What Allan Bloom Told Me

Allan Bloom told me to read Canadian constitutional history from the
perspective of political philosophy. I’d hoped to do a Ph.D. thesis on
Rousseau, or Plato. What else? I’d been a T.A. for Bloom’s famous 101 course
in Political Philosophy. (I’m talking about his years at the University of
Toronto.) I’d taken his graduate course on Rousseau’s Emile. I wanted more.
More!

I wasn’t going to get it. Not that he ruled out the possibility of a thesis
on Rousseau. (Plato was forbidden. I didn’t have Greek.) But he urgently
recommended study of Canadian political history. I was crushed. The Canadian
constitution? It seemed like such a small thing to devote one’s life to. I
was going to be turning my back on the world of great ideas.

I opened a general history of Canada (some of you have heard this story
before) and found that there was one constitutional document that was always
prefaced by the engaging word, “famous.” Lord Durham’s famous Report on the
Affairs of British North America
(1839). So, somewhat reluctantly, I
announced that I was going to do my doctoral thesis on Lord Durham. And the
adventure started.

One topic led to another. After Durham, Pierre Bedard. How curious that
Bedard recommended “responsible government” in 1806. Durham’s commentators,
Canadian and British, had convinced me that the principle of “responsible
government” developed only later in British history. In Durham’s day, in
fact! A hint from Fernand Ouellet sent me to Bedard’s journal Le Canadien.
And Bedard sent me to Burke and Charles James Fox in the British
parliamentary debate of 1791 on the grant of representative institutions to
the French Canadians. The question was whether people who had always lived
under authoritarian institutions could master the art of governing
themselves in a representative legislature. (Which comes “first”? Culture or
institutions?) And so it went. There was always a question beckoning. A
puzzle to be spelled out.

I now have a list of puzzles and topics that I will never be able to explore
fully. I’ve hinted at some in previous blogs. Imperialism. The process of
constitutional amendment. Comparative political foundings.

So let me repeat the invitation in my first blog. Help yourself to anything
in The Idea File that takes your fancy.

The trick is to do justice to conventional interpretations of
Canadian/British/American documentary history, while using one’s knowledge
of political philosophy to assess those interpretations. One has to read the
commentators, and then emancipate oneself from them. Help is always at hand:
Blackstone, Jean Louis De Lolme. There’s always the possibility that one
will end up confirming the earlier interpretations. But that’s never been my
experience. Well, almost never.

P.S. George Breckenridge tells me that Leo Strauss told his students to use
their knowledge of political philosophy to study American political history.
So Alan Bloom was just passing the advice along, adapting it to the Canadian
context.

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