Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.09.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.09.17

Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.   Chicago, London:  University of Chicago Press, 2014.  Pp. 453.  ISBN 9780226175096.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by David Tkach, McGill University (


The human, all-too-human practice of hiding or dissimulating ‘the truth’ is common. We rarely say or write exactly what we are thinking, no matter what the particular context. More specifically, the form of dissimulation whereby ‘the truth’ is intentionally hidden for the sake of the ‘chosen few,’ i.e. esotericism, is commonly held to be part of the practices of the occult, or the more mystical elements of particular religions. However, in a religious or occult context, there is a specific dogma to be dissimulated, one that usually has its source in purported divine inspiration. In the context of philosophy, this has not been the case. Esoteric writing, in the philosophical sense, is the practice of shaping a text in such a way as to dissimulate one’s ‘true’ ideas in the guise of ideas that are more politically palatable, thus allowing one to communicate different ideas to different audiences using the same text. Esoteric writing is a way of solving Plato’s problem, found in the Phaedrus, that speaking is inherently superior to writing due to the speaker being able to modify her language in accordance with the listener’s character. However, depending on one’s philosophical interests, not to mention political leanings, the discussion of esoteric writing’s existence in the history of philosophy tends to elicit either veneration or condemnation; tertium non datur. This is for a variety of reasons, the most prominent being esoteric writing’s close association with the scholar primarily responsible for its 20th-century rediscovery, Leo Strauss. Thankfully, Arthur M. Melzer’s book Philosophy Between The Lines does not fall into the morass of vehemently pro- or anti-Strauss rhetoric. Instead, in focussing on the particular topic of esoteric writing, Melzer adeptly shines a spotlight on what is arguably Strauss’s most important claim concerning the interpretation of past thinkers without thereby adopting an archetypally Straussian perspective on the issue.

Melzer emphasizes that esoteric writing is a “form of rhetoric” (2) and not the attempt to communicate a specific dogma. The history of philosophy is not to be understood as a secret society passing down ‘capital-T Truth’ from generation to generation. Instead, esoteric writers have adapted their texts both to their specific historical contexts and to their specific philosophical claims. Melzer holds esoteric writing to be a solution to the perennial philosophical problem of the relation between theory and practice, exemplified here as “the relation between philosophic rationalism and political community” (3). As anyone familiar with Strauss’s argument knows, philosophical questioning is purportedly withering for political beliefs, beliefs that are required for any regime to continue to exist. As a result, philosophers must adopt the rhetorical strategy of esoteric writing both to protect themselves from political persecution, and to protect the existence of the regime on which they depend to live. Esoteric writing, Melzer argues, as does Strauss, is a necessary part of philosophical activity under political regimes that are not completely rational (as, e.g., the city in speech of the Republic is rational). This idea follows from a belief in the more basic tension between reason and society, associated with the tension between theory and practice; it is arguable that both are held to be permanent by the ancients and reconcilable by the moderns. Melzer carefully describes the intellectual history of modernity as a series of steps towards the harnessing of philosophy for the specific political end of total rationalization, and the subsequent abandoning and rise of hostility towards esoteric writing due to a belief in the attainability of that end. If the political realm were fully rationalized, esoteric writing would no longer be necessary (one thinks here of Habermas’ analyses of communicative action, specifically his view that the ideal political discourse situation lacks the need for rhetoric or dissimulation due the ‘forceless force of the better argument’). Concomitant with this march toward rationalization is the ever-increasing tendency toward “both the denial and the strong disapproval of esotericism,” which, Melzer argues, turns out to be “a thesis unique to late Western modernity” (97-8).

Melzer divides his book into three main sections, discussing textual evidence for, forms of, and future avenues for dealing with the consequences of esoteric writing, respectively. The first section examines ancient and modern authors separately, noting each statement where the author mentions dissimulation of any kind. This section is almost overwhelming in its comprehensiveness, as explicit mentions (or ‘testimonial evidence’) of esoteric writing from the history of philosophy can seemingly be found in every important thinker from the history of Western philosophy up to the 19th century. (There is an online appendix containing an even greater number.) Whether one accepts the arguments for or against esoteric writing to be presented in the second and third sections of Philosophy Between the Lines is seemingly moot. The historical evidence stands: many, or perhaps even most, past thinkers believed in the importance of writing esoterically, at least occasionally, and many stated or hinted that they were in fact doing so. Not taking this evidence into account can be seen as an absence in subsequent interpretations of those past authors.

The second section discusses the reasons why past authors have written esoterically. Without entering into too much detail, Melzer divides the reasons for esoteric writing into four categories: defensive, protective, political, and pedagogical. Each is given a full chapter’s worth of discussion, with many examples of each type (some of which, Melzer notes, have appeared in the first section of the book). Melzer ruminates on each reason and provides many valuable insights, including insights for those who are well versed in the discussion concerning esoteric writing (e.g. the claim that Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot practiced esotericism for the seeming contradictory reason of wishing to increase political openness, which led me to reconsider how scathing a criticism it is to call some political actions ‘performative contradictions’).

The third section discusses what the reader can do in response to the fact of esoteric writing. The first chapter outlines ‘esoteric reading,’ which is the process of simply reading a text while allowing for the possibility that it may be written esoterically. Melzer is attempting to provide an interpretive framework here, though it (perhaps necessarily) comes across more as a series of advisory ‘tips and tricks for reading well.’ If one accepts Melzer’s argument, a reader who adopts a perspective informed by this advice is exactly the sort for whom an esoterically written text was written. The final chapter of the book is an explicit discussion of Strauss, whom Melzer rightly places in conflict with ‘radical historicism,’ of which the paradigmatic example is Heidegger. It is certain that Strauss saw in Heidegger a way to approach the ancients without centuries (one hesitates to say how many) of interpretation influencing our own. But it is at this point that, for me, the book’s argumentative trajectory is lacking. Melzer does not thoroughly discuss the argument that Strauss himself wrote esoterically, at least occasionally (a conclusion on which many of his interpreters agree); such a discussion is consigned to a brief endnote (384 n. 24). As a result, one begins to wonder if, in outlining and agreeing with many of Strauss’s arguments, Melzer has been sufficiently attentive to Strauss’s own textual indications of his ‘true’ teaching, one that in fact may be much closer to Heidegger’s than Strauss’s exoteric ideas would lead one to believe. However, if the average educated reader (i.e. not one who already acknowledges Strauss’s importance) questions Melzer’s interpretation of Strauss, Melzer will have done his job: the reader will thereby also have to acknowledge the possible existence of esoteric writing, by a twentieth-century author no less, which then means that it was possible in the past. For Melzer, this is his book’s main task.

Melzer writes in an engaging, conversational style, one that is entirely jargon-free. His arguments are complex but not complicated nor obscure (unlike those of, e.g., Strauss himself). The book is even-handed in its interpretations, except at a handful of moments in the text where Melzer’s political commitment seem to intrude. In analyzing and promoting the importance of esoteric writing, Melzer is arguing against historicism as Strauss understands the term, and hence is arguing specifically against Heidegger and those whose work received inspiration from him, many of whom also hold more progressive political viewpoints. This results in what appears to be a reflexively critical stance towards the left, e.g. his claim that what he calls ‘political correctness’ is dogmatically intolerant, not to mention historicist in its roots (337). Elsewhere, there is a moment where Melzer illustrates the practice of ‘reading between the lines’ through the example of a letter from a beloved (291 ff.), the point of which may be lost on those who are taken aback by its almost embarrassing, ’50s-style, quaint heteronormativity. A reader who does not share Melzer’s politics (such as it can be gleaned from the book) cannot help but find examples such as these glaring. Speaking more generally, I have one methodological criticism. As the examples of esoteric writing taken from the history of human thought pile up in many of the chapters, one sees the same formal move again and again: quote the author, briefly interpret the quotation, move on to the next author. There are always subsequent attempts to unify the discussion, but often the reader may find herself lost in the forest due to the ever-multiplying number of trees. I must admit that I am unsure how Melzer could have been as comprehensive without this methodological choice, however.

Melzer explicitly does not engage in esoteric writing in his book, and in fact goes so far as to wish that “the whole phenomenon of esoteric writing would simply disappear” (xvii) (though perhaps one may doubt his commitment to this statement, appearing as it does in the front matter, a place where those who wrote esoterically tended to ‘toe the party line’). This leads one to consider the issue of whether esoteric writing should be publically analyzed in a contemporary academic book for all the world to see. I believe Melzer to be writing in opposition to Strauss’s philosophical pedagogy on this point, for Strauss arguably kept some things hidden in his published writings, even if hidden in plain sight. Regardless, it is important again to emphasize Melzer’s openly stated task for this book: “I seek a restoration not of esoteric writing but of esoteric reading—the recovery of a crucial but long-lost element of philosophical literacy” (xiii, emphasis in original). If we heed Melzer’s advice, the question we are left with then becomes: what are we to do in light of esoteric writing? Are our modern careers shattered, our reigning interpretations destroyed? Or, do we finish reading Philosophy Between the Lines with a knowing smile at Melzer’s naïveté and continue on with our research projects? For me, nothing more can be said concerning this choice, and concerning this book’s reception. The idea of it ‘converting’ those who are not already sympathetic to Strauss’s position is, it must be said, unlikely. Nevertheless, the book is extraordinarily useful as an intellectual history of a single interesting and controversial idea. This book is entirely successful in its own terms, as Melzer has provided iron-clad textual evidence for at least the existence of literally millennia’s worth of examples of (his understanding of what counts as) esoteric writing. It also encourages the reader to reconsider her hermeneutic framework(s) and makes long, painstaking work paramount, which may be seen as contrary to what some see as the methodological legerdemain often accomplished by those who write in the mode of thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault (themselves champions of long, painstaking hermeneutical work of a different sort). Melzer’s book encourages one to read a great deal, and to read and reread slowly and carefully, to pause, to work backwards and forwards in the text in front of us, and ultimately to entertain thoughts that, in the context of our reigning interpretative methods, are usually treated as pariahs. Historically-minded humanities and social sciences researchers of all kinds will at least need to take Melzer’s evidence, if not his conclusions, into consideration.

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