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
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.
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