Next year, Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic turns 50. Its mastery is such that, with the exception of Joe Sachs, no one else has even come close to balancing Bloom’s fidelity to Greek with intelligible English prose. Add a lengthy, provocative interpretive essay and extensive textual notes, and one could almost be forgiven for playfully referring to the book as Bloom’s Republic. Basic Books’s new, third edition is thus cause to celebrate and reflect on the text and its famous translator.
At the start of his preface to the translation’s second edition (1991), Bloom begins, “When I teach the Republic now, the reactions to it are more urgent and more intense than they were a quarter-century ago when I was working on this translation and this interpretation.” The pages that follow map the high points of the text onto the passions and longings of modern students who are, Bloom perceives, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Plato. Rereading the preface now, one is struck, but perhaps not surprised, that things don’t seem to have changed much in the decades since.
Here, for example, is Bloom’s take on music:
Because music is central to the soul and the musicians are such virtuosos at plucking its cords, Socrates argues it is imperative to think about how the development of the passions affects the whole of life and how musical pleasures may conflict with duties or other, less immediate pleasures. This is intolerable, and many students feel that the whole Socratic undertaking is subversive of their establishment.
In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Bloom pays Mick Jagger special attention as a particularly pernicious sort of confidence man. Bloom died before the explosion of gangsta rap but would no doubt have made the same argument about Jay Z, a man who bulwarked a budding rap career by selling crack to his community with the strident entrepreneurship of a Harvard MBA. Jay Z is now admired by young people as an example of where good-natured hustling — never mind what you hustle — can get you. He is “is still the king,” as Barack Obama recently put it.
Bloom’s thoughts about community were just as prescient:
And again the Republic becomes peculiarly attractive and repulsive because no book describes community so precisely and so completely or undertakes so rigorously to turn cold politics into family warmth.
Without the Republic, there is no Bowling Alone and no Coming Apart. Today’s students, perhaps more than those of any other American generation, face incredible pressures to succeed professionally, often at the cost of their civic virtues. Somehow, online communities don’t quite do it, leaving young people more connected but less fulfilled. They scratch their heads and blink and continue clicking away, not realizing that the longings they feel were once profoundly explored by ancient Greeks. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is one such exploration, and when Bloom discusses it, he makes its continuing relevance to modern life explicit:
This is the image of every serious student’s profoundest longing, the longing for liberation from convention in order to live according to nature, and one of the book’s evidently permanent aspects. . . . But it now encounters a fresh obstacle, for the meaning of the story is that the truth is substituted for myth. Today students are taught that no substitution is possible and that there is nothing beyond myth or “narrative.”
Historicism and positivism are still the watchwords in the academy, but as virtual and augmented reality promise to reshape man’s already confused sense of self and place in the cosmos, I suspect that the power of Plato’s “Cave” will increase, alongside a longing for metaphysical “rootedness.” That, or we can look forward to a soma holiday with Jay Z on loop.
* * *
Bloom reached his apotheosis as one of conservatism’s eternal public intellectuals following the success of Closing. One of the unintended consequences of this fame was the apparent diminishment it brought to his considerable philosophical and academic background. Bloom was first and foremost a scholar. He helped initiate, with the help of Harry Jaffa, a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s contribution to political philosophy; translated (and interpreted) Rousseau’s Emile and Letter to D’Alembert; edited Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel; and, more deeply than any political scientist of his generation, demonstrated the importance of the Western literary canon to a robust education.
If there is one defect in the third edition, it is the wasted opportunity to have had one of Bloom’s students or philosophic contemporaries write the introduction, solidifying the reputation that these scholarly achievements should guarantee him. Instead, we are treated to an otherwise commendable piece by Adam Kirsch, a well-known poet. The quarrel between philosophy and poetry was a theme of great importance to Bloom, so one imagines he would smile at this irony, and, of course, delight in the note on which Kirsch ends his encomium:
To read the book as Bloom means it to be read is to question everything we think we know about government, politics, the best human life, and the nature of truth. Only this kind of commitment is equal to the demand Socrates continues to make on us, more than 2,400 years after his death.
Except to point out that, nearly 25 years after his death, Bloom continues to demand a similar kind of commitment from readers, let’s leave it at that.