The disciples came to him and asked, “why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied: “because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven
has been given to you, but not to them.”
Censorship is the mother of metaphor.
Jorge Luis Borges
Exoteric and Esoteric. The first of these words signifies exterior, the second, interior.
The ancient philosophers had a double doctrine; the one external, public, or exoteric;
the other internal, secret, or esoteric.
Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia
This post is mostly a handful of reflections on Arthur M. Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. It is perhaps the most important book I have ever read although I did it too late in my life for it to be of help, except for the pleasure of reading something so exceptional. I hope the post will motivate younger people to read the book and then reread the great authors in a new way, one that would help correct our misunderstanding of Western intellectual history, revolutionize modern philosophy —which rests on a particular theory of history, historicism— and reassess the nature of human reason in its relation to the political and cultural environment.
Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, used to scandalize his academic friends by saying that Plato was “just kidding” in The Republic. Bloom’s remark, among other things a broadside on Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, is full of misunderstood irony. As one of Leo Strauss best students and a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy himself, Bloom knew well how difficult the hermeneutical problem is, how misleading an interpretation can be.
On Plato’s most famous dialogue, Leo Strauss raised the possibility that Socrates, the king of irony, wasn’t creating a “blueprint for regime reform” (a play of words on Karl Popper) but was rather forcing his students to question themselves and their proposals as a form of teaching critical thinking. Strauss was following Cicero’s opinion that the objective of the Republic is not to create an ideal city but to bring to light the complex nature of political things. Thus the well known segment about “the just city in speech” was written with a wink and a nod: a city so perfect that it requires from its rulers not only a noble lie, a founding myth (Book III, 414b), but also “a throng of lies and deceptions for the benefit of the ruled” (Book V, 459c), and is even compared to a cave where its citizens live as if in a dream, taking shadows for reality (Book VII, 514a). Plato didn’t offer, Strauss argued, a model for an actual society governed by philosophers; he rather offered the young aristocrats sitting and learning at Socrates’ feet a sort of thought exercise, forcing them to consider the wild utopian propositions their teacher was espousing. Plato’s entire construction of the perfect society was perhaps the ultimate political irony, a play on its absurdity when it is abstracted from reality or, as Strauss put it, from human eros. Contrary to what is commonly understood, Plato’s teaching “can never become the subject of indoctrination. In the last analysis, his writings cannot be used for any purpose other than for philosophizing. In particular, no social order and no party which ever existed or which ever will exist can rightfully claim Plato as its patron.” (Leo Strauss, On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy, 351; Melzer, 109)
Socrates is the founder of the city in speech and, hence, of political philosophy. In Book V he tries to show the superiority of the philosopher to the comic poet in deed; he does so by producing a comedy which is more fantastic, more innovative, more comic, and more profound than any work of Aristophanes. Socrates, with an air of utmost seriousness, undertakes absurd considerations; in this he is already comic. If what he appears to teach seriously is impossible, as will prove to be the case, Socrates’ comedy will be akin to the Ecclesiazusae [Aristophanes’ comedy The Assembly Women] … The perfect city is revealed to be a perfect impossibility. What then was the use of spending so much time and effort on a city that is impossible? Precisely to show its impossibility. This was not just any city, but one constructed to meet all the demands of justice. Its impossibility demonstrates the impossibility of the actualization of a just regime and hence moderates the moral indignation a man might experience at the sight of less-than-perfect regimes. (Bloom, 381, 409)
In view of these three plain examples —all of them making the same point: the inescapable opposition between the city and truth— it seems to me extremely difficult to deny that the Republic’s dominant utopian narrative is repeatedly subverted by critical, even anti-utopian reflections. On this interpretation, then, the Republic is, on one level, an attempt to arouse and specify with precision our utopian political longings, so as, on another, to confront all the ways in which human nature renders these longings ultimately impossible. And it conveys this lesson not only in order to tame and moderate the political realm but also to redirect our thwarted idealistic energies, using them as a springboard into the philosophical realm where they may find their true and proper satisfaction. (Melzer, 60)
What if the strange passages in Aristotle’s Politics, Book I on slavery, which have confounded so many modern scholars —to the extreme of seeing them as out of place within the text or as pieces of text added by other authors— were written that way by Aristotle on purpose, to confound his readers? I am thinking exclusively of us modern readers, because intelligent pre-18th century readers of Aristotle knew he was being true to his alias, The Cuttlefish:
“Cuttlefish are remarkable in their ability not only to rapidly change colors, color patterns, and color intensity to blend with its background, but even change skin texture to match its habitat, better concealing itself as its moves among the various sandy areas, corals, and rocks of its marine environment.”
This makes itself clear when we read Aristotle proving the justice of slavery with a winding and unconvincing argument in Politics, Book I, and suddenly interjecting this in the middle of the argument: “there are others who regard slavery as contrary to nature. In their view, the relation between master and slave is due to law and convention and is based on force.” Aristotle completes the solid counter-argument by talking about nature and bringing up the important concept of natural right for the first time, as well as the fundamental difference between nature and convention. (1253b14-23). Aristotle then, as Thomas Pangle shows, extends the argument to the entire cosmos in a phrase Rousseau made famous as the epigraph of his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men: “one must investigate what is natural by looking rather at the things that are in accord with nature, not at the deformed.” (1254a36-37). Aristotle, then, wasn’t a supporter of slavery. That is why Pangle also says that one of the main purposes of Aristotle in Politics, Book I is “to show the attentive reader that in his covert, esoteric level of teaching he is not at all captivated by or an apologist for Greek mores and fundamental institutions.” (Pangle, 44, 51)
The alias and the examples above are worth a thousand scholarly comments on Aristotle when we know that he freed his own slaves, that he had to escape from Athens four times to save his skin, and especially when we know that all the documents from Aristotle in our possession are of the esoteric type because the editor of his oeuvre, Andronicus of Rhodes, chose to exclude Aristotle’s exoteric works.
There are few historical truths we think we know more clearly than Machiavelli’s work and the pejorative adjective made famous by his name. Just read this righteous judgment on Machiavelli from 2014 —“wicked stuff, particularly disturbing to contemporary readers,” says the author. But in reality, Machiavelli was a modern republican who sang the virtues of the ancient republics, and in The Prince he warned his readers about the perils of tyranny, while we see him teaching immorality to the mediocre Lorenzo di Piero de Medici who only shared a name with his magnificent grandfather. “For some time, I never say what I believe and I never believe what I say; and if it sometimes occurs to me that I say the truth, I conceal it among so many lies that it is hard to find it out,” writes Machiavelli in a letter to his friend Francesco Guicciardini in 1521. (Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 36; Melzer, 54)
This is how some great thinkers understood Machiavelli’s famous book:
It is as if he said to his fellow citizens, read well this work. If you ever accept a master, he will be such as I paint him: here is the ferocious beast to whom you will abandon yourselves … Chancellor Bacon was not fooled when he said: this man teaches nothing to tyrants; they know only too well what they have to do, but he instructs the peoples about what they have to fear.
Machiavelli’s true intention was “to show how cautious a free multitude should be of entrusting its welfare absolutely to one man.”
Being attached to the Medici household, [Machiavelli] was forced, during the oppression of his homeland, to disguise his love of freedom. The choice of his execrable hero is in itself enough to make manifest his hidden intention … While pretending to give lessons to kings, he gave great ones to the people. Machiavelli’s The Prince is the book of republicans.
Speaking to a king who is a bigoted theologian, before tyrannical and suspicious priests, I will not be able to display my opinions fully; they would shock dominant prejudices too much. Often obliged to envelop myself in general, vague, and even obscure expressions, I will not be understood at first, but I will take care to pose the principles of truths that will, I dare say, have long term consequences, and sooner or later the consequences will be drawn … Thus without directly attacking throne and altar, which today support one another, both resting on the triple base of long-standing ignorance, terror, and habit and appearing unshakeable to me, all the while respecting them verbally, I will undermine both by my principles.
But we moderns can’t imagine being wrong in our literal understanding of the great Florentine.
Melzer clearly and repeatedly shows in his book that during most of human history esotericism was the norm, not the exception. Even modern societies —except Western ones— still talk and write ambiguously or indirectly, leaving some conclusions to be decided by the listener or the reader. And there is of course the experience with modern totalitarian regimes, where dissident authors had to communicate their dissent through esoteric writing. Vaclav Havel for example, imprisoned in communist Czechoslovakia, about his Letters to Olga:
The letters, in fact, are endless spirals in which I’ve tried to enclose something. Very early on, I realized that comprehensible letters wouldn’t get through, which is why the letters are full of long compound sentences and complicated ways of saying things. Instead of writing “regime,” for instance, I would obviously have had to write “the socially apparent focus on the non-I” or some such nonsense. (Melzer, 129)
Besides the ample evidence for esotericism presented in the book, Melzer gives us an appendix of fully 110 pages of chronological testimonial and bibliographic evidence that covers almost every major thinker from Homer to Wittgenstein, here:
The fact is that within oppressive societies some kind of coded communication necessarily develops; where there is censorship there will also be coded messages. Incidentally, this was also the view of Sigmund Freud at a psychological level in The Interpretation of Dreams.
While not a Straussian himself, Melzer recognizes Leo Strauss as the rediscoverer of esotericism in the late 1930s, although his findings were disregarded, treated as preposterous, politically motivated, even perverse. How could we completely forget something so common and widespread that its mere mention becomes shocking? As Melzer asks, is there something wrong with the way we see the world? Are there powerful cultural forces at work in our times for something as radical and incredible as this to have happened?
There were three main types of esotericism in the ancient world, as Melzer explains:
“Society likewise poses a grave danger to the philosopher … the hostility of society to the philosopher is also not entirely unreasonable. It is not simply a product of vulgar ignorance and misunderstanding that might be dispelled someday by greater education and familiarity, as the harmonious Enlightenment view would maintain … To defend himself against it, the philosopher must conceal his more provocative or heterodox ideas, while possibly also seeking positive ways to make himself more acceptable —engaging in defensive esotericism.”
“There is a fundamental tension between truth and political life. To manage this conflict and protect society from harm, then, the philosopher must conceal or obscure his most subversive ideas, while also, perhaps, promoting salutary ones —practicing protective esotericism.”
“A philosophical education is not simply intellectual, a pure matter of learning. It involves facilitating a transition from one way of life to another … The student must be moved along gradually, artfully, in appropriate stages. This dialectical process will require withholding or managing the truth, so that the student is compelled to find it for himself, at his own pace, and in a form he can, at each stage, digest … Esotericism is the literary counterpart of the Socratic method —undertaking pedagogical esotericism.”
Our Reasons for Forgetting
But then something strange occurred, a historical cutoff. During the second half of the 18th century —Strauss says “after Lessing,” who died in 1781— esotericism began to be forgotten, to become unknown. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lamented this in a letter to a friend on October 20, 1811:
I have always considered it an evil, indeed a disaster which, in the second half of the previous century, gained more and more ground that one no longer drew a distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric.” (Melzer, xii)
The Classical Conflictual View of Society
Aristotle said that man is the rational animal and also the political animal. The classics understood that human nature is dualistic, that we have a desire for knowledge and objectivity, but also for belonging and solidarity. Humans have theoretical needs but also practical needs. The classics thought that those two elements are necessarily in conflict, that there is opposition between theory and practice, between reason and society, between the philosopher and the city. Traditional, closed societies couldn’t separate political questions from moral and religious questions. To function, their practice required settled answers; thus the need for custom, tradition, social convention, mores, law, nomos. Theory brought unsettling and threatening questions. Each was a danger to the other and this made traditional society necessarily “anti-intellectual.” This is the basic reason for ancient esotericism.
The Modern Harmonious View of Society
Contrary to what classical philosophers understood, Enlightenment philosophers with their humanist optimism and faith in progress, believed in an essential harmony between theory and practice and between reason and society by which society had to be subordinated to reason. Counter-Enlightenment and postmodern philosophers also believed in the essential harmony between the two, but their solution was to subordinate reason to society.
Whatever the conflicts among its philosophers, a definite, squeaky-clean characteristic of modernity is a literal take on everything, a conviction that in every important way serious authors mean what they say and say what they mean. It has been said that we moderns have no sense of tragedy, and this can be seen in our literalness about everything. Oedipus, instead of the most powerful tragedy about our flawed nature, is for us a psychological disorder curable through the power of truth. As Melzer says, “modern intellectuals are almost constitutionally incapable of appreciating the legitimacy and necessity of dangerous truths.” The source of this radical change is a modern faith, secular humanism: the disorder of the world can be cured through human effort.
We cannot imagine famous authors hiding the truth between the lines, not showing it front and center. We have egalitarian objections to the elitism of the ancient world, and we love our open society where secrecy and concealment are rightly suspect. Secure in our little corner, we believe that the rest of the world, at all times, must have shared our security and our moral habits. As Melzer puts it, it is both ironic and incomprehensible that the two greatest teachers of the Western tradition, Jesus and Socrates, were both famous for their secrecy and their indirect speech.
If Esotericism is True, What Are the Consequences?
Melzer closely follows Leo Strauss in the last chapter of the book, about reason and its enemies. Not surprisingly, esotericism is at the center of Strauss’ defense of reason against its main enemy: historicism in its postmodernist form (what he called “radical historicism”), a danger that began with the Enlightenment. The decline of esotericism was a precondition for the ideas of progress and historicism to appear in modern times. Modern thought in natural science, social science, and philosophy lacks a direct connection to its own premises and to commonsense experience: it covers up its own foundations. The result is that we are embedded in our own historicity and naively generalize our particular situation to all human thought in all ages, a particular “insight” that, strangely, all previous ages and all great minds considered unlikely. Strauss wrapped up this situation of modern thought in a Platonic metaphor: “the cave beneath the cave.”
Modern thought is grounded in historicism and, therefore, has to break up with everything that came before it. Since every thought is conditioned by its own time, it is worthless outside of its time and therefore worthless as a basis of knowledge in general.
Modern thought eschews traditional philosophy and rejects considering it as knowledge, but any scientific assertion presupposes a metaphysics. Modern science, for example, tries to explain everything (including consciousness) via several forms of naturalism, even thinking of the brain as a computer, and modern scientists think their explanations don’t require any philosophical founding. But naturalism presupposes a materialist metaphysics. As Edward Feser has said many times, they have to “sweep under the rug” anything that doesn’t comply with naturalism. But the dirt is still there.
And, worst of all, modern thought doesn’t apply historicism to itself. If it did, it would consider itself conditioned by its own time and thus as worthless as any previous thought in the above sense.
Esotericism, on the contrary, requires a thinker to fully examine his foundations and see them as they are: the origin, the ordinary, the pre-theoretical, the human thing. The movement of philosophy, then, should be not progress but return, return to the Socratic questions.
The rediscovery of esotericism proves that ancient authors accepted the conventions of their times only on the surface of their texts. If our literal interpretation of the great classic works is essentially wrong then, historicism, a pillar of modern philosophy, history, and social science, collapses: if esotericism is true then historicism is false, it is just a modern prejudice.
Vladimir Dorta, 05/07/2019
Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014
Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, Translation and Interpretive Essay, 2nd Edition, Basic Books, 1991
Aristotle, Politics, Translation by Ernest Barker, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Translation by Robert Bartlett, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012
Thomas L. Pangle, Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014