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)