Philosophy in a Clown Suit

Paul A. Cantor - The Weekly Standard
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An unexpected key to understanding culture.

Is there any subject more esoteric than esoteric writing? Turn to the groundbreaking book on the subject, Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), and you’ll find such chapter headings as “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari” and “How to Study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise”—topics seemingly of interest only to the most scholarly of scholars. Yet in Philosophy Between the Lines, Arthur Melzer shows that understanding esoteric writing is vital to understanding Western culture and, indeed, culture in general. People interested in a wide variety of subjects—from literary interpretation to philosophy to politics to the history of religious beliefs—need to know something about esoteric, or secret, writing. By producing this clear and comprehensive account of the phenomenon, Melzer has performed a heroic service, finally making it possible for general readers to understand esoteric writing and why it has become such a controversial issue.

As his title indicates, Melzer deals specifically with esoteric writing in philosophy (and thus not with such subjects as alchemy and various forms of religious mysticism, such as Gnosticism and Kabbalah). He begins with the fact that philosophy is a hazardous venture. In their quest for true knowledge, philosophers are forced to question the unexamined assumptions of the communities in which they live, including any authoritative political opinions and fundamental religious beliefs. This kind of free inquiry places philosophers in jeopardy with civic authorities, as evidenced by the way Athens put Socrates to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. And Socrates didn’t even write books; he left no papyrus trail for his prosecutors.

Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous “double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.” They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines, which careful readers could figure out by paying attention to various anomalies in the text.

For example, philosophical works often contain contradictions that just about anybody can spot. Superficial readers will treat such contradictions as mere mistakes on the part of the philosophers, but, as Melzer argues, this apparent stupidity is really a deeper form of cleverness. Contradictions appear in a specific configuration: Orthodox views are often strategically positioned at the beginning and end of a work (where conventional readers are most likely to notice them and be mollified by their comforting presence), while opposing, unorthodox views are safely tucked away in the least exposed portions of a text (often right in the middle), to be ferreted out only by intrepid readers. To speak in spy language: The task of the esoteric reader is to distinguish the true information an author is trying to convey from the disinformation he deploys to distract and confuse his enemies.

Such a bare summary cannot do justice to the subtlety and persuasiveness of Melzer’s argument. Philosophy Between the Lines is a rhetorical tour de force. For one thing, Melzer has spent years accumulating hard evidence from the history of philosophical discourse attesting to the widespread use of esoteric writing. These statements could not be more straightforward and explicit. For example, in his article on Aristotle in Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-97), Pierre Bayle writes: “The method of the ancient masters was founded on good reasons. They had dogmas for the general public and dogmas for the disciples initiated into the mysteries.” In a 1773 letter, Denis Diderot wrote to fellow esoteric writer François Hemsterhuis: “You are one example among many others where intolerance has constrained the truth and dressed philosophy in a clown suit, so that posterity, struck by their contradictions, of which they don’t know the cause, will not know how to discover their true sentiments.” Melzer’s most telling quotation is appropriately from Machiavelli (in a letter to the Italian historian Guicciardini):

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.

Anyone who thinks that esoteric writing is a fantasy dreamed up by the philosophical equivalent of conspiracy theorists needs to read this book. The evidence Melzer has compiled is overwhelming, and if that isn’t enough, he has put together a website with even more testimonials to the existence of esoteric writing (95 single-spaced pages of relevant quotations).

Melzer is also skilled at anticipating objections to his argument and neutralizing sources of resistance to his claims. Aware of what a shock it initially can be to learn of the existence of esoteric writing, Melzer feels his reader’s pain. He openly acknowledges:

There are people who have a real love for esoteric interpretation and a real gift for it. I am not one of them. My natural taste is for writers who say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say. I can barely tolerate subtlety. If I could have my wish, the whole phenomenon of esoteric writing would simply disappear.

In one of his most effective rhetorical moves, Melzer begins from his own case and shows that modern readers in the Western world have a prejudice against indirect and subtle forms of communication. He cites studies (including diplomatic handbooks) that show that in many parts of the world, such as China, Japan, and Arab nations, direct and explicit communication is not the norm, but is in fact frowned upon.

As Melzer writes, in the United States and Europe, “one is expected to be direct, clear, explicit, concrete, linear, and to the point. But in most of the rest of the world, such behavior is considered a bit rude and shallow: one should approach one’s subject in a thoughtfully indirect, suggestive, and circumlocutious manner.” In analyzing what he calls “a kind of esotericism of everyday life,” Melzer emphasizes that secret writing among philosophers is not as remote from ordinary human experience as we might at first suppose. Even in the modern European and American world, we are familiar with indirect modes of communication, such as sarcasm and innuendo. Melzer refers to James C. Scott’s brilliant Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990) for documentation of the way esotericism is a basic phenomenon of human life. By directly confronting contemporary resistance to the idea of esoteric writing, and identifying it as a case of ethnocentric prejudice, Melzer defuses potential opposition to his thesis.

As Melzer shows, we inherit our prejudice against esoteric writing from the Enlightenment. Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, Enlightenment thinkers, including Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, fought against religious intolerance, government censorship of publications, and all the other establishment forces that made philosophers resort to esoteric writing in the first place. The Enlightenment hoped to create a new world in which philosophers could express their views freely in public. By the 19th century, Enlightenment thinkers in Europe and the United States had substantially achieved their goals, having established such principles as freedom of the press and separation of church and state in many communities. This triumph of the Enlightenment created a kind of historical amnesia: In the climate of a relatively free press, it became difficult to appreciate the fact that earlier oppressive conditions had driven authors to resort to various forms of subterfuge and deception in their publications. It is in the post-Enlightenment 19th century that people lost sight of the phenomenon of esoteric writing.

The Enlightenment movement complicates Melzer’s argument, and he devotes a good deal of his book to analyzing it and contrasting ancient and modern views on esoteric writing. Ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were, on the whole, comfortable with esoteric writing. In the philosophical dialogue, Plato had found, perhaps, the perfect vehicle for at once concealing and revealing his thought. (According to ancient accounts, Aristotle wrote dialogues as well, but they have been lost.) By writing esoterically, the ancient philosophers sought to protect themselves against the civic authorities who regarded their activities as subversive. But, as Melzer points out, they also acknowledged the legitimacy of the political community’s need to maintain the myths and opinions on which its authority rests. The ancient philosophers were willing to coexist with the political structures of their world and did not feel a need to overthrow them in practice. If the cities were willing to tolerate the philosophers, the philosophers were willing to tolerate the cities—as, in effect, their hunting ground for the true followers they sought to attract to the philosophic way of life. As Melzer stresses, another reason ancient philosophers wrote esoterically was to replicate in book form the kind of complex initiation procedures that oral modes of instruction make possible. In sum, for a variety of reasons, the ancient philosophers did not seek to make their ideas easily accessible in written form. They wanted to protect themselves against the unphilosophical multitude, to protect that multitude against the unsettling and disorienting effects of philosophical ideas, and to force would-be philosophers to learn to think for themselves by having to wrestle with the complexities of esoteric writing.

Ancient esotericism thus rested on the premise of a perennial tension between the philosopher, whose true home is the realm of knowledge, and the political community, which dwells in the realm of mere opinion. By challenging this assumption, modern philosophy, beginning with Machiavelli, reconceived the nature and function of esoteric writing. The ancients believed that philosophic truths would forever be the preserve of a small minority of thoughtful human beings. They did not think that philosophic truths could ever be widely diffused throughout society. But that was precisely the hope of the modern idea of Enlightenment: Philosophers could serve as the vanguard of intellectual progress and, by means of their publications, gradually educate the general public to embrace the truths of philosophy—above all, new and enlightened political principles. The famous French Encyclopedia (1751-1777) was conceived of by a group of philosophers with just this project of enlightenment in mind.

Thus, as Melzer shows, modern philosophers developed an ambivalent attitude toward esoteric writing. They still lived under the threat of various forms of censorship, persecution, and punishment, as the examples of Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and Rousseau attest. (Because of its religious heresies, Rousseau’s Émile was publicly burned in Paris by parliamentary order in 1762.) Modern philosophers proved to be as adept at esoteric writing as the ancients had been, and, indeed, the new power of print raised the stakes for all concerned in philosophical publications. In addition to wanting to protect themselves, modern philosophers shared with the ancients a sense of the pedagogical value of esoteric writing.

Yet modern philosophers developed a new form of writing, which Melzer calls political esotericism. For the first time in history, philosophers began to pursue a political program in their writings, seeking to remake modern states on philosophical principles. Enlightenment thinkers could thus foresee a time when philosophy and the political community might be reconciled. If the general public could be educated through philosophical writings to accept the principle of religious toleration—perhaps even toleration for nonbelievers—then philosophers could look forward to someday being open about their free thinking.

When the Enlightenment movement began in the 17th and 18th centuries, this outcome seemed remote, and thus modern philosophers had to continue to present their ideas esoterically, often going to the extreme of publishing their works anonymously. Indeed, once philosophers developed concrete political programs of their own, their ideas became potentially more threatening to established authorities. Still, as Melzer documents, Enlightenment thinkers could at least hope for a future moment when esotericism might no longer be necessary, and they began to develop a bad conscience about their own secret writing. For the first time in the history of philosophy, secret writing began to look like a form of cowardice, and some philosophers began to reproach others for not confronting the prejudices of their day more forthrightly. Melzer shows that much of the resistance today to the very idea of esoteric writing has its roots in the way Enlightenment authors began to question the ethics of secret writing.

As should be evident by now, Philosophy Between the Lines is much more than a scholarly treatise on the abstruse subject of esoteric writing. In order to treat his topic properly, Melzer offers no less than a history of philosophy from the ancient to the modern world. By the time he is through, he has given as good a sense as any of what it means concretely to practice philosophy. He explores the difficult problems thinkers encounter when they try to pursue truth in the face of all the obstacles society erects to such an unconventional endeavor.

In the deepest level of his analysis, Melzer draws out the full implications of the fact that modern thinkers have lost sight of the phenomenon of esoteric writing. No longer in on the secret, a modern commentator on older philosophers may well mistake their rhetorical concessions to the prejudices of their day for their genuine beliefs. In effect, modern readers let the exoteric level of earlier works of philosophy obliterate the esoteric level. The result is to underestimate massively the unconventionality—indeed, the intellectual audacity—of earlier philosophers, particularly ancients such as Plato and Aristotle. Modern thinkers began to develop the idea that all earlier philosophers were trapped in the conventional opinions of their day, a doctrine known as historicism.

As Melzer shows, it is no accident that this understanding of philosophy developed in the 19th century—that is, just when the Enlightenment triumph began to obscure the phenomenon of esoteric writing. Beginning with Hegel, and culminating with Nietzsche and Heidegger, philosophical historicism presents all human thought as occurring within limited horizons. Truth itself becomes a historical phenomenon. Philosophers are no longer viewed as having access to any kind of absolute or eternal truths, only to the limited or relative truths of the particular era in which they lived.

In short, Melzer shows how much is at stake in the subject of esoteric writing: no less than the issue of the freedom of the human intellect. By losing sight of esotericism, modern thinkers have radically changed their conception of philosophy and have come to question its original claim to be the search for true knowledge as opposed to the limited opinions of particular political communities. In the terms of Plato’s Republic, contemporary thinkers deny that the philosopher can ever ascend from the intellectual cave constituted by the city. In his most significant contribution, Melzer argues persuasively against this view, insisting that only an understanding of the use of esoteric writing in earlier philosophers can alert us to a perennial human potentiality: freedom of thought. In Melzer’s view, grasping the importance of esoteric writing is a liberating and inspiring experience:

The whole course of Western philosophical thought is not so well-known and settled as we have long thought it to be. Beneath its conventional exterior, it is more daring, original, and alive.

Although Philosophy Between the Lines is not itself an example of esoteric writing, it does operate on two levels. While offering the best introduction to esoteric writing, it is much more than a primer for the nonspecialist (although one of the most helpful chapters is entitled “A Beginner’s Guide to Esoteric Reading”). Even people who think that they are already experts on secret writing will benefit from reading this book, and not just because of its wealth of historical detail. Melzer has formulated the central issues at stake with unparalleled clarity, and he probes the subject with genuine philosophical depth. He obviously draws upon Leo Strauss’s work on esoteric writing—this book ends up being one of the best introductions to Strauss’s thought—but Philosophy Between the Lines, despite its popular touch, is not the work of a mere popularizer. With its fresh insights, it makes an original contribution to our understanding of esotericism in philosophy, and it is one of the most important books I’ve read in years.

Paul A. Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently,
of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.
Cover Image: ‘Pierrot’ by Antoine Watteau (ca. 1718)