Danger of a Straussian revival

Modern man’s main intellectual vice is his complacency.  The elite consensus–atheism, utilitarianism, egalitarianism–he takes to be self-evident truth, and he dismisses all other views as “ignorance” unworthy of serious consideration.  A standing rebuke to this complacency is the existence of great minds in the past, of men who were unarguably wise or ingenious who weren’t 21st century Westerners transplanted to other times and places.  Now, suppose someone comes along to say that this is not true, an atheist Jew who has found the secret to reading the giants of the past “esoterically”, and, lo, he finds that they were all secretly pretty much atheist Jews just like him!  So in fact there is no reason to worry that intelligent men of the past believed differently than we do, because they didn’t.  Citing their arguments to the contrary just proves that you’re one of the suckers.  Plato may have written metaphysical and political works of great profundity, but that was just a smokescreen behind which is the real message, for elite consumption only:  there is no God, all authority is based on lies, all traditions are lies, all communities are founded on lies.  Beneath the wise man is the paranoid adolescent.  So there’s no point in bothering with the past at all, because once one starts reading an author esoterically, one is bound to read in one’s own preconceptions.

In this age of the smug new atheist, is not esotericism an idea whose time has come?  I’m afraid so.  In the above link, Damon Linker claims that Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines vindicates the Straussians.  You might say that Strauss himself was not quite that bad, and I haven’t read enough of him to dispute that, but really it doesn’t matter.  Once this esoteric principle is admitted, the modern mind has a shield to close itself from the wisdom of the past, to be able to read the classics without learning anything from them.

How worthwhile is classical thought really if it comes down to stuff like this?

Take the account of the “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic…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.)

Notice that Bloom’s first exposure is itself a lie.  I needn’t even go looking to obscure aboriginal tribes to disprove his “every society” claim.  Let’s just start with the two societies that every educated Westerner should know about:  the Jews record forthrightly their extermination of their land’s previous inhabitants, and the Romans liked to imagine that they were transplanted Trojans.  The next two lies are only lies if one assumes that restricted group membership and political authority are in fact always illegitimate, and that it’s never empirically true that a national body is largely interbred.

This is, in fact, my main objection to what little of Leo Strauss I’ve actually read, and not just the writings of his obnoxious followers–this belief that serious thought always begins with the rejection of religion and tradition.  In the history of philosophy, that’s not how it usually worked.  Alasdair MacIntyre’s telling of moral enquiry proceeding within traditions seems much closer to the truth.  (Then again, MacIntyre read Aristotle exoterically, so presumably he’s just one of the suckers.)  In any case, if philosophy begins in apostasy and ends in the same place, what’s impressive about it?  Its conclusions are a restatement of its premises.

There is hope, however, that esotericism will mean less than the Straussians think.  Steve Sailer has also read Melzer’s book and reports

Melzer notes:

It is only from later sources—Plutarch, Cicero and others—that we first hear what has been broadly accepted ever since (including by contemporary scholars), that Aristotle’s corpus was divided into two broad categories of writings: a set of earlier, popular works, addressed to a wide audience (the now-lost dialogues and perhaps some other writings) and the more exacting, strictly philosophical works, addressed to the Lyceum’s inner circle, which includes virtually all the works we now possess.

This passage, however, explains why Philosophy Between the Lines is less than a bombshell. The Straussians haven’t uncovered a Dan Brown-like trove of secret writings by the greats. Instead, most of what has come down to us is the esoteric itself, while the theorized façade works have been lost to time and indifference. After all, before the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, most philosophy was preserved either by trained disciples of the inner circle or by rival philosophers who had excellent reading comprehension skills…

One finding from Melzer’s chronological list of quotations is that there is little of even Gibbon’s kind of Tory political cynicism on display until Boccaccio in the 14th century points out the ancient alliance between kings and the poets who propagandized for them. (Similarly, nobody in Melzer’s list accuses the writers of the past of sexual hypocrisy until Montaigne in the 16th century.) Instead, virtually all the great minds were what would today be considered extreme conservatives and probably fascists.

So maybe the Straussians have just misread (“esoterically” read, if you prefer) yet another book.

34 Responses

  1. Bonald,

    Aside from his “esoteric” thesis, what are your general thoughts about Strauss? Do you think that many on the right, particularly a certain clique of libertarians/paleo-cons way over state Strauss’s influence? Some on the right have condemned Strauss for the wrong reasons- namely when Strauss rightly distinguished between pre-modern and modern notions of natural rights.

    I also found Alain de Benoist’s work on Schmitt, wherein he addresses Schmitt’s relationship with Strauss interesting. De Benoist was arguing against a litany of paranoid libertarian charges.

  2. It is easy to overuse the word gnosticism, but the practice of appropriating alien texts by reinterpretation is really at the heart of gnosticism. For the gnostic, every text tells the same story, which just happens to be the gnostic’s story. That is, every text rightly understood!

    I remember being impressed with Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind all those years ago, but now think he had nothing to complain of. Once you have detached all signifiers from their natural signifieds, it’s hard to convince people that any way you reattach them is not arbitrary. Those who claim to have an esoteric reading cannot complain when they get mugged by a deconstructionist who claims that all readings are arbitrary or self-interested.

  3. Well, as Steve points out, a lot of ancient philosophers didn’t find polytheism particularly persuasive. And they didn’t want to be too blatant about that.

    However, as Steve also points, out, this wasn’t that deeply hidden a secret.

  4. IIRC, Hobbes is also used as an example by Straussians. But while Hobbes was certainly a modernist, and believed in a weird materialist version of God similar to the God of the ancient Epicureans, he wasn’t an out and out atheist.

  5. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  6. As Socrates said: “Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself…”

    An appeal to the records of the past is always and inevitably an appeal to one’s own interpretation of them for, “σεμνῶς πάνυ σιγᾷ” – they preserve a solemn silence.

  7. @Bonald – My feeling is that the 1980s had the last ever serious (semi-) resurgence of secular conservatism; which was doomed to fail as are all secular conservatisms.

    The US had Bloom and Saul Bellow (and apparently behind them Strauss), and Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray…

    Here in the UK the movement was led by Roger Scruton with his Salisbury Review and various books he published on the intellectual history of conservatism back to the Ancient Greeks and up to now.

    I know and met nearly all of the UK ‘New Right’ authors personally (via RAD Grant who was Scruton’s best friend and right-hand-man-behind-the-scenes), or have co-written in their magazines and books – via think tanks such as the Liberty, the Social Affairs Unit or Civitas – that was what I used to be.

    A few on the New Right were Christians, some were even priests – but they didn’t put it into their writings, except as a mode of encouraging social cohesion etc. It inhabited secular public discourse, uses secular (hedonic) arguments – like Steve Sailer does currently, or Dennis Mangan (to name two bloggers whom I like greatly and count as penfriends).

    Well, we wrote witty polemical books and articles for each other, we got into the mass media, we grew older (I was by some margin the youngest at a Liberty Fund conference I attended 20 years ago) – we got absolutely nowhere. As was inevitable, because there is no real secular Right and never can be.

    Last year’s micro-revival – always tiny and already almost dead (hardly any of the original blogs are active – and Alt Right journal – where originally Christians such as Jim Kalb, Mark Hackard and myself wrote – has been left to the secular fascists ) – I mean the pseudo-sensation of Neo-reaction/ Dark Enlightenment/ Manosphere secular Right was nothing by comparison with the 80s-90s New Right – nothing at all.

    The secular Right boasted a lot of very smart people and very good writers (the recently deceased Ken Minogue was another) is just a waste of time, a diversion of energy, a confusion of thought.

    Jim Kalb is now writing for Catholic papers, Mark Hackard has his own Russian/ Orthodox blog – and that is what the Right should do. If someone is in a church, then they should write for that church.

  8. BC:

    As was inevitable, because there is no real secular Right and never can be.

    Boom.

    These explicitly-not-explicitly-religious forms of rightism are always stillborn. Like the characters in The Sixth Sense, they are dead — they just don’t know that they are dead. Any political movement not explicitly religious in its commitments eventually either becomes explicitly religious or self-immolates in a fit of atheistic nihilism.

  9. Michael Paterson-Seymour:

    As Socrates said: “Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself…”

    Modern positivists and postmoderns are completely clueless about the fact that they are making crude epistemic errors which have been known to be crude epistemic errors for millennia. That’s where we-are-who-we’ve-been-waiting-for present-moment triumphalism inevitably ends: in a gibbering infantile mind trap of its own making.

  10. As Bonald has noted, the external focus of people like Sailer or Charles Murray or Roissy/Heartiste is valid, in so far as it goes. But it is radically incomplete, and can’t motivate anybody.

  11. Mainstream libertarians are disproportionately influential, but really they only keep the hardcore left wingers from inflicting too much immediate damage to society.

  12. A lot of the better secular conservatives, like Scruton, seem to have abandoned their former position, and just become religious conservatives.

  13. Someone like Peter Leithart on the Reformed side has come to a position an awful lot like the Orthosphere’s, without ever having engaged with folks like us. Revival will come out of individual churches, not through groups whose focus is politics per se.

    This doesn’t preclude co-operation and mutual influence, but it does mean that groups like the Orthosphere are of highly limited use.

  14. once one starts reading an author esoterically, one is bound to read in one’s own preconceptions.

    It’s strange that every person who knows Morse Code has the same preconceptions about this video. But, but, but once you *know* Morse Code it isn’t esoteric any more! Which is the point. Esoteric means hidden from the masses, from the ones who lack a decoder ring.

    When someone claims to have a decoder ring, they might turn out to be lying or insane (like the clowns Bonald discusses). This does not prove that decoder rings do not exist. It does not prove that inside jokes do not exist. As Zippy is fond of explaining, context does at least as much work as text.

    The guy in the video is acting weird. Something about his eyes. So, even if you don’t have the decoder ring, you might suspect something is going on. I’m not into shortband radio listening, but people who are say they hear transmissions which sound like a bunch of beeps or bursts of near white noise or bizarre phrases repeated. These things have esoteric meanings which the shortwave buffs just don’t happen to know. It’s a thing in cryptography to try to hide encrypted messages in seemingly ordinary texts or pictures or videos or whatnot. It’s not all that easy to do. Esoterica tends to make a mess.

  15. Mainstream libertarians are disproportionately influential, but really they only keep the hardcore left wingers from inflicting too much immediate damage to society.

    Mainstream libertarians are shoe-shine boys. They are influential the way anchormen are influential. Which is to say, not the tiniest little bit.

    The whole libertarian movement was cooked up in the seventies. Pure astroturf. Just go to some meetings in the libertarian movement. The only psychologically normal people you will find are in the direct or somewhat indirect employ of plutocrats. It’s corporate guys in suits uneasily gazing at the meager audience of damaged freaks.

  16. Which is to say, not the tiniest little bit.

    Oh, please. Most lefties want everything to be run directly by the government. The libertarians successfully kept that from happening. Most governments know they need capitalism to keep the goodies flowing. For now.

  17. Anyway, I was basically just quoting James Kalb.

  18. There are few people on earth whose political opinions I respect as much as Jim Kalb’s, but libertarianism is just the weak-minded idiot sidekick of liberalism.

  19. I don’t know Zippy, I would say that Libertarianism is liberalism distilled. Hence why libertarianism never quite wins in toto is because most people at least intuitively realize that a pure libertarian order would destroy society. Unfortunately, it seems the US is getting closer and closer to a purely libertarian order.

  20. Uh, the original points were that:

    1. Libertarians have had disproportionate influence.
    2. Their influence has helped keep liberal societies from immediately self destructing.

    I see nothing in the comments that really contradicts either of those assertions. Of course, neither right nor left-liberalism is sustainable in the long run.

  21. TMWWT:

    Their influence has helped keep liberal societies from immediately self destructing.

    It hasn’t though. That is a misreading of what has happened.

    Liberalism has not sustained itself because of libertarian influence; it has sustained itself by making unprincipled exceptions (‘hidden’ or denied assertions of substantive discriminating authority), generally speaking.

    Libertarians are particularly autistic about this, but it is true of all of liberalism as a unity.

    A ‘purified’ libertarianism (a libertarianism lacking unprincipled exceptions) wouldn’t last a day, any more than any other ‘purified’ form of liberalism.

  22. Uh, Libertarianism has never at any point history stopped the state from growing.Libertarians also join forces with other liberals on some of the most destructive aspects of modernity, such as gay marriage, abortion and the drug culture. So no they don’t keep liberal societies from self-destruction, rather than help put their foot on the accelerator of the car speeding toward the cliff.

    To add on to what Zippy is saying, I would also echo Patrick Deneen when he notes that liberalism has gotten on as it has because it has been able to parasitically feed on the social and cultural milieus of pre-modern societies and that pre-modern reservoir is fast running out.

  23. Keep digging.

  24. Keep digging.

    I want to stop derailing Bonald’s post, so this will be my last reply, but your “point” that libertarians have somehow stopped left-liberals is ridiculous, my comment stands that libertarians have done nothing* to stem the tide of statism and have only helped to accentuate liberalism’s triumph in the moral realm. Why this inter-liberal dispute should matter to a traditionalist makes little sense to me anyway. I do know that the last thing we need is another pro-libertarian traditionalist.

  25. […] Hanson (doubly indirectly) on esoteric writing. (Bonald objects.) […]

  26. Ita:

    … libertarians have done nothing* to stem the tide of statism…

    It is much worse than that. It isn’t just that right-liberalism has done nothing to oppose left liberalism, though the contention that it has is indeed ludicrous. Right liberalism is a cause and sustaining engine of left liberalism. Left liberalism could not possibly have gotten as far as it has without the constant help and protection of its idiot sidekick.

  27. Oh, please. Most lefties want everything to be run directly by the government.

    In 1948. There is no left like that any more. The central planning left is a figment of libertarians’ imaginations (well, not really: for the demented ones it is a fig of the imag, for the normal ones it is the product they are selling).

    The left officially stopped being about economics and became about culture at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention. Soon thereafter, the libertarian movement was formed, endlessly to distract us with fantasies that the socialism the “left” had given up on remained a real threat.

    Have no fear though TMWW, if you believe the advertising hard enough, then a new Mopar really will make you cool and popular with the ladies.

  28. I’m sorry for not replying to comments. We’ve had two sick girls, and I’ll probably still be busy for another day.

  29. The left officially stopped being about economics and became about culture at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention. Soon thereafter, the libertarian movement was formed, endlessly to distract us with fantasies that the socialism the “left” had given up on remained a real threat.

    I agree to some extent. However, they do continue to back certain social welfare programs as a means of helping people get away with their immorality on all sorts of levels. This is why libertarianism appeals to certain types of social conservatives to some extent: Libertarianism would make it harder for folks to get away with their immorality on us religious folks’ dimes. No free birth control under libertarianism, after all. That isn’t any reason to hop onto the libertarian bandwagon hook-line-and-sinker, but it is what attracts American Conservatives to it, despite the fact libertarianism is a bigger electoral loser than staunch social conservatism ever though of being, even in our demented society.

  30. Bonald,

    I think you are making it unnecessarily complicated. The important thing is that the common man lives in a cartoonish world of clearly identifiable objects and actors and consequences. Poke that dog and he bites you and that will hurt you, he understands that. Exoteric teachings work with this cartoon world, try to give people teachings that help them to make their ego smaller and their lives functional.

    Esotericism is meant for those who already have defeated their egos to a certain extent and thus have at least a _longing_ for leaving their existence as mere individuals, and have this _longing_ for transcending it and experiencing the fundamental oneness of everything way beyond their individual selfs. They do not need a cartoon god who is like a 1000th level wizard but they can deal with a more metaphysically abstract god (deus caritas est, not deus caritas habet) or even making a jump to replacing the concept of god (as something separate from the world) with the fundamental oneness of the world. They no longer need to be driven by promises of pleasure, pain and judgement and retribution, nor promises of rewards, they feel a certain sainthood is its own reward, because, like in Matrix 2, it brings them directly to The Source.

    The common man, needs to be told, for his own good and that of society, by exoteric philosophy and religion, that you are strictly forbidden from killing and stealing or else. The self-transcending wise man, driven by esoteric teachings, understands the utility in trying to become the kind of man who does not even feel desire to kill and steal.

    An intelligent man simply CANNOT accept exoteric tradition straight. It shows a too cartoonish world.

    It already stops at prayer – it is obviously so that a benevolent and wise being will not function so that he initially denies your request but if you give him a good “pretty please with sugar on top of it” with a good helping of self-abasement, then his heart will be moved and grant your request nevertheless. This is a 6 years olds mental model of how Daddy works, not an intelligent mans model about the source of creation. I mean I hope even you as a parent are more consistent than that, and once you deny a request you will not be moved by prayer i.e. a lot of sugary asking and begging. So God cannot possibly work like the way most praying people think he works. That they pray for an ill relative and a very inconsistent God-Daddy will be moved and grant him health. Surely not.

    Therefore, the intelligent man will either pray in an esoteric way: use prayer as a tool to train his mind to be more humble, or he will reject prayer altogether.

    The intelligent man will be either esoteric, understanding how all those teachings are merely symbolic or have psychological and other utilities, or else he will lose the battle against his ego and become a Dawkins.

  31. It must be lonely being an uncommon man. Still, consider that the danger I mention might be real. There are apparently very intelligent thinkers of the past who apparently argued that monism and pantheism are false and that your model of prayer excludes the I-Thou encounter with God that is the essence of the thing. You will never know if there’s actually anything to this case for “exoteric” theism, because you’ve decided that all great thinkers have always secretly agreed with you, so there’s no point investigating alternatives that are only espoused by idiots like me. It’s impossible to prove whether or not you’re right about all these dead writers, but ascribing esoteric beliefs (invariably one’s own) to them does mean that if the issues aren’t really quite as simple as you think, you’ll never realize it.

  32. ” It’s impossible to prove whether or not you’re right about all these dead writers…”

    No, indeed, for as Socrates says, “σεμνῶς πάνυ σιγᾷ” – they preserve a solemn silence.

  33. Er… you mean, I approched the issue from the viewpoint of intellectual vanity? It is possible, but it was not my intention. Nevertheless I do know I am vulnerable to this kind of thing. Neither do I consider you to be an idiot, I actually think you are far smarter than me, I have learned a lot from your blog.

    All right then, who are those highly intelligent writers of the past, who are exoteric and yet manage to present neither man nor God as too personal?

    Because, hopefully we may agree in that, personalism CANNOT be intelligent. By personalism I mean distinction, discrimination, and an emotional kind, like “I hate you” and “I love you in an exclusive” way.

    I find it obvious that any intelligent view does not ascribe neither man nor God anything like “I want” but goes beyond this limited, personal view.

    Or maybe it is intellectual vanity giving me this kind of obviousness, too.

    Still, I think at the end of the day, by definition, there cannot be any kind of intelligent wisdom that does not point towards the universe being one undifferentiated blob where everything is one with everything and there is no distinction and difference. I.e. the wisdom of the differentiating mind is obviously pointing towards its own noble suicide. I am a non-theist buddhist but I would believe this if I was a theist, for then God would be the source of everything, so tracing everything back to God would collapse every difference into one undifferentiated blob.

    So whom should I read?

  34. Going to call me out on that one, hey? It’s a very good question. With my “I-Thou” talk, I’m obviously alluding to Martin Buber, who’s only freshly dead by great thinker standards. Thomas Aquinas also held that eros is an essential part of charity, which he identified as friendship with God. Thomas’s metaphysics can also be seen as an attempt to affirm one subsistent act of existence while maintaining the real distinctness of other beings, especially in his argument with the Arabs over the contingency of God’s creation. I don’t particularly recommend reading Thomas, though, because of his habit of briefly touching every topic, rather than taking the time to fully explore/explain/rigorously argue a few. Establishing the distinction between God and creation has been a key focus of Christian theologians. In the Latin West, it has been driven by the categories of beings with vs. without potency and contingent vs. necessary beings. In the Palamite East, attention focuses on which aspects of God one can participate in–His energies vs. His essence.

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