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Esoteric? Or Poetic?

I think I’m going to need to read Arthur M. Melzer’s new book, because I admit to being somewhat confused by just why Damon Linker thinks his argument is so important.

Here’s how high Linker rates the stakes:

Melzer has written the most compelling, surprising, and persuasive defense of [Leo] Strauss’s thought that I have ever read. It deserves a wide and appreciative audience. And if it gets one, the consequences could be enormous.

Because if Strauss was right in the way he interpreted the Western philosophical tradition, then much of modern scholarship — and, by extension, our civilization’s understanding of its intellectual and political inheritance — will need to be radically revised.

Why? Because, following Strauss, Melzer argues that the classics of Western philosophy were written “esoterically.” That is to say, they appear to be saying one thing on the surface, but the attentive and truly philosophically-inclined reader will discern a deeper meaning that, on close examination, is profoundly at odds with the surface meaning. And, presumably, we moderns have been reading these classics all wrong because we’ve forgotten how to read this way.

My first puzzlement is to say: really? We have? We no longer prize “indirect, implicit, ambiguous modes of speaking and writing” the way all other societies in history have, and do? William Empson would certainly be surprised to hear it, as would much of the rest of the literary-critical profession. Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, sounds to me like a textbook example of what Linker, citing Melzer, calls “pedagogical esotericism.” Assuming I’ve understood Fish correctly, his argument is that while on the surface Paradise Lost appears to be a story about the Fall of Man – and in that story, appears to make Satan a surprisingly sympathetic figure (which is how Blake read it) – in fact that very experience, of being surprised by sympathy for the devil as a dramatic character, recapitulates the Fall within the heart of the reader. And, by putting the reader through that experience, the reader will truly come to understand the Fall and how it could have happened in the first place.

I deliberately didn’t point to Lacanian, New Historicist or other schools of reading that divorce the text from any notion of intentionality because it seems important to Melzer’s (and Strauss’s) claim that these works were intended to be read esoterically. But clearly these other schools, following Freud and Marx, have found (or imposed) all kinds of esoteric meanings on a wide variety of texts. And it’s not obvious to me why the point about intentionality is telling if the question is: what do these works mean now, as opposed to the historical question of what they meant then.

In any event: medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers were well-acquainted with the idea of reading texts – particularly sacred texts – on multiple levels: reading for the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the mystical “esoteric” meaning, etc. Straussian readings of the classics – which, I will own, I have had only passing acquaintance with – have always struck me as comparable. Maimonides, Aquinas and Ibn Rushd aimed to reconcile Aristotle with scripture. This required some novel readings of scripture – and also some novel readings of Aristotle. Strauss, it seems to me, wanted to reconcile Plato with Nietzsche, which required similar stretches. What’s puzzling is the necessity of reconciliation. Plato, after all, isn’t scripture. Nietzsche may actually have learned something that Plato didn’t know. “What did Plato intend his readers to understand?” is ultimately a historical question, not a philosophical one. “Is mathematical Platonism correct?” on the other hand, is a philosophical question – and one that has relevance whether “mathematical Platonism” as philosophers of math use the term actually corresponds precisely to something Plato “intended” or not. Either way, the value of reading Plato as if it were a sacred text is, well, obscure.

My largest puzzlement, though, is that the defining characteristic of Western philosophical thought at its origin is the opposite of esotericism. Socrates, after all, was put to death precisely because he directly questioned whether anybody knew anything, and thereby (in the view of the Athenian citizenry) corrupted the youth and led the community into disaster. His method wasn’t esoteric teaching – it wasn’t teaching at all. It was relentlessly interrogatory. Is it plausible to read much of Plato as an esoteric response, an attempt to preserve something of Socrates’s philosophical achievement without ultimately suffering his fate? Perhaps – but the more salient fact, it seems to me, is that Socrates’s example is still there as the fundamental challenge to any philosopher to come after. That’s what’s distinctive. Read Plato however you like, you will never turn Socrates into Lao Tzu for sheer esoteric inscrutability.

Here’s the heart of Linker’s appreciation of Melzer, and of Strauss:

Take the account of the “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.

On Melzer’s reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss’ student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.

Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others — in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else — and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them — coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)

In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn’t to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.

Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.

Strauss didn’t teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.

If this is how Plato intended to be read, it can only be because his students were already Socratic in their orientation. Compare the above to my account of Fish’s “reader-response” reading of Milton. Unless you already are oriented in a Christian manner, and understand sympathy for the devil’s party to be an index of sinfulness, you won’t be “surprised” in the manner Milton intended. The poem won’t work its greatest magic. So: a philosophically-sophisticated reader of Plato, Melzer is saying, will read Plato’s account of the “noble lie” and, rather than take it at face value (“clearly we should continue to promote such lies, for the good of the community”), or engage in self-congratulation (“thankfully, we modern liberals have outgrown the telling of noble lies”), will turn the process inward, (“hmmm . . . the teacher says that the ideal community is founded on noble lies . . . our community seems pretty ideal – I wonder what lies we are founded on?”) But if this process is going to happen at all, though, it is because the student already sees Socrates as the philosophical exemplar. That is to say: she already thinks the right way to do philosophy is by questioning everything. Absent that fundamental orientation, how would it ever occur to the student to ask that question?

Milton, writing a Christian poem for a Christian audience, presumably wasn’t being “esoteric.” He was writing poetry – great, highly sophisticated poetry that (assuming Fish’s reading is correct) could not achieve its fullest effect except by the means he employed. If Strauss/Bloom/Melzer’s reading of Plato’s noble lie is correct, then the question is whether Plato was writing poetically or esoterically? Was he writing as he did, in other words, because a more sophisticated approach was more powerful? Or because he didn’t want to be understood by non-initiates?

The two possibilities have very different implications for how we think about Strauss’s implicit politics. The latter is properly what “esoteric” writing should mean, and is why Strauss gets the negative rap that he does. “Liberate yourself from believing lies” is perfectly compatible, as an injunction, with continuing to tell them, and the surface reading of Plato – according to which the path of relentless inquiry is only available to the elite, and is dangerous for society as a whole – would certainly seem to provide adequate justification for continuing to tell them. But my question is: what would Socrates do? The founder of Western philosophy didn’t head out to the suburbs to teach selected initiates. He asked annoying questions of whoever entered the Agora. And when that earned him a cup of hemlock, he drank it.

I’ll be more convinced that Strauss is actually following Socrates when I hear more from Straussians about the lies philosophers – including Straussians – tell themselves about what they are really doing.


about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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