The decades haven’t made Bloom’s argument any easier to follow. The same terms that dominated the conversation about his landmark book—ethnocentrism on the one hand, relativism on the other—dominate still. The same thinkers and disciplines that infuriated Bloom—Heidegger, deconstruction—still occupy the minds and the curricula of graduate students in the humanities. Roughly speaking, we still understand our moral and political choice as being between open-minded liberalism—which we understand to hold that all creeds were created equal, all cultures similarly rich and bountiful in meaning, and all people at once irreplaceably unique and, under democracy’s bright sun, equal and interchangeable—and conservatism—which we understand to hold that we Westerners are inherently more advanced, our culture more sophisticated and storied, and our way of life unquestionably true.
To Bloom, such a dichotomy was not only false but oppressive. Publicly, he was entertained by critical proclamations that berated him, like the memorable one, by David Rieff, that Closing was a morally corrupt book that “decent people would be ashamed of having written.” But listening to Bloom that night in Cambridge, and reading his book closely, you couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of profound sadness. The discussion, he lamented, had become about whether we should discard the classics for having been written by dead, white men, or preserve them as the pillars of a particular culture we revere. To Bloom, there was a third way, and it was much more attentive and instinctive: The great books matter simply because they matter, and we continue to seek them out not in order to reaffirm or reevaluate our own standing in the world—a myopic view based on understanding the progress of mankind as an ongoing power struggle—but because they remain instrumental.
Again, I’m intrigued to see how much his actual writings may contrast with the conventional opinion of them. If I do find them useful and engaging, it will be an embarrassing but valuable reminder that we should never let anyone else do our thinking for us.