On Esoteric Writing
Mr. Kuznicki, who told you Strauss wrote esoterically? His critics, of course. But he did not, and so to read him that way is a bias going in. Strauss hides everything in plain sight.
A quick rejoinder, and certainly too glib, would be to say that if Strauss was writing esoterically, he would never have come right out and revealed it! Nor, we imagine, would anyone who agreed with him.
But the question of Strauss’s esotericism was a sideshow to my previous post. I would not necessarily reject out of hand a writer known for certain to have written esoterically. Nor should anyone who sincerely desires the truth. It could well be that the truth must be esoteric, and if I lived in certain cultures or eras, you can bet that I’d be an esotericist myself.
Whether or not we should (or do) divide Strauss’s philosophy into “that which is given to ordinary folk” and “that which only the elite can appreciate” should be independent of whether we believe he was correct. My biggest criticism of Strauss is not on this point at all. It’s on the problem of hubris, which I don’t see him taking seriously, and which — as an admirer of Hayek and Popper — I do take seriously. (Indeed, in this passage Strauss hints that hubris may be an outcome of a proper, philosophical moderation!)
The modern take on hubris is, of course, quite different from the ancient, in ways that Strauss could probably explain better than I, if only he’d bothered. As a sketch, the modern view is informed by knowledge problems in economics (roughly, Hayek) and by scientific rationality, which must progress in a piecemeal, falsificationist way if it’s ever going to progress at all (roughly, Popper). But even if we do dismiss all this as modern nonsense, there’s still an ancient concept of hubris, and on Strauss’s terms, the ancient concept ought to be harder to reject, even if it’s less intellectually rigorous.
But anyway. Even if the charge of esotericism comes from Strauss’s enemies, we ought still to evaluate it, no? Consider whether it’s credible? Give them the fair shake that Van Dyke insists on Strauss getting?
One of the things I only hinted at in my earlier post — I swear here, I was trying to stay focused, and not trying to teach an esoteric doctrine myself — is that “esoteric” only very rarely means “well-hidden.” Particularly nowadays. If Strauss has esoteric doctrines, the fact that they are hiding in plain sight isn’t unusual at all. Rather, it’s quite like most other esoteric doctrines in the modern world. And we might want to ask ourselves, then, what it even means to have an esoteric doctrine. It could be that modernity has voided the category entirely.
Here’s an example. The Bhagavad-gita is fairly explicit about the fact that there are no gods, save only the great One. This, too, is supposed to be an esoteric doctrine. Perhaps at one time it was, in the conventional sense — but that time was before mass literacy and mass-market paperbacks, and obviously long before the Internet. This is not a condemnation of monotheism, not even as an esoteric doctrine. It’s an observation about how the structure of knowledge has changed over time, and I submit that it is value-neutral.
And another, this time less value-neutral. The Church of Scientology won’t tell you anything about Xenu. Its enemies will. So will independent scholars of religion. And so will just about anyone who has passed Operating Thetan Level III prior to abandoning Scientology. The church’s enemies often begin with Xenu, because Xenu makes Scientology look ridiculous. I think the enemies are right to do so, because I think Scientology actually is ridiculous.
What’s the worst we can say about Strauss’s esoteric doctrine? Natural law is a useful fiction for governing a population. Philosophy inevitably learns that God is dead; no serious philosopher can accept the divine order straightforwardly. They should teach that order anyway. The plebs need to know that Heaven is for real, otherwise they won’t behave themselves.
Like Scientology and the Bhagavad-gita, the esoteric doctrine in Strauss’s philosophy is anything but well-hidden. So what work is the word “esoteric” doing here? I would suggest, again I hope in a value-neutral way, that it is the kindest possible way to denote a deliberate or accidental ideological incoherence admitted by everyone, even if only as a hypothetical. (A Scientologist speaking to non-Scientologists will say “no, that story about evil space aliens simply isn’t true.” This too is a pronouncement of Scientology, though an incoherent one.)
It’s not that one or another dogma is hidden, necessarily. It’s that the complete set of dogmas can’t be taken as an internally consistent whole. After that, deciding whether or not an ideology with esoteric components should be accepted depends partly on whether we believe that people are capable of a consistent understanding, both of themselves and the world around them, without any unacceptable consequences from grasping even the ugliest truth.
I think they are. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?