Published at: https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/01/closing-western-mind-jacob-williams.html
Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Described by Camille Paglia as “the first shot in the culture wars”, it still has the power to provoke visceral reactions from politically engaged Americans of a certain generation. But Bloom’s analysis goes far deeper than the typical partisan tract, and explains a great deal more than the state of higher education in America. In this essay, I contend that it is a valuable starting point for a deeper philosophical anthropology of the contemporary West than has thus far been offered.
A popular starting point for thinkers who wish to step back from our spiritual condition is Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. The work is a profound and wide-ranging critique of the Enlightenment, its metaphysical and meta-ethical assumptions, and its consequences for our present-day culture. MacIntyre blames the Enlightenment’s project of justifying morality from secular premises for what he sees as the disordered state of modern moral discourse. In its shadow, we cannot reach consensus through moral debate, because we have no common meta-ethical framework to rely on, only fragmented and undefined ethical concepts. In particular, by making individual reason the ultimate arbiter of morality, the Enlightenment gave rise to the ideal of individual autonomy, and much of the story of modernity concerns this ideal’s gradual working out as we progressively shed our inhibitions. The zeitgeist of 2017 is very different from that of 1917, but both are based on the same ultimate premise. Autonomy, says MacIntyre, has become the centre of the “self-image of the age”.
Something like this analysis has become almost standard among radical traditionalist conservatives. Once, in the halcyon days of Thomas Aquinas, the West possessed a teleological morality in which the ultimate human good was the uninterrupted beatific vision of God attained through faith in Christ, and an entire, communally-embedded schema of human flourishing was based on this telos. Then along came the forces of secularism and modernity, peddling spurious enlightenment and material wealth, and gradually opened a Pandora’s Box of horrors—the French Revolution, the sexual revolution, homosexual marriage—as we learned to stomach the consequences of our new individualist morality. As the “reactionary” blogger Mencius Moldbug (though not a true traditionalist) puts it, culturally, “Cthulhu always swims left”.
Variations on this narrative exist. The “Scotus story” blames nominalism, the belief that particular objects have no mind-independent essences, and its late medieval advocates William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus. Once the notion that concepts are human creations and reality just a collection of objects became widespread, our teleology became unsustainable, authority and distinction were undermined, and morality became arbitrary and individualistic. This theory can be traced back at least to Richard Weaver’s 1948 Ideas Have Consequences.
These theories explain a great deal, but leave at least as much unexplained. Why, for instance, does a society which valorises sexual freedom maintain some of the highest ages of consent ever seen in human history, and subject violators to brutal legal and cultural punishment? Why do we treat autonomy as absolute and axiomatic in the sphere of sexuality but largely see no problem with regulating how people may end their lives or the substances they may put into their bodies? We idealise romantic love and find prostitution repellent, but marrying for love was rare in most traditional societies, while traditionalist hero Aquinas considered prostitution a necessary evil when marriage was delayed past puberty.
Moreover, contemporary China is in some respects much more hedonistic and amoral than the West. Prostitution is openly practiced at almost every hotel in every large town or city. Nightclubs usually feature near-naked pole-dancers and professionally flirtatious waitresses. Business deals are cemented with visits to bars or karaoke clubs, where after publicly proving their virility by verbally degrading and abusing the hostesses, the men will retire with them to private rooms. In extreme cases businessmen will even bond with each other by engaging in public group sex with prostitutes. And these practices are so common that it is not unusual for newlywed brides to tell their husbands they’ll tolerate faithlessness so long as it’s all paid for and no affection is involved. This, of course, occurs in a society a long way from valorising autonomy. All of this is influenced by the country’s westernisation, but prostitution was widespread under the 1912 Republic, long before the West embarked on the path of sexual liberation, and its visible forms were only briefly stamped out by Mao’s bloody totalitarianism.
It is hard to see how the principle of autonomy doesn’t require the legalisation of sex work, and the feminist movement seems to be gradually shifting Western public opinion in that direction. It ought therefore to be a cause for reflection that some non-liberal societies are further down this road than the West. The idea that the modern West worships autonomy can explain our general direction of travel but not the route we are taking along the way. Cthulhu may swim left over time, but it would be nice to understand more about his stranger twists and turns.
This is where Bloom can help us. Traditionalists tend to focus on the Enlightenment, but Closing provides a philosophical anthropology of the culture produced by the nineteen-sixties. Bloom, a professor of philosophy, begins by describing the huge change in the character of his students that he observed in the second half of that decade. Previously, liberal arts students arrived at university eager to learn about the good life, with minds furnished with Biblical motifs which gave them an inkling of life’s gravity and a model moral cosmology that could be used as a template for conceptualising a new one. Ignorant, but aware of their ignorance, they assumed at least that real answers could, with effort, be found to life’s perennial questions.
In the space of just a few years, all that disappeared. Instead, students began to arrive with an almost unshakeable belief in a kind of lazy relativism, in which no way of life could be said to be better than any other. They believed in “values” and were not actually amoral, but couldn’t understand the idea that there is any real truth about what makes a human life good. He describes challenging this notion with incoming freshmen by asking them whether, as a colonial administrator in British India, they would allow natives to burn widows at their husbands’ funerals. The best response he could provoke was the retort that “the British shouldn’t have been there in the first place”. From a humanistic standpoint, teaching them philosophy was therefore almost pointless. This is the “closing” of the American mind that he addresses.
How does he explain this transformation? Essentially, Nietzsche, and his revolt against the Enlightenment, triumphed. For Nietzsche, the morality of the Enlightenment was nothing but a hangover from a senescent Christianity whose God had vanished from the universe; a set of confused, incoherent, and fragmented injunctions preserved out of idleness and conformity. Secular liberalism retained the Christian belief in the equality of man but ignored its grounding in the equal status of created human souls before God. A garbled mess, lacking any justification without the religious orthodoxy it rejected, it deserved to be cast aside, allowing a new, heroic human type to come to the fore, who would create his own set of values and thus live a truly noble life.
Bloom describes how, by the mid-1980s, a banal and trivialised version of this philosophy had utterly saturated America’s popular culture:
In politics, in entertainment, in religion, everywhere, we find the language connected with Nietzsche’s value revolution, a language necessitated by a new perspective on the things of most concern to us. Words such as “charisma,” “life-style,” “commitment,” “identity” and many others, all of which can easily be traced to Nietzsche, are now practically American slang, although they, and the things to which they refer, would have been incomprehensible to our fathers, to say nothing of our Founding Fathers.
American democracy, Bloom writes, provided fertile soil for this new philosophy. Previously, the basic ideas of political liberalism (democracy, human rights, the rule of law) were supposed to be based on objective moral truths discernible through reason. Gradually, confidence in this belief waned, the crisis reaching its apogee during the moral and social upheavals of the 1960s. At the same time, the framework of value-relativism, transmitted through Frankfurt School intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, came to dominate the social sciences and humanities. By the mid-1970s, the revolution was complete, and a generation had been formed who could hardly conceive of the idea of objective moral truth. They still believed that theft and murder were wrong, and they were still political liberals, but they conceived of these things in a wholly different way. For them, liberalism was reflexively recognised as the natural framework for allowing individuals to posit and live by their own values in peace, not a rationally discernible truth which followed from the nature of mankind and the cosmos.
This new attitude to liberalism was given its most self-conscious expression by John Rawls, whose epic A Theory of Justice, now required reading for every undergraduate studying political theory, tries to justify liberal democracy through a kind of imaginary consensus while remaining wholly agnostic about every deeper moral and metaphysical issue. The project is, of course, ultimately incoherent: as Bloom writes, when freedom is justified only through the rejection of absolutes, “the argument justifying freedom disappears and… all beliefs begin to have the attenuated character that was initially supposed to be limited to religious belief.”
Moreover, the democratisation of Nietzschean value-positing completely trivialised it. A Romantic poet can make the idea of casting off the constraints of reason and tradition seem glamorous, even profound; but most people struggle to reflect on their presuppositions, lack awareness of their deeper motives, and are deeply conformist in behaviour. With no belief in objective moral truth to guide them, but no desire to live wholly amoral lives, the norms of the sixties generation became those of distraction and bland conformity. You express your “values” but you do so in the same way as everyone else because you’re just another consumer and another democratic man; nothing systematic can be deduced from them because they reflect little more than the reification of fleeting desires and impulses. “What poor substitutes for real diversity”, Bloom writes, “are the wild rainbows of multi-coloured hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing of what is inside”.
Thus, the Enlightenment died. Popularly, and to an only slightly lesser extent among intellectuals, its central project—justifying a new morality through reason—is over. If we can even conceive of the possibility, we are likely to dismiss it as just another “meta-narrative” and ask whom the idea serves to profit. Professional philosophers specialising in ethics still employ reason to solve moral conundra, but they do almost nothing to engage with the meta-ethical and metaphysical presuppositions they must make, which are the preserve of different specialists in a different office. All the allure of participating in a great, overarching project of rational emancipation has vanished. Postmodernity has not banned reflection on the good life but turned it into a salaried occupation.
Of course, we still live within the Enlightenment’s structures. Secularism, liberalism, systematic natural science, and the nation-state, all products of the world the Enlightenment created, are still the fundamental structures of our world. But we have lost the content that gave life to them.
The revolution Bloom describes was not merely an American phenomenon. It affected all liberal societies through broadly the same mechanisms: a substitution of one set of justifications for liberalism for another, and a saturation of popular culture with a new philosophy of value-relativism. Its consequences have also been broadly the same: a break from tradition and a growing mistrust of all authority, religious and secular; a trivialisation of culture; and a great confusion of moral norms. And it is now rapidly transforming the lives of the whole population of the world, through its control of the West’s ubiquitous system of digital communications.
By undermining any claim to absolute moral truth, this philosophic revolution was also responsible for the sexual revolution which occurred at around the same time. Traditionalists usually blame Enlightenment liberalism for this phenomenon, but the connection is not necessary. The valorisation of autonomy tends to lead to the demand to throw off social constraints, but by itself it need not entail the principle of sexual freedom. For instance, if liberal sexual norms could be shown to actually reduce the ability of most people to enjoy satisfying sexual and familial relationships, an argument could be made against them from liberal premises. This would be no less plausible as arguments for social democracy and liberal socialism are with respect to material resources. Sexual freedom is really a right-wing, libertarian idea.
The sexual revolution is, instead, the corollary of value-relativism. If the individual is to posit his own values, and become the author of his own “life-style”, he must have control over the area of life in which—at least between the cradle and the grave—we experience most keenly the penetration of the transcendent, and the tension between the sacred and profane. As Roger Scruton argues, only recognising this dynamic of purity and pollution can explain why rape is such a great and wicked violation; why it is so much worse than, say, spitting into someone’s mouth. If there are public standards of sexual morality to which individuals must conform, they cannot truly be value-positing personalities, because many of their most important “values” must be taken from authority.
Sixties sexual adventurers like Margaret Mead were right to point to the diversity of sexual norms in human cultures as evidence against the universality of the West’s traditional morals, and correct that few of them were as unworldly and anti-erotic as historic Christianity. They were wrong, however, to neglect the fact that sexuality is almost never unregulated. The idea of sexual purity is common to all traditional societies, and seems to be as foundational to moral psychology as the beliefs in protecting against harm and reciprocal fairness.
The sixties therefore created a totally new experiment in human living: the privatisation of purity. We still experience the dynamic of purity and corruption as keenly as ever—hence the great import attached to losing one’s virginity, the awkwardness which the subject of sex still provokes in polite conversation, the continued insistence that it be enjoyed only in privacy—but we have no way of recognising these feelings as moral ones. This surely explains a great deal of the spiritual stunting that Bloom observed.
This also explains the dogmatic way in which the belief in sexual autonomy is held by educated elites. Over the last thirty years, the LGBT movement has convinced much of the population of the West that the ideal of absolute sexual autonomy follows from the recognition of others as equal value-positing personalities. Once we become self-aware enough to recognise that our basic experience of personhood seems to involve the choice of values to live by, any more conservative values we might posit lose their social force. How can I restrict the right of others to live by their chosen values on the basis of my own, which are necessarily no more objective than theirs? If I “value” family and commitment, and you “value” promiscuity and pleasure, neither of us has any claim to impose our choices on the other.
Between the sexual revolution and the present, social conservatism of a sort could still exist. Most people still felt that total sexual freedom would threaten social stability and the wellbeing of children, and therefore opposed experiments like homosexual marriage. But this was an unstable equilibrium because social conservatives adopted the value-relative vocabulary of the cultural revolution. If you can’t speak of good and evil, but only “traditional values”, the morality you are praising is already dead. Bloom writes:
“There is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get “beyond good and evil” and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.”
Since his time, the LGBT movement has raised the consciousness of the educated and we have learnt to recognise ourselves as value-positers, and thus the importance of respecting others’ rights to posit values. We are no better at reflecting on our values, though, which is why sexual autonomy has become a dogma. We perceive that it follows from the very structure of our personalities, but we have no way of getting outside of the modern personality and seeing that it is not universal. We cannot empathise with social conservatives because we cannot understand how any decent person could not see that their own sexual values are as relative and chosen as our own. It is only natural, therefore, that a movement premised on the idea of freedom grows more and more restrictive of the freedom of dissenters with each passing year.
Charles Taylor tells a similar story about the nineteen-sixties in his monumental A Secular Age, calling our era the “age of authenticity”.He identifies its origins in the Romantic movement rather than Nietzsche, and adds some complications, such as the influence on the student movements of a neo-Marxist critique of capitalism as repressing the integral and holistic aspects of human nature. But democratised Romanticism looks pretty similar to value-relativism: a discrediting of all moral narratives as obstacles to the free reign of self-expression. Something like Bloom’s analysis seems, therefore, to be broadly correct, and in the remainder of this essay I will further explain its great explanatory power.
The collapse of organised Christianity in the West is one of the defining features of the last sixty years. Before the 1960s, its erosion resembled Matthew Arnold’s “long, withdrawing roar” as the sea of faith retreated. Church attendance in most Western countries was stable or falling slowly. In Britain, rates of baptism and confirmation remained at mid-nineteenth century levels. Suddenly, between 1960 and 1983, they dropped by three quarters, and have since done so again. And similar statistics apply to most other Western countries. Clearly, this was a result of the cultural and sexual revolution we have just described: Prof. Taylor explains how the liberalising of sexual mores alienated populations from the moral narratives of the church.
But it is not just religious authority that has been weakened. Secular moral authority has collapsed too. Prof. Taylor describes how, in France, “Not only did the church see a sharp drop in adherence, but young people began to drop out of the rival Jacobin and/or Communist world-views as well…. It is not surprising that both Catholicism and this brand of republicanism undergo defections in the new…dispensation of expressive individualism.” 
Or consider the fate of Dutch “pillarization” at the same time. Until the late 1960s Dutch society was divided into four vertically-integrated “pillars”—Catholic, Protestant, liberal, and socialist—each with their own political, economic, social, and media institutions, to the point that members of different pillars would attend separate football matches and use different hospital unions. Under attack from the new radical-liberal D66 party and the Nieuw Links movement, the upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s caused the system to break down. Thus value-relativist culture is characterised by an undermining of all institutions that presume to pronounce on human goods, whether religious or otherwise.
And Bloom’s analysis of our culture can also help us explain some of the paradoxes listed earlier. We take sexual autonomy to be axiomatic because it seems the only way to respect the right of others to posit value, but the logic doesn’t work for narcotics or euthanasia. Death is, of course, traditionally imbued with religious meaning, but the transcendent doesn’t force itself upon us as unavoidably as it does in sex. Plenty of atheists go cheerfully to the grave expecting to experience nothing, but the feeling of exposure to pollution involved in sexuality is ineradicable, as the endless anxieties over harassment and objectification seem to attest. And in modern conditions, where most of us die out of sight and out of mind, death is relegated to the margins of our consciousness and our life-narratives, whereas sex is the main concern of most humans for forty or fifty years.
We retain a high age of consent because our society preserves the structures of Enlightenment modernity, one of which is an extended period of immaturity deriving from the educational needs of the modern economy, reinforced by a Romantic valorisation of childhood and innocence. This valorisation of course, also explains our obsession with romantic love, closely tied to our aversion to prostitution, which we seem to fear would cheapen it. A non-liberal society like China can travel further down the road to Perdition in this respect while remaining closer to historical normalcy: prostitution has been widespread in many traditional societies, but no society has ever done less to regulate other forms of extra-marital liaison than the modern West.
All this is intended to show that Bloom’s diagnosis has extraordinary explanatory power, not to prove that it is the absolute truth. It can, at least, explain far more about our condition than popular stories which blame the Enlightenment, or democracy, or medieval nominalism. And it is therefore a valuable starting point if those of us who aspire to something higher are to formulate a coherent response.
To return to MacIntyre’s thesis, autonomy is indeed central to the self-image of the age: But it is little more than that. The actual substance of life in the contemporary West, the everyday structure of our experience, involves very little meaningful autonomy. We live by swimming through a kind of effervescence: fleeting desires, temporary passions, shallow relationships all pass through the modern consciousness like ghosts, unrelated to any larger sense of our purpose or place in the cosmos.
Timothy Winter, arguably Britain’s most influential Islamic thinker, describes our culture as dominated by “a trivialisation so extreme that we fear to consider its destination”. If we are to avoid arriving at a destination we find quite intolerable, we could do worse than to start our reflection with Allan Bloom.