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Everyone’s an Esoteric

books and culture

Everyone’s an Esoteric

From classical times until the nineteenth century, almost all philosophers wrote between the lines. April 17, 2015
Photo by Matt Neale

Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, by Arthur M. Melzer (University of Chicago Press, 464 pp., $37.93)

What do understanding Plato’s Republic, a Dear John Letter, and the late-modern Western zeitgeist have in common? The ability to see what’s unwritten in what we read: what resides “between the lines.” That this sounds preposterous, but really isn’t, is the subject of Arthur Melzer’s brilliant, pellucid, and meticulously researched new book: Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Melzer, a professor (and former colleague of mine) at Michigan State, asks us to imagine getting a letter from a lover from whom we’ve been apart. It’s chatty and speaks of the “fun” we’ve had, mentions running into our chief rival for her affections, and ends “with love” rather than her usual “with all my love” or “with my enduring love.” She never says it’s over between us; but, between the lines, I’m toast. Only a fool could miss it.

The same is true for Plato’s Republic. Early on in that dialogue, Socrates and the laconic, aristocratic Adeimantus discuss the principle that justice means a proper division of labor: everyone does what they do best, which is good for them and good for all. When Socrates asks Adeimantus if the best city will need shopkeepers, the notoriously terse lad comments at length that in rightly governed cities, shopkeepers will “usually” be people whose bodies are weakest and useless for other jobs. The key here is the off-handed “usually,” to which Socrates does not object. Without saying it outright, Plato has Adeimantus signal to us that keeping shop is good and just for the weak and good-for-nothing-else, but it’s not good or just for all shopkeepers. Between the lines we see that even in the best-governed city, some are forced into a job not good for them. It follows, then, that a perfectly just society isn’t possible. Most readers today, though not fools, would miss this altogether.

In 1952, Leo Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing, in which he argued that from classical times until the nineteenth century almost all philosophers wrote between the lines. Mainstream academia dismissed the argument as ridiculous, revolting, or both. They said it was conspiratorial, elitist, impossible to prove, and subject to obscurantist nonsense. To this day, students of Strauss and students of those students remain marginalized in the mainstream academy. In Philosophy Between the Lines, Melzer makes an overwhelming case that Strauss was right about the fact of esotericism. He explains persuasively why and how the philosophers wrote as they did, why modern academics and intellectuals refuse to admit it, and why their reluctance explains the landscape of the late-modern frame of mind.

To prove the fact of esoteric writing, Melzer compiles a virtual Mount Everest of explicit statements by thinkers about themselves or others that they wrote esoterically. There is so much of this evidence that the surplus had to be warehoused in a website starting with three pages of explicit comments by thinkers about the ancients’ esotericism. To name a few: Diderot, Condorcet, Montaigne, Vico, Hobbes, Rousseau, Leibnitz, Sir Francis Bacon, and Schelling. Then follows a chronological list of quotes by thinkers from Homer to Wittgenstein about esotericism in general or attributing it to themselves or others. This list is 92 pages long and includes Maimonides, Aquinas, Dante, Benjamin Franklin, and Goethe. Scholars who still reject the fact of esotericism will have to ignore this massive evidence or stamp their feet like Rumpelstiltskin.

But why did philosophers write esoterically? In the ancient world, because political life was to philosophy as water is to oil. The political community depended on custom, tradition, and the poets’ tales about the gods, all exposed to danger by the cold light of philosophy. The philosophers thus wrote esoterically to defend themselves from persecution, to protect the political community from corruption, and also for the pedagogical purpose of causing the philosophically inclined to think for themselves and start from scratch, not from some teaching or system taken for granted. In medieval times these forms of esotericism were recognized and taken up by Maimonides and Alpharabius, and the earlier advent of Christianity did not change these motives for esotericism. There remained the fundamental opposition of reason and divine revelation, though philosophy did find a home in the Church in the form of scholasticism. From a later perspective, this handmaiden-ship of philosophy to religion was detrimental to philosophy more than it was an aid to religion.

The turning point in the history of esotericism was the Enlightenment that began with Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes. All these thinkers wrote esoterically, as Melzer shows with powerful examples, but for a reason unknown to the ancients and the philosophers of medieval Judaism and Islam. The purpose now was neither protective, nor pedagogical, and only partly defensive, because it was a conspiratorial means for attacking throne and altar. Esotericism became the tactic for “rationalizing the world” and thus for eliminating the need for esotericism. This led ultimately to our contemporary obliviousness of that centuries-long practice.

Melzer tells this story with finesse and attention to detail; anticipation of objections and polite but careful responsiveness to them; and powerful examples of esoteric writing techniques. Moreover, he shows in precise detail how contemporary resistance to esotericism is rooted in our contingent historical circumstances. We’re liberal democrats who believe in progress, free speech, and intellectual transparency (so does he). We Americans, unlike many other contemporary cultures, are given to openness, directness, and frankness in conversation. And so on. No wonder we have trouble taking seriously the different attitudes of earlier times and places and think of them as just like ours.

But more important, at our historical moment we’re in the grip of a doctrine called historicism, which holds that nobody ever thinks the same thing. The mantra of our age, says Melzer, is Frederic Jameson’s “Always Historicize.” From kindergarten to the seminar room, everyone learns that what people think about human life—what’s good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust—is relative to a particular and unique moment in history. The same goes for what other people used to think and write about such things: they always reflect the contingent and different attitudes or assumptions of past times. As regards “great thinkers,” the evidence is as plain as the nose on your face: one way or another they all ape the values or “narrative” of their particular time. Of course they do, Melzer argues: but that’s because most great thinkers wrote esoterically and hid behind the narrative of their time.

As Strauss discovered, the Enlightenment conspiracy to rationalize the world aimed not simply to defang meddlesome prelates. Its thinkers, confronted with their inability to refute the claims of faith and revelation, turned to a “Napoleonic strategy” to laugh them out of the world and to use material prosperity and rational calculation to bludgeon the religious impulse. They wanted to force the harmony of theory and practice, philosophy and politics, by subordinating politics to philosophy. The rationalistic, Procrustean bed of the French Revolution, however, provoked the counter-Enlightenment, exemplified by Burke and the German Historical School that praised custom and local tradition over reason’s calculation. And later, Heidegger’s existentialism described the claims of such rational calculation as a massive attempt to hide from the groundlessness and especially the fatefulness of life. For Heidegger, genuine thinking required grasping resolutely the brute fact of what you are, not what you ought to be. The paradoxical result, says Melzer, was again to harmonize philosophy and politics, but this time by subordinating philosophy to the arbitrariness of political life.

Hence our time’s philosophical doctrine, historicism. And hence the inevitable result: contemporary postmodernism that amounts to the humiliation of reason. In our postmodern mood all human experience is contingent and fated narrative rooted ultimately in unfathomable mystery. We now dwell in the victory of the poets over philosophy. Melzer doesn’t assume that historicism is true or false, but he points out cleverly that we like it today because we think it will make us all relax. If we can just get over reason’s pretension to truth, we’ll outgrow absolutism and become tolerant. Well, maybe, says Melzer. But we shouldn’t forget that Mussolini was an ardent proponent of relativism, “which infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.” When reason leaves the human stage, faith and power will take its place. Melzer’s deft account of how relativism can make us bullies is alone worth the price of the book.

So too is his account of Strauss’s notion of the “experience” of history as “the cave beneath the cave.” There is no theoretical proof that historicism is true. The evidence, as presented especially by Heidegger, is the illuminating experience of the historicity of human life: the eye-opening and authentic experience of the groundlessness and fatefulness of human life. But is this experience genuine, or just an artifact of the history of modernity? Melzer shows that history to consist of a succession of thinkers each taking up where a predecessor left off. So when we look back, we see one thinker standing on the unexamined shoulders of another, whose assumptions then seem arbitrary and without foundations.

For Plato, the “cave” meant the incoherent web of everyday opinions from which philosophy breaks free. We now live in a cave beneath that cave: we’re bound up in a web of theoretical systems that make everyday opinions one more step removed from critical observation. The way out of that cave, for Strauss, was the discovery of esotericism: it takes us from our abstract systems (“that’s just your meta-narrative”) to concrete political opinions (“a good person should pay her taxes”). “Classical rationalism” started from such humble opinions, and as it weighed and criticized them it found aspects of human experience that don’t change: the fundamental and enduring problems that emerge from examining the world of political and moral opinion in which all life is enmeshed.

The modern Enlightenment project of Napoleonic conquest really was dogmatic, as Heidegger argued. But classical rationalism was not, as Heidegger failed to see. It was inquiring and skeptical and involved living both within the “mysterious nature of the whole” and the “fundamental and enduring problems” of human life. Classical rationalism held “that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation.” For Strauss, says Melzer, nothing more than the permanence of the fundamental problems is needed to legitimize reason as classical philosophy understood it.

In so concluding, Melzer leaves us with something of a puzzle. The ancients kept a secret; what that secret might be is another matter altogether. On that, Melzer leaves us on our own, as well he should. The following thought occurs: if philosophy properly understood involves more familiarity with the human situation than with that situation’s ultimate cause, what is a philosopher’s answer to the claim that God caused that situation in six days, and that Jesus redeemed it with his blood? Should the philosopher respond by just sticking with the familiar human situation? Is he not dogmatically and wishfully whistling in the dark? Melzer shows persuasively that, between the lines, Aristotle denied the immortality of the soul. But how, we wonder, could Aristotle have been so sure?

Philosophy Between the Lines is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s important, profound, and readable, despite the weightiness of its subject. Buy it: you’ll be glad you did.

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