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. 


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.