Single Tree Black and White

Listers, The Closing the American Mind is a difficult but rewarding text. Written in 1987 by Allan Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago, the work takes on a prophetic tone, as it calls out the intellectual crisis of the University and of the overall American culture. The following selection of quotes does not do justice to the brilliance of the work—but may serve to either entice those who have not yet read the work to do so or help to recall certain insights to those who have read it.1


  1. “No teacher can doubt that his task is to assist his pupil to fulfill human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice.” (page 20)

  2. “A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern.” (21)

  3. “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.” (21)

Introduction: Our Virtue

  1. “The danger they [students] have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating… the point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.” (25)

  2. “There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.” (27)

  3. “So indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination. This folly means that men are not permitted to seek for the natural human good and admire it when found, for such discovery is coeval with the discovery of the base and contempt for it. Instinct and intellect must be suppressed by education. The natural soul is to be replaced with an artificial one.” (30)

  4. “There is indifference to such things, for relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.” (34)

  5. “Men cannot remain content with what is given them by their culture if they are to be fully human. This is what Plato meant to show by the image of the cave in the Republic and be representing us as prisoners in it. A culture is a cave. He did not suggest going around to other cultures as a solution to the limitations of the cave. Nature should be the standard by which we judge our own lives and the lives of peoples. That is why philosophy, not history or anthropology, is the most important human science.” (38)

  6. “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” (38)

Part One: Students

The Clean Slate

  1. “The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated.” (57)

  2. “The family, however, has to be a sacred unity believing in the permanence of what it teaches, if its ritual and ceremony are to express and transmit the wonder of the moral law, which it alone is capable of transmitting and which makes it special in a world devoted to the humanly, all too humanly, useful. When that belief disappears, as it has, the family has, at best, a transitory togetherness.” (58)

  3. “The cause of this decay of the family’s traditional role as the transmitter of tradition is the same as that of the decay of the humanities: nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth… In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old, and—as the very model for a vision of the order of the whole of things, as well as the key to the rest of Western art, the greatest works of which were in one way or another responsive to the Bible—provided access to the seriousness of books.” (58)

  4. “Flatter, because without interpretation of things, without the poetry or the imagination’s activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind’s eye that permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the assistance of literature in the grand style.” (61)


  1. “Lack of education simply results in students’ seeking for enlightenment wherever it is readily available, without being able to distinguish between the sublime and trash, insight and propaganda.” (64)

  2. “Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticize false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly. As it is now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.” (67)


  1. “Civilization or, to say the same thing, education is the taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions-not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul if its energy—but forming and informing them as art.” (71)

  2. “Out of the music emerge the gods that suit it, and they educate men by their example and their commandments.” (72)

  3. “But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.” (73)

  4. “In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepacked masturbational fantasy.” (75)

  5. “The family spiritual void has left the field open to rock music, and they cannot possibly forbid their children to listen to it… The result is nothing less than parents’ loss of control over their children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” (76)

  6. “The issue here is its [rock music’s] effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education” (79)


  1. “As Saul Bellow has put it, public virtue is a kind of ghost town into which anyone can move and declare himself sheriff.” (85)

  2. “The radical transformation of the relations between men and women and parents and children was the inevitable consequence of the success of the new politics of consent.” (110)

  3. “The attachment of mother and child is perhaps the only undeniable natural social bond.” (115)

  4. “Romantic love is now as alien to us as knight-errantry, and young men are no more likely to court a woman that to wear a suit of armor, not only because it is not fitting, but because it would be offensive to women.” (116)

  5. “Divorce in America is the most palpable indication that people are not made to live together, and that, although they want and need to create a general will out of the particular wills, those particular wills constantly reassert themselves.” (118)

  6. “Psychologists are the sworn enemies of guilt.” (121)

  7. “There are some who are men and women at the age of sixteen, who have nothing more to learn about the erotic. They are adult in the sense that they will no longer change very much. They may become competent specialists, but they are flat-souled. The world is for them what it presents itself to the senses to be; it is unadorned by imagination and devoid of ideals. This flat soul is what the sexual wisdom of our time conspires to make universal.” (134)

Part Two: Nihilism, American Style

  1. “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 oral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition. The new language is that of value relativism, and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.” (141)

  2. “When bishop, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth with the first.” (141)

  3. “The term ‘value,’ meaning the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil, serves the easygoing quest for comfortable self-preservation.” (142)

Two Revolutions and Two States of Nature

  1. “The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy.” (165)

  2. “Man, if he is sensible, separates himself from nature and becomes its master and conqueror. This was and still is the prevailing belief of liberal democracies, with their peace, gentleness, prosperity, productivity and applied science, particularly medical science.” (171)

  3. “The same people who struggle to save the snail-darter bless the pill, worry about hunting deer and defend abortion. Reverence for nature, mastery of nature—whichever is convenient. The principle of contradiction has been repealed.” (172)

The Self

  1. “To sum up, the self is the modern substitute for the soul.” (173)

  2. “Modern psychology has this in common with what was always a popular opinion, fathered by Machiavelli—that self0ishness is somehow good. Man is self, and the self must be selfish. What is new is that we are told to look more deeply into the self, what we assumed to easily that we know it and have access to it.” (178)

  3. “Selfishness is presupposed; men are not assumed to be as they ought to be, but as they are.” (178)


  1. “Changing human nature seems a brutal, nasty, tyrannical thing to do. So, instead, it began to be denied that there is such a thing as human nature… Nature is gradually banished from the study of man; and the state of nature is understood to have been a myth, even though the notion of culture is inconceivable without the prior elaboration of the state of nature.” (190)

  2. “Enlightenment killed God; but like Macbeth, the men of the Enlightenment did not know that the cosmos would rebel at the deed, and the world would become ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’” (196)


  1. “Since values are not rational and not grounded in the natures of those subject to them, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasions cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect. Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values.” (201)

Our Ignorance

  1. “America has no-fault automobile accidents, no-fault divorces, and it is moving with the aid of modern philosophy toward no-fault choices.” (228)

  2. “God was slowly executed here [America]; it took two hundred years, but local theologians tell us He is now dead. His place has been taken by the sacred. Love was put to death by psychologists. Its place has been taken by sex and meaningful relationships.” (230)

  3. “It is not the immorality of relativism that I find appalling. What is astounding and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept such relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives.” (239)

Part Three: The University

From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede

  1. “The great democratic danger, according to Tocqueville, is enslavement to public opinion.” (246)

  2. “The deepest intellectual weakness of democracy is its lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life.” (252)

  3. “The university’s task is thus well defined, if not east to carry out or even keep in mind. It is, in the first place, always to maintain the permanent questions from and center. This it does primarily by preserving—by keeping alive—the works of those who best addressed these questions.”

  4. “The entire difference between ancients and moderns concerns the cave, or nonmetaphorically, the relation between knowledge and civil society.” (265)

  5. Gulliver’s Travels is to early modern philosophy what Aristophanes’ The Clouds was to early ancient philosophy.” (293)

The Sixties

  1. “The university had abandoned all claim to study or inform about value—undermining the sense of value of what it taught, while turning over the decision about values to the folk, the Zeitgeist, the relevant. Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same… As in Germany, the value crisis in philosophy made the university prey to whatever intense passion moved the masses.” (314)

The Student and the University

  1. “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines… this democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. The question has disappeared, for to pose it would be a threat to the peace. There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge. Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice. Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career.” (337)

  2. “To repeat, the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization. But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it.” (346)

  3. “There is an enormous difference between saying, as teaches once did, ‘You must learn to see the world as Homer or Shakespeare did,’ and saying, as teachers now do, ‘Homer and Shakespeare had some of the same concerns you do and can enrich your vision of the world.’ In the former approach students are challenged to discover new experiences and reassess old; in the latter, they are free to use the books in any way they please.” (374)

  1. The page numbers are taken from the First Touchstone Edition, 1988; for a Catholic critique/introduction to the work, see Who Closed the American Mind?: Allan Bloom, Burke, Multiculturalism by Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame and The Closing of the American Mind Revisited by R.R. Reno of First Things. ↩︎