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I wrote the following essay in the 1990s while in graduate school. It was not written for a class, but merely to clarify my thinking on how to read philosophical texts in anticipation of writing my doctoral dissertation. It is hard to believe that I once had the leisure to write 7,700+ word essays “for the drawer,” but there it is.
I have read a good deal of Strauss over the years, and he has been an important influence on how I read philosophical texts. But I never counted myself as a Straussian. First, although many Straussians are very nice people, the movement has a repellent cultish atmosphere cultivated by Strauss himself. Second, Strauss had strongly atheistic, anti-metaphysical prejudices that he projected on the history of philosophy. Every philosopher turns out to be a dissembling atheist on Strauss’ account, whereas I think it is more often the case that they are dissembling heterodox forms of spirituality. Third, Strauss’s project has fundamentally Jewish assumptions and aims, which I always found alien to my interests, even when I did not regard them as inimical.
Some time in 2001, I watched Veit Harlan’s Jud Süß and was thunderstruck. It came to me that the primal image of Leo Strauss’s portrait of the philosopher is not Socrates versus Athens but the rather the “court Jew” like Süß Oppenheimer: an outsider, a member of a cosmopolitan community, who does not share the dominant religion of the particular society in which he lives, but who protects the interests of his people by cozying up to the people in power and manipulating them through flattery and dissimulation, eventually turning them toward pursuing an alien agenda at the expense of their own people. (I argue this point at some length in another unpublished essay.)
It is no accident, then, that the Straussian school has produced not just interesting Plato scholars but a whole crop of scheming court Jews, including William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and other neoconservative warmongers who have brought death, terror, chaos, torture, and misery to millions.
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“Speak of things public to the public, but of things lofty and secret only to the loftiest and most private of your friends. Hay to an ox, and sugar to a parrot; interpret this rightly, lest you be trampled down by oxen as most others have.”
—Abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516) to Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), April 8, 1510
“As for the lies of the Carpigiani, I should like a contest in that matter with all of them . . . : for a long time I have not said what I believed, nor do I ever believe what I say, and if I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.”
—Niccolò Machiavelli to Francesco Guicciardini, May 17, 1521
“It is not possible to explain anything to a hostile public; accordingly I have kept certain things that might be said concerning the limits of the therapy and its mechanism to myself, or spoken of them in a way that is intelligible only to the initiate.”
—Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung, December 6, 1906
“Adolf Hitler was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds. He was renowned for his spellbinding oratory, relations with women, and annihilation of a minority people. In his last years, he suffered from insanity and delusions of grandeur. Chairman Mao is taller and heavier.”
—Editorial in Chinese Communist quarterly National Construction, refuting allegations of similarities between Hitler and Mao
Leo Strauss, with his emphasis on “reading between the lines” in search of “secret teachings” was an exotic presence in twentieth-century hermeneutics. If, however, we take a longer historical view, we find that the distinction between esoteric and exoteric teachings, as well as the art of reading necessary for distinguishing between them, have been discussed and/or practiced by a list of thinkers and scholars so long that it might well pass for the history of ideas itself.
One of the best accounts of esotericism is to be found in a 1720 essay by the radical Whig deist John Toland (1670–1722): “Clidophorus, or of the Exoteric and Esoteric Philosophy, that is, of the External and Internal Doctrines of the Ancients: the one open and public, accommodated to the popular Prejudices and the established Religions; the other private and secret, wherein, to the few capable and discrete, was taught the TRUTH stripped of all disguises.” The subtitle says it all.
Esotericism has gone by many names over the centuries. According to David Berman, “What Toland calls the ‘exoteric and esoteric distinction’ has also been called ‘double doctrine’ by William Warburton, ‘defensive raillery’ by Lord Shaftesbury, ‘irony’ by Collins, ‘secret insinuation’ by Hume, dissembling, dissimulation, and sneering by many.” Other synonyms include “esoterism” and “epoptic” or “acroamatic” writing. Strauss himself refers to esotericism as “exoteric” writing.
In the twentieth century, however, Strauss is virtually the only defender of the necessity of recognizing the art of esoteric writing and matching it with an appropriate art of reading.
A theory of esoteric writing needs to answer five questions.
First, one must explain an author’s motivation for publishing in the first place. After all, if an author has something to hide, then the best way to hide it is not to publish at all.
Second, one must explain what would motivate an author to conceal his ideas. Most authors write precisely in order to communicate their views to as many readers as possible; therefore, it would require some special circumstances to motivate a writer to do otherwise.
Third, one must explain what makes esoteric writing possible.
Fourth, one must explain the techniques of esoteric writing that allow a writer to reveal his ideas to some and conceal them from others.
Fifth, as Strauss observes: “Any attempt to restore the earlier [esoteric] approach in this age . . . is confronted with the problem of criteria for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate reading between the lines” (Persecution, 32). A case for esotericism requires some methodological reflection on the undeniable threat that an exercise in esoteric interpretation can degenerate into arbitrariness and projection, i.e., that the interpreter, once he feels that he can dispense with the explicit statements of the author in question will simply read his own views into the text rather than discovering the secret teaching of the author.
Strauss’s chief statement of his hermeneutic principles—the title essay of his Persecution and the Art of Writing—successfully treats these five problems.
1. A Simple Example of Reading Between the Lines
Before we look at Strauss’s theory of reading between the lines, I would like to give a simple example of such an interpretation. Machiavelli devotes chapter 25 of The Prince to the topic “How Much Fortune Can Do in Human Affairs, and in What Mode It May be Opposed.” He begins:
It is not unknown to me that many have held and hold the opinion that worldly things are so governed by fortune and by God, that men cannot correct them with their prudence, indeed that they have no remedy at all; and on account of this they might judge that one need not sweat much over things but let oneself be governed by chance. (The Prince, 98)
A few lines later, Machiavelli continues:
Nonetheless, in order that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern. (The Prince, 98)
In the next chapter, Machiavelli writes:
God does not want to do everything, so as not to take free will from us and that part of the glory that falls to us. (The Prince, 103)
I believe that Machiavelli is insinuating an identity between God and fortune. In the first quote, he states the opinion that our lives are governed by God and by fortune, but when he sums up the practical implication some draw from this view, he characterizes it as letting oneself be governed by chance. The governance of God, however, is not chance but Providence. But perhaps Machiavelli does not think there is a meaningful distinction between chance and Providence, because he thinks there is no distinction between God and fortune.
In the second quote, in which Machiavelli is stating his own views, he divides human affairs between fortune and human freedom. In the third quote, he divides them between God and human freedom. Thus it is reasonable to wonder if God and fortune are the same for Machiavelli.
But one cannot make an airtight case for ascribing such a heretical teaching to Machiavelli. Indeed, Machiavelli would be a fool to allow that, so just as surely as he suggests the equation he also casts shadows of doubt. For instance, in the second quote, he claims that fortune determines half of our actions and free will the other half, “or close to it.” The qualification “or close to it” gives a tiny space for factors other than fortune and free will. This space could be occupied by God, but Machiavelli does not say. Moreover, in the third quote, Machiavelli does not exclude the possibility that fortune might also be a factor.
If one accepts the identity of God and fortune, this would either profane God or divinize fortune. Machiavelli leaves no doubt about which option he would choose. He has no piety toward fortune. He likens fortune to a river which sometimes floods but which can be contained with dams and dikes (The Prince, 98–99). He also likens fortune to a woman: “and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down” (The Prince, 101). If God and fortune are the same, but fortune can be controlled, then Machiavelli’s teaching is, pragmatically, a form of atheism.
With this example in mind, let us now look at Strauss’ theory of esoteric writing and reading.
2. Why Publish at All?
On Strauss’s account, “An esoteric book contains . . . two teachings: a popular teaching of an edifying character which is in the foreground; and a philosophical teaching concerning the most important subject, which is indicated only between the lines” (Persecution, 36). To whom are the esoteric strata of such writings addressed? Strauss offers a plausible answer:
Those to whom such books are truly addressed are . . . neither the unphilosophical majority or the perfect philosopher as such, but the young men who might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is merely and purely theoretical. . . . All books of that kind owe their existence to the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn: all exoteric books are “written speeches caused by love.” (Persecution, 36)
Strauss’s point is that philosophers are motivated to write by the desire for students. There is, of course, no need to write for one’s present students; one can simply talk to them. There is, however, a need to write if one wishes to reach unknown students, i.e., to discover new students.
Following Alexandre Kojève, I believe that Strauss underestimates the need of philosophers, and of writers in general, to communicate their ideas to and be recognized by equals, not just students. Strauss’ emphasis on unequal teacher-student relationships, as well as his characterization of students as puppies (who are presumably in need of dog training), goes a long way to explaining the cult-like nature of the school he founded. The good little Straussian is trained like a dog to think he is a god.
3. Why Conceal One’s Views?
Why, given that the search for new students is sufficient reason for an author to publish, would he clothe his thoughts to make them obscure to the vast majority of people, thereby risking that he go unrecognized by potential students? Why not declare oneself openly and frankly to everyone? That would seem to be the best way of maximizing one’s chances of success.
Strauss’s answer is compelling: “Exoteric literature presupposes that there are basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent men, because they would do harm to many people who, having been hurt, would naturally be inclined to hurt in turn him who pronounces the unpleasant truths” (Persecution, 36). Esoteric writing is, in short, made necessary by the fact that some truths are dangerous.
This danger is twofold. Some ideas can be dangerous to the majority of people because, for a variety of reasons, such people cannot make use of some ideas wisely, and are therefore more likely to be harmed by them than helped by them. One motive for concealing such ideas, therefore, is social responsibility (Persecution, 36). The desire to help others—or at least to refrain from harming them—dictates that some writers communicate harmful ideas only between the lines.
A second reason for concealing harmful ideas is mere self-interest. Those who harm the majority are likely to be harmed by them in turn, or by their guardians.
Although Strauss refers to both other-regarding and self-regarding motives for esoteric writing, he emphasizes the phenomenon of persecution, probably because selfish motives are simpler to understand than altruistic ones.
Historical examples of persecuted philosophers are also abundant: “[A] glance at the biographies of Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, Grotius, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Wolff, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Lessing, and Kant . . . is sufficient to show that they witnessed or suffered, during at least part of their lifetimes, a kind of persecution which was more tangible than mere social ostracism” (Persecution, 33). Strauss gives an admirable summary of his thesis about the influence of persecution on the art of writing:
Persecution . . . gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines. That literature is addressed, not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only. It has all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage—that it reaches only the writer’s acquaintances. It has all the advantages of public communication, without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author. (Persecution, 25)
In conclusion, esoteric writing is necessary because the world consists not only of potential students, but also of potential victims, and potential persecutors. In face-to-face interactions, we all exercise a certain amount of discretion in order to sort out potential friends, enemies, and victims before we reveal too much of ourselves to them. But written texts, once they leave their authors’ hands, circulate freely. Thus they can fall into anyone’s hands and be interpreted and misinterpreted in ways which can neither be corrected nor controlled.
The art of esoteric writing allows a philosopher to incorporate the prudence and discretion of face-to-face transactions into written texts, allowing him to extend his both his presence and his prudence far beyond his personal sphere, increasing his chances of finding students while at the same time minimizing his chances of creating enemies and victims. In fact, to the extent that the exoteric teaching is truly popular and salutary, it might even elicit a kind of friendship from those who would otherwise be one’s potential enemies and victims.
4. How is Esoteric Writing Possible?
What makes esoteric writing possible is intellectual inequality. It is possible for the same text to say different things to different people because some people are better than others at thinking abstractly; some are better than others at remembering concretes; some are better than others at attending to details; some are better than others at drawing the implications of statements; and so forth.
In Strauss’s words: “The fact which makes this literature possible is the axiom that thoughtless men are careless readers, and only thoughtful men are careful readers. Therefore an author who wishes to address only thoughtful men has but to write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book” (Persecution, 25).
5. How is Esoteric Writing Accomplished?
How does one “write in such a way that only a very careful reader can detect the meaning of his book”? It is not difficult to understand how one can construct a text with an exoteric meaning. All texts, by definition, have surface meanings. But how does a text harbor an esoteric meaning?
It would be a mistake to think that an esoteric teaching is in some strict sense “covered over” by the exoteric teaching, like an encrypted message which requires an external clue, such as a cipher book, in order to be understood. This method might be useful in conveying a message to a known friend who is in possession of the cipher key. But it would make it nigh unto impossible for unknown or potential friends to discover the secret teaching, rendering publication futile.
In an esoteric text, then, the “surface” and the “depth” must both, so to speak, be on the surface—at least insofar as both teachings can be read on the page. Esoteric teachings must be hidden in plain view, for all to see but for few to understand.
What hides the esoteric teaching is, in part, the even greater prominence of the exoteric teaching. Exoteric teachings are placed front and center; they are spelled out in the most accessible terms possible; their elements are carefully separated and distinguished to prevent confusions and then synthesized back together for easy comprehension. You can’t miss it—you can understand it—and therefore you are likely to overlook other, more enigmatic features of the text.
In “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” Strauss claims that careful readers are led from the exoteric to the esoteric levels of texts by “certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teaching—obscurity of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact representations of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc.” (Persecution, 36).
Elsewhere in the same essay, he cites “contradictions within one work or between two or more works of the same author, omission of important links of the argument, and so on” (Persecution, 31). Esoteric teachings are hidden in plain view by being placed on the margins of a text—in dedications, appendices, excurses, digressions, footnotes, endnotes, epigraphs, frontispieces, illustrations, tables and charts, etc. They are expressed in an obscure and enigmatic style. The reader is left to supply missing premises and draw unstated conclusions. Elements of the teaching are scattered widely, and the reader is left with the task of piecing them together. The Devil is in the details.
Throughout his works, Strauss points out many techniques of writing—and reading—between the lines. One of the central goals of esoteric writing is to leave as much of the secret teaching as possible unstated, but to deploy sufficient clues to allow the careful reader to infer what is left unsaid.
One can, for instance, make an esoteric teaching an unstated implication or presupposition of a stated argument, leaving it to the careful reader to notice the gap and supply the missing statement.
Another technique is the “roaring silence”: an author can indicate what he thinks is important or unimportant by remaining silent about topics that might normally be treated in a certain context. For example, an author speaks volumes if he consistently remains silent about religious topics in contexts where they might normally arise.
The skillful use of quotations and allusions to other texts is another way of pointing careful readers to a viewpoint outside of the text from which the text’s meaning might be seen in a wholly different light. The decisions to omit certain words in a quotation, to quote a passage without attribution, to take a passage out of context, to omit certain facts in one’s re-telling of a story, etc.—when discovered and appreciated by careful readers—can completely transform the meaning of a text.
Another strategy of esoteric writing is to state the secret teaching openly and boldly, but in such a way that it cannot, with complete certainty, be attributed to the author. This can be achieved by such tactics as opposing grossly arbitrary, tendentious, and unflattering defenses of orthodox views to eloquent and compelling statements of unorthodox views in the process of critiquing them.
Another tactic is to pose as a commentator on another author’s text, advancing one’s own views as merely an interpretation of somebody else’s. One can also frame unorthodox ideas as fictions; one can place them in the mouths of unsavory characters in dialogues; one can distance oneself from them by heaping satire, irony, and ridicule upon them; and one can simply publish them anonymously or pseudonymously.
6. Can an Esoteric Interpretation be Proven?
How can a reader know that he is dealing with a text with an esoteric teaching? And how can he ensure himself that he is actually discovering the esoteric teaching, and not simply projecting his own prejudices onto the text?
The answer is: One can’t. Although Strauss nowhere states this explicitly, his premises imply that one can never, in principle, be sure that one has discovered and correctly construed an esoteric teaching. This is an implication which likely did not escape him. Consider the following passage from “Persecution and the Art of Writing”:
Another axiom [of esoteric writing], but one which is meaningful only so long as persecution remains within the bounds of legal procedure, is that a careful writer of normal intelligence is more intelligent than the most intelligent censor, as such. For the burden of proof rests with the censor. It is he, or the public prosecutor, who must prove that the author holds or has uttered heterodox views. In order to do so, he must show that certain literary deficiencies of the work are not due to chance, but that the author used a given ambiguous expression deliberately, or that he constructed a certain sentence badly on purpose. That is to say, the censor must prove not only that the author is intelligent and a good writer in general, for a man who intentionally blunders in writing must possess the art of writing, but above all that he was on the usual level of his abilities when writing the incriminating words. But how can that be proved, if even Homer nods from time to time? (Persecution, 25–26)
The first thing to be noticed about this passage is the very odd claim that, “a careful writer of normal intelligence is more intelligent than the most intelligent censor . . .” Is it inconceivable that an extremely intelligent advocate of an oppressive orthodoxy might be matched with a foolish advocate of heterodox opinion?
Strauss, however, qualifies his discussion from the very beginning by saying that he is speaking of the exercise of censorship under the rule of law, which requires that the censor prove his case in accordance with certain canons of evidence. It is under these conditions, Strauss claims, that even the most intelligent men, qua censors, can be outsmarted by the most mediocre men, qua esoteric writers.
The reason for this is clearly stated by Strauss. In order to argue that the accused has concealed heterodox opinions, the censor must argue that seemingly accidental features of the text are not in fact accidental, but rather indicators of a secret teaching. To argue this, however, is to presuppose that the esoteric writer had a phenomenal control over his text; indeed, it is to presuppose that his text is constructed like a living animal, in which each and every part, no matter how accidental it seems, functions to create the overall meaning.
Following Plato’s Phaedrus, Straussians call this presumption the principle of “logographic necessity.” But the principle of logographic necessity is, at best, wildly improbable. As Strauss asks: “But how can [logographic necessity] be proved, if even Homer nods from time to time?” If even Homer’s texts contain accidental features, then so can every other text. And if this is the case, then any accidental feature which might count as evidence for an esoteric teaching might just as well not count as evidence. An esoteric reading can, in short, be challenged at every turn. It can never, therefore, attain the status of certainty; one can never, therefore, rid oneself of the nagging doubt that one’s interpretation is just too clever by half.
These problems are not, moreover, confined to censors. They are shared by all readers who are under the obligation to prove their interpretations in accordance with canons of evidence. All esoteric readings presuppose the principle of logographic necessity. But there is no reason to grant the truth of this principle. And even if the principle were true, it would quite another thing to argue that it applies to any particular text. Strauss is quite frank about this: “It must . . . be considered possible that reading between the lines will not lead to complete agreement among all scholars” (Persecution, 30).
At first glance, this would seem to vitiate the whole enterprise of esoteric writing and reading. For if one can never be sure that one has grasped an esoteric teaching, then why engage in the futile search? And if the task of the esoteric reader is futile, then so too would be the task of the esoteric writer.
However, paradoxical though it may seem, the impossibility of ever becoming certain of one’s esoteric readings is one of the conditions that makes esoteric writing possible in the first place. For if it were possible for a reader to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a given author is engaged in esoteric writing, then esoteric writing would simply fail as a strategy of self-protection. Esoteric writing, in short, can only work if esoteric reading is always subject to uncertainty.
7. Rules of Thumb for Esoteric Reading
If esoteric reading can never, in principle, establish certain conclusions, are there rules of thumb that one can follow to increase the plausibility of one’s interpretation?
Strauss offers two criteria for determining, with some probability, that one is dealing with a text that has an esoteric stratum. The first criterion looks at the social context in which the text in question was composed: “If it is true that there is a necessary correlation between persecution and writing between the lines, then there is a necessary negative criterion: that the book in question must have been composed in an era of persecution, that is, at a time when some political or other orthodoxy was enforced by law or custom” (Persecution, 32).
There are two elements to this criterion. For one to suspect esoteric writing, the text in question must not only have been written in an environment in which persecution was a threat, the book itself must actually deal with topics that would be controversial enough in the given climate to provoke persecution. A book on controversial religious dogmas written under a censorious and oppressive orthodoxy is a candidate for esoteric interpretation. A paperback romance published under a liberal regime is not.
Strauss then goes on to offer a series of positive criteria. In “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” Strauss claims that esoteric texts like the Guide are “sealed with seven seals” (Persecution, 55, cf. 74). In “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,” Strauss points out that the positive criteria listed in “Persecution and the Art of Writing” are seven in number. Seven rules for seven seals. The purpose of these rules is to make esoteric hermeneutics as exact and rigorous as possible, despite the impossibility of full certainty.
Rule one: “Reading between the lines is strictly prohibited in all cases where it would be less exact than not doing so” (Persecution, 30).
The goal of “exactitude” or methodical rigor is truth. Strauss emphasizes this because the dominant conception of exactitude, namely “historicism,” forecloses, in principle, the search for truth between the lines. But the true practitioner of rigorous, exact historical scholarship “will not accept an arbitrary standard of exactness which might exclude a priori the most important facts of the past from human knowledge, but will adapt the rules of certainty which guide his research to the nature of his subject” (Persecution, 30). I shall discuss Strauss’s criticisms of historicism in the next section.
Rule two: “Only such reading between the lines as starts from exact consideration of the explicit statements of the author is legitimate” (Persecution, 30).
It is never permissible to overlook the explicit statements of an author in search of an esoteric teaching. Indeed, since esoteric teachings are themselves on the surface of the text—albeit in the margins—one can never hope to discover such teachings unless one strives to take every single surface feature of the text into account.
Strauss has been accused of ignoring the surface meaning of texts in pursuit of esoteric subtexts. But, as a matter of principle Strauss is committed to full fidelity to the surface of the text. Indeed, because Strauss holds fast to the principle of logographic necessity, which states that every detail of a text should be treated as potentially meaningful, he tends in practice to have great fidelity to the surface meanings of texts. I shall discuss this point more fully in the next two sections.
Rule three: “The context in which a statement occurs, and the literary character of the whole work as well as its plan, must be perfectly understood before an interpretation of the statement can reasonably claim to be adequate or even correct” (Persecution, 30).
Again, if one presumes, for the sake of interpretation, that the text in question might be constructed like a living animal, i.e., as an organically-organized whole in which each and every part plays a role, then one must regard each and every part in light of the whole. One cannot, for instance, decide arbitrarily to extract arguments from the rhetorical context in which they are situated, or to squint at literary details without considering the arguments around them, and then claim to be offering an interpretation of the text as a whole.
Rule four: “One is not entitled to delete a passage, nor to emend its text, before one has fully considered all reasonable possibilities of understanding the passage as it stands—one of the possibilities being that the passage may be ironic” (Persecution, 30).
One must try one’s best to make sense of every element of a text as given. Only when one has exhausted all attempts—and how one can ever know that one has exhausted all attempts?—is one entitled to declare a stubborn feature an accident.
Rule five: “If a master of the art of writing commits such blunders as would shame an intelligent high school boy, it is reasonable to assume that they are intentional, especially if the author discusses, however incidentally, the possibility of intentional blunders in writing” (Persecution, 32).
Strauss states the same principle a bit earlier in the essay as well: “[I]f an able writer who has a clear mind and a perfect knowledge is the orthodox view and all its ramifications, contradicts surreptitiously and as it were in passing one of its necessary presuppositions or consequences which he explicitly recognizes and maintains everywhere else, we can reasonably suspect that he was opposed to the orthodox system . . .” (Persecution, 30).
Although it is never, in principle, possible to prove that every feature of a text is not accidental, it is still the case that one can make the case better with some writers than with others. Mediocre thinkers are much more prone to contradictions, errors, and overall sloppiness than are great ones. Furthermore, when one finds an especially egregious blunder in the text of an especially great thinker, the likelihood of a mere accident is considerably reduced—though not, of course, eliminated—and one confronts the choice of either impeaching the competence of a known genius or admitting that the error could be intentional, a clue to an esoteric teaching.
Rules six and seven warn against two common interpretive non-sequiturs:
Rule six: “The views of an author of a drama or dialogue must not, without previous proof, be identified with the views expressed by one or more of his characters, or with those agreed upon by all his characters or by his attractive characters” (Persecution, 30).
Rule seven: “The real opinion of an author is not necessarily identical with that which he expresses in the largest number of passages” (Persecution, 30).
These last two rules underscore the marginality of esoteric teachings. Esoteric writers do not place their true teachings in the first place where everyone would look. This is the place reserved for the exoteric teaching. Esoteric teachings are placed away from the spotlight, in the shadows, where few readers look. The esoteric teaching is more likely to be unstated than stated; if stated, it is likely to be stated few times, rather than many, by marginal characters rather than central ones, by unappealing characters rather than appealing ones.
8. Strauss and Historicism
The dominant hermeneutical approach that Strauss opposes is “historicism.” For Strauss, historicism comes in two varieties. The first variety is a usually naive hermeneutical assumption that can be called “developmentalism.” As Strauss describes it:
Scholars of the [nineteenth] century were inclined to solve literary problems by having recourse to the genesis of the author’s work, or even of his thought. Contradictions or divergences within one book, or between two books by the same author, were supposed to prove that his thought had changed. If the contradictions exceeded a certain limit, it was sometimes decided without any external evidence that one of the works might be spurious. (Persecution, 30–31)
Developmentalism begins from the assumption that each and every statement of an author honestly and accurately reflects his considered views. If an author’s statements change from text to text, then it is because he changed his mind from text to text. By dating the composition of each text, we can then plot the development of the author’s thought over time. Moreover, on this account, any contradictions that cannot be distributed over a developmental scheme can be handily explained by claiming that the author’s thoughts are themselves contradictory, or one can appeal to such accidental factors as the interventions of editors and the errors of copyists.
The second variety of historicism is a philosophical account of the human condition offered by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer. In a nutshell, philosophical historicism teaches that language and other social conventions—indeed, the whole historical realm—structure our consciousness. Thus human consciousness does not stand outside of language, exercising control over it. Man does not create language; language creates man. This implies that authors cannot, in principle, be fully in control of their texts. Thus the meaning of a text cannot be confined to the author’s intention.
The main problem with historicist hermeneutics is not that it is philosophically wrong (although it may be) but that, for its practitioners, “the secrets are safe from them.” A reader guided by the presumption that authors cannot, in principle, be fully in control of their texts, is likely to ascribe any enigmatic features he encounters to forces other than authorial intention. (What counts as “enigmatic” here is, of course, anything that contradicts the conventional interpretation of the text.)
When dealing with texts concealing esoteric teachings, the conventional interpretation is, of course, likely to reflect the exoteric teaching, while the enigmas are the clues leading to the esoteric teaching. By dismissing a priori the possibility that these “enigmas” are intended by the author, the historicist closes off the possibility of finding any teachings other than the exoteric ones.
Any clues to esoteric teachings are simply dismissed as the accidental products of psychological, historical, or linguistic forces. As Strauss puts it, “Readers who do not notice blunders of this kind [i.e., clues to esoteric teachings] are not the only ones deceived. Also deceived are those who notice them but simply take them as blunders of the sort that everyone commits from time to time.”
One implication of the pragmatic rather than the philosophical nature of Strauss’s objection to philosophical historicism is that one can agree with the premises of philosophical historicism and still practice reading between the lines. In other words, a prejudice against esoteric reading may be historically associated with philosophical historicism, but there is no strict logical connection between the two positions.
9. Deconstruction and Logographic Necessity
The form of contemporary hermeneutics that is simultaneously closest to and furthest from Strauss is the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Both Straussians and deconstructionists are careful and meticulous readers. Both groups share an ethic of fidelity to the surface of the text—both to the heavily scrutinized centers and to the relatively neglected margins. Both groups have sharp eyes for the sorts of strange and enigmatic details overlooked by most other readers, particularly curious rhetorical techniques and literary devices. And both groups are practiced at spotting the contradictions, paradoxes, and ambiguities which mark the points where texts depart from what appears to be their intended, or surface, meanings.
Straussians and deconstructionists part company, however, when it comes to construing the significance of these textual phenomena. In keeping with the principle of logographic necessity, Straussians operate on the presumption that all features of a text are intentional, that authors know exactly what they are doing at all times, that they exercise complete control over their texts, that there are no blind-spots. Thus Straussians treat all textual enigmas as intentionally adopted devices for intimating secret teachings.
Deconstructionists, however, construe the very same phenomena quite differently. Deconstructionists do not accept the principle of logographic necessity, hence they do not presume that all features of a text are intentional, that authors know what they are doing at all times, that authors are in control of their texts. In fact, deconstructionists seem to presume that the range of authorial intention and control is constricted only to the most superficial level, the level which Straussians construe as the exoteric teaching.
Thus, when confronted with textual enigmas that seem to undermine a text’s intended (i.e., exoteric) meaning, deconstructionists interpret these as blind-spots, as signs that the text has slipped outside the author’s intentions and control, that language is running around without a keeper. On the assumption that the intended meaning of a text is always univocal, deconstructionists interpret the existence of a multiplicity of meanings as a sign that the text’s meaning exceeds and escapes the author’s intention. On the assumption that the intended meaning of a text is to be found on only one level, deconstructionists interpret all deeper strata of meaning as eruptions of subterranean linguistic and psychological forces which lie outside of the author’s knowledge and control.
For instance, a deconstructionist might also note the contradictions I cited in Machiavelli’s treatment of God and fortune. But he is committed, a priori, to the idea that such enigmas reveal only something about the nature of language (indeed, the same lesson every time), not anything new about Machiavelli’s convictions and authorial intentions, which for the deconstructionist are already adequately defined by the “received wisdom,” which he accepts uncritically.
The crux of the dispute between Straussians and deconstructionists is the principle of logographic necessity. Straussians presume it; deconstructionists deny it. Which position is more reasonable?
The status of the principle of logographic necessity is, on the surface at least, quite paradoxical. Recall Strauss’s claim that a censor can never prove the existence of a heterodox esoteric teaching unless he can prove that seemingly accidental features of a text are actually intentional. But how can that be proven, if even Homer nods from time to time?
In short, it seems that esoteric writing is possible only if the principle is false, for if the principle were true, then it would be possible to construct an airtight case that a given work contains a specific esoteric teaching. But if this were possible, then esoteric writing would not be a successful strategy for avoiding persecution. Only if the principle of logographic necessity is false can there always be room for doubting a particular esoteric reading. It is in the shadows of these doubts that the esoteric writer conceals himself.
On the other hand, it seems that esoteric reading is possible only if the principle of logographic necessity is true, for if the principle is not true, then there is no justification for treating the seemingly accidental features of a text as anything more than what they seem.
Esoteric writing and esoteric reading seem, therefore, to presuppose diametrically opposite conditions, which would seem to render both activities futile. Esoteric writings could never receive esoteric readings; esoteric readings could never reveal esoteric writings.
The way out of this impasse is to alter the status of the principle of logographic necessity. It need not be false in order to give the esoteric writer the cover he needs. It need only be dubious and implausible in particular cases. The principle may indeed be true of a particular text, but the author may still hide because it is extremely difficult to convince people that, although Homer indeed nods, this particular author in this particular text did not.
Similarly, a reader does not need to prove the principle of logographic necessity in order to use it. He can simply adopt it as a heuristic presumption. Although it may not describe any text at all, there is nothing unreasonable about the presumption that all aspects of a text are meaningful until proven otherwise. The presumption of the existence of meaning—even though it may not be known—need not be proved. It is the existence of “un-meaning”—of nonsense—that must be proved.
This presumption is easily justified on pragmatic grounds. If we presume that all aspects of a text are meaningful until proven otherwise, then we are more likely to uncover hidden meanings and remain perpetually open to finding new ones. But if we are too quick to dismiss seemingly accidental features of texts as meaningless, then we will be likely to overlook hidden meanings—especially those hidden meanings that might require us to re-examine our own prejudices and presuppositions.
It should be noted that Strauss often speaks of the principle of logographic necessity as a heuristic presumption, and that he never speaks of it as a dogmatic presupposition. Consider, for instance, this passage from “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed”: “Therefore, until the contrary has been proved, it must be maintained that [Maimonides] was fully aware of every contradiction in the Guide, at the very time of writing the contradictory sentences” (Persecution, 69). The same can be said for rules three, four, and five discussed above.
* * *
My own approach to hermeneutics is ultimately pragmatic. The goal of interpretation is truth. But how do we decide which interpretations are most likely to be true? In my view, the interpretation that is the most comprehensive—i.e., that takes into account the most details of a text—and does so in the most coherent manner, is the most likely to be true and is to be preferred to less comprehensive, less coherent alternatives.
On pragmatic grounds, I believe that Leo Strauss has offered a compelling account of esoteric writing: its motivations, conditions, and techniques. He has also offered a useful set of rules of thumb for determining if a text is a candidate for an esoteric reading, and for determining what, if anything, the esoteric teaching may be.
These rules are characterized by their presumptive nature. They make no dogmatic presuppositions about the nature of any given text. They are also characterized by their flexibility and openness to revision. If a particular text, or feature of a text, is recalcitrant to an esoteric reading, Strauss is open to allowing the surface meaning to stand as the only meaning.
Because of its pragmatic nature, Strauss’s hermeneutics can, moreover, withstand the critiques of rival approaches. Strauss, in effect, issues a challenge to adherents of other hermeneutic approaches. Forget the truth or falsehood of the principle of logographic necessity. If one is willing to adopt it as a heuristic presumption, and if one is willing to distribute multiple teachings on esoteric and exoteric strata, then one will find oneself with more comprehensive, coherent, and interesting accounts of important and enigmatic texts than are yielded by rival methods.
1. Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Opera, 2 vols. (Lyon, 1532), vol. 2, 623–24. The Abbot was advising Agrippa not to publish his magnum opus, De occulta philosophia libri tres (Antwerp: John Graphaeus, 1531); Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. James Freake (London, 1651). For an account of Agrippa’s difficulties with the censor, see Donald Tyson’s “Life of Agrippa,” in his new edition of Freake’s translation: Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. James Freake, ed. and annotated by Donald Tyson (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1995). A translation of the Abbot’s letter appears on page lvii of Tyson’s edition.
Agrippa followed the abbot’s advice, allowing his book to appear only in 1531, when it was safer to publish. According to Henry Morley’s The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, 2 vols. (London: Chapman and Hall, 1856), vol. 2, 317, Agrippa was also forced to alter his De incertitudine et vanitate omnium scientiarum et artium (1530) (In English: Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Arts and Sciences, ed. Catherine M. Dunn [Northridge, California: California State University, 1974]) to get it past the censors. This is ironic, because as Frances Yates suggests, this entire skeptical work may have been written as an exoteric cover behind which he hoped to pursue his occult interests unmolested. See Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 131.
2. Niccolò Machiavelli to Francesco Guicciardini, May 17, 1521, in The Letters of Machiavelli, ed. and trans. Allan Gilbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 200.
3. Sigmund Freud, Letter to Carl Jung, December 6, 1906, in Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, The Freud/Jung Letters: The Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung, ed. William McGuire, trans. Ralph Manheim and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 12.
4. Quoted in Paul Kirchner, Oops! A Stupefying Survey of Goofs, Blunders, and Botches, Great and Small (Los Angeles: General Publishing, 1996), 105.
5. For a useful study of the techniques of esoteric writing used by Shaftesbury, Collins, Toland, Tindal and their contemporaries, see David Berman, “Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Philosophical Lying,” in J. A. L. Lemay, Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Owen Aldridge (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987). Another useful catalog of different practitioners of esoteric writing (by someone not at all sympathetic) is Julian Hibbert’s “On the Supposed Necessity of Deceiving the Vulgar,” The Library of Reason 4 (1851): 1-8. For a more recent, extended, and sympathetic account, see Paul J. Bagley, “On the Practice of Esotericism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (1992): 231–47. Also useful is Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).
6. John Toland, “Clidophorous,” Tetradymus (London: J. Brotherton and W. Meadows, 1720). See also Toland’s Pantheisticon: or the Form of Celebrating a Socratic Society (London, 1751), esp. 96-99.
7. David Berman, “Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Theological Lying,” 62.
8. Strauss’s principal statements on esotericism are the title essay of his Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988); Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,” in his What is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and “Exoteric Teaching,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
9. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).
10. Strauss argues for essentially the same point, although his argument is too clever by far, verging on a Kabbalistic self-parody. See his “Niccolò Machiavelli,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 311.
11. Alexandre Kojève, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” trans. Victor Gourevitch, in Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, revised and expanded ed., including the Strauss-Kojève Correspondence, ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
12. Kevin MacDonald argues that authoritarian, dogmatic intellectual and religious sects presided over by a charismatic founder are a recurring pattern in Jewish society. Other examples include Psychoanalysis, Boasian anthropology, the various Marxist sects, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. See Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998).
13. The term “logographic necessity” is from Plato’s Phaedrus, 264b. Socrates to Phaedrus: “Don’t the sections of the speech seem to have been thrown together randomly? Does there appear to be any necessity for what comes second in his remarks being placed second, rather than one of the other things he says? It seemed to me, as one who knows nothing about it, that the writer just said whatever occurred to him, though in a not unrefined manner. Do you know of some logographic necessity (anagken logographike) on the basis of which he places these points beside one another in this order?”—Plato’s Erotic Dialogues, trans. William S. Cobb (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 121.
14. Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,” 223.
15. Strauss, “On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,” 223.
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