Sunday, September 7, 2008

Bloom on Philosophy and Authority

In this post I listed The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom as one of the books that has, for me, reached the status of "companion" -  a book that I reach to for "counsel, inspiration or joy." The closer we are to something, of course, the more we see its flaws. And as I re-read Mind over the years, I occasionally stumble across new instances of places where Bloom and I part ways.

On pages, 252-253, Bloom has this to say about the relationship between philosophy and authority:

In the Middle Ages, Aristotle was very much present in the minds of the leading elements of society. He was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy. His own teaching ought always to be approached with questions and doubts, not faith. The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.

Bloom is, in the first place, wrong about his history. Aristotle was not an authority referenced by the "leading elements of society" in the Middle Ages. In fact, he was viewed for a long time as a dangerous, perhaps revolutionary influence. The works of St. Thomas Aquinas were, for a time in the 13th century, put under edict because of his affinity for Aristotle. St. Thomas eventually, after his death, triumphed historically and Aristotle rather than Plato became the dominant philosophical influence in the Church. But the view that Aristotle was the voice of authority in the Middle Ages is just wrong. G.K. Chesterton, in his Saint Thomas Aquinas, puts it this way:

When the moderns, drawing the blackest curtain of obscurantism that ever obscured history, decided that nothing mattered much before the Renaissance and the Reformation, they instantly began their modern career by falling into a big blunder. It was the blunder about Platonism. They found, hanging about the courts of the swaggering princes of the sixteenth century (which was as far back in history as they were allowed to go) certain anti-clerical artists and scholars who said they were bored with Aristotle and were supposed to be secretly indulging in Plato. The moderns, utterly ignorant of the whole story of the medievals, instantly fell into the trap. They assumed that Aristotle was some crabbed antiquity and tyranny from the black back of the Dark Ages, and that Plato was an entirely new Pagan pleasure never yet tasted by Christian men. Father Knox has shown in what a startling state of innocence is the mind of Mr. H.L. Mencken, for instance, upon this point. In fact, of course, the story is exactly the other way round. If anything, it was Platonism that was the old orthodoxy. It was Aristotelianism that was the very modern revolution. And the leader of that modern revolution was the man who is the subject of this book.

But Bloom's historical error is not the real point of this post. The point is Bloom's final sentence that "The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason." This is surely the essence of the modern understanding of philosophy, but this modern understanding involves a deformation of philosophy that Bloom fails to see, and that ultimately undermines the point of his book. The American mind has closed precisely because it does not see the real relationship between philosophy and authority, or between authority and freedom. We see authority and freedom as antagonists, and philosophy and authority as exclusive.

Genuine philosophy, however, is not possible without authority. Socrates, the archetype of the philosopher, was not a flaunter of authority; in fact his philosophical vocation depended on authority. Firstly, there was the oracle at Delphi, which had proclaimed him to be the wisest of men. Because he possessed no particular wisdom, Socrates did not know how the oracle could be right. But because he respected the authority of the oracle, Socrates refused to dismiss the oracle as simply mistaken; he did not reject authority in favor of his individual human reason. Instead he embarked on a quest to find someone wiser than himself and prove the oracle wrong in fact. Doesn't the very attempt by Socrates to prove the oracle wrong constitute a disrespect for authority? 

No, it does not. Socrates held in his hand two apparently contradictory propositions: 1) That he was the wisest of men, attested by the oracle; and 2) That he possessed no particular wisdom. His respect for authority is shown by the fact that he did not immediately dismiss the oracle as mistaken, even though he saw no way in which it could be correct. This restraint is an acknowledgement that the oracle might be wiser than he, and this is the essence of respect for authority (see my Chesterton quote at the top of this page.) There might be a way in which the two propositions could both be true that Socrates does not understand; his quest to find a man wiser than himself is really a quest to discover the wisdom in light of which his two propositions are not contradictory. Failing this, and if he proves the oracle wrong in fact, then he will have established that the oracle is not a true authority; it is a "false prophet." Socrates' quest was really a case of fides quaerens intellectum - faith seeking understanding. 

Secondly, despite his questioning of received opinion in both its common and mythological forms, Socrates respected the authority of received opinion. Respect for authority does not mean "blind faith." It means that authority is allowed to set the agenda and define the questions, and that its answers cannot be dismissed without clear refutation. When and if that refutation becomes manifest, even then authority is not dismissed. What such a refutation proves is that the "authority" was not really an authority in the first place, not that authority should be dismissed as such. When a doctor is exposed as a quack, it does not follow that the authority of all genuine doctors may be dismissed.

Aristotle followed the same procedure as Socrates, though not in so dramatic a fashion. His work typically starts with a review and analysis of the philosophical history of a question; this is an act of respect for the authority of tradition. 

The problem with the modern understanding, that the essence of philosophy is the rejection of authority, is that it undermines any reason for pursuing philosophy in the first place. The ignorant man is not only ignorant, but ignorant of his own ignorance. If someone tells him that he is ignorant, why should he listen or believe him? He could only do so on the basis of some sort of respect for authority. But if rejection of authority is the very basis of his thought, then he must reject any authoritative opinion that proclaims him ignorant. In fact, such a rejection becomes a duty for him as an assertion of his "rights."

And thus we have the state of the modern university, which has nothing of value to teach except in technical fields, where results are manifest even to the ignorant. A genuine education, liberal in the classical sense, is known to be good only by those already educated; the value of such an education must be taken on authority by the ignorant. If philosophy starts with the rejection of any such authority, the philosopher cannot complain if no one sees any reason to listen to him. 

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