What if Leo Strauss was right?
A new book by Arthur Melzer convincingly defends Strauss' theory of esotericism, which could have major repercussions on Western thought
Maybe it was Irving Kristol's fault.
When the intellectual godfather of neoconservatism pointed to Leo Strauss as a seminal influence on his thinking, the stage was set for a seemingly endless season of journalistic silliness.
I can just imagine how it started.
"Why are the neocons in and around the Bush administration so intent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein?" asks an intrepid reporter some time during the fall of 2002. "I just don't get it."
"Hey, look at this: Bill Kristol's father refers to Leo Strauss in this 1995 memoir," a colleague in the newsroom responds. "I've heard that Strauss was some kind of conservative guru. And people say he believed in secrets and advocated lies. I think I'm onto something."
"Well, looking at his books, I'm not seeing any arguments in favor of preemptive war or the wisdom of imposing liberal democracy on the Muslim Middle East by military force. Come to think of it, there aren't many specific references to politics at all. Just lots of paraphrases of Plato and Xenophon, Maimonides and Hobbes."
"Oh, yeah? It says here that Bill Kristol studied with Harvey Mansfield, who's a Straussian. And Paul Wolfowitz studied with Allan Bloom, and he's a Straussian, too. And Abram Shulsky at the Office for Special Plans in the Pentagon was a student of Strauss himself! I think we've found our smoking gun…"
In the 12 years since this conversation (or one very much like it) sparked a million ill-informed, fantastical hit pieces on Strauss for his insidious influence on the administration of George W. Bush, a series of Strauss' students and admirers have stepped forward to defend his work: Steven Smith, Thomas Pangle, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, Peter Minowitz.
There's much to recommend in each of these books. But for my money, the best by far is Arthur Melzer's just published study, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. And yes, I would have come to that judgment even if I hadn't studied with the author in graduate school. Melzer has written the most compelling, surprising, and persuasive defense of Strauss's thought that I have ever read. It deserves a wide and appreciative audience. And if it gets one, the consequences could be enormous.
Because if Strauss was right in the way he interpreted the Western philosophical tradition, then much of modern scholarship — and, by extension, our civilization's understanding of its intellectual and political inheritance — will need to be radically revised.
Staying far away from questions of foreign (or any other kind of) policy, Melzer has chosen as his subject Strauss' notorious assertion that virtually all philosophers up until the early 19th century wrote their books "esoterically" — that is, using a rhetoric of concealment, with a surface teaching meant for general readers and a hidden teaching for those who were intelligent, clever, and tenacious enough to uncover it. This contention has been dismissed by most non-Straussian scholars, who have tended to suggest that Strauss projected the phenomenon onto most of the canonical authors he discussed in his many learned books and essays.
Melzer supplies a mountain of evidence in support of Strauss' claims — quotes from just about every major philosopher (and many other writers) from ancient Greece to 19th-century Germany testifying to the reality of esotericism. (An online appendix of supporting quotes and citations runs about 100 pages.) It seems that up until roughly two centuries ago, almost every culturally educated person took for granted that books of philosophy (and sometimes also works of scripture and literature) were written in a style of deliberate obscurity.
In some of the most intriguing sections of the book, Melzer proposes various explanations for how such a widely acknowledged practice could have come to be almost entirely forgotten, only to be single-handedly recovered by Strauss in the mid-20th century. Esoteric writing offends our democratic sensibilities (which assume that in principle everyone is capable of discovering the truth); it runs afoul of the norms of modern scholarship (which assume truths should be publicized and made available equally to all); and it clashes with the modern West's valorization of clarity and directness in communication. As Melzer shows through an engagement with recent research in anthropology and comparative rhetoric — and even a perusal of Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook — most societies outside of the modern West have prized (and to this day continue to prize) indirect, implicit, ambiguous modes of speaking and writing.
It was within such cultures that esoteric writing arose and was practiced, and the bulk of Melzer's book is devoted to elaborating four philosophical motives for writing in a style of deliberate obscurity.
Like dissident intellectuals toiling in fear behind the Iron Curtain, philosophers prior to the rise of modern liberal democracies usually found themselves in politically oppressive regimes where their intellectual investigations ran the risk of arousing suspicion of disloyalty or treason. (The case of Socrates' execution for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens is the iconic example, but there are many others.) This led to the use of what Melzer calls defensive esotericism, in which a thinker deliberately conceals the most radical aspects of his thought in order to protect himself from persecution.
Pedagogical esotericism, meanwhile, presumes that readers who are capable of philosophic wisdom will be more likely to acquire it if they learn to think for themselves by following hints and suggestions in the text, rather than having such wisdom spoon-fed to them by the author.
Then there's political esotericism, which was employed mainly in the early modern period by philosophers associated with the Enlightenment who hoped to bring about the liberalization of politics and society, creating a more tolerant world in which most forms of philosophic self-concealment would no longer be necessary.
Though some may quibble with Melzer's presentation of these three styles of esotericism, none of them challenge prevailing assumptions as much as the mode of writing that he dubs protective esotericism. Elaborated in a 40-page chapter titled "Dangerous Truths," this is the most thoroughly "Straussian" section of the book, and the one that raises the most troubling questions — not just for scholars but for all thoughtful human beings.
Following philosopher Karl Popper in describing tolerance-based liberal democracies as "open" societies, Melzer sharply contrasts them with just about every other form of society the world has ever known. These are comparatively "closed" societies based on settled and largely unquestioned customs that are themselves founded on authoritative claims about the divine origins of the political community, the human race, and the universe as a whole.
Philosophy originally arose as a way of life singularly devoted to determining whether a particular society's customs are good and whether its origin stories are true. This placed philosophy in a fundamentally antagonistic position to society, which understandably viewed radical philosophical questioning as a grave threat. Theory and practice, contemplation and social-communal-moral life, were presumed to stand in ineradicable tension with one another. It was because of this seemingly permanent tension that philosophers chose to practice protective esotericism.
Today, in societies that allow and even encourage the criticism that virtually all other forms of political life have sought to control or stamp out, philosophers are perfectly free to pose any subversive question they wish. Yet Melzer wants his readers to see that even our own open societies typically refrain from questioning certain foundational customs and opinions — and that the pursuit of philosophic wisdom requires that we subject even these most cherished convictions to relentless examination and scrutiny.
Take the account of the "noble lie" in Plato's Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.
On Melzer's reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss' student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.
Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others — in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else — and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them — coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)
In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn't to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.
Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.
Strauss didn't teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.
Toward the end of his book, Melzer urges scholars and other interested readers to undertake esoteric interpretations of the entire Western philosophical tradition, at least up through the end of the 18th century. If he merely meant to encourage careful, creative readings of old texts, the suggestion would be a little banal.
But of course that isn't all that Melzer has in mind. After all, his invitation follows an elaborate (and remarkably persuasive) effort to establish not only that pre-modern writers wrote esoterically but also why they did so — in part to shield society from truths that puncture the ersatz nobility of politics and point beyond it altogether, toward the fully examined life of philosophy.
A world in which readers regularly produced revisionist esoteric interpretations that exposed these truths to the light of day would be one in which our understanding of the Western philosophical tradition was radically transformed. It would, for one thing, look far more deeply skeptical, profoundly anti-utopian, and brutally realistic about the permanent problems of political and moral life than it is usually presumed to be.
If Leo Strauss was right, we have an awful lot of thinking — and rethinking — ahead of us.