book cover imagePhilosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing
by Arthur M. Melzer.
University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 464 pages, $45.

It sounded like jabberwocky to some, but then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s distinction between “known unknowns” or “things that we now know we don’t know,” and “unknown unknowns” or “things we do not know we don’t know,” was a remarkable, and remarkably pithy, epistemological insight. The great challenge, he observed, was turning the latter into the former.

That is the task of Arthur Melzer’s new book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. According to Melzer, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, until about 1800 it was the worst-kept secret among philosophers that their colleagues throughout the ages had made a regular practice of concealing their true, “esoteric” beliefs underneath a surface of orthodox, “exoteric” pieties. This “double doctrine” would simultaneously appease the masses, to whom the writer would appear to uphold contemporary conventions, while remaining accessible to a few careful, worthy readers. As the Enlightenment pressed on, however, esoteric writing ceased, and with it esoteric reading—so much so that, by the mid-twentieth century, the whole idea was pronounced a myth.

Melzer is well aware that it sounds like he has read too many Dan Brown novels—which is why what follows is a sober, methodical marshaling of several kinds of evidence, meticulously organized to leave little doubt that, for nearly two centuries, philosophers have been blind to a pivotal element of their own subject.

The historical testimony is so extensive that Melzer could not fit it all in the book: available online is a 110-page appendix of authors from Homer and Hesiod to C. S. Peirce and Wittgenstein, attesting to the use of esoteric writing, either in others’ works or their own. The quantity and universality of the evidence is extraordinary. As Melzer writes, “It is in fact difficult to name a single major philosopher from any time or place before 1800 who did not somewhere make open and approving reference to this practice.”

But why, then, given so much evidence, was this practice not simply forgotten, but declared fantastic by modern academia? How was such an enormous oversight possible? The answer requires understanding not just the historical, but the philosophical, grounds for esoteric writing.

Esotericism, writes Melzer, “grows out of the fundamental and abiding philosophical problem of theory and praxis—especially the question of the relation between philosophic rationalism and political community, or between ‘the two lives’: the vita contemplativa and the vita activa. Are the two fundamentally harmonious (essentially the Enlightenment view) or antagonistic (the dominant classical view)?” For premodern philosophers, Melzer argues, the “conflictual” view—the belief that the Philosopher and the City are intrinsically at odds—requires the careful concealment of what are inevitably subversive truths. Thus the philosopher practices “defensive” esotericism, to shield him from the wrath of the Powers That Be; “protective” esotericism, to shield the City, constituted of non-philosophers, from truths that would threaten its stability; and “pedagogical” esotericism, which enables the perpetuation of philosophy in an environment to which it is anathema.

Modern philosophers, though, beginning with Bacon, Spinoza, and Descartes, rejected the conflictual for the “harmonist” view, contending that the City could be brought into subordination to reason. Their new esotericism—“political” esotericism—was intended to bring this about.

However, the transition from the classical “closed” society to the modern “open” one by definition requires the eventual disappearance of esotericism. In a society in which the life of contemplation and the life of action are in harmony, there is no need to hide subversive truths. It is the success of the Enlightenment project, then, contends Melzer, that occasioned the loss of esoteric writing—and, as importantly, of esoteric reading.

What we have described so far is reason enough to read Melzer’s book; indeed, he has presented sufficient evidence to reorient his entire discipline.

But what makes Melzer’s book important, revelatory, even thrilling—has an academic work of intellectual history ever before been described as “unputdownable”?—is how deeply philosophical it, itself, is. Because our age has so completely embraced the harmonist view, whether in the mode of Bayle and Diderot, subordinating political life to reason, or in the mode of Burke and Rousseau, subordinating reason to tradition, to attempt to understand why premodern writers such as Plato, Cicero, and Maimonides felt the need to write esoterically requires a colossal act of philosophical imagination: namely, to take on the perspective, the conflictual view, of the ancients. What one finds in doing so are problems that were not resolved, but simply papered over.

For example, discussing pedagogical esotericism, Melzer observes that the ancients were deeply concerned with the relationship between master and student: “Can virtue be taught?” Meno asks Socrates. Can philosophy? The answer seems to be, No—but it can be learned. And that paradox points toward the great mystery of philosophizing: that it is not a learning of answers, but a conversion of heart and mind. “The ‘knowledge’ at which philosophy aims is not purely intellectual or academic—like book knowledge,” Melzer writes, elaborating the classical view. “One must feel these truths from the inside, make them one’s own, and live them.” To be given answers is soul-deadening, but, in St. Augustine’s words, “the hidden truths arouse longing.”

Modern philosophers do not think like that. But by taking seriously the conflictual view, Melzer dismisses the temptation to consider it as nothing more than an artifact, and, in the process of demonstrating how it led toesotericism, shows that its questions remain provocative—indeed, central to the philosophic enterprise. Is philosophy an awakening of each individual soul to the existence of insoluble mysteries that persist at the root of things? Or is it a progressive science by which successive generations, on the shoulders of those who came before, build to greater degrees of clarity in a collective, public enterprise? Philosophy is not philosophy if it does not ask such questions of itself.

It was to these overarching questions—particularly the clash between ancient and modern—that Leo Strauss addressed himself, and Strauss’s presence looms over Melzer’s work—unsurprisingly, of course: Strauss turned the philosophical world on its head when he first suggested the necessity of esoteric reading more than half a century ago, and the subject has remained largely confined to his own work and that of his disciples, those mysterious “Straussians,” to whom has accrued (absurdly and unfortunately) a cult-like status. Melzer is not a Straussian, but he takes Strauss seriously. The final chapter of Philosophy Between the Lines is a careful consideration of Strauss’s thought, culminating in a defense of something like Strauss’s own position: the need for a resuscitation of esoteric reading as a way to return philosophy to its roots, from which it has become detached in the modern, progressive era, and of a minimalist, Socratic rationalism.

Old-fashioned Socratic restraint will be necessary to temper those inclined to pull their Harvard Classics from the shelves and begin searching for hidden clues. Melzer provides a single-chapter “Beginner’s Guide to Esoteric Reading” and a list of recommended reading, but he advises caution. Esoteric reading, he says, should not be attempted until one has read a text several times—preferably in its original language—and also obtained a solid grasp of the political history and philosophical history surrounding it. The first-time Republic reader will do himself, and philosophy at-large, a favor by keeping to the literal text.

But none of that is to say that esoteric reading is only for the haruspices among us. In the book’s second chapter, Melzer demonstrates what esoteric reading might look like. A careful reader of Machiavelli will note that the sole Biblical quotation in all of the Prince and the Disources on Livy occurs in book 1, chapter 26 of the latter text, in a discussion of tyrannical behavior exemplified by King David—David “‘who filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty,’” writes Machiavelli, quoting the Good Book. But it is not David who did those things; the well-known verse, from Mary’s Magnificat, is referring to God. Did Homer nod? Perhaps. But combining this with other suspicious lapses suggests that it is more likely that Machiavelli erred intentionally, to hide his true message—in Melzer’s reading, “that the God of the New Testament is a great tyrant or, more broadly, that the Christian religion is perhaps the true cause of the loss of the ancient Republican liberty that he, Machiavelli, is striving in this book to revive”—from all but the most discerning readers. (Examining similar cues in Plato’s text, Melzer also offers an alternative reading of the Republic.)

Melzer’s purpose is not to establish the single correct reading of these works. It is simply “to show that [reading between the lines] is not anything so terribly arcane or out of reach.” Practically, esoteric reading is only more intense “close reading.” The tools that authors use to conceal meaning—metaphor, allusion, irony, intentional error, and the like—are all available to the reader who is rightly addressed to the work, and patient enough to read it with care.

Melzer’s book is as comprehensive an account of philosophical esotericism as has yet been written—an advantage, admittedly, to being the first tothe field—but it is likely, also, to remain so for some time, given how deeply thought his account is. The philosophical work is every bit as important, and as impressive, as the fact-finding on which it is based. Melzer does not answer everyquestion, of course. He does not, for instance, discuss specifically medieval philosophers, who one could argue occupy a unique space between ancient and modern (though he does invoke Augustine and Aquinas in support of esotericism). That may be because those Christian thinkers are engaged in the larger project of theology, which subsumes his focus, political philosophy, and which operates by separate rules. Aquinas’s Summa, for instance, is decidedly not esoteric, but one could make a strong case that his De Regno is—and that would make sense: the former is an explication of sacra doctrina addressed to beginning Catholic seminarians, the latter is a treatise written to (and intended to influence) the King of Cyprus. If philosophy is, indeed, the handmaiden of theology, then Augustine, Aquinas, and others would likely invoke the practices of philosophy only when they served their larger project. Still, to have Melzer’s thoughts on this would clarify and deepen his argument.

I, for one, would also be curious to know the status of certain later philosophes with regard to esotericism, chief among them Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who both wrote well after 1800, and who both employ unorthodox forms. Is Kierkegaard’s “indirect discourse” a late form of esotericism—or something categorically different?

And one can find things to quibble over: Melzer’s examination of custom seems wanting, and he has a tendency to use the same quotations repeatedly (though always appositely), despite the quantity of evidence at his disposal (see that long appendix).

But neither questions nor tiny qualms detract from the overall quality of the project. Melzer’s is a work of tremendous scholarship and careful thought, by the end of which one is eager to return to Plato and Aristotle and the rest, to examine them with fresh eyes. We do not know yet what they will reveal—but we know to look. And that’s a start.  

Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.