A Western Culture Primer

Notwithstanding Philip Larkin’s remark in “A Study of Reading Habits” that “books are a load of crap,” reading can in fact be something “worth ruining my eyes” for, to quote the same poem again. (Okay, maybe not—that argument is for another time.) But while not all books are a load of crap—Larkin’s protagonist directs his ire at cheap bestsellers—some books are certainly better than others. You’d expect to read such books here at Dartmouth, and indeed you probably will. Yet a great number of very good books, non-fiction in particular, do not find their way into college syllabi. They simply do not square with the reigning ideologies of the day, and indeed may be downright hostile to them (as many of the books listed here in fact are). For that reason alone they are worth reading. These books are more than just a critique of contemporary pieties, and it is this other side of them we address.

The focus of this article will be on the affirmative value of three books—The Closing of the American Mind, The Western Canon, and From Dawn to Decadence—to liberal education.

The late Allan Bloom subtitled his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Learning Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Like his mentor Leo Strauss, Bloom believed that liberal democracy, far from being self-perpetuating, was in fact a precious and fragile thing, subject to dangers within and without.

The Western Canon

The Western Canon

Accordingly, the purpose of liberal education in Bloom’s view was to make the individual aware of the dangers to democracy, mostly internal, but—as we are finding out lately—also external. Chief among the former was, according to Bloom, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, enslavement to public opinion. The claim of democracy, writes Bloom, “is that every man decides for himself” and that all men are somehow equal. But this “makes it difficult to resist the collectivity of equal men. If all opinions are equal, then the majority of opinions, on the psychological analogy of politics, should hold sway.” This, as Socrates is wont to point out in Book VIII of The Republic, is nothing less than a prescription for tyranny. Accordingly, the aim of liberal education is to “free oneself from public guidance and find resources for guidance from within,” such that “the student’s whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation.” So much for the view that Bloom was a reactionary. (“Radical conservative” is perhaps a more appropriate, paradoxical epithet.)

Bloom did not mean that we should trust our instincts and celebrate the self, for that would be an invitation to narcissism. What he meant was that liberal education should seek, in the Platonic sense, to turn the soul, intrinsically good, from that which is “mingled with darkness, that which is coming into being and passing away,” to “that on which truth and being are shining.” In practice, this involves coming to terms with matters of permanent concern. Socrates’s discourses on justice, free will, human nature, truth, and the good, in other words, must be pursued—passionately—above and beyond the academic disciplines, even as they are pursued within them. Otherwise the “democracy of the disciplines” (as Bloom calls the bewildering array of courses available to college students today), lacking metaphysical glue, becomes anarchical.

So, philosophy matters; what else does? We must descend from metaphysics for the time being. Bloom mentions in passing that “the only serious solution is the one that is almost universally rejected: the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education means reading certain generally recognized classic texts.” Yet for some reason, Bloom endorses this approach with a great deal of equivocation. On the one hand, he acknowledges that the Great Books excite and satisfy students like nothing else by raising the sort of big questions liberal education demands of us. On the other hand, he warns that the Great Books are easily fetishized and turned into a cult that “encourages an autodidact’s self-assurance without competence.” We don’t want to end up like Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sister Mary after all.

No such restraint informs the pages of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, perhaps the foremost apologia for the Western literary tradition today. Going from one Bloom to another (the two are not related, as Harold is wont to point out) might initially seem a natural progression, given that both excoriate in their books those who shun the Great Books in favor of obtuse postmodern theories. However, besides sharing a contempt for Deconstruction, academic feminism, Cultural Studies, New Historicism, et al., the two Blooms are actually quite dissimilar. Allan Bloom, as we’ve noted, saw the Great Books as possessing a culturally-useful function, which is the ability to educate students in the ways of democracy. Harold Bloom would accuse his namesake of “Platonic moralism.” Reading deeply in the Canon, he believes, “will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen.” Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Tolstoy, Austen, and Joyce (a few of the authors he discusses) are ends in themselves, aesthetic objects to be marveled at for their “mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.” We read them solely to “augment one’s own growing inner self.” Self, not soul, is the byword here, the latter having to do with Platonic metaphysics, the former referring to what makes us individuals.

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind

Contrary to Oblonsky’s quip in Anna Karenina that “The aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything,” enlightened hedonism cannot be the be-all and end-all of liberal education. This is not to disparage reading for enjoyment’s sake—who can deny the pleasures of curling up in bed with a volume of Proust?—merely to note, pragmatically, the difficulties that would arise if we made Harold Bloom’s idea of reading central to liberal education. Objective standards do not exist for us to estimate the value of Shakespeare—Bloom’s favorite author—to one’s “inner self.” And is Bloom right in asserting that only the aesthetic value of literature matters? What would he make then of a book like Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or for that matter, Plato’s Republic? Sure, you can read Gibbon and Plato only for their beautiful prose, but then you’d miss out on their historical and philosophical concerns.

Because he spends all his time attacking postmodern theorists for their “flight from the aesthetic,” Harold Bloom in the end does not really say why he regards Allan Bloom’s approach to the Great Books as flawed. He can’t. The latter Bloom isn’t hostile towards the aesthetic just because he mentions Shakespeare in relation to the demands of liberal democracy. We might even see them as sharing similar metaphysics. Both after all posit that values—philosophical or literary—exist beyond time and space, as Plato would have it. Here is where their weakness lies. Absent from each book is an awareness of history. When I say this, I don’t mean that Plato’s or Shakespeare’s concerns aren’t our concerns because they lived in the past, nor that individual genius is merely the product of social forces. I mean that studying the past strengthens rather than weakens literature and philosophy by reminding us that ideas have causes and conditions—as well as consequences.

Early on in his life, the historian Jacques Barzun came to a similar realization as the one above. History, he realized, could be conceived of as cultural: everything from music to religion to sport might be used to depict the past. Nowhere is this idea more vividly illustrated than in Barzun’s latest book, From Dawn to Decadence, an 800-page survey of “art and thought, manners, morals, and religion” from the Reformation to the present day. Within it you will encounter Charles V of Spain but also Christina of Sweden; Goethe and Shakespeare, but also Dorothy Sayers and George Bernard Shaw; Montaigne and Bacon, but also Walter Bagehot and Robert Burton. Find out why Luther and not Leonardo was more of a “Renaissance Man”; why Rousseau neither invented nor idealized the noble savage; why the term “Man” is not just politically incorrect but historically accurate; how the Romantics invented Shakespeare; and just what is meant by that loaded word, “decadence.” Walt Whitman said of himself, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The same might be said of this book.

From Dawn to Decadence

From Dawn to Decadence

Yes, the Romantics invented Shakespeare. Harold Bloom may see him as a kind of secular god, “a spirit that permeates everywhere, that cannot be confined,” but as Barzun points out, not everyone at every point in time held the Bard in such esteem. There are, Barzun notes, two Shakespeares. One is the 16th-century playwright whom Ben Jonson admired and criticized in equal measure. The other is the Shakespeare apotheosized two centuries after his death by German and English Romantics, and who remains exalted today by the likes of Harold Bloom (whose specialty happens to be Romanticism). A man acutely aware of “the whirligig of taste”—to modify a phrase from Twelfth Night—cannot allow Bardolatry to pass without mentioning that men like Pepys, Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, and Yeats all considered Shakespeare far less than superhuman.

The point of this example is not to diminish Shakespeare’s greatness—Barzun is very much an admirer of Shakespeare—but to point out how our notions of the way things are may not be as secure as they seem. Allan Bloom advocated philosophy as the means towards freeing the self from public guidance and enabling it to find guidance from within. Such freedom cannot come from philosophy alone. How do we explain the fatuousness of the slogan “Bush = Hitler” without knowing about the past? History in this manner supplies material against which we compare present situations and judge them relatively. To do so is not to succumb to postmodern nihilism. A wise and learned man once said, “The complexity of things, the plurality of minds and wills, and the uncertainty of outcomes form the grounds for keeping one’s outcomes ever subject to revision.” (The words are those of Montaigne.)

We needn’t agree with Allan Bloom’s Platonism or Harold Bloom’s Bardolatry to appreciate the influence Plato and Shakespeare have on Western thought. We needn’t trust Jacques Barzun’s unorthodox pronouncements on Rousseau and Luther to enlarge our understanding of how ideas and individuals interact. Challenging conventional wisdom, as their books do, is valuable. But perhaps there is even greater value in becoming one who can challenge conventional wisdom, as these books teach.

This set piece to the Review‘s Dartmouth Guide was written by Chien Wen Kung.