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Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing
by Arthur Melzer

Reviewed by Raphael Magarik


Published:

Published by University Of Chicago Press, 2014   |   464 pages

The theory of esotericism, associated today with German émigré and political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899 – 1973), posits that great writers of the past purposely hid their true intentions and beliefs. They wrote texts which admit of several levels of interpretation and which thus transmit different messages to different audiences. We cannot necessarily trust that, say, Plato believed in the theory of forms. True, in many Platonic dialogues, Socrates argues for the theory and convinces his interlocutors. But Strauss argues that Plato used the idea as a screen: to protect himself from persecution, distract unworthy students, or prevent his bitter truths from harming society. We should, Strauss advocates, read holistically, collecting ironies, small contradictions, hints, and allusions in hopes of transcending the text’s apparent doctrinal commitments to decipher the veiled argument within.

Reading for esotericism, per Strauss’s prescription, is very difficult. That is because, like other counterintuitive theories of writing and textuality, esotericism subverts our regular hermeneutical tools. Once we admit that some utterances may be esoteric, all utterances become potentially suspect. We start looking for hidden secrets everywhere. For example, in Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss suggests that the first section of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, which painstakingly reads the Bible against its apparent meaning, provides the reader clues on how to read Maimonides himself. Of course, the use of Maimonides’s explicitly esoteric reading to guide a reading of Maimonides has obvious implications for Strauss’s book itself. Anyone who does not, at this point, scribble in the margin something like, “Is Strauss telling us how to read Strauss?” is likely missing much of the fun. So esotericism quickly transcends narrowly bound truth claims about past texts, plunging the reader into a literary hall of mirrors.

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Enter Arthur Melzer, who provides, in Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, a remarkably straightforward (and somewhat doctrinaire) defense and history of esotericism. Melzer argues, following Strauss, that “the true history of human reason is of necessity a secret history.” Using evidence drawn from short studies of Aristotle, Plato, and Machiavelli, as well as dozens of quotations from figures such as Alfarabi, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas; Diderot, Montesquieu, and Montaigne; Bacon, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, Melzer attempts to demonstrate that esotericism grows out of the “fundamental and abiding philosophical problem of theory and praxis—especially the question of the relation between philosophical rationalism and political community.” That is to say, pre-moderns worried not only that rulers, priests, or communities would ostracize or persecute them if they spoke openly, but that “rationalism, if openly communicated, would inevitably harm [the political] world.” It is difficult for a modern reader to fathom the pressures writers faced hundreds, even thousands of years ago. This point is crucial to defending the thesis of esotericism. Society depends, it was understood, for its proper functioning, on unquestioned customs, traditions, and beliefs: in the wake of Christianity, typically in the form of a revealed religion. Reason upsets traditional authority, threatens consensus, and imperils public order. Ancients and medievals thus saw philosophy and society as essentially in tension, and philosophers retreated from politics into a separate, philosophical sphere.

According to Melzer, stable and esoteric pre-modern philosophy started to collapse in early modernity, around 1500. This is, unsurprisingly, the period during which the printing press began to make texts and information more accessible, more available, more verifiable. Early moderns imagined that philosophy, rather than retiring from the world into an elite and passive niche, could challenge religion and custom for supremacy. They advanced controversial, secularizing claims for increasingly large audiences, aiming to “help society by inducing it—albeit cautiously and gradually—to open itself up to reason and embrace political rationalization.” From Machiavelli through Diderot, while philosophers concealed their disdain for religion and tradition behind esotericism, they nonetheless began to work within esotericism itself to “abolish the whole need for esotericism,” subjecting the political to rational, philosophical control and bringing the world into reason’s light.

As a result, Melzer argues, in late modernity, we have lost esotericism nearly completely. Moderns, the heirs to an Enlightenment tradition and largely unfamiliar with alternative modes of thought, are “viscerally inclined to believe that [the theory of esotericism] is false.” Post-Enlightenment cultures value open communication and attempts to reform society according to reason’s dictates. Its ascendency involved the “forgetting” of esotericism’s centrality to previous philosophy. Whereas most pre-modern writers knew about esotericism (though they may not have understood particular esoteric texts), today even great scholars do not know that esotericism was a common, indeed central, practice.

Contemporary scholars, most basically, practice academic historicism: skeptical of universal abstract concepts, they understand “texts, doctrines, and indeed every expression of human reason” in their local contexts, “as manifestations of their times.” But within the esoteric tradition, Melzer argues, philosophers rejected their time and setting, communing instead with an “ageless” tradition. Accordingly, scholars of esotericism argue, the appearance of conformity to current fads and prejudices within esoteric authors is just that—only an appearance. Deep down, pre-modern philosophers traffic in the language of their times to conceal the potentially anti-social, disruptive philosophical truths that they told.  Historical relativists are thus blind to the philosophers’ retreat from and transcendence of their local situation. The recovery of esotericism does more than correct a historical mistake. Esotericism challenges the assumption made by moderns that societies welcome reasoned debate, and that learned inquiry has always been perceived to be helpful for social reform.

It also, provocatively, allows us to recuperate philosophy as such. In the place of philosophers at odds with each other, who make use of diverse rhetorical strategies and speak within their respective historical contexts, esotericism gives us philosophy as a bounded, coherent activity with definite, continuous interests—particularly, an interest in resisting the pressures of its historical context. The very fact of esotericism proves, for Melzer, that philosophers saw reason in conflict with society, and thus that they understand human beings as essentially dualistic, split between the competing demands of reason and revelation, philosophy and tradition.

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Melzer narrates 2,500 years of philosophical history and posits a trans-historical, definite core to pre-modern philosophy. His ambitious book provokes a basic reconsideration of philosophical rhetoric and returns us to canonical authors with new questions and problems. Most remarkably, it suggests we view esotericism not as merely a fringe phenomenon, but as a central theme in intellectual history. No student of that history can afford to ignore this book’s challenge.

Inevitably, his schematic and sweeping periodization, hinging on the radical break between the pre-modern, conflictual and modern, harmonistic views of reason and tradition, elides a number of local anomalies. So for instance, the claim that “no pre-modern philosopher—no thinker before Pierre Bayle, to be exact—ever openly argued that society could be separated from religion” is inexact, ignoring as it does Lucretius, the materialist Roman poet whose epic De Rerum Natura begins by openly attacking religion. (Melzer does discuss Lucretius’s esotericism several times, making this omission somewhat peculiar.) Similarly, Melzer claims, “there is only one nonliteral hermeneutic theory which” is more than two hundred years old, namely esotericism, and he blames the loss of esotericism for the rise of “all these other, rival interpretive theories” that aim to transcend the author’s intention: Marxism, psychoanalytic criticism, Structuralism, and the like. But this history of hermeneutics ignores, for instance, the long tradition of Christological allegory, which interpreted, say, the Aeneid as foreshadowing Christianity without bothering about Virgil’s intentions. And even without invoking the machinery of divine inspiration, the Italian humanist Petrarch is explicit and enthusiastic in his Secretum about allegorizing Virgil without caring what he originally meant.

Melzer also over-simplifies the modern opposition to esoterism. I have read Plato’s Republic with several academic teachers, and other than the odd analytic philosopher, every one has emphasized the dialogue’s literary qualities and how those complicate and ironize its supposed contents. The Wikipedia page for Machiavelli’s play La Mandragola asserts forthrightly that the author set his story under a different regime to avoid official censure. Since Melzer thinks, “the blindness to esotericism… is actually one of the most profound and revealing features of modern thought as such,” the degree of that blindness matters considerably.

Indeed, even Strauss’s critics do not typically reject esotericism whole cloth. M. F. Burnyeat, who attacked Strauss’s reading of Plato in the New York Review of Books, thought that Maimonides, by way of contrast, was writing esoterically. Even as Quentin Skinner dismisses Strauss, he approvingly discusses writers’ “oblique strategies” for partial communication. Strikingly, Melzer’s chapter devoted to “Objections, Resistance, and Blindness to Esotericism” barely discusses particular critiques of esoteric readings, but rather attributes the scholarly aversion to esotericism to psychological causes: moderns’ hostility to “elitism,” “secrecy,” “dishonesty,” and the like. Melzer relegates Burnyeat and Skinner to footnotes. But both suggest that opposition to esotericism derives not from “deep theoretical roots,” but just from local interpretative debates.

These debates frequently hinge on just how much authority to grant the claims of commentators that earlier texts were written esoterically. Melzer devotes just an interlude to sustained readings of Plato and Aristotle, but he cites and analyzes, at great length, dozens of later interpreters who testify to these and other philosophers’ esotericism. These arguments are often couched as appeals to authority, as when Melzer emphasizes that “a thinker and historian of the stature of Plutarch” supports his claims about Aristotle’s esoteric practice (emphasis mine).

Yet one can trust authorities too much. As an example of esotericism driven by persecution, Melzer quotes the story of Mullah Sadra Shirazi, who “attempted a restoration of philosophy in seventeenth century Iran.” But the account, an entertaining and fabulous narrative, comes from a nineteenth century French diplomat and is laced with Orientalist tropes. We can learn much about the European colonial imagination from it, little about early modern Iran or the historical Shirazi. This is an extreme example, but on the same page, Melzer cites Plutarch to illuminate Plato’s esotericism, and the slippage recurs more subtly. Does Plutarch tell us about Plato or Aristotle, who lived a half millennium earlier, or does Plutarch tell us about Plutarch?

Melzer ignores a major motive for later readers to attribute esotericism to their forebears. Attributed esotericism frequently allows us to revise the past’s inconveniences. The Bible’s anthropomorphism embarrasses Maimonides, therefore it must be merely an exoteric screen. Scholars work assiduously to reveal and undo the harmonizing and smoothing of interpretive traditions. Melzer stipulates that history superficially appears various, discontinuous, and contingent; only through esotericism do we see its deep continuities. But in fact, historians generally have to rescue, at great difficulty, the exotic past from comfortable tradition. Ask any philologist: when you are confronted with two variant readings, the familiar, easily comprehensible one is usually wrong, because later scribes have a motive to “improve” a text (to their sensibilities), never to render it more obscure. This principle, called in Latin “lectio difficilior potior,” has a philosophical analogue: commentators constantly interpret in accordance with their own beliefs. Melzer takes historicism as the obvious path. In fact, unified traditions make reading much easier, because they mask the strangeness of the original.

All that said, much can be learned from Melzer even by those suspicious of his broad narrative. The book calls into question basic assumptions about how we read. Drawing from an expansive canon, it sketches a profound view of the relation between rhetoric and philosophy. Perhaps most importantly, Melzer offers a bracingly clear, sharply argued prolegomenon to Strauss’s painstaking and miraculous readings of individual texts—a fitting anteroom for a bewildering and exhilarating intellectual funhouse.


Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Atlantic online, and NewRepublic.com. More of his writing can be found on his blog: http://raphaelmagarik.com/my-work/.

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