Hanson Joins Cult

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. 

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  • J.

    I was trained as a moral and political philosopher in a philosophy department, but I now spend quite a bit of time around political theorists in political science departments. Strauss was new to me, as philosophers ignore Strauss. (They don’t dismiss him, they just don’t pay any attention to him. He’s not part of the philosophical cannon.) My take on what’s going on is that Straussian esotericism, in my limited exposure, is not that it’s dismissed out of hand. Rather, Straussians have a tendency to take texts that the rest of us thought had good ideas and then try to show that these texts actually say something else. However, the end product from the Straussians I’ve seen is almost invariably bad ideas supported by bad arguments or no arguments at all. So, it may be that people are judging Straussian methods by Straussian products. Since Straussians tend to produce what seems to be a mix of bad intellectual history and bad philosophy, I look upon the methodology that produces this bad results with suspicion.

    In addition, Straussians seem to try to fit diverse philosophers with diverse views into rather a narrow ideological box, that, coincidently, is the box Strauss occupies. So, it’s suspicious.

    The basic idea of esotericism is fine. A good intellectual historian could help uncover how a philosopher might, e.g., pretend to be a theist when he’s actually an atheist just in order to escape persecution. But the Straussians I’ve talked to and read aren’t good intellectual historians. They simply don’t make a good case for their views, even if one grants them the esoteric assumption.

    Of course, most political theorists of any stripe or methodology aren’t good, so in that way, Straussians aren’t unique.

    P.S.: The other reason Straussians get dismissed is because the view that they are an elite group than can uncover hidden meanings the rest of us can’t tends to make them arrogant and condescending.

  • J, we agree; esotericism is more impressive than most Straussians and their readings of texts.

  • Yan Li

    This is fascinating! The inflection point on the curve happened around the time when (movable type) printing of scientific texts started taking off. The rising clarity may well have been a technology driven phenomenon.

  • bw

    What Melzer says is exactly what Strauss writes in one of his essays, so Hanson has clearly not read Strauss, which however does not stop him from offering his opinions and even advice!

  • bjk

    The best argument for esotericism is that Plato or Locke could not have unintentionally made errors that are plain for everyone to see. Descartes argument for God, for instance, is a classic in this genre.

  • Did Literalism Saved the World?

    In the past, I’ve praised Robin Hanson for his literalism. Now a compelling article on Straussian textual interpretation has inspired…

  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, I savvy the rest of your post (not sure I agree w/ it, but not excited enough either way to make the argument), but the start of the last paragraph troubles me. Why would the growth in clarity “come[] at the expense of intellectual development of top elites?”

  • Paul, the article argues that the esoteric approach good for the intellectual development of top elites, for example by making them think for themselves rather than parrot books.

  • Clearly, Robin, you should deliberately write something so completely stupid that no one ever blindly trusts you again.

    Have I mentioned that I’m converting to Mormonism?

  • anonymous

    “The culture of “great thinkers” looked down on clear direct books….”

    I think this is why Bertrand Russell gets such a bad rap among intellectuals. He’s not ‘deep’ enough, primarily because he writes too clearly for his own good (for the exact opposite case, see the writings of his one-time collaborator Alfred North Whitehead).

  • Constant

    the article argues that the esoteric approach good for the intellectual development of top elites, for example by making them think for themselves rather than parrot books.

    Interesting theory but I’m not sure that hiding one’s meaning is really necessary to produce that effect. A lot of people who I know personally, and who do not write anything down (and so are invisible to the wider world), seem to me to have strongly independent minds and do not hesitate to argue (to anyone in earshot) with what’s said and written. Sure, at the same time I have seen people merely mindlessly parrot the lines they’ve learned, and not parrot a contrary opinion until they’ve read a contrary opinion. But not everybody. There are plenty of obstinate and contrary people, and some of them are doubtless brilliant.

    The only really good reason for hiding one’s meaning mentioned that I find strongly likely is political repression. The other likely, though not good (virtuous) reason, is to enhance the appearance of depth.

  • bw

    One obvious reason to write esoterically is that, if you don’t, you will be misunderstood.

  • Reading Plato’s early dialogues, you notice that the topic of the argument is not the interesting part. That is, the whole point of each seems to be some tangential argument. Euthyphro seems like the best known example: it is supposed to be about defining “piety,” but we only care about the middle definition, for which there is an extended section against the divine command theory of morality based on an analogy (and reads like an indictment of the passive voice).

    We know that there have been (and still are) schools of thought with esoteric messages for the anointed and exoteric messages for the rest of the populace. The hard part is what to do with those schools of thought two thousand years after the last in-crowd member died, or even to identify them since they rarely advertised themselves.

  • Tom

    Everyone in this thread is failing to read Hanson esoterically enough. You see when you read between the lines, “Hanson Joins Cult” is clearly an anagram of “Lunatic Johnson” a direct criticism of the suicidal pricing policy of the major pharmaceutical company “Johnson and Johnson”, and can it be coincidence that this post was made on October 19th, 1987’s “black monday” – the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history?

    The meaning is clear. Hanson’s former criticisms of medical spending have all been leading to this final, apocalyptic prediction of pharmaceutical industry collapse. Still don’t believe me? Well look at the graph in the post – an upward-sloping line right? Well the straussian knows that the correct interpretation is to turn the graph upside-down. That’s right. You’re looking at the downward slope of drug company profits. Now you see why the truth should – nay – must be hidden from the plebs.

  • bw

    In fact your colleague Bryan Caplan has something along those lines in his book: the diffrence between what you say and the consequences of saying it so that you can never say just what you mean.

  • I think there are two different kinds of esotericism.

    One is the “super-secret code” school of interpretation, which is sometimes correct and sometimes silly. Maimonides explicitly declares that he’s writing esoterically.

    Then there’s Plato. I could try to describe what his esotericism is, but a quote from his Seventh Letter (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/seventh_letter.html) says it pretty well:

    “I did not, however, give a complete exposition [of my philosophy], nor did Dionysios ask for one. For he professed to know many, and those the most important, points, and to have a sufficient hold of them through instruction given by others. […] Thus much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself. Yet this much I know-that if the things were written or put into words, it would be done best by me, and that, if they were written badly, I should be the person most pained. Again, if they had appeared to me to admit adequately of writing and exposition, what task in life could I have performed nobler than this, to write what is of great service to mankind and to bring the nature of things into the light for all to see? But I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.” (emphasis mine)

    This attitude (if perhaps not the content of what Plato thinks is important) should be very familiar to Overcoming Bias readers. It’s a method or way of thinking, rather than a collection of received truths, that is important.

    Plato elaborates, not terrible clearly, in his dialogue Phaedrus, where Socrates says that if a philosopher were to write down instruction for a philosopher, he would have to be careful to write a book that could say different things to different people — that could provide guidance to those ready for it without misleading those who would misunderstand it. It could only lead someone to philosophy — it could not teach the content of philosophy.

    I would suggest that at least some of the ancients seem to “hide the ball” not so much because they tried to say it in a difficult way, but rather because the things they were saying are necessarily difficult to communicate. Unfortunately, modern interpreters of such things often seem intent on reading, for instance, Plato’s Republic as primarily political theory and Nietzsche’s “will to power” as a prescription to go boss other people around for the fun of it. I suspect it is often the same type that reads A Modest Proposal as, in fact, a modest proposal.

  • It’s silly either way. Even if you believe there are these hidden messages in ancient works why bother decoding them? I mean if these messages aren’t fairly easily decodable then the effort required to do so is likely to exceed the effort required just to think up good ideas on your own. Unfortunately in many disciplines, philosophy and literature particularly, there is an irrational reverence for ideas from revered ancient sources even when they are actually quite stupid.

    But there is a really easy way to avoid this whole debate. Simply don’t make claims about who had the idea (cite it in a footnote to avoid plagiarism) just introduce it the same way you would introduce an idea you heard on the street somewhere. If these ideas are really worthwhile then it doesn’t matter where they come from and they will impress others on their own merits. On the other hand if they aren’t worth it then without the claim that they are really the result of some ancient dead guy’s work no one will care.

  • @Benquo

    Or because they were still confused about the issue and hadn’t yet hit upon the correct way to convey it. I mean if you read Newton’s explanations on calculus or even Maxwell’s original treatise on electromagnetism they are pretty damn confusing and hard to decipher. A great part of this is that they are still confused about what they are saying and how to conceptualize it.

    Of course in math and other sciences we solve this by simply not reading the original discoverers. We acknowledge and rever them for their brilliance in discovering the idea but we read others who, building off of their works, have gleaned the good ideas (and left the bad ones) and presented them in a more understandable fashion. In fact this sort of change is exactly what one would expect in any discipline that is making progress. Exactly the same should be true in disciplines like philosophy. Plenty of people have read plato and his important ideas have been incorporated into modern philosophy making actually reading plato a waste of time.

    Now I know that some philosophers are going to say that they were inspired to think of important things X,Y and Z when reading plato and that it really contains important insights that haven’t yet been discerned. But that’s the same thing that many non-believers say when reading the bible. If you give people a confusing unclear work and tell them it is saying something deep and important they will project their own ideas and insights into the work. I mean which is more likely: that plato was so supernaturally smart that his ideas are so far beyond what we would think up now that it’s worth spending vast amounts of time decoding them from his works (but he still couldn’t express them clearly) or that he was just a smart dude who had great influence on philosophy as a result of his time and place?

    I could go on but the point is that the simpler explanation is that we are projecting value onto the works that are popular objects of academic worship rather than finding real value in them.

  • @ logicnazi,

    I think you’re mostly right when you say “Simply don’t make claims about who had the idea (cite it in a footnote to avoid plagiarism) just introduce it the same way you would introduce an idea you heard on the street somewhere.” As Boethius says, argument from authority is a very weak form of argument. But that alone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read Plato & co.

    The only reason I quoted Plato was as evidence of what Plato thought, not as evidence that it is necessarily true. I was trying to show something about the kind of inquiry Plato’s dialogues engaged in.

    Your suspicion of the insistence that the ancients had higher inscrutable wisdom is quite justifiable.

    But I have deep suspicions about applying the idea of progress to philosophy in the same way that it can be applied to the particular sciences. Philosophy (or at least much of philosophy in the Socratic tradition) is about examining critically the foundations of our thought. The question, for instance, of “what is knowledge?” is one which is difficult even to get people to ask or care about. Serious philosophic knowledge involves a kind of “starting over” that is, unfortunately, difficult to explain or articulate. You can’t just indoctrinate people into it. While of course we have discovered more truths since the ancients, that work of “starting over” is probably quite similar now to what it was then.

    Now, I think Plato is actually quite clear, at least when he articulates what his project is, although it’s apparently esoteric to some people. It’s not to impart doctrines (he’s never written a treatise on the truths of philosophy), it’s to try to teach that kind of “starting over”. It’s not that his work “contains important insights that haven’t yet been discerned,” but that it is a teaching tool which has seldom if ever been improved upon.

    I’d love to see where anyone has expressed Plato’s insights more effectively and concisely — and perhaps it has been done. But I’m suspicious of such claims for the same reason you’re generally suspicious of people who claim the ancients had access to more wisdom then we do: people who make such claims are generally full of crap. I’m not exactly up on the most recent literature, but as far as I can tell, plenty of people make a living misunderstanding Plato. Most commentators on Aristotle make a hash of him. It’s not that the ancients are smarter than everyone else, but rather that the important things they have to say (and not all of it is important) are also strange and hard to understand.

    So I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see someone writing something that does the same things Plato’s work does but better. But I would expect to see people write with a better understanding of the world due to Plato.

    Reading Newton and such things, on the other hand, is proper only to get a kind of historical perspective. I agree that it’s not necessarily the best way to learn calculus. But isn’t there some value to appreciating first-hand what kind of change his ideas represent? (I think I’m talking about the same thing Mr. Yudkowski wrote about, when he mentioned understanding how surprising new science is.) And isn’t there some risk of not understanding the preconditions and premises of Newtonian thought if you don’t grapple first-hand with the ideas as new ideas?

  • Charles J Fitzsimmons

    Could ‘hidden meanings’, or, conversing or writing in “code” be a common function in humans> Talking
    above children, by adults, so as to avoid upsetting
    them, or between adults, speeking abtusely, to avoid
    confrontations or conflicts from others overhearing.
    Writing ‘between-the-lines’ in news reportage. Or, the use of such things as ‘blind ads’ in business.

    I’ve read that a form of ‘pig latin’ was even used
    by Benjamin Franklin

  • Hiram

    Writing esoterically has nothing to do with being “ambiguous” or “lacking clarity”. The meaning of esoteric writing, or any kind of esoteric symbolism for that matter, is perfectly clear to the particular group who has been initiated in the meanings. The reasons Strauss cites for writing esoterically seem to indicate his preference for ordinary dissimulation, which I suppose could have been the esoteric style he cultivated. The only people who could say for sure would be those who were initiated into Strauss’ cult. How many of these so-called “Straussians” are actually initiates?

    As for Strauss and so-called Straussians revealing the esoteric meaning of various philosophers, I think they’re just playing a game, and it may well be an esoteric game at that. After all, what are they really about, these Straussians? Has anybody exposed their cult?

    a. Intended for or understood by only a particular group: an esoteric cult. See Synonyms at mysterious.
    b. Of or relating to that which is known by a restricted number of people.
    a. Confined to a small group: esoteric interests.
    b. Not publicly disclosed; confidential.

  • Roger Sweeny

    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.

    Robin has obviously not tried to obtain tenure in literary criticism.

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  • Doug

    I found your web site by following a link from Instapundit to your recent article on the need to be wary of star academics. On one hand, your low view of academic celebrity reminded me of the similarly low view the Straussians take of it. On the other hand, it occurred to me you might think Strauss to be in some way a celebrity of the sort of whom you are wary. I searched your site, found this article, and am delighted by your genial open-mindedness about the plausibility of exoteric writing in former times, and the corresponding need for close reading and, often, esoteric interpretation.

    This article is nearly six years old, and I do not know the extent to which you have already followed up on the interest you evince here, so I will take the simple approach of replying as if you had posted the article yesterday. Thus, if you are interested in reading some examples of Straussian interpretation, one good work with which to begin is The Roots of Political Philosophy, edited by Thomas Pangle, which includes ten short, lately neglected Platonic dialogues, translated in the very literal and consistent way the Straussians think is usually best, and an interpretive essay on each dialogue. At least one of the interpretive essays, the one on the Minos, was written by Leo Strauss; generally, they were written by several of his students and perhaps students of his students. One reason it seems good to recommend one’s starting with this collection is that the dialogues are short, and so are the interpretive essays. One can read a dialogue and its accompanying essay together in a single evening or on a weekend morning. Another reason to consider starting with these dialogues is that it seems Plato wrote the shorter dialogues as introductory works; thus, having the experience of reading them and puzzling over them may be valuable for understanding the dialogues that are (pedagogically) subsequent. A third reason is that understanding Plato’s dialogues seems to be important for one’s understanding of the works of many or most of the subsequent writers of philosophic rank.

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