A Strauss of Cards

There can be no denying that esotericism flourished at certain times. But Arthur Melzer’s new book, far from proving his case, has weakened it by the careless way he deals with his sources. 

July-August 2015

Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 464 pp., $45.00.


ARTHUR M. MELZER, who is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, published a well-regarded study of Rousseau in 1990 that conformed to scholarly decorum, provided abundant citations from his subject’s works and canvassed alternative interpretations. The same cannot be said of Philosophy Between the Lines, which has received numerous laudatory reviews, including one from Francis Fukuyama in the American Interest stating that Melzer has performed “a great service in directing us to a lost tradition, restoring the dignity of textual interpretation, and seeking to rescue the reputation of Leo Strauss.” In fact, he has done nothing of the kind.

Melzer’s book is as much a manifesto as a scholarly study of “reading between the lines.” He provides a full apparatus of endnotes, but many of the writers cited never said what he says they did. Promulgating something of a lifesaving message to the Gentiles about the need to return to the wisdom of the ancients, he is unbothered by inconsistencies, both large and small. After portentously warning about the practice of reading books—it can foster an “enfeebling passivity” and “excessive trust and dependence on the author”—he goes on to recommend a list of works about Thucydides. One happens to be by Leo Strauss, who is in a roundabout way the author of this work, since Melzer’s principal theses derive from his seminal Persecution and the Art of Writing, along with generous helpings from later writings of the great political philosopher. While Strauss was indeed a powerful thinker, he was not infallible when it came to textual interpretation and could sometimes take great liberties with his translations of original works.

Melzer, whose title pays homage to Strauss (the phrase “between the lines” recurs with metronomic regularity in Persecution and the Art of Writing), sets it at the heart of his defense against Strauss’s cultured despisers. They dismiss the idea of writing between the lines, or esoteric writing, as an elitist and antidemocratic practice in which access to knowledge, to the truth, is to be confined to the few who can decipher the riddling texts of their intellectual superiors. And so it was until the end of classical antiquity, writes Melzer, who professes for his own part to be anything but a fan of the practice. Rather, he depicts himself as a disinterested historian intent on reminding his auditors that around the dawn of the nineteenth century, awareness of esoteric writing faded away.

Until then, every literate person, it seems, was aware of it. So secret writing was, in fact, no secret at all? Maybe hinting that you possessed something—a tidbit that you were really reluctant to reveal—was something of a come-on, a way to elicit interest. At any rate, Melzer’s profession of dislike for esotericism seems disingenuous, for the dominant sentiment in his book is nostalgia. Indeed, he derives the need for esoteric writing not just from fear of persecution but also from human nature as such. Dislike would then be just a personal opinion, a quirk of his personality. Clearly he regards it as much more.

As it happens, my own interest in the matter is quite personal. From 1953 until I left for the University of Heidelberg in 1958, I attended Strauss’s biweekly lectures at the University of Chicago’s Harper Hall off the Midway. I date my intellectual awakening to the day I first heard Mr. Strauss, as his students always called him, put to rest the specter of historicism. His renewal of the eighteenth-century quarrel of the ancients and moderns (spoofed in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books) on behalf of the ancients was spellbinding.

That Strauss should have exerted such magnetism may seem puzzling. Unassuming in demeanor, bald and wearing owlish glasses, he was a mild-mannered man who read off intricate analyses in a fairly monotone voice from a meticulously prepared text. Still, as a teacher he seemed to be a paragon of learning and he fit right in, during the presidency of Robert Maynard Hutchins, with his emphasis on the Great Books. He rarely improvised, but to great effect when he did. Certain lines remain unforgettable: “Man is that part of the whole that is open to the whole.” Or: “Plato’s ideas are really the problems.” He attracted so many gifted students that, as my contemporary Stanley Rosen later observed, “in the 1950s, there was already something like a Strauss ‘school.’”

Officially a professor of political science, he rarely touched upon the field’s concerns, and then only disparagingly. Every half hour or so, he would pause to light a cigarette and calmly puff away in front of a sign affixed to the blackboard: “Smoking Strictly Prohibited by Order of the Fire Marshal.” No marshal ever appeared to enforce the edict. The true thinker, it seemed, could safely ignore restrictions meant for lesser faculty. Nomos had to give way to physis. In antinomian mode, he spent several hours that were supposed to be devoted to Plato’s Laws to savaging a tedious new book by David Easton, a prominent member of his department who championed analyzing quantitative data to arrive at theories that could supposedly predict political behavior with scientific accuracy. The tactlessness of reproving a colleague never seemed to cross his mind. His was the Socratic conviction that you should rejoice in being refuted—what could be worse than to be ignorant and not know it? This parrhesia (Athenian for candor) left a deep impression upon all of us. Strauss’s mild, unruffled manner, then, veiled a combative streak.