Sunday, January 25, 2015

Strauss, Melzer, and Esoteric Writing: "There Are No Gods But the Philosophers"

Arthur Melzer's new book--Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (University of Chicago Press, 2014)--provides massive evidence and argumentation in defense of Leo Strauss's claim that political philosophers have written esoterically for thousands of years, although in the past two centuries, this has been largely forgotten. 

And yet, Melzer's book also suggests that modern liberalism's success over the past two centuries shows that esoteric writing is not necessary or desirable in a liberal open society, which appears to refute Strauss's core teaching that the philosophic life of the few as the only naturally good life must be in conflict with the miserable life of the many that depends on moral, religious, and political delusions.

Except for Strauss's short essay on "Persecution and the Art of Writing," most of the writing by Strauss and his students on esoteric writing has been interpretations of particular philosophers as esoteric writers.  Melzer's book is the first book to offer a synoptic view of the history of esoteric writing and its philosophic implications.

His book is divided into three parts.  In the first part, he lays out the general evidence and argument for the reality of philosophical esotericism.  In the second part, he explains the four forms of philosophical esotericism: defensive esotericism, protective esotericism, pedagogical esotericism, and political esotericism.  In the last part, he explains the consequences of the recovery of esotericism by offering a guide to esoteric reading and by showing how recognizing esotericism was important for Strauss in defending reason against historicism.

In the first part, he surveys the testimonial evidence for esotericism; he explains the theoretical basis for philosophical esotericism; and he takes up the objections and resistance to esotericism.  The extent of the testimonial evidence is stunning.  In fact, it is so extensive that he offers only a sample of it in the book and refers the reader to an online appendix with 110 pages of quotations beginning with Homer and ending with Wittgenstein.

The theoretical basis of philosophical esotericism is what Melzer calls the "problem of theory and praxis."  This is the core teaching of Strauss that there must always be an irresolvable conflict between the theoretical or philosophic human being and the practical or moral human being.  These are fundamentally different types of human beings.  The very few people who can live a truly philosophic life live the only naturally good and happy kind of life, which is devoted to the quest for truth.  Most people live moral, religious, and political lives based on opinion rather than truth, and thus based on illusory goods that bring misery rather than true happiness. 

This makes esoteric writing natural, necessary, and desirable.  Those few who live philosophic lives must write esoterically to defend themselves from persecution by the many (defensive esotericism), to protect the many from being harmed by the terrible truths that philosophy discovers (protective esotericism), and to teach the secret truths of philosophy to those very few young people capable of becoming philosophers (pedagogical esotericism).

The ancient and medieval philosophers saw that this conflict between these two kinds of life--the contemplative life and the active life--was so natural, necessary, and desirable that it could never be overcome.  And therefore the premodern philosophers never attempted to establish a rational society in which all of society would be open to the truths of philosophy or science.

But the modern philosophers thought such a rational society was possible and desirable, and so they initiated the modern Enlightenment project to destroy traditional or closed societies based on opinion and to establish modern or open societies based on truth.  They saw, however, that this battle against traditional opinion would have to be fought over centuries before the triumph of the new Enlightened society.  And during this period of intellectual warfare, the philosophers would have to use a new kind of esoteric writing (political esotericism) to temporarily hide their political project of Enlightenment.  They had to employ esotericism for the sake of eventually eliminating the need for esotericism.  They would have to lie so that someday lying would be unnecessary.

Indeed, by about 1800, according to Melzer, this modern liberal project was so successful that modern philosophers no longer saw any need to hide their teachings.  Consequently, the reality of esoteric writing prior to 1800 was forgotten; and so when Strauss tried to revive the understanding of esoteric writing, most scholars dismissed this with scorn, irritation, and ridicule.  Of course, for many of Strauss's students, this teaching of esoteric writing and esoteric reading was what made Strauss so seductively attractive, with the promise of being initiated into the secret teachings of philosophy that could be safely revealed only to the naturally superior few.

Melzer also shows how important Strauss's teaching about esotericism was for his defense of reason against historicism.  The forgetting of esotericism after 1800 supported historicism, because it allowed readers to assume that the surface teaching of the philosophers that endorsed the prevailing opinions of their time showed that philosophers were always historically determined in their thinking, and thus the human mind could not transcend history in the pursuit of truth.  By contrast, Strauss and his students could argue that the appearance of conformity to popular opinions was illusory, and that reading the philosophers esoterically could uncover secret teachings that showed the philosophers seeking transcendent truths beyond historically determined opinions.

Was Strauss right about all of this?  Melzer's answer is ambiguous.  He never clearly and explicitly denies any of Strauss's claims.  But he does give his readers intimations that Strauss might have been at least partially wrong.

Melzer repeatedly states that the issue for his book is not whether we today approve of or practice esoteric writing, but whether philosophers of the past approved of and practiced esoteric writing (98, 101-102, 115, 163, 206-207, 228, 283).  About that issue, Melzer is clear in agreeing with Strauss:  the evidence that philosophers generally practiced esoteric writing prior to 1800 is persuasive.

Melzer also seems to agree with Strauss's account of the difference between the premodern philosophers and the modern philosophers--that the ancient and medieval philosophers were "conflictualists" who denied that the conflict between philosophy and politics could ever be overcome, and that the modern philosophers were "harmonists" who thought the conflict could be resolved with the establishment of a rational society.

Melzer also seems to agree with Strauss about the disagreement within modern philosophy between the Enlightenment thinkers and the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers.  All think that reason and politics can be made harmonious.  But they disagree on how exactly this is achieved.  The Enlightenment thinkers see the harmony as achieved by the subordination of politics to the rule of reason.  The Counter-Enlightenment thinkers see the harmony as achieved by the subordination of reason to the rule of politics.

But was Strauss right in endorsing the position of the premodern philosophers--that it was impossible to overcome the conflict between philosophy as the only naturally good human life and the moral, religious, or political life as a miserable life of delusion, and therefore that esoteric writing will always be natural, necessary, and desirable?

Melzer implies that he disagrees with Strauss about this.  Consider this statement by Melzer:
"My friends and colleagues all regard it as curious that I should be the one to write this book.  There are people who have a real love for esoteric interpretation and a real gift for it.  I am not one of them.  My natural taste is for writers who say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say.  I can barely tolerate subtlety.  If I could have my wish, the whole phenomenon of esoteric writing would simply disappear." (xvii)
If Melzer rejects esoteric writing, if he thinks it is unnecessary and undesirable, then he must think that Strauss and the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing that esoteric writing was necessary and desirable because the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life could never be overcome.

In various places in his book, Melzer does say that the modern liberal goal of harmony between reason and society has been achieved or at least approached in modern open societies to the point that esotericism is no longer necessary or desirable (see, for example, 5, 92, 98, 101, 105, 115, 119, 121, 129, 134-43, 153, 159, 163, 168-73, 196-98, 200-203, 206-207, 234, 236, 246, 249, 366, 383-84).  That the philosophic life as based on truth must threaten the social life based on opinion is perhaps true for the traditional societies that have dominated most of human history, but it is not true for the modern liberal societies that have emerged in many parts of the world over the past two centuries. 

Melzer declares: "the idea of subversive truth has little plausibility today.  We citizens of the enlightened, secular, liberal, pluralist, multicultural society have dared to open our doors to every idea and doctrine and have discovered, at length, that all the supposed dangers of doing so were greatly exaggerated.  So we are inclined to ask with some skepticism, not to say condescension: exactly how is it that truth or philosophy is a threat to society?" (168-69).

For example, Melzer indicates, one manifestation of the conflict between reason and politics in traditional society is that slavery was necessary in civilized societies, and philosophers like Aristotle had to write exoterically in support of slavery as natural, while writing esoterically to teach that slavery was unnatural and thus unjust.  But the triumph of liberalism allowed for the abolition of slavery, so that Aristotle's esoteric truth could be publicly embraced (196, 323).  And while the historicist will say that Aristotle's endorsement of slavery shows that he was held captive by the opinions of his time, the practice of esoteric reading can show that he understood the truth about slavery that could not be publicly recognized in his society.

According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times" ("Persecution and the Art of Writing," 34). 

If Strauss agreed with this, then that would mean that he thought that liberalism must be a dangerous delusion, and that he must write esoterically to hide his opposition to liberalism.  As Strauss wrote, "if I know that the principles of liberal democracy are not intrinsically superior to the principles of communism or fascism, I am incapable of whole-hearted commitment to liberal democracy" (What Is Political Philosophy?, 222).  We would then have to wonder what kind of alternative he had in mind--what kind of illiberal closed society he would prefer. 

Melzer is completely silent about Will Altman's argument that Strauss did engage in esoteric writing in promoting an illiberal alternative to liberal democracy.  He is also silent about Strauss's professed devotion to "fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles" and his refusal to crawl to the cross of liberalism (in a letter to Lowith in 1933).

In the last paragraph of Melzer's book, he asserts that while Strauss believed he needed to practice esoteric reading, he did not believe that he needed to practice esoteric writing, because he saw no need to overturn the Enlightenment (366).  If that is true, then Strauss must have thought that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing in the irresolvable conflict between philosophy and politics.  If that is true, then Strauss did not believe in the premodern conception of the philosophic life as a transcendent life, as the only naturally good life.  I am not persuaded by Melzer that this was Strauss's position.  And it's remarkable that Melzer offers no reference to any of Strauss's writing that would support the assertion in this last paragraph.

Strauss was an atheist who believed that reason can refute revelation.  But this was his esoteric teaching that he kept hidden (see "Reason and Revelation," which was not published during his lifetime).  His exoteric teaching was that reason could not refute revelation, and that this failure of reason was the refutation of reason by revelation (Natural Right and History, 75).  This was his attempt to overturn the Enlightenment by restoring the authority of revealed religion.  He was so successful in this that even some of his students believed that he really thought that philosophy was too weak to refute revelation.  We might doubt the wisdom of Strauss's strategy, particularly when we see the modern revival of fanatical religious fundamentalism in its assault on philosophy and science.

Melzer seems to reject the premodern conception of the philosophic life.  He says that he is not a philosopher in this sense, and that he has never met anyone who is.  Moreover, he doubts that such a life is even possible (380, note 1).  Or, perhaps, he's agreeing with Strauss that true philosophers are so "extremely rare" that "it is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one's time" (LAM, 3).  Strauss said he himself was not a true philosopher, but "only a scholar" (RCPR, 29).

Oddly, Melzer does not point out that in doubting the reality of this Straussian ideal of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, he is in agreement with Shadia Drury, who identified this as Strauss's core teaching, and who criticized it as both false and dangerous.  Melzer cites Drury only once in a footnote (383, n. 18).

As Melzer indicates, the classical ideal of the philosophic life as showing "the transcendence of ordinary life" stands to the nonphilosophic life as the divine stands to the human (71-72).  Here Melzer could have quoted Strauss's remark that "if we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers" ("Reason and Revelation," 163).  The serpent in the Garden of Eden told the truth when he told Adam and Eve that on the day they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would become like gods (ibid., 169).  By contrast with the divine life of the philosopher, all other human lives are "forms of human misery, however splendid," because they are based on "despair disguised by delusion" (ibid., 146-47).  If Strauss is endorsing this as true--philosophy as divine transcendence of merely human life--then he must have believed that it would be impossible for liberalism to overcome the conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life.

Surprisingly, however, Strauss never clearly offered any proof that the philosophic life was the only naturally good life.  He did occasionally point to Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Melzer also does this (72, 75, 176).  But neither Strauss nor Melzer reflect on how dubious those arguments are, particularly when considered in the context of the Nicomachean Ethics as a whole; and they never reflect on how Books 8-9 (on friendship) offered a different conception of philosophy--not as the dominant end of life, but as one of the inclusive ends of life.  They never consider the possibility that the teaching in Book 10 is Aristotle's exoteric teaching, which appears to endorse the Platonic ideal of the philosopher, while subtly undermining that ideal by making weak arguments in its favor. They don't notice how Aristotle's arguments here mimic Plato's in the Timaeus (90c) about the divinity and immortality of the philosopher.  Nor do they reflect on how Aristotle's account of philosophic friendship in a pluralist society resembles what liberals like Adam Smith and David Hume said about philosophic friendship in a commercial society.

If modern liberalism is to succeed in achieving a largely open society with freedom of thought and speech in which the philosophic life and the practical life are in harmony, then liberalism would have to show that there are no deadly truths that are harmful to nonphilosophers.  Strauss and Melzer identify the "most terrible truth" as the truth taught by Lucretius--that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (Melzer, 195-96; Strauss, "Notes on Lucretius," 85, 100, 135). 

Lucretius taught this as part of his evolutionary teaching--that everything has evolved, including human beings, so that the human species is enduring but not eternal.  Those who believe that the human good must be grounded in some cosmically eternal good that has not evolved--a Cosmic Nature, or Cosmic Reason, or Cosmic God--will see this teaching as the "most terrible truth" of nihilism.  But those who accept Darwinian natural right will be satisfied with grounding the evolved human good in human nature, human culture, and human judgment. 

Liberal social order can be based on the scientific truth of moral anthropology without any need for the noble lie of a moral cosmology that prevailed in traditional societies.  If so, then what Strauss and Melzer regard as the "most terrible truth" is not so terrible after all.

I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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