Rumors of a weird cult of “Straussians” obsessed with hidden meanings in classic texts have long amused me. Imagine my jaw-dropping surprise then to read an articulate and persuasive Straussian paper by Arthur Melzer in the November Journal of Politics:
Leo Strauss … argued that, prior to the rise of liberal regimes and freedom of thought in the nineteenth century, almost all great thinkers wrote esoterically: they placed their most important reflections “between the lines” of their writings, hidden behind a veneer of conventional pieties. They did so for one or more of the following reasons: to defend themselves from persecution, to protect society from harm, to promote some positive political scheme, and to increase the effectiveness of their philosophical pedagogy. …
Two things are certain about this theory. First, if it is true, it is of the greatest importance for our understanding of the whole course of Western philosophy. Second, we are powerfully predisposed to believe that it is false. … the dominant reaction to the theory of esotericism has been a powerful, almost visceral inclination to dismiss it out of hand.
Melzer says we forget how alien was our ancestors’ world:
It is very difficult for us to grasp that, for example, in many earlier societies, indeed in much of contemporary India and Japan, husbands and wives, parents and children can pass their whole lives without ever once openly declaring: “I love you.”
We forget the deep ancient distrust of reading. Schopenhauer explains:
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. … So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading … he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid.
The culture of “great thinkers” looked down on clear direct books:
The open and prosaic … conveys the right information but the wrong attitude. … It is fine for engineering, bad for philosophy. Profound ideas somehow evaporate when laid out openly for every passing eye. … With the ancients … the primary aim of writing is to promote, not the progress over time of a collective intellectual enterprise, but the philosophical authenticity of the rare individual.
As Nietzsche explained:
The misfortune suffered by clear-minded and easily understood writers is that they are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them: and the good fortune that attends the obscure is that the reader toils at them and ascribes to them the pleasure he has in fact gained from his own zeal.
Melzer convinced me with data:
By now we have seen a good number of explicit statements by past thinkers acknowledging and praising the use of esoteric writing for pedagogical purposes. What is perhaps even more striking in this context is that I have been unable to find any statements, prior to the nineteenth century, criticizing esotericism for the aforementioned problem, or indeed for any other.
This great transition is my best bet for the essential change underlying the industrial revolution:
In The Flight from Ambiguity, the distinguished sociologist Donald Levine writes: “The movement against ambiguity led by Western intellectuals since the seventeenth century figures as a unique development in world history. There is nothing like it in any premodern culture known to me”. This remarkable transformation of our intellectual culture was produced by a variety of factors, but most obviously by the rise of the modern scientific paradigm of knowledge which encouraged the view that, in all fields, intellectual progress required the wholesale reform of language and discourse, replacing ordinary parlance with an artificial, technical, univocal mode of communication
Modern growth began when enough intellectuals gained status not from ambiguity but from clarity, forming a network of specialists exchanging clear concise summaries of new insights. Modern economic growth rates are foreshadowed in the early growth rates of academic journals:
Straussians are probably right that modern growth and clarity comes at the expense of intellectual development of top elites. And perhaps modern Straussians really have discerned deep hidden insights in ancient texts. If so, hopefully someday someone will explain them to us as clearly as Melzer has here.