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. 


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