as secret atheists and nihilists didn't believe in the objective claims of either).  But they did NOT see "liberal" citizens as to be liberated from their "prejudices" by a fanatical natural rights ideology.  Rather, they wanted these "gentlemen" to believe devoutly in the basics of their religions' claims to revealed truths AND, as good Americans, in the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence without, I think, truly appreciating the tension between the Truth claims of reason and of revelation.  "Christianity" and "natural rights" are in conflict.  But the "gentlemen" in the military who thought of themselves as "good Christians" and "good Americans" need not really appreciate the two things as incompatible.  After Nietzsche, they believed tension, chaos, conflict, irony could be liberating and value creating and sustaining forces.  They also believed war gave man his utmost meaning.  Hence, you had folks who secretly didn't believe in the objective truths of natural rights/liberal democracy supporting going to war to defend those noble fictions.  I don't want to seem too cynical about them.  The Straussians really do believe liberal democracy and its natural rights claims led to a better life for the masses than illiberal systems.  After Churchill, they thought those who defend liberal democracy need not flatter it.

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