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The latest issue of Society is out and I have a review essay in it of Barry Bercier’s provocative The Skies of Babylon: Diversity, Nihilism, and the American University.   Below is a brief excerpt of my contribution to the issue:

At the very end of The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom calls our time “the American moment in world history” and suggests that “just as in politics the responsibility of the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities”. However, Bloom never argues, as Bercier does, that our universities “ought to be dedicated” to the health and maintenance of the American regime, that it should take as one of its primary tasks engendering our capacity for self-governance, and that for Americans a “sound education in American history must be the central concern of their education from beginning to end”.  Like Socrates, Bloom could never be so dedicated to any regime except the one that recognized philosophers as kings, who, do not want to rule, first and foremost, because they do not care for political life. Again, in this regard Bloom shares common ground with those multiculturalists who, in relativizing all cultures, undermine the logic of attachment to any one of them over the other.

Bercier, however, defends the university as the primary narrator of the American story, at least in part, because that story is exceptional, and permits America “to be and stand in the world” as a matter of “right and duty”. In defending the specialness of the American regime, Bercier also defends the particularity of any people or tradition that gets obfuscated by excessively abstract or universal categories of description; while he concedes that “the Logos is universal” he denies that this is a “universality that legitimizes any human claim to universal rule”. Therefore, contra Bloom and Socrates, the “philosophers are not to rule”, and neither are the social scientists. According to Bercier, “the highest act of man is not his exercise of reason in discerning the forms of nature” but rather his “responsibility for his own being and identity as it is authoritatively addressed to him by the Logos”; in other words, man’s special dispensation of reason is for the sake of directing human nature towards “its most perfect end in man’s own right self-governance” versus a liberation from the yoke of that nature. 

Despite the special and particular character of the American experiment in self-governance, the universality or “openness of America to other nations becomes clear” upon the unbiased study of its history and meaning. The particularity of the American regime is counterpoised by its foundation in universal human rights, the modern articulation of our equality as beings created in the image of God. To grasp man’s simultaneous universality and particularity, his transcendence and his immanence, the “right ordering of his nature and the right ordering of his community”, a “sound science of man himself” must become the “keystone of a university education”. Bercier’s insightful study powerfully promotes this science and the salutary rehabilitation of the university mission against the impersonal and inordinately universal character of both Cartesian and Socratic science. In doing so, Bercier joins sides with Bloom in lamenting the de-eroticization of the university’s soul, but memorably departs from Bloom in affirming an account of human eros that includes the whole, wonderful panoply of our soul’s desires and obligations. This is a book that should be read by all who care for the American university and the people to whom it ministers.

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