Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing
University of Chicago Press, 2014, 464 pp., $45
One of the many forms of collateral damage caused by the Iraq War was the besmirching of the reputation of Leo Strauss, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers, at the hands of advocates like Shadia Drury and Anne Norton. Anyone having the least familiarity with Strauss’s life and writings would have understood the fatuity of the claims being made (such as that which claims Strauss would have advised officials to lie about foreign policy), but the damage has been done.
Since that time, more sympathetic academics like Steven B. Smith and Peter Minowitz have made efforts to rescue Strauss’s reputation. One of the most effective reconsiderations is a wonderful new book by Arthur Melzer, professor at Michigan State and co-director of its Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy, under the guise of a treatise on esotericism.
Esotericism is the practice, widely employed by a variety of thinkers prior to and up through the early Enlightenment, of disguising their real meaning through ellipsis, surface contradiction, dispersal of their real arguments, and the like (indeed—they were misleading casual readers about their true intentions!). The understanding that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle made use of esotericism was central to Strauss’s own project of returning to their thought as an antidote to what he called the “crisis of modernity”, since it pointed to deeper truths hidden behind the evident meaning extracted by superficial readers. It was probably also one of the sources of distrust of Strauss and his followers by other academics, since it implied that initiates into the art of esoteric interpretation had access to meanings unavailable to others.
The first part of Philosophy Between the Lines is a simple chronicle of evidence of just how widespread the use of esoteric writing really was from the pre-Socratics through the 18th century. Melzer presents an impressive litany of important (and not-so-important) thinkers across the centuries, including Cicero, Alfarabi, Aquinas, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Bacon, Hobbes, Diderot, and Rousseau, who either pointed to hidden meanings in their own writings, or acknowledged esotericism in their reading of other writers. He also presents some clear examples of esotericism in practice, as when Machiavelli in The Prince misquotes a familiar Bible story in a way that underscores the broader critique of Christianity he is apparently making.
This section of the book is wonderfully erudite and leaves no uncertainty that esotericism was indeed a major art that is now all but lost. Melzer points to four reasons for past uses of esotericism. First, it served as protection from prosecution; he notes its widespread use in totalitarian countries like the former Soviet Union and contemporary China. Second, it served to protect the political community from dangerous truths, such as philosophical skepticism about the city’s gods and traditions; third, it served a pedagogical purpose by forcing readers to engage on a deeper level; and fourth, it was used as a transitional strategy for modern writers seeking to undermine dogmatism.
That latter struggle was ultimately won, and led to the triumph of the “harmonist” view, now almost universally accepted, that philosophical truth could be made compatible with and indeed supportive of modern politics. Transparency is today the name of that venerable game. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had a different view; namely, that philosophical skepticism undermined the irrational beliefs necessary to the maintenance of a political community and therefore needed to be kept under wraps. As Melzer points out, there is a large body of contemporary scholarship that actively contends that virtually no one other than a few cranks ever wrote esoterically; he performs a great service by, first, showing that the claim is empirically wrong, and second, that it is itself an historically contingent interpretation.
If Philosophy Between the Lines were simply a book that reestablished the fact of widespread premodern esotericism, it would still serve a very important purpose. I am much struck today by the total disarray of the humanities in American academia. The job market prizes quantitative skills far higher than qualitative ones; there is also a widespread feeling that while anyone can become an English or classics major, learning a “hard” skill like statistics or physics is far more difficult. The humanities as taught in many contemporary universities have only themselves to blame for the latter view: Under the influence of postmodernism and deconstructionism, textual interpretation has become lazy, arbitrary, indulgently expressive, and scornful of the idea that books have anything true to teach their readers. Esoteric reading reestablishes a discipline that has been lost, for it requires close and slow reading, and it restores an assumption that there is in fact a “true” interpretation reflecting the author’s intent that is not simply the whim of the interpreter.
The value of Melzer’s book goes far beyond this point, however. Its greater merit lies in the final chapter, which explains why esotericism was so important to Leo Strauss. As such, it constitutes an apologia pro vita sua for Strauss himself.
Strauss’s central concern was what he called the “crisis of modernity”, where the project of using philosophical reason for practical purposes was in danger of collapse. This stemmed from two sources: first, the persistence and revival of religious dogmatism; second, the self-undermining of the Western philosophical tradition that occurred under the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Husserl (with whom Strauss was intimately familiar and indeed enamored early in his career). The universalist claims of reason emanating from the Enlightenment were subject to several counterattacks, beginning with the Burkean and Romantic defense of tradition, the rise of historicism (the belief that thought and culture are historically determined), and culminated in the theoretical dethronement of reason undertaken by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Deconstructionism, postmodernism, and cultural relativism are all simply contemporary epigones on the wrong side of this continuing crisis.
Many contemporary inhabitants of liberal democratic societies are perfectly comfortable with relativism because they think that it encourages toleration and liberal politics. The opposite of relativism, after all, is absolutism (is it not?)—the arrogant and potentially tyrannical belief that there is only one truth. This is true enough in one sense. But as Melzer points out, the postmodernist project is itself incoherent and self-undermining. If all beliefs are equally true or historically contingent, if the belief in reason is simply an ethnocentric Western prejudice, then there is no superior moral position from which to judge even the most abhorrent practices—as well as, of course, no epistemological basis for postmodernism itself.
Moreover, compared to our easygoing democratic relativists today, Nietzsche and Heidegger were ruthlessly consistent. Relativism could easily support a doctrine like fascism that promoted the rule of the weak by the strong, for if there is no basis for “right”, then all that remains is “might.” We see echoes of this dilemma all around us today: We (believers in liberal democracy) see practices we don’t like in places like China or by the Islamic State in the Levant, but when asked to explain why this discomfort doesn’t simply reflect our own ethnocentrism, we are tongue-tied because we have already denied the premise that reason can help uncover truth, even if incompletely and contingently.
The recovery of the rationalist project was central to Strauss’s life work—not the dogmatic reason of the Enlightenment, but rather the more skeptical version presented by Plato and Aristotle, a version less abstract and more embedded in the ordinary reality that humans perceived. But before there could be a return to that tradition, it had to be elucidated and rescued from centuries of accrued misinterpretation. This was why esotericism was so central to Strauss’s project: You could not understand the original effort to enthrone reason if you couldn’t read these earlier authors correctly. Esoteric interpretation is but a tool to be used, not for academic self-gratification, but to facilitate a move to a post-postmodernist higher ground. Melzer lays out this agenda sympathetically and straightforwardly.
It should be clear that the Straussian project has no particular implications for contemporary American foreign policy, other than to underline its present moral dilemma. The huge mistakes of recent policy in the Middle East, and prescriptions for future action, were and are almost entirely matters of prudential judgment and interpretations of historically contingent events. (Were there weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in Iraq? No. Does the United States have the capacity to implant uncorrupt democratic institutions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? No. Will the American public support costly ground intervention over many years if they lack faith in the strategy? No.)
A further observation is more narrowly directed to the nth-generation students and followers of Leo Strauss who see themselves working in the tradition he established. Toward the end of the book, Melzer notes that the post-Enlightenment Whiggish belief in progress and history has made it very difficult for modern students to confront philosophical issues directly in the way that Socrates did, by posing questions like “what is justice?” or “what is the best way to live?” He writes:
[P]hilosophy has a natural tendency to decay over time—to turn into a tradition, to “historicize”—because people tend to accept too passively and unquestioningly the conclusions of the great philosophers of the past. This tendency is deadly to genuine philosophy, which requires that one always think everything through from the beginning and for oneself. In the modern period, this dangerous natural tendency to rely on the findings of others was artificially strengthened by the idea of progress, which turns this very tendency into a virtue, into a philosophical method.
True enough, one’s first encounter with esoteric interpretation opens one’s eyes to the possibility of a direct encounter with underlying ideas, unmediated by the writings of philosophers who have struggled with them subsequently. But many contemporary Straussians seem caught in the same trap. They move over their careers from one esoteric interpretation to another, seeking to uncover the underlying meaning of a particular writer, and never manage to get to a point where they feel entitled to address the underlying ideas themselves. Everything remains filtered through the lens of the interpreted writer.
Arthur Melzer has done a great service in directing us to a lost tradition, restoring the dignity of textual interpretation, and seeking to rescue the reputation of Leo Strauss. One obvious question posed by a book on esotericism is whether the author is himself writing esoterically, perhaps with regard to the advice to be gleaned from it by younger Straussians. At first glance, the answer would appear to be no: Philosophy Between the Lines seems to be fully within the modern tradition of open analytical narrative. But that is a judgment that only you, the reader, can make for yourself.