Thursday, August 27, 2020

Allan Bloom on the Big Three Liberal Revolutions

I strongly recommend Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and Leo Strauss' "Natural Right and History," not necessarily because I endorse everything in them; there is much in both books with which to disagree. Sometimes strongly.

Rather it's the way Strauss and his followers, especially Bloom attempt to penetrate the past great thinkers and historical events. The seriousness; the intensity. They truly give you a "grand tour" if you can stick around and follow them until the end.

And the part of the tour which explores the American founding is as contentious as it is illuminating. Below, I'm going to reproduce an excerpt from "The Closing of the American Mind" where Bloom deals with the big three revolutions of liberal democracy: English, American, and French. 

Bloom popularly appealed to a "conservative" (right of center) audience; but I think the book's appeal transcends politics. On the section I will reproduce, instead of writing something that would tickle the ears of the conservatives, where the American revolution was "good" and the French was "bad," etc., he gives us a different honest, interesting, informed take.

Bloom does not see "revolutions" -- any of them -- as either conservative or "Christian"* events. The three revolutions each were unique and could be viewed as sui generis. Or we could view them, as Bloom does, as part a larger connected history.

From pages 158-59:

Modernity is constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed, and made possible by a new science of nature that masters and conquers nature, providing prosperity and health. This was a self-conscious philosophical project, the greatest transformation of man's relations with his fellows and with nature ever effected. The American Revolution instituted this system of government for Americans, who in general were satisfied with the result and had a pretty clear view of what they had done. The questions of political principle and of right had been solved once and for all. No further revolution would be necessary, if revolution means changing of the fundamental principles of legitimacy, in accordance with reason and the natural order of things, and requiring armed combat against those who adhere to old orders and their unjust forms of rule. Revolution, a new word in the political vocabulary, which first referred to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, made in the name of very much the same principles as ours, is akin to the movement of the sun from night to day.

The French Revolution, called a new dawn by Kant, was a much greater event than the American Revolution in the eyes of the world at that time because it concerned one of the two great powers in it, the veritable school of Europe, with one of the oldest and most civilized peoples. It was fought and won for freedom and equality, as were the English and American revolutions. It would seem to have completed the irresistible triumph of modern philosophy's project and to give a final proof of the theodicy of liberty and equality. But, unlike its predecessors, it gave birth to a dazzling array of interpretations and set off reactions in all directions that have not yet exhausted the impulse it lent to them. The Right—in its only serious meaning, the party opposed to equality (not economic equality but equality of rights)—at first wanted to undo the Revolution in the name of Throne and Altar, and this reaction probably breathed its last only with Francisco Franco in 1975. Another form of the Right, as it were a progressive Right, wanted to create and impose a new kind of inequality, a new European or German aristocracy, on the world, and it was blasted out of existence in Berlin in 1945. The Left, which intended to complete the Revolution by abolishing private property, is still quite alive but has never succeeded in doing so in those nations, particularly France, most influenced by the French Revolution. It was the Center, the bourgeois solution, which in the long run won out, but after so many regrets and so many disappointed aspirations, in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as it had in England and the United States. The last really great bourgeois-haters died at about the same time: Sartre, De Gaulle, and Heidegger. (Americans are not sufficiently aware that hatred of the bourgeois is at least as much a thing of the Right as of the Left.) One can expect a certain literary afterglow, since bourgeois-baiting is almost a reflex among writers and is unlearned with great difficulty, as was proved when so many kept at it even though there were Nazis and Communists around who might have merited their attention. In order to keep that flame alive, many literary persons interpreted Hitler as a bourgeois phenomenon, an interpretation that they have made stick by force of repetition.

Bloom has other variations on this theme in other parts of the book which I hope to reproduce and discuss sometime in the future. 

*Meaning traditional orthodox Christianity. There are plenty of varieties of Christianity. Bloom would probably argue that what's known as "liberation theology" is the theological heir to revolutions. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

"[Bloom] gives us a different honest, interesting, informed take."

I am well acquainted with Leo Strauss's work. Different and interesting certainly.

As to intellectual history, I find neither Strauss nor Bloom particularly honest, thus making the "informed" part suspect as well.

I tend to agree with their conclusions, but as with Edmund Burke and Harry Jaffa--whom I also admire--I do not agree how they got to them. And Bloom I value least of all.

What all 4 have in common is a deadly critique of "Modernism." After that, caveat emptor--Bloom in particular. He never got the Rolling Stones, who were not radicals but the greatest and most studious scholars and most worthy heirs of the blues tradition.

Bloom had no soul, so he could not see it even when he saw it.

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