Do What I Mean, Not What I Say

Ancient philosophers deliberately concealed the meaning of their writings to protect society from dangerous truths.  A review of Arthur M. Melzer’s ‘Philosophy Between the Lines.’

A fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.
A fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.  Getty Images

Good prose always strives to be clear and direct.  Or so we all think now.  Arthur Melzer’s remarkable book shines a floodlight on a topic that has been cloaked in obscurity:  esoteric writing.  Using such techniques as deliberate contradiction, parable and allusion, authors who write esoterically craft texts so that they operate on two levels.  There is a surface message intended for the ordinary or inattentive reader and a deeper meaning, often diametrically opposed to the first, that is addressed to the discerning reader.

Philosophy Between the Lines

By Arthur M. Melzer
Chicago, 453 pages, $45

Beyond the obvious reason of avoiding persecution by authorities, as in Czechoslovakia in the Communist era or in Iran today, why would anyone adopt such a strange practice?  Therein lies a tale, which Mr. Melzer, a professor of political theory at Michigan State University, explores with painstaking clarity and patience in “Philosophy Between the Lines.”

As intriguing as this subject appears, it would seem to be of limited importance in the great scheme of things.  Yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Over 60 years ago, Irving Kristol reviewed a book by a then little-known philosopher, Leo Strauss, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” in which Strauss, examining works by medieval Jewish and Arabic philosophers, brought to light—today it is said he “discovered”—the practice of esoteric writing.  Kristol concluded his review with the stunning claim that if Strauss’s argument were accepted, “he will have accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history.”  The recovery of a lost continent of human thought would mean that intellectuals would have to “go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past.”

Mr. Melzer does not go so far as to speak of a revolution, but he leaves no doubt about the stakes involved in recognizing the practice of esoteric writing.  Separating himself slightly from Leo Strauss, whose assault on relativism and historicism provoked controversy—“if you don’t like Strauss, well, just try not to think about him”—Mr. Melzer proceeds by scrupulously distinguishing the practice of esoteric writing from judgments of its merit:  “My goal here is not to get people to like esotericism (I am no great lover of it myself), or to engage in it themselves (as I do not), but simply to accept it as a historical reality—indeed a monumental one affecting the whole conduct of intellectual life in the West over two millennia.”

Mr. Melzer’s effort to establish this “historical reality” meets the most rigorous standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  He not only shows that thinkers in the past used this technique but also adduces direct confessions from scores of these writers, among them Plato, Aquinas, Montesquieu and Rousseau, as well as testimonies from past commentators.  In 1750, for example, the famous Encyclopedia produced by the French philosophes explained that the philosophers of old “had a double doctrine; the one external, public, or exoteric; the other internal, secret, or esoteric.”  The secret of secret writing, it turns out, was not very well kept.

What stands out in retrospect, then, is the fact that esoteric writing had to be rediscovered at all, for everything needed to see the phenomenon was already there hidden in plain sight.  As Mr. Melzer asks:  “How in the world could we have missed something so big and so (formerly) well known?” Noting that the “distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric” was fading, Goethe in 1811 lamented the intellectual “disaster” that he feared would follow.  The triumph of the Enlightenment had thrown modern thought into a cave of its own, by enshrining reason and clarity as the foremost virtues of intellectual discourse.

Mr. Melzer’s perplexity about this blindness and the resistance of modern thought to the very idea of esoteric writing launches him on a second intellectual journey.  His investigation expands from its simple historical purpose of documenting the fact of esoteric writing to an analysis of the dominant modes of response to it.  These modes correlate loosely with the positions of classical thought and Enlightenment and modern thought.

For the classic philosophers who invented esoteric writing, the practice was meant in the first instance to solve a difficulty intrinsic to communicating by the written word rather than by oral discussion with individuals, as Socrates preferred.  Writing was a popularizing medium that indifferently reached a broader audience, speaking in the same way to all.  The great problem this posed for classic philosophers was that, in their view, all societies, even good ones, rested on certain myths or unexamined beliefs, which philosophy, in its relentless effort to subject everything to question and analysis, threatened.  What Mr. Melzer calls “protective esotericism” was meant to go a long way toward solving this problem.  Philosophers could “publish” and avoid doing harm to society by supporting or giving no offense to healthy conventional opinion in their surface argument, while still communicating their philosophical ideas “between the lines” to the few.

In a fascinating discussion of what he calls “pedagogical esotericism,” Mr. Melzer identifies another reason that classical authors (and others) chose to write on different levels.  Philosophical education, in the classical view, consists less in transmitting information or argument—the modern PowerPoint view of pedagogy—than in awakening in the student a certain wonder or awe toward the world and toward learning.  It seeks a turning of the soul, which encourages the best students of a certain disposition to figure things out on their own.  Esoteric writing replicates on the written page what the good teacher does through discussion, which is to drop hints and start the student on a path of independent inquiry.  By this view, dotting every i and crossing every t is an impediment.  “The open society,” Mr. Melzer writes, “is highly sensitive to the dangers of obscurity but blind to those of plainness and clarity.”

It comes as a mild surprise to learn that a number of Enlightenment thinkers, including such stalwarts of public reason as Diderot and Condorcet, either practiced or condoned a form of esoteric writing.  After all, the premise of Enlightenment thought, in direct contrast to the classic position, is that there is no ultimate tension between reason and society.  Political life can rest on a foundation of truth or science without need of myth or prejudice.  What utility then is there in esotericism?  The “political esotericism” of the Enlightenment, Mr. Melzer shows, is a creature of a very different species than the older variants.  It is a temporary tactic in the fight against the closed society envisioned by the ancients.  People can shed their old prejudices only in stages, and esoteric writing may be required to help keep the project of Enlightenment from undermining itself before it has accomplished its goal.  The ultimate end of this use of esoteric writing is to rid the world of esotericism and make it safe for openness.  Extreme attacks on esotericism by most Enlightenment thinkers, those who had already swallowed the party line, is what created the hostility and repugnance to esoteric writing that by the 19th century led to the outright denial of its very existence.

“Philosophy Between the Lines” is a double achievement, a landmark work in both intellectual history and political theory.  For the reader who is in the habit of underlining, be prepared to have a second pen on hand, as your ink will run dry by mid-volume.  If there is anything “esoteric” in Arthur Melzer’s approach, it would have to be in the sheer lucidity and precision of his writing, which is his way to lead the modern readers to see, confront and challenge the presuppositions of their own age.

—Mr. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.