Philosophy Between The Lines

Seven years ago I raved about a Journal of Politics article by Arthur Melzer that persuaded me that ancient thinkers often wrote “esoterically,” e.g., praising their local religions and rulers on the surface, while expressing their true atheism, rebellion, etc. between the lines. Melzer has just come out with a very well written and persuasive book Philosophy Between The Lines, that greatly elaborates this thesis.

Melzer’s book emphasizes the puzzle that while ancient thinkers were quite open about esotericism, modern thinkers have mostly forgotten it ever existed, and are typically indignantly dismissive when the idea is suggested. Below the fold I give an extended quote on a fascinating transition period in the late 1700s when European intellectuals openly debated how esoteric to be.

While Melzer’s last chapter is on implications of esotericism, he really only talks about how it can somewhat undercut cultural relativism, if we can see intellectuals from different times and places as actually agreeing more on God, politics, etc. Yet he doesn’t mention the most obvious implication, at least to an economist: since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said. Melzer also doesn’t mention the implications that the rise of direct speech might be in important enabler of the industrial revolution, or that seeing more past esotericism should lead us to expect to find more of it around us today, even if we now officially disapprove of it.

Melzer says that the main point of his book is just to convince us that esotericism actually happened, not that it was good or bad, nor any particular claim about what any particular ancient really meant. But this stance is undermined by the fact that the main bulk of the book focuses on elaborating four good reasons why the ancients might have been esoteric. In contrast, when Melzer talks about why we moderns dislike esotericism, and why esotericism is the usual practice around the world today in non-Western cultures, he mentions many illicit reasons why writers might be esoteric. For example, Melzer quotes An Anthropology of Indirect Communication giving these reasons for such talk:

To avoid giving offence, or, on the contrary, to give offence but with relative impunity; to mitigate embarrassment and save face; to entertain through the manipulation of disguise; for aesthetic pleasure; to maintain harmonious and social relations; to establish relative social status; to exclude from a discourse those not familiar with the conventions of its usage and thereby to strengthen the solidarity of those who are.

But when Melzer talks about why the famous long-revered ancient thinkers might have been esoteric, he gives only reasons that such ancients would have seen as noble: protecting thinkers from society, protecting society from thinkers, teaching students, and promoting social reform.

Now whether the ancients were esoteric for good or bad reasons isn’t very relevant to the empirical claim that they were in fact esoteric, which Melzer says is his main focus. So then why does Melzer focus on if the ancients were esoteric for good reasons? One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed. Another possible answer is that Melzer sees his readers as biased to see ancient thinkers as good people. If many folks have invested so much in identifying with famous ancient thinkers that they will not accept a claim about those ancients that suggests they were bad people, then to convince such folks of his claim Melzer needs to show that that his claim is quite compatible with those ancients being good people.

Either way, however, Melzer does quite successfully show that the ancients were often and openly esoteric. That promised quote on late 1700s European intellectuals:

Rousseau criticized the whole Enlightenment project in his Discourses on the Sciences and Arts for its excessively broad dissemination of knowledge. …Rousseau’s essay was awarded the prize and indeed made him famous thorough Europe, it was preceded by the parallel and equally famous concerning Fontanelle. …

After Rousseau’s essay won the prize in 1750, it gave rise to a long serious of critiques and refutations (including one by King Stanislaus of Poland) and corresponding replies by Rousseau, which stretches on for three years. Also in 1751, the article on esotericism in the Encyclopedia was published. Then in 1762, the Economic Society of Berrne proposed its own essay contest on a related question: “Are there respective prejudices that a good citizen should hesitate to combat publicly?” In 1763, Voltaire published the Treatise on Toleration, which included a chapter entitled “Whether It Is Useful To Maintain the People in Superstition.” A years later, his Philosophical Dictionary appeared, which contained many entries also bearing on this issue, especially the famous article “Fraud: Should Pious Frauds Be Practiced on the Common People?” This led, in 1765-66, to a long exchange of letters between Voltaire and Mme du Deffand debating this question. In 1769-70, there was a similar epistolary debate between d’Alembert and Frederick the Great of Prussia. In 1770, Holbach laid out a radical and impassioned analysis of the mater in his Essay on Prejudices. To this, Frederick replied, in the same year, in his Examination of the Essay on Prejudices. This, in turn, caused Diderot to step into the fray with his Letter on the Examination of the Essay on Prejudices. In 1776-77, Lessig wrote Ernst and Falk: Dialogues for Freemasons, his discussion of philosophical esotericism. In 1777, Samuel Formey – author of the Encyclopedia article on esotericism – published his Examination of the Question: Are All Truths Good To State? In 1780, yet another essay contest was proposed, this one by the Academy of Berlin (at the urging of Frederick, who had been spurred on by d’Alembert), on the question “Is It Useful to Deceive the People?” Such competitions played a very important role in the intellectual life of the eighteenth century; and this one was uniquely successful, drawing more participants than any previous contest. Roughly a third of the entries argued in the affirmative (in favor of deception), two-thirds in the negative. Condorcet composed an essay for this competition but ultimately published it separately under the title “Critical Reflections on This Question: Is It Useful to Men to Be Deceived?” Four years later, in 1784, Kant produced his famous essay What Is Enlightenment? touching on these same questions. (pp.274-6)

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  • Cahokia

    The problem with esoteric readings of classical texts is that they strip authority from the ancient writers and confer it to modern-day academics (politicians in scholars garbs). It’s a switch analogous to what developed over the centuries in Orthodox Judaism. Instead of concentrating on the Tanakh, you’re supposed to study the teachings of the elders in the Gemara and the Mishnah.

    Personally, I’d rather devote my attention to interpreting the ancients sans Melzer, Plato and Machiavelli unfiltered through Leo Strauss.

    Having said all that, modern political discourse in the West is utterly undecipherable apart from esoteric readings, some of which are otherwise known as “conspiracy theories”.

    • Maybe Strauss since he is pretty damn esoteric (or just confused) himself but generally that’s crazy. The interpreted ideas are always the better ones to read.

      Do you read Newton in the original? What about Leibniz’s work on calculus. How about Kepler? Or even Gauss. What about ancient alchemists?

      Don’t you find it really really weird that in mathematics or the empirical sciences even when truly monumental genius exists (Gauss, Newton etc..) but we have the best ability to actively check people’s understanding (they prove true results or predict physical events correctly) we have universally abandoned reading the original authors?

      Why? Well no matter how smart you are you are still human and sometimes just didn’t think things through or said dumb shit, e.g., despite inventing the calculus Newton got the product rule wrong. These errors and missteps can be noticed and corrected by far less amazing minds than the originator so why read things littered with errors and misstatements rather than just the parts that panned out?

      Moreover, better ways to present and understand a given idea inevitably emerge only after it is investigated and explored at greater length. Coming up with calculus, gravity etc.. required a genius on Newton’s scale but it wasn’t until later that we learned how best to present and understand his ideas. Remember the progenitor of the novel idea still has in his head all the missteps and misconceptions that prevented it’s early recognition and dogged his first attempts. Only in light of the right answer does it become easier to conceptualize it and explain it most clearly.

      Most importantly, however, is the fact that the popular ancient writers have been read and considered by so many bright minds over the years. If all of them didn’t understand an idea from the ancient, and say so in a way that, in clear understandable prose, provides good reason to think it is correct, over all those intervening years it is surely less productive to try and extract some idea all those other smart people missed than just thinking up things on your own. Plato wasn’t a god only a smart man and if 2,000 years of other smart men haven’t been able to explicate what he said in a convincing non-obscure fashion then YOU won’t have the magical key to doing so. So simply read the people who aren’t super confusing or who haven’t had time to be properly understood yet if you want to reach truth.

      If you really care about the truth you don’t care if Plato thought it or some other guy. Given the number of books of Plato interpretation published do you really think you are the ONE destined to find the hidden gem of truth that everyone else has failed to pull out of his ideas and into modern understandable presentation?

  • Speaking as someone who comes from a mainstream academic philosophy background, it’s pretty clear that plenty of 17th and 18th century writers did practice a kind of “esotericism,” insofar as anti-religious ideas were spreading but dangerous to express openly. Hobbes’ and Hume’s anti-religious sentiments are only barely veiled, and scholars are still arguing over what Bayle really believed.

    I’d be more curious to know if Melzer managed to make a compelling case for secret heresy on behalf of Descartes, Leibniz, or Locke… or better yet, Aquinas.

    • passer by

      Yes, he definitely devotes attention to the peculiar sort of thinly vieled modern impiety.

  • brendan_r

    Why does Melzer write an apology for past esoterics and decline to talk about the implication of lots of modern esotericism?

    Maybe because he understands and approves of the silencing today’s taboo truths.

    • Tige Gibson

      The implication of modern esotericism is that it wouldn’t be preserved because people in the future would find the necessary context backward. Only people interested in the presumptions of the past would find esotericism interesting, but most people study philosophy to find out what the philosophers actually thought. So if you are writing esoterically today, you should not expect your writing to be widely read in a hundred years.

  • blink

    Re: “Since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said.”

    On first pass, I agree, but you in fact mention several factors that may reverse the effect: Reading, interpreting, understanding, and debating the esoteric writers enhances one’s status today. One might even argue that the ancients receive *too much* as a result. Also, on the other hand, the cost is lower precisely because many interpretations and “guides” are available; one may even be able to feign acquaintance with and understanding of the ancients from secondary sources alone.

    • WE will WANT to buy less of this product.

      Yes indeed, incentives may perversely cause individuals to choose to invest in esotericism but as a society we will want to discourage such behavior and support esoteric based teaching or studies less. For instance, I personally think that historical philosophy should be kicked out of the philosophy department and into a sub-basement in the history department. Putting it in the philosophy department creates a deeply harmful tendency to engage with the ancients instead of simply stating the best argument or merely citing likely historical explanation.

      Once you admit the ancients were highly esoteric you virtually ensure that the claim “we should distill out the good parts and drop the rest” becomes almost inescapably true. After all it’s not some complex important, but hard to explain, idea that causes students to get so confused over Plato but a wholly irrelevant deceptiveness on his part as to his real claims. No matter how smart Plato may have been if 2k+ years haven’t been enough to decipher what he actually said it is surely more probable that we will rethink any of his important but undecoded insights rather than extract them.

  • mike

    We moderns seem to be okay with esotericism in interpreting movies and novels and scripted tv shows. People love debating what they mean, and the creators often like to avoid explaining. 🙂

    • adrianratnapala

      This is frequently because they don’t mean anything. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

      Good art often (perhaps usually) involves tickling parts of the mind that say “That’s interesting, it is hinting at something, but I can’t quite puzzle it out”. The fun is spoiled if the viewer does puzzle it out, and the surest way to prevent that from happening is to not have anything there to puzzle out.

      • mike

        well said!

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  • efalken

    In the past, rulers often invoked God or the Gods to help give them legitimacy, and it seems the Roman rulers tended to not really believe in those Gods.

    I would bet that on most political and social issues, the people who are right (ie correct) tend to be so for wrong reasons. For example, John Birchers were most correct about communism’s bleak reality in the 1960s, while mainstream economists seemed to think there would be only minor differences in social freedoms, but they had bizarre explanations as to why this was so. Thus, if you constrain your argument to only right reasons, and discourage help from those who agree with you for wrong reasons, you can’t get sufficient support. Everything has a baptists and bootlegger coalition of principled and unprincipled supporters. Esoteric writing way back probably was popular because it was necessary. It may still be, unfortunately.

  • NeedleFactory

    Some of your criticisms of Melzer vanish if he himself is writing esoterically…

  • Thursday1

    I’d point you towards Steve Sailer’s article on this topic.

  • stevesailer

    Melzer notes:

    “It is only from later sources—Plutarch, Cicero and others—that we first hear what has been broadly accepted ever since (including by contemporary scholars), that Aristotle’s corpus was divided into two broad categories of writings: a set of earlier, popular works, addressed to a wide audience (the now-lost dialogues and perhaps some other writings) and the more exacting, strictly philosophical works, addressed to the Lyceum’s inner circle, which includes virtually all the works we now possess.”

    This passage, however, explains why Philosophy Between the Lines is less than a bombshell. The Straussians haven’t uncovered a Dan Brown-like trove of secret writings by the greats. Instead, most of what has come down to us is the esoteric itself, while the theorized façade works have been lost to time and indifference. After all, before the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, most philosophy was preserved either by trained disciples of the inner circle or by rival philosophers who had excellent reading comprehension skills.

    The big secret covered up by ancient philosophers was that they didn’t find the Greek and Roman deities terribly plausible, which isn’t really stop-the-presses news.

  • billyjoerob

    It looks like Melzer is one of Bloom’s students. Bloom emphasized the “keep the rabble away” and “the philosophers are all atheists” aspects of esotericism far more than did Strauss. I don’t remember Strauss making this argument, but esotericism is inseparable from the method of ancient philosophy. Ancient philosophers begin with ordinary opinions and then modify or purify those opinions through the process of philosophical discussion, which is very different from the method of modern philosophy (or pre-Socratic philosophy). Because Strauss was such a rabid (but esoteric) anti-Christian, I’m sure he probably blames this change of orientation on Christianity. A good introduction to ancient philosophical method is probably the first book of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. Benardete’s Encounters and Reflections, a collection of interviews with his students, gives a better sense of where Strauss was coming from than you’ll get from anybody else.

  • Dan Klein

    Nice post, thanks. Adam Smith practiced esoteric writing, and quite significantly, I say.

    • Melzer says Smith is the only “ancient” person he can find criticizing the idea that esoteric writing was common.

  • spandrell

    The whole ems business doesn’t make much sense to me so I’ll assume it’s part of some esoteric writing and that you’re actually saying something else that you can’t really say openly while keeping your status.

  • Peter David Jones

    On a related note, Pete Kingsley has been arguing that ancient philosophers were much more esoteric, in the sense of mystical, than is current supposed.

  • One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed.

    More than possible. Melzer is a Straussian, and Strauss sought to justify esotericism. (I’m no expert; this is based on wikipedia.) [In the present as well as the past. As you say, it makes direct study of the ancients expensive, so it gives status to a priesthood of interpreters (like the Straussians).]

    Do you practice esotericism? I rather infer you aren’t keen on it. Thus, the interpretation of the em project that I (and others) have often entertained as essentially esoteric must be wrong. (Here a disclaimer would have been really helpful.)

    [No doubt past and present thinkers conceal some of their views. But Strauss and Melzer go much further to conclude that they often meant the opposite of what they said. This makes the mass of Plato and Aristotle scholars fools, who mistook for insight what were recognized even then as banalities.]

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