He Said That? 2/22/15

From Allan Bloom, American philosopher, classicist, and academician, The Closing of the American Mind:

Contrary to much contemporary wisdom, the United States has one of the longest uninterrupted political traditions of any nation in the world. What is more, that traditions is unambiguous; its meaning is articulated in simple, rational speech that is immediately comprehensible and powerfully persuasive to all normal human beings. America tells one story: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality. From its first settlers and its political foundings on, there has been no dispute that freedom and equality are the essence of justice for us. No one serious or notable has stood outside this consensus. You had to be a crank or buffoon (e.g., Henry Adams or H. L. Mencken, respectively) to get attention as a nonbeliever in the democracy. All significant political disputes have been about the meaning of freedom and equality, not about their rightness. Nowhere else is there a tradition or a culture whose message is so distinct and unequivocal—certainly not if France, Italy, Germany, or even England. There the greatest events and the greatest men speak for monarchy and aristocracy as well as for democracy, for established religions as well as for tolerance, for patriotism that takes primacy over liberty, for privilege that takes primacy over equality of right. Belong to one of these peoples may be explained as a sentiment, an attachment to one’s own, akin to the attachment to father and mother, but Frenchness, Englishness, Germanness remain, nonetheless, ineffable. Everybody can, however, articulate what Americanness is. And that Americanness generated a race of heroes—Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lincoln and so on—all of whom contributed to equality. Our imagination is not turned toward a Joan of Arc, a Louis XIV or a Napoleon who counterbalance our equivalent of 1789. Our heroes and the language of the Declaration contribute to a nation reverence for our Constitution, also a unique phenomenon. All this is material for self-consciousness and provides a superior moral significance to humdrum lives as well as something to study.

But the unity, grandeur and attendant folklore of the founding heritage was attacked from so many directions in the last half-century that it gradually disappeared from daily life and from the textbooks.

The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987, and while the attention paid to it will wax and wane, it will never be dated or forgotten. While it was a critique of contemporary society, it was also a well-reasoned and passionate brief for the study of classic literature and art, and the wisdom and insight therein. Unfortunately, ours is an age where those with the least to say garner the most attention, while those with the most to say are either ignored or persecuted. This is a great book when you feel completely overwhelmed by the banality and falsity of modernity, and are asking: “Isn’t there more to life than this?” The short answer: there is, and this book is a great place to start finding it.

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