The (Supposedly) Secret History of Esoteric Writing

May 2016By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck has written widely on Catholic social teaching, Catholic culture, and related topics. His latest book is From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The Long, Jagged Trail to a Postmodern Void (Angelico Press, 2015).

Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  By Arthur M. Melzer. University of Chicago Press. 453 pages. $45.

NOR readers might remember that during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was said that many of the neoconservative policymakers in the Bush administration were disciples or former students of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish refugee academic who had taught for many years at the University of Chicago and died in 1973. It was said that Strauss justified and encouraged lying by governments and considered the use of deceptive speech a necessary component of statecraft. Whatever the truth about the Bush administration, it is certainly the case that Strauss and his intellectual heirs have not only written much about esoteric or secret writing in the works of philosophers and theologians, and of the supposed ubiquity of such modes of discourse, but they have also, in effect, proposed an entirely new interpretation of Western intellectual history, with profound implications for the Church and her teachings, as well as for the life of society as a whole.

In Philosophy Between the Lines Arthur Melzer, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, offers a defense of the existence of and possible justifications for such writing. Melzer defines esoteric writing as “the practice of communicating one’s unorthodox thoughts primarily ‘between the lines,’ hidden behind a veneer of conventional pieties, for fear of persecution or for other reasons.” Melzer avers that until around 1800, most philosophical or political writers engaged in such secret writing, stating their real opinions in a veiled manner, but that this was largely forgotten until it “was rediscovered principally by Leo Strauss…who began publishing on the subject in the late 1930s.”

Why in the world would someone write like that? According to Melzer, there are four reasons: (1) to prevent “some harm that society might do the writer,” (2) to prevent “some harm that the writer might do society,” (3) to further social or political change that the writer advocates, and (4) to promote the “philosophic education of the rare and gifted individual.” The first and third reasons are obvious, but how could a straightforward philosophic argument harm society, and why should philosophic education be given in a veiled manner? More on this below. First, let’s look at the general situation of esoteric writing prior to 1800 and evaluate statements and arguments Melzer makes.

Melzer is correct that many major writers, especially in the early modern period, produced a certain amount of esoteric writing. A number of Enlightenment authors openly discussed this practice, and the famous Encyclopédie even contained an article on the subject. To the extent that the practice was downplayed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (it was hardly forgotten), Strauss performed a worthy service in reminding us of its place in earlier discourse. So far, so good. But Melzer means more — much more. For him, esoteric writing “has not been a curious exception — it has been the rule.” Moreover, Melzer sees esoteric writing as necessary to the intellectual life and part and parcel of the relationship of philosophers to the political community.

Melzer has plenty of evidence that apparently supports his thesis. But not all of his evidence is probative, for he fails to distinguish between instances (either obvious or probable) of esoteric discourse and statements that at first glance might seem to indicate such discourse but in reality show something else. Further, he implies that all authors who wrote esoterically did so because they agreed with Strauss’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and political life. Most seriously, however, Melzer’s citation of evidence is partial and sometimes transparently one-sided or just plain wrong.

Melzer takes the greatest share of his examples either from Plato and the Neo-Platonic commentators or from early modern and eighteenth-century writers. All of these, however, are special cases. Take Plato. He is an interesting specimen. Except for his letters, of which the authenticity of many is contested, his works are dialogues in which Socrates typically appears as the chief character. But Socrates does not always give a straightforward argument or exposition of his own views. Quite often he pokes holes in others’ opinions, suggesting his own views but only sometimes openly expounding them. Moreover, does Socrates always necessarily speak for Plato? Plato’s published works, his dialogues, do not allow us to settle this question once and for all. Nevertheless, we can discern Plato working with certain central ideas that preoccupied him. But Melzer suggests that we have to look underneath the surface of the dialogues in order to find a teaching radically at variance with Plato’s apparent views, which seems improbable.

Without denying that there are aspects of Plato’s thought and mode of writing that will doubtless never be fully understood, we are justified in taking Melzer’s argument with several grains of salt. Anyone acquainted with the history of pre-Socratic philosophy will know that Plato was working on several philosophic problems that had preoccupied his predecessors and were to preoccupy his pupil, Aristotle, as well. But if we cast Plato as an esoteric writer whose surface meaning is a cover for his true doctrine, which turns out to be a sort of skepticism, what are we to make of the clear progression in the history of philosophy from Thales to Plato and Aristotle? To suggest that it was all smoke and mirrors is to trivialize the genuine philosophic labor that went into refining the crudeness of Thales’s “all is water,” via Plato’s forms, into Aristotle’s doctrine of substantial and accidental change.

It is true that in the Republic Socrates introduces the notion of a “noble lie,” an untruth told to the populace for the sake of a political end. We are thus justified in wondering how far Plato agreed with this and how much he engaged in such deceptions himself. But it is important to note that while Melzer asserts that Plato “expresses no disapproval of [esoteric] practice” and “believed in the moral propriety of socially salutary fictions,” Melzer himself makes use of the straightforward or surface meaning of Plato (and other writers) whenever it suits him. But if Melzer’s thesis is correct, are we not then justified in doubting Plato on every point — including his recommendation of the noble lie?

Melzer (and Strauss before him) makes much of the commentary on Plato by the medieval Islamic philosopher Al-Farabi, who saw Plato as an esoteric writer who did not believe in the immortality of the soul, despite arguments to that effect which he put into the mouth of Socrates. Indeed, it was Al-Farabi’s “esoteric reading of Plato” that convinced Strauss that Plato was not “the dogmatic metaphysician who knows the ideas, but rather the zetetic skeptic who knows his own ignorance and who lives in wonder and questioning.”

Melzer is at pains to argue that Socrates, despite his claims to the contrary, “by no means abandons natural philosophy. In Xenophon’s words, ‘he never ceased examining with his companions what each of the beings is.’” But if one checks the source, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, one finds that this is not what the text means at all. What Xenophon meant by “what each of the beings is” had nothing to do with natural philosophy. Rather, it was simply an example of what Xenophon everywhere stresses: Socrates’s attention to definition. Indeed, the first example Xenophon immediately goes on to give is of Socrates’s asking one of his disciples, “What sort of thing do you think reverence is?” The entire chapter continues without a single reference to natural philosophy.

The other major group of writers Melzer continually cites is the early modern and Enlightenment authors who worked, to one degree or another, to overthrow the civilization of Christendom. Beginning with such figures as Machiavelli and Montaigne, this movement gathered steam until it exercised, in the eighteenth century, considerable intellectual influence and constituted at least a remote cause of the overthrow of the French monarchy. But as time went on, these writers had to worry less and less about persecution. Voltaire and Diderot in France, and such writers as the English deist John Toland and the Scottish philosopher David Hume, had little to fear. Their views were well known to their contemporaries, and their flirting with esoteric techniques seems more of a joke or an example of the persecution complex one sometimes observes in atheists of our own time.

The eighteenth-century philosophes were (unfortunately) the cultural leaders of European society, feted by the aristocracy and sometimes courted by monarchs. Despite this, they seem to have delighted, almost as children creating a secret club, in imagining that they were daringly carrying out some conspiracy in the face of brutal and obscurantist prelates and monarchs. Even in the earlier instances of Machiavelli or Hobbes, their general philosophic stances were hardly a secret, however much they had genuine reasons to fear persecution. If, then, these writers hid their true ideas as much as Melzer says they did, they did a particularly poor job of it, for neither their contemporaries nor posterity was ever fooled. Melzer omits one bit of evidence for this: Most of the writers whose esotericism he parades, and who sometimes paraded it themselves, were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books as early as the seventeenth century. They deceived no one.

Melzer’s distorted quote of Xenophon isn’t the only time he plays fast and loose with the evidence. Space does not allow exposition of all instances, but Melzer’s treatment of St. Augustine rates mention. Melzer quotes from one of Augustine’s letters, in which he says, “I think that that method or art of concealing the truth is a useful invention.” Augustine did indeed say this. But taken out of context and given as Augustine’s only comment on the subject, it gives a wrong impression. In reality, Augustine’s commendation of esotericism here was highly qualified, and he clearly noted that it was a practice no longer applicable to his own time.

Later, Melzer mentions that “Augustine in The City of God gives an extended esoteric interpretation of the religious writings of the Roman philosopher Varro.” But Melzer fails to mention that Augustine calls Varro’s esotericism a “crafty device” by which “the malign demons are wonderfully delighted, who possess alike the deceivers and the deceived” — that is, those who engage in esoteric writing and those who are deceived by it. This is not to deny Augustine’s qualified approval of esoteric writing in at least one instance (in the context of a short discussion in a letter to a friend) or his acknowledgement that the practice was known to him and his contemporaries. However, Melzer gives the impression that Augustine not only recognized the existence of esotericism but gave it his full support as a normal and unproblematic aspect of the philosophic life. This is simply not so.

Melzer likewise considers perhaps the greatest writer of pagan antiquity, Aristotle. This great philosopher exerted such a tremendous influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and so many others that he occupies a unique place in Christian and Western intellectual history. But if it could be shown that Aristotle really didn’t believe what he seems to say in his writings, then, although this would not mean that his presumed doctrines were false, we would face the strange and unsettling fact that the intellectual foundations that seemed to support so much medieval and even modern Catholic thought did not exist — in fact, they were based on a misunderstanding.

In the case of Aristotle, we no longer possess any of his published works, except as these survive in quotations by other ancient writers. But we do possess a veritable gold mine — his unpublished works, generally thought to be notes for or outlines of lectures he gave to his students at the Lyceum, the school he founded in Athens. As Melzer says, Aristotle is the “hardest case, the (pre-1800) thinker least likely to be esoteric,” because he “seems to be so straight and literal-minded, so intent on avoiding all misunderstanding, so eager to be clear, precise and methodical at all times.” Melzer quotes several ancient writers to dispose his readers to accept the idea that Aristotle hid his true doctrine, or at least parts of it. He quotes Plutarch, for example, who said that Aristotle’s “books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.” But here Plutarch makes no assertion of any esoteric doctrine; he just points out that Aristotle at times can be difficult.

Melzer’s attempt to undermine what appears as the obvious teaching of Aristotle centers on what is known in philosophy as final causes — the notion that all natural things, not just conscious animate beings, act for an end. Quoting Aristotelian scholar Sir David Ross, Melzer correctly notes that the final cause or end “of each species is internal to the species; its end is simply to be that kind of thing.” Thus, the natural end of a deer is simply to be a deer and reproduce its kind, not to serve as food for man. Melzer attempts to show that Aristotle hid or distorted this doctrine of final causes even when lecturing to his students. He claims that in the Nicomachean Ethics “Aristotle states that the natural excellence or perfection of a horse is to be good at carrying its rider [and] in the Politics…that the plants exist for the sake of the animals and the animals for the sake of man. So even with respect to this theoretical doctrine so central to Aristotle’s whole thought, he clearly seems willing to speak exoterically here, to falsify his doctrine.”

But this is hardly a necessary or even the most reasonable interpretation of what Aristotle wrote. What the philosopher said is this: “Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider” (Nicomachean Ethics), and “In like manner we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments” (Politics). Clearly, Aristotle was simply noting the fact that in addition to their own inherent and proper ends or final causes, plants and animals are arranged in a hierarchy of sorts, in the former quotation distinguishing between “both good in itself and good at running.”

One of Melzer’s key points is that the existence of esotericism was largely forgotten from about 1800 until Strauss began writing on the subject in the late 1930s. But this is hardly true. Again, space limits our discussion, but one example Melzer brings forward concerns the parables of Our Lord. Christ Himself points out (Mt. 13:10-15; Lk. 8:9; etc.) that He teaches in parables, and Melzer belabors the point that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and other Christian writers do not fail to notice. So, why is this important? Because, Melzer asserts, in modern times “one finds the widespread denial of Jesus’ esotericism.” Instead of looking at what nineteenth-century biblical commentators actually said on this subject to support this claim, Melzer cites only one source, “the distinguished literary critic Frank Kermode…in his 1978 Charles Eliot Norton lectures on the hermeneutics of biblical commentary.” But during the nineteenth century, the esoteric character of Christ’s parables was hardly overlooked. For example, English lexicographer William Smith, in his Bible dictionary published in 1863, notes without hesitation that Our Lord “was speaking to the multitude in the parables and dark sayings,” and he gives a thorough review of the reasons for this mode of teaching. It is remarkable that Melzer would ground his sweeping assertion of the denial of recognition of the esoteric character of Christ’s parables simply on the testimony of one critic.

The famous exchange between Charles Kingsley and John Henry Newman is further evidence that the idea of esoteric speech was not forgotten during this time. Kingsley charged Newman with the very esoteric practice “of writing a whole sermon, not for the sake of the text or of the matter, but for the sake of one single passing hint — one phrase, one epithet, one little barbed arrow which…he delivered unheeded, as with his finger-tip, to the very heart of an initiated hearer, never to be withdrawn again.” Newman, in turn, included in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) an extended discussion of lying and deception in the early Church, including the so-called disciplina arcani — the practice of not revealing all Catholic doctrine at once to a pagan inquirer — which Melzer himself mentions as an example of “protective esotericism.”

These few examples do not prove that there was a lively awareness of the existence of esoteric writing during this time, but they do show that Melzer is wrong when he says that “this well-established phenomenon was somehow slowly forgotten in the course of the nineteenth century and, in the twentieth, confidently declared a myth.”

Recall that Melzer said that beyond the obvious reasons for engaging in esoteric writing were two less obvious ones: to prevent “some harm that the writer might do society” and to enable a “philosophic education of the rare and gifted individual.” A careful look at these alleged causes of esoteric writing yields insight into the real meaning of the Straussian project — the relationship of philosophy with the life of mankind in society, or in earlier parlance, with political life, the life of man in the polis.

With regard to the first of the two reasons, Strauss was convinced that there is a deep divide between the philosophic life and the life of man in society, between the philosopher and the city, exemplified by the condemnation to death of Socrates at the hands of an Athenian court. But the Athenians, according to Strauss, in a sense acted rationally in putting Socrates to death. For, as Melzer writes, “philosophy or rationalism poses a grave danger to society, [since] all political communities are ultimately based, not on reason, but on some form of unexamined commitment or illusion. A fully rational and enlightened society is not possible.” The political community must be based on myths. Here Melzer (and Strauss) means religious myths, including Christianity. Melzer sees reason as opposed to any form of revealed religion. Indeed, his comments on Christianity are interesting. Christianity “had need of philosophy to help elaborate and clarify its dogmas,” he states, and precisely because of this, Christianity had a “strong tendency to persecute certain heretical philosophical doctrines.” Christianity used philosophy; it “kept philosophy alive, but subdued and under house arrest.” Melzer makes reference to what he terms “the familiar formula ‘reason vs. revelation.’” But familiar to whom? No Catholic can regard reason as opposed to revelation, but it is essential to Melzer’s argument to do so, since the alleged opposition of philosophic reasoning to man’s ordinary life is one of the pillars of the Straussian worldview.

Melzer assures us at the outset that there is not “a single ‘Esoteric Philosophy’ linking all genuine esotericists [for] ‘esoteric’ denotes not a particular body of secret or occult knowledge but simply a secretive mode of communication — not a specific set of beliefs.” But we have reason to question whether Melzer is being honest here. He notes that “Strauss also argues that there is in fact much less disagreement among the major philosophers than a conventional reading of their works would lead us to think,” since their “esoteric practice had the effect of systematically exaggerating the appearance of philosophical disagreement.” Melzer’s (and Strauss’s) commitment to the notion that there is a fundamental conflict between philosophical reason and the social and political life of mankind, and that earlier philosophers recognized such an inherent conflict, at least suggests that most philosophers held pretty much the same doctrine. And Melzer’s remarks show what that doctrine supposedly is: a fundamental metaphysical and moral nihilism. Philosophy here becomes an esoteric pursuit apart from, indeed in opposition to, ordinary social life. Instead of philosophers benefitting human society by presenting it with truth, philosophers concern themselves with an endless esoteric repetition of those truths deemed too dangerous for ordinary people to hear, while seeking to initiate likely prospects into this way of doing philosophy.

With regard to the “philosophic education of the rare and gifted individual,” Melzer argues a variety of reasons for the necessary enigmatic nature of philosophical education. It is less an imparting of information or arguments, so he says, than an initiation into a way of thinking, “what Plato speaks of as definitive of the truly philosophic life: a ‘turning around of the soul,’ a fundamental reorientation of the objects of one’s longing and the manner of one’s being.” The result is, of course, that philosophers are an elite, not merely an elite of intellect but almost like a secret society. Indeed, if anecdote may be credited, Straussians behave at times like cultists, solemnly and clandestinely inducting their most promising students into the philosophic worldview of skeptical nihilism. But this Straussian understanding of true intellectual life as something always on the margins, mostly hidden away, and having in the end no real purpose except to satisfy the private desires of philosophers, finds little support in Western intellectual history.

This raises an interesting question about the sources of Strauss’s ideas. Melzer says they were none other than Moses Maimonides, a Jew, and Al-Farabi, a Muslim. Both lived and worked in political and intellectual milieu other than the Catholic West. In fact, Melzer raises the question of the Jewish Kabbalah, as well as esotericism in the Talmud, and notes that Maimonides refers favorably to this esoteric Jewish tradition. Is it too farfetched to think that Strauss (and Melzer) might have been influenced by an intellectual tradition that indeed engaged in esotericism, an esotericism that for the most part was alien to the central Western Christian intellectual tradition? In Christendom, while some writers might have felt the need to veil certain doctrines or controversies for the sake of the unlettered, there could never have been a notion that mankind’s political and social life must be founded on a lie. The parables of Our Lord were hardly esoteric in the sense that they presented a hidden teaching at variance with their surface meaning, as becomes clear when He explains that meaning to His disciples (e.g., Mt. 13). Such also was the case with the disciplina arcani of the early Church. Its rationale was not that the truth was somehow opposed to ordinary human life, but it was a method to introduce people to unfamiliar truths gradually lest they be disturbed or confused.

But Melzer, citing these and other examples of esotericism, proceeds blithely to assume and assert that they were all founded on the Straussian understanding of a fundamental antagonism between truth and the ordinary life of mankind.

Melzer writes much about Strauss’s opposition to historical relativism, and one can agree with Strauss in this opposition. While space prevents a discussion of Strauss’s complex theory on how the alleged abandonment of esotericism gave rise to historical relativism, let us simply note that Melzer’s (and Strauss’s) attempted refutation of relativism necessarily involves an embrace of esotericism and an acceptance of the notion that genuine philosophy must always be something pursued apart from the ordinary currents of human life. As such, their cure is about as bad as the disease they are seeking to heal.

Melzer seems strangely ignorant of other critiques of relativism, those made, for example, by many Catholic writers of the twentieth century. In fact, his sketch of the development of Western thought in the wake of the Enlightenment omits any mention of the powerful Catholic Thomistic revival, which offered an alternative to the various forms of modernist thought Melzer claims to oppose.

Melzer and Strauss offer a vision of the intellectual life and political life curiously disconnected from truth. Intellectual life pursued according to the Straussian method is concerned with truth, but such truth turns out to have almost nothing to do with anything outside one’s own thoughts or life. Political life, on the other hand, is consigned to the devil — a turn of phrase that Strauss probably would not have liked. It is easy to imagine that a Straussian philosopher would counsel those charged with care of the state to lie and manipulate, for what else is there to do? Mankind at large must not be told the truth; the truth is radically opposed to the life of society. Where truth cannot be pursued, only power and the fulfillment of desire are left. These latter would seem to be the only things a Straussian philosopher has to offer to his friends in the world.

Melzer asserts that he himself does not engage in esoteric writing in this book and that he is not among those who have “a real love for esoteric interpretation and a real gift for it.” Maybe so, maybe not. But we are justified in wondering whether we should accept at face value the statements of an author who sets out to explain and justify the practice of deceiving his readers.

The reported wide influence of Strauss in academia — including Catholic academia — is no small matter. Melzer’s book, then, is not simply about a supposedly long-forgotten literary technique. Rather, it is an outline for a program of action — a conspiracy, if you will — that is fundamentally at variance with the Catholic view of truth, philosophy, and the life of mankind in society.

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