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. 



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.