Over My Shoulder #7: Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels, as reprinted in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960—1990. I add only an emphatic reminder of Rule 4, Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

… And we may further suppose that Gulliver has certain hidden thoughts and intentions which are only to be revealed by closely cross-examining him. He indicates this himself at the close of his travels when he swears to his veracity. He uses for this solemn occasion Sinon’s treacherous oath to the Trojans, by means of which that worthy managed to gain admission for the horse and its concealed burden of Greeks.

I should like to suggest that this book is also such a container, filled with Greeks who are, once introduced, destined to conquer a new Troy, or, translated into the little language, destined to conquer Lilliput. In other words, I wish to contend that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last explicit statements in the famous Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns and perhaps the greatest intervention in that notorious argument. By means of the appeal of its myth, it keeps alive the classical vision in ages when even the importance of the quarrel is denied, not to speak of the importance of that classical viewpoint, which appears to have been swamped by history. The laughter evoked by Gulliver’s Travels is authorized by a standard drawn from Homer and Plato.

Prior to entering directly into the contents of the book, I should try to make this assertion somewhat more extrinsically plausible. The quarrel itself is today regarded as a petty thing, rather ridiculous on both sides, a conventional debate between old and new, reactionary and progressive, which later ages have resolved by way of synthesis. Both sides lacked perspective; intellectual history is but one long continuous development. Moreover, the quarrel is looked on largely as a purely literary dispute, originating in the comparison of Greek and Roman poetry with French. Now this understanding is quite different from that of the participants, who, if not always the best judges, must be the first witnesses in any hearing. They understood the debate over poetry to be a mere subdivision of an opposition between two comprehensive systems of radically opposed thought, one finding its source in ancient philosophy, the other in modern philosophy. The moderns believed that they had found the true principles of nature, and that, by means of their methods, new sources of power could be found in physical nature, politics, and the arts. These new principles represented a fundamental break with classical thought and were incompatible with it. The poetic debate was meant, on the part of the advocates of modernity, only to show the superiority of modern thought based on modern talents and modern freedom in the domain where the classics were most indisputably masters and models. The quarrel involved the highest principles about the first causes of all things and the best way of life. It marked a crossroad, one of the very few at which mankind has been asked to make a decisive change in direction. The choice once made, we have forgotten that this was not the only road, that there was another one before us, either because we are ignorant of a possible choice or because we are so sure that this is the only road to Larissa. It is only by return to our starting point that the gravity of the choice can be realized; and at that crossroad one finds the quarrel. It is not, I repeat, a quarrel among authors as such, but among principles.

In his own way, Swift presents and contrasts those principles. He characterizes ancient philosophy as a bee whose wings produce music and flight and who thus visits all the blossoms of the field and garden … and in collecting from them enriches himself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. This bee is opposed to a house-building spider, who thinks he produces his own world from himself and is hence independent, but who actually feeds on filth and produces excrement. As the bee says, So, in short, the question comes all to this; whether is the nobler being of the two, that by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement or venom, producing nothing at all, but flybane and a cobweb; or that which by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings honey and wax.

This description is drawn from one of Swift’s earliest writings, The Battle of the Books. Gulliver’s Travels was one of his latest. Throughout his life Swift saw the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns as the issue in physics, poetry, and politics, and it is in the light of it that he directed his literary career and his practical life. The quarrel is the key to the diverse strands of this various man; his standards of judgment are all classical; his praise and blame are always in accord with that of Plato. He learned how to live within his own time in the perspective of an earlier one. Swift, the Tory and the High Churchman, was a republican and a nonbeliever.

Gulliver’s Travels is always said to be a satire, and there is no reason to quarrel with this designation. But it is not sufficient, for satire is concerned with a view to what is serious and ridiculous, good and bad. It is not enough to say that human folly is ridiculed; what was follow to Aristophanes would not have seemed so to Tertullian, and conversely. If the specific intention of the satire is not uncovered, the work is trivialized. Swift intended his book to instruct, and the character of that instruction is lost if we do not take seriously the issues he takes seriously. But we do not even recognize the real issues in the Quarrel, let alone try to decide which side had the greatest share of truth. In our time, only Leo Strauss has provided us with the scholarship and the philosophic insight necessary to a proper confrontation of ancients and moderns, and hence his works are the prolegomena to a recovery of Swift’s teaching. Swift’s rejection of modern physical and political science seems merely ill-tempered if not viewed in relation to a possible alternative, and it is Leo Strauss who has elaborated the plausibility, nay, the vital importance, of that alternative. Now we are able to turn to Swift, not only for amusement but for possible guidance as to how we should live. Furthermore, Swift’s art of writing explicitly follows the rhetorical rules for public expression developed by the ancients, of which we have been reminded by Professor Strauss. The rhetoric was a result of a comprehensive reflection about the relation between philosophy and politics, and it points to considerations neglected by the men of letters of the Enlightenment. Gulliver’s Travels is in both substance and form a model of the problems which we have been taught to recognize as our own by Leo Strauss.

— Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels (1964), in printed in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960–1990 (1990). 35–38.

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  1. Roderick T. Long

    (Taking issue with Bloom, not with you ….) Even if Bloom’s right that the dispute is really about ancient vs. modern philosophy as opposed to, say, ancient vs. modern literary styles, it doesn’t follow that it can’t still be “resolved by way of synthesis.” For the ancients might have been right about some things and the moderns might be right about others. I would say, for example, that in the areas of psychology and natural science, the ancients had a better understanding of constitutive conditions while the moderns have a better understanding of enabling conditions. Likewise in normative matters, I think the ancients had a better understanding of the relation of justice to self-interest while the moderns have a better understanding of the content of justice.

  2. Rad Geek

    Well, to be fair to Bloom, I should add that the quote is taken from an essay that was originally published in an anthology in honor of Leo Strauss, so Bloom’s simply taking a lot of the backdrop of Straussian ideas about the polar opposition between, and need to make hard choices between, the ancient worldview and modernism. (Of course, I also think that the Straussian conclusions are wrong, in part for the reasons that you mention, but that may help explain why Bloom simply leaves the synthesis option more ridiculed than refuted here.)

    I think Bloom is also just wrong (and I think that Strauss and Straussians in general err in this way) to present the ancients as having some kind of unified worldview that can be simply contrasted to some kind of unified modern worldview in the first place. (An aesthetic standard drawn from Homer and Plato? Ho ho ho.) In order to present the Quarrel as a debate between two unified worldviews that one has simply to choose between pretty much requires a view of the ancients that requires a relentless flattening of all the debates, quarrels, hard choices, and crossroads between fundamentally different ways of life that are crucial to understanding, say, Socrates, or Augustine.

    (I think this is connected with the fact that Bloom treats the Quarrel as if it really were a quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. Of course, that would have been impossible without a voyage to the Land of the Dead; what happened in fact was a quarrel between two opposing camps of moderns, who you might crudely characterize as modernists and classicists. But recognizing that means severely complicating what’s involved in the quarrel and the attendant choices; complications that Straussians in general and Bloom especially are loathe to even acknowledge, let alone take seriously.)

  3. Lady Aster

    As I read Bloom, if not Strauss, the quarrel between ancients and moderns is specifically a quarrel between different strategic approaches for the survival of philosophy (or, more precisely the individual philosopher). Altho’ I think both deliberately downplay the hostility of any philosophic approach to the distinguishing characterisitics of (for instance) Augustine, it seems clear that ‘ancient’ specifically refers to Socratic (not Christian) currents of thought, while ‘modern’ philosophy refers to the Machiavellian/Enlightenment strain (surely Strauss made a big deal with regard to Maimonides precisely that he really wasn’t a traditionalist but a cunning and sly Socratic philosopher prudently appearing the traditionalist).

    It seems clear to me that Strauss and Bloom view philosophy as inherently secularist- from the Straussian perspective, someone like Augustine is probably not truly a philosopher, or at least is so only in the breach (I generally agree). If neither Strauss nor Bloom liked to stress that, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that (Strauss, especially) wanted to encourage premodern impulses in our society because he thought they would prove a more nurturing environment for real philosophy than modern democratic rationality. Strauss would not be pointing out loudly Socrates’ fundamental disharmony with the ancestors of those modern conservatives he viewed essentially as useful idiots.

    Now I think that’s nuts- I might share Strauss’ goals (the preservation of an inherently antisocial philosophic life in the face of an irrevocably hostile society), but if nothing else the sheer crush of poverty, tyranny, and patriarchy in premodern societies tips the scale against any endorsement of the promotion of premodernity. Strauss is no better than Hans Herman Hoppe at celebrating the spiritual liberty of the master class with a dry, cold, implicit, but still stocking uncaringness for those of us not born into aristocracies. Simply put, any description of social reality places the Straussian calculus in a ludicrously different perspective. There is a distinctive “I got mine, jack” attitude in Strauss which wrinkles my nose. And the practical consequence of Straussian politics has been and will be to increase the power of true traditionalism to crush genuine philosophers. To my mind Strauss’ theories ask many of the key questions but are bewilderingly wrongheaded on the answers (I think the evidence overwhemningly shows that decadent pluralist democracy Strauss despised promote the best conditions for philosophy, as well as human happiness generally).

    But my problem isn’t with his ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ categories. I do think there is a family resemblance in the approaches of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, stoicism, cynicism, and skepticism- specifically, that of accomodation to the realities of the premodern regime, that one doesn’t find in the moderns (at least in the implications of their ideas). Strauss’ central claim is that ancient philosophies didn’t even think seriously about changing the world and considered philosophy an activity worthwhile for its own sake (which could only appeal to society by an ‘aristocratic’ misunderstanding), while modern philosophies did believe in their power to change the world because they found a way for philosophy to appeal to popular (instrumental) values (i.e., a ‘democratic’ misunderstanding). And I think that is broadly fair. I also think Strauss and Bloom, like Ayn Rand, draw a much needed attention to the “philosophic life”- I know, personally, Bloom helped me clarify my values on this issue immensely. That doesn’t mean that they also might not have posed monstrously stupic ways of advancing this ideal.

    I also think both Strauss and Bloom continue the traditional snubbing of the more antisocial ancient philosophies, such as epicureanism, in order to buttress a wholly irrational mental alignment of the virtue of the ancient polis and the philosophic life among their readers. This just can’t be true- not when they define the essential features of philosophy contrary to those perennial falsehoods that govern the city. This is especially problematic when the great ages of philosophies tended to occur at the time when the internal social authority of the polis was at its most plural, and least approximated this dreadful Republican Rome style of virtue. In Struass’ case, my sense is that his devotion to philosophy instead of the City’s conservatism wasn’t entirely authentic or honest (in other words, I think he reveals an unspoken and very unphilosophic longing for premodern tyranny). In Bloom’s case, I think it is very clear that he presented a pretty left-ancient philosophy, flavoured with Nietzscheanism, in unconvincing conservative (and sexist) drag.

  4. Rad Geek

    But my problem isn’t with his ancient and modern categories. I do think there is a family resemblance in the approaches of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, stoicism, cynicism, and skepticism-

    Probably so, but I think this enumeration of the ancients illustrates my point as well as anything.

    One major part of my complaint against the way that Bloom in particular and Straussians in general use Antiquity is that Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, stoicism, cynicism, and skepticism are not all of the Ancients, or even close to it. They form one very specific tradition of life and thought within Antiquity; they are not even the whole of ancient philosophy (which also includes Zeno, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, etc.), let alone the ancient world (which also includes everyone Homer, Aesop, Sophokles, Aristophanes, Alexander, Brutus, the Gracchi, Caesar, Paul, Nero, Tertullian, …).

    The fact that Bloom could write about aesthetic standards drawn from Plato and Homer, with a straight face, suggests some gross oversimplification to say the least. And glossing over the difference between the two simply means glossing over both Plato and Homer entirely.

  5. Lady Aster

    I think the Straussian might argue, in terms of Zeno, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, the Milesians (the philosophers, ahem) et al., that philosophy had not at that time become fully self-conscious, in the sense of having become aware of the possibility of independent criticism expressed in the concept of the difference between nature and convention. Therefore, I don’t think the pre-Socratic ancient philosophers hurt the ancient/modern thesis. Surely in some sense philosophy became conscious with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in way it hadn’t done so before, and as far as I can tell it was precisely the degree to which the pre-Socratics did begin to approach the amythological self-consciousness of the later thinkers that they did get into social trouble. In other words, the defining problem of the philosopher vs. civil society only occurs at the moment where philosophy has distinguished itself from the mythology of civil society enough to challenge it. Or one might just say that ‘post-Socratic ancient philosophy’ or ‘mature ancient philosophy’ might be more technically precise terms for what Strauss called ‘ancient philosophy’.

    Again, I agree there’s something a little dishonest in using terms like ‘ancient’ to blur the distinction between ancient famous people and ancient philosophy- and again, I think the motive is to give an essentially radical (but prudently collaborative) ancient philosophy the respectable gloss of stone-jaw gravitas ancient virtue and statesmanship. As for the confusion of Homer and Plato, I have no idea what Bloom was smoking at the time- you’re entirely right, I can think of so many problems with this that to start listing them is silly.

    But defending Strauss against Strauss (or Bloom, in this case), I would point out that Homer was in Strauss-speak a poet, not a philosopher, and doesn’t belong on the list of ‘ancients’ any more than the monument-clunkers do. Nor does Sophocles (a poet) or Tertullian (a priest), tho’ you could make arguments that some poets like Euripides and Aristophanes were sucessfully synthesized poet-philosophers (I myself doubt a person can be both at the same time in the same respect). I think Strauss’ philosophy makes a lot more sense if you keep his terms consistent, and go by the logic of his categories more than the listed names, especially when filtered through the dubious medium of Swift.

    (For the record, I think Bloom was trying to squish Swift in as neccesary to fit his theory, if for no other reason than he makes some wierd mistakes of interpreation, such as when he said “Swift characterized his ancients as giants and noble horses, his moderns as Liliputians and yahoos”. Again, this has so many mistakes the result makes Bloom look silly. The only commentary by Bloom on Swift that I found useful was his discussion of the Laputans, which I think is fairly insightful and correct. But the whole ‘giants’ and ‘dwarfs’ metaphor is really mishandled. Besides, Swift had much worse reasons to smudge up the distinctions between ancient moralists and ancient philosophers than Strauss did.)

    Anyway, Strauss has a very bad habit of appealing to ancient authority in a way that actually detracted from his point- unless you remember part of his point was to have the Irving Kristols and Paul Wolfowitzes of the world misunderstand him as a herald of neo-ancient God-‘n’-Country statesmanship. With such aims, getting every quotable big man in the textbooks behind you looks like a good idea. Strauss’s and Bloom’s theories emphasize the necessary difference between the religious, poetic, political (via activa), and philosophic life, and tell fairly well how to tell them apart.

    If Strauss (and Bloom) constantly mess this up when discussing specifics, I personally would rather straighten out the categories by the original theory and see if they then make sense- and I defend Strauss because I think they (in essentials) do. It’s much like straightening out Rand’s principle of non-coercion- the principle is good, but her ideas don’t gel with the examples she selected as ‘producers’ and ‘looters’. If Strauss endorsed as philosophers some nonphilosophic statesman and poets, Rand endorsed as examples of freedom some very nonlibertarian capitalists. But the principle, abstraction, and insight at the center still holds.

    Maybe Strauss and Bloom assumed the real philosophers would see through all this, tho’ I think it’s more likely at least in part that Strauss at least bamboozled himself and never made the mental effort to separate sanctified ancient priests, poets, and (especially) statesman from the ancient philosophers- as I said, I think he was in part an unphilosophic conservative. But I also think his own philosophy makes the neccesity to make this analysis inevitable.

    A further comparison with Rand (sorry, I came from Rand) might be her valuable radical individualism, which she rather carelessly wrapped up in a celebration of the American polity (with bad philosophic excuses), even tho’ a consistent radical individualism can’t mix with the motives of patriotism. Strauss similarly wrapped up ancient philosophy with a broad classicism, with bas excuses, even though both classicism and the goals of most classical writers don;t mic with the essentials of any kind of philosophy Perhaps we can charitably say that Strauss was motivated by his love of ancient texts, as a classicist, which he thought he was defending from liberal-democratic barbarians. Likewise as Rand the immigrant thought she was defending a cherished ‘land of freedom’ from various ‘America-haters’. Both are cases of intellectual sloppiness that blur an initial spirit with contingencies of a wholly alien principle. But I also think that in both cases we can remove the rational kernel from the hagiographic shell.

    I personally look at Strauss’ philosophy as something of an intelligent philosopher’s sociological guide (precisely in the tradition of Maimonides and Machiavelli, among others) I agree there are a lot of problems in Strauss and Bloom, but I also think many people throw out the invaluable Straussian recovery of the central experience of philosophy and his/her relation to civil society, mainly because they (understandably) hate Straussian conclusions in politics, or are viscerally repulsed by Straussian cynicism. But the point is whether the Straussian essentials are right.

    I think Strauss’ thesis can be refined and sythesized to say: “Philosophy, which is based on independent individual reason, is unalterably different from and threatens the essence of human community which is based on a sublime but false collective communal myth; whenever philosophy becomes loud and self-consciousness to be dangerous, it will quickly be persecuted and hence learns to be cunning [‘ancient] until and unless it gets the power to alter society [‘modern’], which can only be done by appealing to the power of philosophy to promote the common utility, which is a value compatible with philosophy but unsublime.”

    (And then supposedly the resulting utilitarian culture then subsequently destroys the spiritual nurture which sustains philosophy. Here I disagree. I think modernity could have been done right {minus Protestantism and positivism} and to some degree I think our time is recovering from those mistakes.)

    To me, all this does two very, very important things: it crystallises the meaning of the philosophic life in a way few have since, say, Nietzsche- and secondly it draws up a very convincing case for and then faces squarely the proposition that civil society and the philosopher are essentially opposed. One could take this in various directions, but personally- even if I’m not a philosopher- I’d really like to know if the latter is true.

  6. Rad Geek

    For the record, I think Bloom was trying to squish Swift in as neccesary to fit his theory, …

    Right, which I think is symptomatic of one of Bloom’s larger problems: the way that he uses authoritative texts to support his moral and political preoccupations rather than reading them and taking them on their own terms — a frankly philistine approach that he constantly engages in in spite of offering a sharp and insightful criticism of it in The Closing of the American Mind etc. (He also takes this attitude towards, among others, Plato, whom he is apparently unable to read as ever saying or thinking about anything other than Allan Bloom’s interpretation of the Republic.)

    The only commentary by Bloom on Swift that I found useful was his discussion of the Laputans, which I think is fairly insightful and correct.

    Actually I think the discussion of the Laputans is wrong, or grotesquely half-right, and a prime example of Bloom’s use of texts: it’s grotesque because Laputa (and not the land of the Houyhnhnms) is so obviously a reference to the Platonic tyranny that Bloom’s refusal to even address the connection is simply perverse. I think the only explanation for the perversity is that Bloom famously has his own ideas about the real meaning of the Republic and simply refuses to treat Swift as possibly having his own ideas about what the Republic endorses. What he says in that passage about Swift’s attitudes toward philosophical life and philosophical rule is mostly right, and where not right at least on to something, but I think he just deliberately misunderstands Swift’s points whenever and wherever they complicate Swift’s relation to the ancients — not to mention the ancients’ relations among themselves.

  7. Roderick T. Long

    For the record, I think it’s a mistake to view the ancient philosophers as having an accommodating attitude toward existing society. This is where Bloom’s reading of the Republic as “ironic” is crucial. But it’s not as though philosophical attempts to reform existing societies ended with Plato’s last voyage to Syracuse. Both the Academy and the Lyceum were frequently consulted (essentially as “think tanks” might be today) in the drawing up of laws and constitutions for new colonies, etc. Aristotle’s Politics is full of advice for moving existing societies closer to a just regime. The Epicureans eschewed such political activity, but at least one Epicurean, Diogenes of Oenoanda, looked forward to the day when the spread of Epicurean-type friendships would make formal laws unnecessary. The Stoics seem to have started out as utopian reformers; they soon became much more accommodating to the realities of the Roman empire, but even so Stoics were highly represented among assassins and attempted assassins against various emperors, and seem to have been motivated in part by Stoic theories of justice.

  8. Lady Aster

    Roderick-

    You point is well taken, and it’s something I’d like to think over.

    I would point out, however, that the nexus of the philosopher/civil society problem for Strauss wasn’t in the particular policies or figures of government, but in the problem that philosophy falsifies the mythical sources of obligation to kin, country, and the gods that held the polis togather (essentially what we would call ‘family values’). Strauss primarily claimed that the paradigm ancient philosopher became very cagey when talking about those subjects. I don’t think Strauss said philosophers didn’t try to change society, but that when they did they spoke to those whose prejudices were least hostile to philosophy (meaning, the aristocracy) and then guided by advice while minimizing the radically asocial standpoint from which philosophy begins. ~Sigh~… maybe the comparison to modern ‘think tanks’ is a little too apt.

    I know there are exceptions (I like some of the culturally leftier Cynics myself), and it seems quite reasonable to say there were a few moderns among the ancients, and vice versa.

    On Plato, I think it’s really complicated. What I liked specifically about Bloom’s treatment of Plato wasn’t what he is famous for, but for his serious treatment of the erotic elements of Platonic philosophy (some of us feminist neo-Pagans would here argue over the credits). I’ve never seen the evidence for the thesis that Plato didn’t really mean the Republic or spoke through the mouth of Thrasymachus. There is also a question of whether Plato himself was entirely on the straight and narrow as a philosopher- I agree with Rand that there is something distinctly mystical about Plato’s whole approach, and precisely by Straussian rules this should make Plato an awful case for the paradigm philosopher (surely Socrates is the paradigm philosopher). I can’t help but wonder if the Straussian love of Plato has less to do with the claim that Plato was esoterically a Straussian, than it does with the fact that a typical Struassian is a closet Platonist. Straussians act too much like the traditional Plato of legend, whom they claim does not exist.

  9. Lady Aster

    “Right, which I think is symptomatic of one of Bloom’s larger problems: the way that he uses authoritative texts to support his moral and political preoccupations rather than reading them and taking them on their own terms — a frankly philistine approach that he constantly engages in in spite of offering a sharp and insightful criticism of it….”

    Charles, there is much philistinism in a philosopher.

    Listen, as I’ve tried made clear, taken one by one I agree with most of your criticisms against Bloom, and could gladly add a few of my own. But to me this is hardly the point. I can�t think of a single author who has deeply inspired me who has not also at times blunted moral and factual corners to render a vision or a system. Rand and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre, Hegel, Heidegger, or Riane Eisler, every one of them can be and has been faulted on similar grounds. But I feel to make this one’s *primary voice and focus is to miss the point of reading philosophy at all.

    Bloom provides us with one of the most moving descriptions of what Walter Kaufmann called the philosophic flight — the ability, via reason, to move to new vantage points and in doing so change one’s life. That is a rare thing, a very rare thing, which he delivers in beautiful narrative capable of opening up this experience in others. By all means, find fault with Bloom where he is in error, call him sharply when that error is conscious. But I don’t feel at all comfortable with treating Bloom or Strauss in such a dismissive manner.

    It takes a certain amount of discipline and a certain respect for logic to criticise, and these are virtues and criticism should be done. But to focus on errors and inconsistencies in excellence without first recognizing excellence is to do something damaging. This applies to other excellences other than the philosophic. You yourself call attention to the courage and insight of many feminists, while taking as secondary errors in their doctrines, histories and politics. You admire them; they’ve spoken to you. One could easily, for instance, take scholarly scissors to Brownmiller or Kate Millett and charge them similarly as philistines. It little matters that one might be right — if in doing so one became blind to their demand to change one’s life, or the insight behind it. And this would apply whether one accepted or denied that demand.

    Bloom made errors, yes, some of them culpable. Strauss made errors and I find his culpability more serious. On very broad and wide issues of significance I find myself adamantly opposed to both of them. I have yet to read a philosopher, or poet or prophet, for that matter, whose human greatness was not balanced by all-too-human failings. I suspect a fairly conducted scouring of philistines in philosophy would leave us Socrates, Spinoza, and a modest cloister of anemic academics illuminating manuscripts in symbolic logic.

    If there is one thing I have taken from my experience in life, it is that life cannot be enjoyed it we go around, like Objectivists, with pencil and clipboard checking off the truths, virtues, and justices of everything we encounter, faulting each in proportion to their failings to live up to an ideal in the sky. On the contrary, I think the heights of experience are available to us primarily if we are able to feel and listen, to open ourselves first and criticise second (but yes, do criticise). Bloom is as times both wrong and unscholarly, but there were many both correct and scholarly who lacked his vision. And to me Bloom’s treatment of the philosophic life is a truly brilliant meditation, and neither Bloom’s nor Strauss’s brilliance should be forgotten for their flaws. That to me seems a more serious philistinism.

    Lady Aster )(*)(

    • For instance, I deeply dissent on his opinion of women, the counterculture, drugs, and rock music- all of which have to do with a dualistic conception of heights and depths which flies in the face of much of the rest of Bloom’s philosophy.

· March 2006 ·

  1. Rad Geek

    Lady Aster,

    I meant to reply to this for quite a while, but somehow it got lost in the shuffle.

    I agree with you that people are more than their errors and that Allan Bloom in particular has something important to contribute when read with critical understanding. I think I have a more negative view of him on the whole than you do, but my complaints against his use of texts aren’t meant to dismiss him as unworthy of rational consideration, or to pass over his real insights. I picked out the passage I did precisely because I think it combines some important errors (which I think are noteworthy, and symptomatic of Bloom’s typical vices as a writer and as a thinker), with some important and real insight about both Gulliver’s Travels and also about the predicaments of life and thought.

    I’m sorry if my comments came across as dismissive or high-handed, rather than merely as critical. That’s not how I think of Allan Bloom (for all my many disagreements with him), and not what I’d hoped to convey.

  2. Lady Aster

    Charles-

    Thank you very much for this; it’s considerably brightening. I mainly just want to defend the value of what I see in Bloom and Strauss, given the meaning their writings have had in my own life. I don’t want to be uncritical either, and I mostly agree with your stated critiques. And BTW, my apologies for not getting back to you on another thread… I’m been swamped with my own professional and journalistic obligations.

    And please let me be clear, I have my problems with the Straussian/Bloomian (Bloomian?) approach. Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about this: while I’m very grateful to both for laying out the nature of a liberal life and providing something of a personal guide to the problems of dealing with an unappreciative society, I’m becoming more and more uncomfortable with what I can only call a malevolent narcissism in Straussianism- Strauss moves from the differing values of the philosopher and civil society to the right of the former to treat the latter as pawns, without much sense of human empathy and no respect for the rights and dignity of the latter- and despite being something of a Stirnite/Randian/Nietzschean, this kind of attitude is just turning my stomach, especially as my politics become more ‘labourtarian’ (for lack of a beautiful word). I’m thinking in terms of my own industry- where I’ve increasingly seeing a competitive individualist route under the conditions of the existing system as having the practical effect not of individual liberation or the flourishing of a liberal spirit but of a mad, back-stabbing scramble for court favour, where collegiate honour is practised in the breach- and preventing any challenge to the existing systems. I see this very much a parallel to Strauss picture of the anicent philosopher- especially since in my case it was Strauss’ reclaiming of ancient philosophic esotericism that pointed me to similar esoteric teachings in the tradition of courtesanship* (which, after all, was the primary path open at the time to women of an intellectual bent, and this dynamic is not entirely obsolete). In my case, I feel like my increasing radical dissatisfaction with the social praxis of the latter is feeding back into ire with the former. So, I myself wouldn’t be so quick to defend Strauss or Bloom right now.

    I’m less incensed about scholarship, mainly because I think some of the best philosophic minds have been lousy scholars and I think current academia degrades true intellectual spirit and orginality with an obsessive focus on rigour (I myself gave up on academia after being unable to handle the monopoly of the Modern Lanaguage Association and analytic philosophy).

    Othwerwise, please let me say I’ve enjoyed many of your recent writing, some of which I’ve also meant to get back to, and thank you for standing forth on No Treason! I was actually thinking your comments on the purpose of a university (which I entirely agree with, if I would add a bit) reminded me of Bloom.

    regards,

    Aster

    BTW, do you prefer ‘Charles’ or ‘RadGeek’? Apologies for not asking earlier; I if anyone should be careful about names. What do you like to be called?

    • Incidentally, both share a common intellecutal history in a precise reading of Platonism, and Bloom’s erotic philosophy of education touches directly on the nerve of the traditions I follow- and it is beyond my capacity for doubt to believe that Bloom, given that his personal life was a reenactment of the Athenian symposia, was not aware of this. I’ve often wondered if the parallel has anything to do with Strauss’ interest in Maimonides- who himself is a key figure in the hustory of occult philosophy (of which my erotic tradition is one variant)- Strauss’ approach to philosophy is so close on many points to hermeticism I’ve wondered if Strauss derived something substantial from esoteric Judaism.

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