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A Strauss of Cards

June 15, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: HistoryLeo StraussEsotericism

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. 

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.

 

Nowhere was that combativeness more conspicuous than in his war against historicism. Historicism was not the view that epochs succeed one another, and that it was imperative to study them. Rather, it meant that even the greatest philosophers and thinkers were the intellectual hostages of their own era’s conventions. Consider the dwellers in Plato’s famous image of the cave. Shackled so that they can only look ahead, they confuse the images cast on the wall before them with real beings. Only a few ascend to descry the real world, lit by the sun, not artificial fires.

The historicist denies that anyone can escape. Hegel, for instance, taught that the most profound thinkers are those that best captured the spirit of their own age, or rather of the age just past—the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. Hegel helped usher in das historische Jahrhundert, the century devoted to history. Timeless truths made way for such as were possible within a certain historical horizon. Plato’s ideas could be studied as a historical artifact; they were no longer live options. The Ideas had become just ideas. Implicit was the notion that progress, with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, had suffered a pounding from which it could not recover.

 

 

ENTER STRAUSS. If a feeling of decline was in the air, he seemed to offer the hope of surmounting it. A good part of his attraction came from the hope he instilled that it was possible to combine the close study of old, neglected texts with a search for the truths embedded in them. It was now possible, under Strauss’s guidance, to rediscover the wisdom of the ancients. We read, not as antiquarians, but as philosophoi, lovers of wisdom. Strauss showed the way to a much more profound way of reading, one that liberated the greats from the shackles that the historicists had imposed upon them. Why mostly old texts? The moderns had dug a pit beneath the cave, so that one first had to reach its floor if there was to be any chance of escape. With the assistance of the classic texts, we might just succeed.

The task propounded by Strauss seemed particularly urgent because a sense of unease and peril was the dominant mood, particularly on university campuses, which were buffeted by fears of Communism and McCarthyism. The euphoria of 1945 had dissipated. In Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, in an act of stunning insubordination, had drawn the Chinese into the war and made it unwinnable. That World War II had ended with the explosions of two atomic bombs seemed to signal the moral bankruptcy of modern science (the first controlled chain reaction had taken place in Stagg Field, just a few blocks north of Harper Hall). Liberalism, still in the ascendant but showing signs of age, felt like a squishy sponge. “Life adjustment” was put forward as an ideal; David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd analyzed the shift from “inner-directed” citizens in the mold of Thoreau to “outer-directed” consumers. Anyway, it wasn’t even clear that things in the past had ever been all that much better. America, it was said, had declined without even reaching a peak.

So Strauss’s message that scientific progress without attendant moral progress was a betrayal of the hopes of the Enlightenment fell on receptive ears. Might not the failings of contemporary America be symptomatic of the debility of democratic regimes as such? Strauss had only good things to say about the classical virtue of prudence. He prudently withheld radical criticism of what he called the American “regime,” but now and then he said that it was mistaken to believe that the flaws of democracy could be alleviated by more democracy. Presumably, that they might be by less was the implication.

The corrosive relativism of historicism threatened to destroy such pockets of virtue that remained. But historicism, it turned out, was itself vulnerable to attack: for one thing, it relied on a circular mode of argument. Suppose that you could understand Sophocles only if you had a firm grasp of the Greek culture from which he emerged. But the tragedies were themselves an integral part of Greek culture. Absent an understanding of the plays, Greek culture was impenetrable.

Historicism also suffered from self-reflexivity. Historicists may claim that the thought of all previous eras was confined by the historical conditions that produced it, but from where could a thinker derive suppositions of his thought if not from the world about him? Obvious examples were the Greek polis, the Roman Republic and Empire, and the mental world of feudalism. Yet this insight impales the historicist on the horns of a dilemma. Either he has to claim an exemption from his discovery that all thought is merely an expression of its age, thereby landing in a mass of contradictions, or he has to admit that this insight is as time-bound as any other. Case closed.

 

THE ESOTERICISM that Melzer discusses is central to that case. The antihistoricist, after all, must explain why later thinkers have come to believe that past philosophers were wedded to the sub-philosophic convictions of their societies. According to Melzer, the reason is that they are no longer attuned to the hints, suggestions, even to the explicit warnings that earlier thinkers inserted into their works—that they are subverting their obvious messages. Those messages echo what the authoritative voices of the culture want to have disseminated, whether sincerely or from opportunism.

But for the benefit of the curious and thoughtful incipient philosophers, the writer will smuggle in heterodox points of view, putting them in the mouth of a disreputable character, while the respectable ones toe the party line. It’s an intellectual game of hide-and-seek that flatters the reader who can think of himself as one of the happy few able to decipher the hidden message. Meanwhile, the author has put one over on the censor, who may be in the service of a Muslim or Christian regime or a secular tyranny. The seed of independent thought has been planted. In this manner he has confounded the historicist. For what is exoteric discourse but the conventional chatter that is the common currency of the age? By contrast, the esoteric subtext escapes the trammels of what everybody is thinking, or is expected to think. It’s no accident, then, that historicism arose at the very moment that esoteric writing was abandoned and then forgotten. Of course, it has to be established that authors, especially philosophers, did write between the lines. And that is what Melzer has set out to do.

There is a further twist to the story. In Persecution and the Art of Writing, which Melzer closely follows, Strauss imaginatively detailed some of the ruses by which writers could evade the censor while delivering their real, subversive messages. However, they also have another motive—the welfare of the societies in which they live. Writers may fancy themselves citizens of the world, but they live in discrete countries to which they owe their lives and livelihoods. Revolution and civil strife would expose them to the same perils as anybody else. They therefore write esoterically so as not to disturb the foundations of the civic building in which they reside. Their subversive views would, if advanced publicly, raise unsettling doubts about the salutary myths on which polities rest. All regimes have violent, brutal origins that they camouflage with patriotic, soothing national myths. The conscientious philosopher will let sleeping dogs lie. Strauss himself once commented on the folly of the French aristocrats who adopted the views of the philosophes. Similarly, philosophers who fail to dissemble, instead openly undercutting the myths that sustain civil society, invite retribution.

But Melzer never stops to ask whether Strauss had it quite right. Instead, he assumes that he did. One problem with this assumption is that citizens may enjoy hearing about violent origins. The Romans, for example, seem to have had no problem in entertaining quite scurrilous beliefs about Romulus; he murdered his brother Remus and organized the rape of the Sabine women. That may not have gone over badly with Roman men, but the reason for the rape was that the initial Romans comprised the outcasts and riffraff of other Italian towns and so lacked women. It is also the case that many biblical tales do little credit to the proto-Hebrews. A further problem would be that as Melzer has it, the exoteric teaching will be consistent with the prevailing winds of the group. For the historicist, that is the end of the matter. For Melzer, the esoteric teaching blows in the contrary direction. But why shouldn’t a historicist argue that the esoteric teaching is going to be as bound to the reigning worldview as is the exoteric? Merely to oppose or deviate from current orthodoxy does not transform you into a free-floating intellect. Yet it might still be the case that earlier writers, thinking—whether correctly or not—that writing between the lines is what they should be doing, wrote esoterically.

Medieval Jewish and Muslim thinkers clearly did. Authors under the ancien régime also had to adopt certain precautions, though, as Robert Darnton has shown in Censors At Work, most French officials were literary men who worked hard to better the books they were censoring. Books with heterodox content were apparently not submitted to censors, but printed outside France and smuggled in by large networks that resemble the drug operations of today. Darnton’s research and interviews with former East German censors convinced him that Strauss was wrong to assume that censors were dullards who could easily be outfoxed. They turned out to be highly sophisticated, as they had to be, walking a fine line between what the regime did not want published and what authors were determined to say. That, of course, tells us little about the Greeks.

In ancient Athens there were no censors. Nor would Socrates have tangled with any had they existed, for he wrote nothing. If writers were going to be miserly in broadcasting their ideas, they would have had to practice self-censorship. Melzer, by way of Strauss, discusses a well-known passage in Plato’s Phaedrus to show that Plato defended an art of dissimulation, though Strauss himself did not use that term, preferring to speak of “logographic necessity.” That means simply that each and every detail in a dialogue is essential if one is to comprehend the author’s intention. Since Plato never speaks in his own name, it’s essential to grasp the play of character; one cannot assume that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece.

In the Phaedrus, named after Socrates’s interlocutor, Socrates rather playfully discusses the Egyptian god Theuth, who, among other inventions, has come up with the art of letters (grammata). There may be a joke in this, if Plato was at all conversant with hieroglyphs and aware of how complicated they were. Before bestowing his gift on mortals, he visits King Thamus to obtain a stamp of approval. Instead of praise, however, Thamus rebukes him. “Those who acquire writing,” says the king, “will cease to exercise their memory and will become forgetful. They will rely on writing to bring things to mind not by their own internal resources but by external signs.”

This has nothing to do with secret writings, which would hardly be more beneficial to memory than being aboveboard. In the Meno, Socrates induces a slave boy to come up with a mathematical theorem out of his “own internal resources.” That is what he is driving at here. To the objection of Thamus, Socrates adds one of his own. Written words just repeat themselves: “Once something is committed to writing, it circulates indiscriminately; writing can’t distinguish between whom it should and should not address.” Melzer incorrectly infers that Plato is recommending writing between the lines since what’s between will reveal itself only to the person who has excavated it. (Strauss deals with the objection that a censor may also dig it out by assuming that the censor is not very smart, though as Darnton suggests, that’s a risky assumption.)

Thamus and Socrates, however, are not distinguishing between different kinds of writing. Quite the contrary. They are rejecting writing tout court. Socrates confines himself to engaging in prolonged conversations with fellow Athenians and visiting sophists (the intellectuals of their day, according to Strauss—it was no compliment). He negates. He does not affirm. Knowing nothing definitively about the things he would like to know, he cannot write. That is the background to the rejection of Theuth’s gift.

What’s more, it would have been dramatically inept for Plato to have suggested that Socrates favors the kind of careful writing that requires great skill and persistence on the part of the reader. Socrates is the nonwriter par excellence. Put bluntly, it is totally out of character for him to offer lessons in writing. Indeed, Plato may be providing us with insight into why Socrates refrains from writing. Through his incomparable artistry, Plato wants us to have as many readers as possible for his dialogues. In the cave simile, city and philosopher are shown to be fundamentally at odds. Deep pessimism pervades the picture. The philosopher who, after blissfully gazing at what is truly real, is compelled to return to the cave to administer its affairs. He does try to liberate the prisoners; he does not enlighten them. But Plato, by writing out Socrates’s speech about the cave, liberates us. For Socrates, writing had the drawback that a text could not choose whom to address; for Plato, perhaps this was beneficial.

 

ANOTHER TEST for esoteric writing is provided by the Epicureans. Today an Epicurean is seen as someone who is a hedonist. In antiquity, followers of Epicurus were portrayed as pigs wallowing in sensual pleasures. In fact, as Stephen Greenblatt reminds us in The Swerve, they were basically an ascetic bunch, contemptuous of wealth and luxury. They desired the pleasures of the simple life. But, so the argument went, it was impossible to enjoy them if humans spent their time quaking in fear of punishment from the gods. Epicurus proposed to banish such superstitious fears with the healing power of reason. Reason consisted principally in the theory of Democritus—the visible world of sense and sound is actually the outcome of an infinite number of tiny particles swirling about in the void. The world is not the result of intelligent design but rather the chance collisions of atoms. The gods exist, but are banished to interstellar spaces where they contemplate their navels, unable and uninterested in interfering with the lives of mortals.

Lucretius wrote an epic poem to convince his Roman compatriots that it was time to go Epicurean. The somber world of atoms and the void springs into life under the impact of his similes and metaphors. Lucretius is an apostle for ataraxia—the state of being anxiety-free that Epicureans savor. If any doctrine threatened the foundations of civic life, this was it.

Yet there is no evidence of Epicureans being persecuted or censored. True, only one manuscript of Lucretius’s poem survived into the Renaissance, but that was because of Christian, not pagan, hostility. In destroying the manuscripts of On the Nature of Things, they were acting from religious motives, not the political ones Melzer attributes to the pagan censors.

Melzer seems to believe that Lucretius practiced self-censorship. Toward the end of Book I, Lucretius reflects on his own poetic accomplishments. He displays no false modesty; the Muses themselves are about to crown him with a wreath such as no previous poet has earned. His language here is really quite traditional. What comes next is not. When giving children “a nasty taste of wormwood” to restore their health, Lucretius reminds us, we smear honey onto the lip of the cup containing the bitter potion. That is what he has done. The wormwood, Melzer contends, is the Epicurean doctrine for which religio is superstitio, while honey stands for the poetic gloss that inveigles the unsuspecting reader.

At first glance that sounds plausible. But why would Lucretius inform the reader that he is pulling the wool over his or her eyes? Furthermore, Lucretius does not hold back on his attacks on religion or gloss over the details of Epicurean physics. Unlike Socrates’s philosopher, who leaves the cave as dark as he finds it, Lucretius is determined to shine sunlight into the invisible atomic world and thereby into the world of his readers. Science and poetry do not confront each other with daggers drawn. Lucretius’s achievement was to have melded the two. The atomic world, he observed, is a poetic one.

Why, then, the wormwood? For Epicurus and his Roman disciple, after all, the atomic teaching is an invigorating one. It can bring tranquility to those Romans tormented by infantile superstitions. The answer is not far to seek: Romans, as we all know, were men of action, John Wayne types who considered themselves superior to the effete Graeculi, the “Greeklings” who would smooth talk you while filching your wallet. Philosophy was for kids. Cicero often complains about the difficulty of overcoming this attitude. For the Roman, a philosophical doctrine, especially a Greek one, is a bitter pill to swallow. Melzer provides no example of anything that Lucretius might be concealing, which is consistent with his overall discussion of the thinkers he contends practiced esotericism.

How could he? As with Lucretius’s startling observations, the truly revolutionary proposals advanced by Socrates in the Republic are perfectly out in the open: censorship of poetry, expulsion of Homer from the city, abolition of private property, community of women and children, and so on. Certainly Socrates is pushed by his interlocutors into disclosing these novelties, but no one compelled Plato to reveal them.

 

WHEN MELZER does provide a sample of esoteric writing, he goes badly astray because, to borrow his own language, of his “excessive trust and dependence” upon Strauss. Parsing a sentence in Machiavelli’s Discourses, for example, he says that he claimed that Roman authors, “forbidden to criticize Caesar . . . expressed their views covertly by criticizing Catiline.” Machiavelli, in other words, is teaching us how to criticize a tyrant safely. You attack an obvious villain whom everybody loathes and is allowed to loathe. Unfortunately, the sentence in the Discourses in 1.10 actually reads: “Anybody who wishes to know what writers, when free, would say about him (Caesar), should see what they say about Catiline.” They did not covertly attack Caesar by replacing him with Catiline. They said nothing, or praised Caesar. Had they been free, they would or should have given him the Catiline treatment.

What is revealing about this otherwise unremarkable error is how Melzer came to commit it. In his own book on Machiavelli, Strauss paraphrased the sentence in question, writing, “Since under the Roman emperors free writers could not blame Caesar, they blamed Catiline, Caesar’s luckless prefiguration.” Alas, Strauss was being a bit hasty here. This seems to be the source of Melzer’s misreading; he provides the reference to Strauss himself. Why not read the Discourses or at least check the paraphrase?

Another instance of a borrowed misreading occurs in his contention that the opening of Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians should be read esoterically. Melzer says that he takes his cue from an essay by Strauss. According to Strauss-Melzer, where Xenophon appears to be praising Spartan eugenic practices, he is actually criticizing them. Spartans, Xenophon avers, prohibit pregnant women from eating and drinking to excess, insist that they engage in athletic activities identical to those of men and allow husbands to swap wives if that will lead to more robust offspring. Is Xenophon saying all this with a straight face?

According to Melzer (quoting Strauss), Xenophon “sets up a certain structure or rhythm. . . . But . . . in one case he omits the parallel” when he fails to contrast the practice of other poleis with that of Sparta as he did in the other instances. The practice referred to is that of restricting women’s diets. The break, to be noticed only by exceedingly careful readers, such as Strauss was, alerts that reader to the concealed message, which is that Xenophon is critical of Spartan mores. (Both Plato in the Laws and Aristotle in the Politics were openly critical of Spartan institutions and ethos.) That interpretation, however, is ruled out by the fact that there is no rhythm to be broken. The sentence about diets comes at the very beginning of the series. If Melzer had looked at the passage for himself, he could not have thought that “following the established pattern, we are led to conclude that . . . Spartan women were rather licentious.” Led indeed, not by the breaking of a pattern that had not yet begun, but by Strauss indicating that it had.

What about the Noble Lie, Exhibit A in Melzer’s case? For a start, it’s not clear why the lie should be regarded as noble. Socrates introduces it with considerable embarrassment as a way to motivate the inhabitants of his polis to support it. Rational arguments, such as those in this dialogue, are insufficient. The aim of the myth is a worthy one. Both the military class and civilians are to be persuaded that they have been born and raised in the earth. “When the process of making them was complete, the earth their mother released them and now it is their duty to be responsible for defending the
country . . . against any attack—just as they would defend their mother or nurse—and to regard the rest of the citizens as their brothers, born from the earth.” A second part of the story stresses division rather than unity. It justifies the three-class system whereby the innately superior rule.

Rulers are thus justified in telling patriotic stories to their subjects, and authors to their readers—or at least this is what Melzer apparently believes Plato is suggesting. But it is most improbable that Socrates, a principled nonwriter, is covertly recommending a peculiar method of writing. Moreover, the story is to be addressed only to the utopian city in speech that he is fashioning; the class system makes little sense in any other context. Socrates is not lying to Glaucon and Adimantes. Above all, the story lacks the argumentative, philosophical substance at which an esoteric writer would hint. The myth is clearly labeled as such, just as is the myth of Er at the close of the dialogue. The entire dialogue is a kind of myth. Read in the context of that larger myth or fiction, Socrates’s “noble” lie does not authorize writing between the lines.

THERE CAN be no denying that esotericism flourished at certain times. But Melzer, far from proving his case, has weakened it by the careless way he deals with his sources. In any case, it would be a tall order to prove that Greece or Rome were hotbeds of esotericism, as any number of historical episodes attest. Consider these two: About 200 CE, for example, a wealthy citizen of Oenoanda, Diogenes, erected in the civic center of his town a long wall on which workmen inscribed the tenets of Epicurus. Like Lucretius, he was bent on saving his brethren from the grip of superstition. To build it he needed the permission of the town council. The wall stood for at least two hundred years, until Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire. Unlike Christian prelates, Roman officials did not much care what you thought as long as you paid homage to the emperor. Nor, apparently, did the Athenians who put Socrates on trial worry overly much about what people were writing, judging from the remark in his defense speech that anybody could go to the agora and plunk down two obols for an atheistic pamphlet by the philosopher Anaxagoras.

Melzer, however, is so intent on bolstering his case for esotericism that he invokes, among others, Arnaldo Momigliano and Hans-Georg Gadamer as, in effect, character witnesses for Strauss. But, as always, it pays to look up what they actually wrote about Strauss. In Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism, Momigliano makes clear his admiration for Strauss, while tactfully voicing reservations about some of the methods he employed. For Strauss’s insights, he writes, “do not depend so much on the principle of reticence as on the ability to comprehend and relate understatements, to appreciate the implicit, to become an attentive and perspicacious reader.” That is stating the obvious. It is reminiscent of the time when Strauss interrupted a lecture to ask, “How should we read?” and after an appropriate pause responded, “Carefully.” Artistry, which demands to be appraised with the greatest care, is not the same as dissembling one’s real thoughts.

And Gadamer? His comments on Strauss come toward the close of his magnum opus, Truth and Method. After complimenting Strauss on his acumen, Gadamer launches into a series of remarks, friendly but unsparing. He says that he considers Strauss a thinker with whom it is worth disagreeing. “It is by no means obvious,” he writes, “that when one finds contradictory statements in a writer, scattered here and there, that these are to be taken to be his true opinions. There exists also an unconscious conformity of the human mind . . . as well as an unconscious desire to try out extreme possibilities, even when they can’t be united into a coherent whole.” He takes to task Strauss’s frequent resort to the “schoolboy principle,” that if a child would know better than what the author is proposing, he can’t be sincere.

Melzer is at his strongest when (following Strauss), he discusses modern esotericism. This consists of what might be called provisional dissimulation; it looks forward to a time in the near future when philosophy and the polis will be reconciled and esoteric writing will no longer be necessary. Modern esotericism is skin-deep, and its practitioners desire to enlighten the greatest number of people possible in order to liberate them, in Kant’s famous phrase, from their “self-imposed tutelage.” It’s a valuable part of Melzer’s argument, and should be detached from his fanciful thesis on the esotericism of the Greeks and Romans.

Strauss’s own great contribution was to help bring about the resuscitation of classical political philosophy by forthrightly exploring the Platonic dialogues and natural right. By contrast, his thoughts on Greek and Roman esotericism, as Tucker Landy in After Leo Strauss and Roslyn Weiss in Philosophers in the ‘Republic’ underscore, are not an essential part of that project and, indeed, can be safely bypassed. This is why Melzer has not rescued Strauss’s reputation, but done him a disservice.

 

Gunther Heilbrunn is a retired classicist living in Pittsburgh, PA.

Image: Rebecca M. Miller