Alan Johnson's Reviews > Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer
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Jan 18, 2015

bookshelves: philosophers, philosophy-scholars

The primary thesis of Arthur M. Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing is that "prior to the nineteenth century, all philosophers, in one degree or another, adjusted the presentation of their thought to the particular conventions prevailing in their time and place" (page 346)—in other words, that they wrote in an esoteric manner. The ancient and medieval philosophers had, according to Melzer, three reasons for such esotericism: (1) defensive esotericism (to protect the philosopher from the rage of the multitude, especially in religious matters), (2) protective esotericism (to shield ordinary people from radical ideas that challenge the ingrained prejudices of traditional political societies), and (3) pedagogic esotericism (to provide a proper method for educating future philosophers). Enlightenment philosophers added what the author calls "political esotericism" (an attempt to gradually make the populace more rational, albeit with some temporary accommodation to defensive esotericism); they also opposed the whole enterprise of protective esotericism. Furthermore, pedagogic esotericism has, according to Melzer, largely given way, during the last two centuries, to new styles of collective scholarship.

Ancient and medieval philosophers, in this reading, had no interest in enlightening the masses. They believed that a permanent conflict existed between philosophy and the public such that philosophy is always both in danger from and a danger to the multitude. In contrast, the Enlightenment philosophers believed that harmony could eventually exist between philosophy and popular opinion. Their task, as they saw it, was to make that harmony possible by gradually enlightening the masses and improving their material conditions through technology. Thus, modern philosophy, in the view of Melzer, brought philosophy down from the clouds to be in service to the political and economic needs of humankind. The ancient and medieval philosophers pursued a "philosophic politics" with the sole purpose of protecting philosophers from the community and the community from the philosophers. The modern philosophers subordinated philosophy to the needs of the many.

Philosophical esotericism, as described by Melzer (and by Leo Strauss, whom Melzer frequently cites and claims to follow), is thus to be distinguished from mysticism. Philosophical esotericism has little in common with mystical Neo-Platonism or mystical religious views of any kind. The conflation of philosophical and mystical esotericism has been responsible, in part, for the widespread ignorance and/or condemnation of philosophical esotericism since 1800. Another reason for the present-day hostility to philosophical esotericism has been the very success of the Enlightenment project. Today, we have scientists and philosophers openly proclaiming atheism and agnosticism—views that would have caused them to be burned at the stake in earlier centuries. Philosophical esotericism thus seems to be no longer necessary and, for that reason, largely forgotten as a historical phenomenon.

It must be acknowledged that Melzer proves his thesis that the major philosophers practiced esoteric writing before 1800. In fact, as Melzer amply demonstrates in the voluminous online appendix to his work, many philosophers before 1800 explicitly admitted engaging in esoteric writing. Acceptance of this historical conclusion liberates the postmodern reader from one of the greatest fallacies of our time: historicism. The historicists point to the antiquated statements of philosophers throughout the ages as proving that all philosophers are merely products of, or mouthpieces for, the particular times and places in which they lived. Melzer— and, before him, Strauss and other Straussians—can be thanked for pointing out that the statements so characterized by historicists were merely exoteric expressions of the philosophers who wrote before 1800. A true understanding of these philosophers can be acquired only by a careful and difficult hermeneutical examination of their writings. Melzer provides an excellent introduction to such esoteric interpretation in chapter 9 ("A Beginner's Guide to Esoteric Reading") of his book.

Melzer's book also contains many other explicit and implicit arguments and observations. Some of these are quite illuminating. Others are, to my mind, incorrect or questionable. For example, Melzer writes that Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was the first to explicitly and publicly advocate complete liberty of conscience and separation of church and state (pages 181, 258). This repeated statement ignores—as does Melzer's book generally—the great contribution of Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683), whose explicit public advocacy of these principles resulted in the English Parliament ordering the public hangman to burn his Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience in 1644. As a result of this and other of his writings and statements published before Bayle was born or old enough to write his own publications, Williams became an extremely controversial figure, both in England and in New England (where he was banished from Massachusetts Bay for the public expression of these and related views in 1635-36). More than a decade before Bayle was even born, Williams had already founded Providence (now in Rhode Island)—a community expressly dedicated to liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. And Williams's writings and teachings influenced others to speak out publicly in favor of liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. Indeed, one of Williams's close friends, John Milton, published writings supporting a modified (perhaps somewhat more esoteric) version of Williams's radical views during the same time period. Several of the so-called "sectarians" and Levellers during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum also appear to have been influenced by Williams before they publicly advocated these principles. It is even an interesting question whether John Locke himself was influenced, directly or indirectly, by Williams's writings. I elaborate upon these developments and inquiries, among others, in my book The First American Founder: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience.

Williams himself was not an Enlightenment figure. Although he adduced secular reasons for his principles, he also relied (as did Locke and others) on scriptural interpretation in arguing for liberty of conscience and separation of church and state. In Williams's case, such citation to scriptural authority was probably not merely exoteric. But his essential arguments were so clear and so convincing that they provided a strong foundation for the modern concept of the purely secular state—arguments that were entirely in conflict with the prevailing orthodoxy of his time. Williams argued that civil government does not need ecclesiastical support and that any mixture of government and religion results in the corruption of both government and religion. These arguments were later restated in a more secular context by such Enlightenment luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

My more complete review, if any, of Melzer's book will have to await another time and place. For now, Melzer is to be congratulated for his erudite elaboration of views expressed by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1952) and other writings. Among the questions to be considered further are whether Melzer's views are identical to those of Strauss (though it is evident that a substantial overlap exists), whether it is desirable—or even possible—to return to the premodern view that philosophy should not attempt to encourage people to become more rational (an apparent premise of Melzer's and perhaps Strauss's arguments), and whether some kind of modified Enlightenment understanding of the proper role of philosophy can and should be adopted. Although the last paragraph of Melzer's book acknowledges that Strauss "did not hold (and it does not follow) that this practice [of esoteric writing] must therefore be universally restored and the Enlightenment somehow be undone," Melzer and the Straussians generally, as far as I know, do not address in any detail what their approach means in practice. Do they support the contemporary attempts of the Religious Right to restore theocratic laws and customs rejected out of hand by Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison? Do they wish for Western Europe and the United States to return to the traditional political societies of ancient Greece—polities based on theocratic or Erastian principles? It is the perhaps esoteric lack of clarity about such specifics that has contributed to the prejudice against the Straussians. That is unfortunate, because, as this book demonstrates, many of their arguments are based on solid reasoning and evidence.

(Originally posted 2/6/2015; revised 8/9/2015)
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Reading Progress

January 18, 2015 – Started Reading
January 18, 2015 – Shelved
January 18, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 18, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophers
January 18, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophy-scholars
February 6, 2015 – Finished Reading

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