I am amazed. I am eager to read this book. Awesome review. This book asks the same question as I do on my https://philosophyessay.org/ blog. You are always welcome there.

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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?


Now sure, certain disciplines and scholars are quite suspect in their approach. But if you don't care whether Plato said it it is always easier to evaluate truth when it is said quite clearly in a way accessible to current thinkers/readers.

So unless you really believe you are the only truth-seeker out there surely you can dig out the non-politicized modern writers and read them. If you can't tell why assume Plato isn't just as much a politicized hack.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.


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

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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.

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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.

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

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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. It's a shame that Bloom's students tend to dominate the interpretation of his legacy.

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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.

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

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

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