by Chris Berger
You’re skeptical of mysticism, you say? Good. So am I. This is probably why a lot of people are skeptical of the idea of esotericism, and more specifically of the idea of an “art of esoteric writing.” Talk of such an art immediately calls to mind associations with the occult, kabbalists, Freemasons, and other arcane codes and secret societies. In large measure, this association is understandable and perhaps even justified. The idea of writing between the lines, of concealing secret, hidden meanings to which only the initiated are privy is outlandish, childish, even offensive to we disillusioned and straight-talking modern liberal democrats. Yet believe it or not, an understanding of an art of esoteric writing and reading between the lines was – until very recently – acknowledged as a matter of course.
A recent book by scholar Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, chronicles the evidence for and evolution of this practice and reflects on its various ramifications for how we think and act. As a reader who picked up the book already persuaded of the existence and philosophic ubiquity of esoteric writing, I had to resist the urge to read parts of the book, particularly its earlier chapters, more quickly than a good reader ought. But this only goes to demonstrate the book’s suitability for its target audience: intelligent and curious lay persons for whom esotericism is either wholly new or a matter of incredulity if not derision. It must be noted from the outset that Melzer’s book does a very competent job of providing the shrewd reader with all the quantitative historical and textual evidence he or she should need to entertain the author’s later, more “meaty” arguments that follow. To get it out of the way now: Melzer’s book is well worth a read. It does us the long-overdue service of dispelling a lot of the myths about esoteric reading and writing, and does so with a no-nonsense attitude (not to mention a generous bibliography of further reading).
Melzer presents his account in an intuitive and accessible manner. Part One compiles a swath of evidence for the historical fact of esotericism as a commonplace practice; Part Two details the four types of esoteric writing as identified by the author; and Part Three gives an account of the scholarly, practical, and philosophic consequences of the rediscovery of esoteric reading and writing for ourselves today.
Given my predisposition to agree with Melzer’s argument, and further given Melzer’s foreseeable invocation of the debate-changing arguments of Leo Strauss on esotericism (I’m a big Strauss fan), I found to be particularly original and refreshing the survey of contemporary non-Western esoteric practices as evidence for the relatively extraordinary character of modern Western “straight-talk.” The first chapter of Part One concludes with a revealing discussion of “the prevalence of esoteric communication among non-Western peoples today” (pp. 47-52). Melzer does a great job of showing that, even today in the supposedly enlightened, globalized, and strictly rationalized world, there are many peoples among whom it is simply bad manners to speak one’s mind too brazenly. Speaking plainly and openly is just something we blunt North Americans, in our distaste for tact and subtlety, have decided to assume and then project onto the rest of the world. Tell us what you mean, and don’t beat around the bush. This even translates into our culinary and sex lives (it’s not for nothing that we here in North America are the descendants of Locke, not Rousseau).
Giving a practical example, Melzer invokes Henry Kissinger’s impression of Mao, providing us a hint of how this informs cultural translation: “his meaning emerged from a Socratic dialogue that he guided effortlessly and with deceptive casualness. … Mao’s elliptical phrases were passing shadows on a wall; they reflected reality but they did not encompass it” (Henry Kissinger, The White House Years, p. 1247). Kissinger’s reminiscence points out that even in non-philosophic interactions, oblique allusion is an effective tool for the speaker’s ends, depending on what those may be. The modern Western propensity to stating clearly and directly what one means to say is in fact a highly unique, perhaps even idiosyncratic way of approaching the question of communication. In so many other cultures both present and past, such a method would seem unwise, haphazard, crude, unsophisticated, imprudent, primitive, even dangerous. Through a discussion of contemporary Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, indigenous American, and a number of African cultures, Melzer provides ample evidence that an element of esotericism – employing the arts of allegory, riddle, and general understatement – is a matter of course in a majority of modern-day non-Western peoples.
Even then, readers might object that this is all well and good for those with an interest in anthropological or sociological matters, but that it has little more than academic relevance. On the contrary, precisely given our globalized and digitized world, a bare minimum of awareness, and preferably a sympathetic understanding of esoteric communication should be treated as essential for communications professionals, marketing experts, counsellors, diplomats, teachers, aid workers, and everyday travellers. Mutual understanding between individuals and peoples is only increasing in importance, so broad assumptions that everyone everywhere communicates by plainly stating their thoughts as openly and formulaically as possible is bound to result in us talking past one another, if not in giving outright offense.
While the broad compendium of examples and citations proving the ubiquitous application of esotericism by modern non-Western peoples and pre-nineteenth century Western writers is certainly interesting, the book hits its stride in earnest when Melzer turns to an analysis of four different modes of esoteric writing. These are the defensive, the political, the protective, and the pedagogical.
Defensive esotericism is the type perhaps least offensive to us – it is the type that conceals an author’s intent so as to avoid persecution. In this section, Melzer cites a number of eastern European writers, dramatists, and intellectuals who “wrote between the lines” so as to conceal subversive messages from Soviet censors. A quote from the Polish Cold War-era intellectual Leszek Kolakowski illustrates the point nicely: “we tried to be intelligible without being transparent” (cited on p. 130).
Political esotericism is a form of communicating that seeks, through the devices of esotericism, to bring about an order in which esotericism is no longer necessary. Melzer speaks in this section of the “self-loathing” of the “new esotericism.” The entire Enlightenment project of rationalizing society can be understood as an ongoing effort to make the world safe for free and open communication of discovery and truth – esotericism according to this interpretation is just an unpleasant and regrettable necessity, but a necessity that can eventually be overcome through popular enlightenment. On the one hand, this seems obviously possible and desirable to us as modern Westerners, and it may even seem to be working. But this presupposes, I would suggest, a certain (mis)understanding of the character of the quest for truth and discovery, one that fails to take sufficient account of the discrepancy between genuine understanding and the supposed possibility of simply disseminating that understanding. We will return to this shortly.
It is protective esotericism that begins to rub us the wrong way. This is the type that conceals an author’s teaching in order to protect, not the author from persecution, but the public from dangerous truths. We liberal democrats detest the mere idea of such blatant elitism. We can see how society might threaten free philosophic or scientific inquiry, but are scandalized by the suggestion that philosophy or science could be dangerous to society. “Almost everyone today denies the reality of ‘dangerous truths’” (p. 161). As I see it, the reason for this is a twofold tension in the contemporary psyche: first, as progressivist heirs of the Enlightenment, we have come to believe that the light of truth will inevitably make society more rational and just; and second, as heirs of historicist or cultural relativism, we have come to apply this Enlightenment optimism in practice as an easygoing, indifferent attitude toward how we live. As Melzer puts it, “we have become … cheerful nihilists and moralistic relativists” (p. 201).
The consequences of our received intellectual and moral characteristics lead directly into a discussion of why rediscovering the fourth type of esotericism, the pedagogical, holds such great potential for attaining greater self-awareness. Having been raised and educated in an era in which the past few generations have come complacently to accept at face value an intellectually and morally relativistic attitude, “a degree of mental numbness is reached where nothing sinks in, where ideas simply lose their power to move or shock us” (p. 202). We still have ideas about things, and oftentimes these ideas are even sincerely and passionately held. But because it has become so imperative to treat every idea with such suspicion and with such a strong counterpoise of relativity, we shelter our beliefs by suppressing and sidelining them, paying lip service to the notion that no one belief is any better than any other. Our language of “authenticity” or, more to the point, “inauthenticity” and our disingenuous self-deprecation about it, says it all: we are inauthentic, detached from who and what we are, and we even try to appear to embrace this with a quasi-Stoic sense of ironical disillusionment.
Melzer astutely observes that this inauthenticity has replaced esotericism as our chief intellectual defense mechanism. Great thinkers and writers of the West’s past and of non-Western cultures today understood and do understand the power of ideas, and this is why they conceal that power with esotericism; we today, by contrast, seem no longer to believe in the power of ideas, so we detach ourselves from ideas. This is where the importance of pedagogical esotericism comes in. It is worth quoting Melzer at length on this point:
We must keep in mind that while philosophers seek to protect people in general from the loss of their illusions, they also seek to help potential philosophers to escape theirs. That is indeed their primary task – philosophical education. Now, if illusion tended to shatter like glass at the touch of truth, the latter task at least – intellectual liberation – would be easy. But this is not the case. On the contrary … when people are constantly confronted with more questions or more troubling ideas than they can handle at the moment, they will protect themselves in various ways, including a kind of intellectual withdrawal and numbness that prevents them from really feeling their thoughts. It may well be the case that, in our time, this condition of inauthenticity serves just as well as esotericism to protect society from subversion. But what it can never do is serve the needs of philosophical education. One might argue that inauthenticity, arising from the great openness and neutrality of liberal society, poses a far more elusive and stubborn obstacle to genuine philosophical liberation than the earnest provincialism characteristic of more closed societies. (p. 203)
It is possible that late modernity has been peppering its denizens with too much too soon. Perhaps our extreme openness, rather than making us actually open, has led us to shut ourselves up – we are no longer open to the possibility of liberation from illusion, and we rationalize this by insisting that there is nothing other than illusion that is available to us. Relativism, after all, is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate – it shelters dearly held beliefs from intellectual scrutiny, and therefore from the discomfort of self-examination and potential refutation.
So is liberation possible for us? Naïve I may be, but I think that it is, if we can remind ourselves of esotericism in its most philosophical iteration: pedagogical esotericism. If I were compelled to define the spirit of philosophic education in one or two sentences, I would quote what Socrates says to Agathon in Plato’s Symposium. When Socrates enters the party, Agathon entreats him to set beside him, so that he’ll be made wiser by being close to Socrates. Obviously Agathon, urbane host that he is, is flattering Socrates. Nevertheless, Socrates quietly pokes fun at him: “It would be a good thing, Agathon, if wisdom were the sort of thing that flows from the fuller of us into the emptier, just by our touching one another, as the water in wine cups flows through a wool thread from the fuller to the emptier” (Symposium, 175d). The famously ironical Socrates’s “if” is telling here, particularly when considered in light of his argument in Protagoras that virtue and wisdom cannot be taught – but they can be learned (Protagoras, 319a-320c). Education in the Socratic spirit is not something passively received and taught, but something actively engaged and learned.
Esotericism in its pedagogical intent forces readers or listeners to do their own thinking for themselves – it is “the literary counterpart of the Socratic method” (p. 362-363). It is the natural birth of philosophic thinking out of lived pre-philosophic or pre-scientific experience. This understanding of pedagogical esotericism or, what I believe we can call the same thing, philosophical education, has been replaced in us by what Melzer calls “the hyperrationalist assumption, inherited from the Enlightenment, that human beings can be addressed from the start as rationalists seeking the truth” (p. 210). Take a look at any academic paper or scientific article today, and you will see this assumption in action. Yet upon reflection, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that this idol can’t stand on its own indefinitely. We humans are not simply reason embodied: we experience a host of passions and emotions that are not, strictly speaking, rational or calculating. An adequately rational account of the human condition would require an account of the human being’s subrational or pre-philosophic components. Ironically enough, our rationalistic reliance on strict literalness and clarity is too irrational to work in practice.
The Platonic dialogues are, I would argue, the perfect exemplars of philosophic education, educating through pedagogical esotericism. The dialogues take their bearings and their beginnings from everyday life, from the immediate concerns of the interlocutors depicted within them. Each one depicts an ascent from the everyday and the ordinary to the heights, always in accordance with the particular characters of whosoever happens to be taking part, be it the honour-loving Gaucon, the pious Cephalus, the passionately erotic Alcibiades, or the poetic Phaedrus. Pedagogical esotericism is philosophic because it is profoundly sensitive to philosophy’s beginnings in the human, the everyday, the worldly. It assumes, correctly, that we all begin with our own prejudices and distinct backgrounds; in sum, it knows we must be treated as unique individuals. So pedagogical writers approach their craft with the intent of snagging the interest and intellects of potential philosophic kindred spirits of myriad backgrounds who can be teased and enticed by riddles, perplexities, allegories, and symbols of various sorts, and can be induced in this way to put together disparate parts so as to come on their own to develop an understanding of the whole. Personally, I respond to critics of esotericism by likening esoteric writings not to relics of arcane mysticism, but to a child’s connect-the-dots puzzle. The pieces are all there, artfully arranged. It is up to the reader or the puzzle solver to make the connections to reveal the picture on his or her own.
“But Chris!” a contrarian might object, “no one can stop the puzzle solver from making wrong connections by accident, or by connecting the dots any which way he wants; I can make it into a picture of something not even resembling the puzzle maker’s intent, if I so choose.” Sure, of course you can. But that is the beauty, nay, the entire point of esotericism: it defies conclusive, “canonical” interpretation – simply stating the teaching unambiguously would rob the student of the opportunity to think it through on his or her own. But none of this refutes the fact that the puzzle maker drew the dots in such a way as to make a certain sort of picture. Some dots may be misconnected here and there by earnest and sincere puzzle solvers, but a general idea of the picture as a whole can still be recognized across different solvers’ attempts at the puzzle. And yes, there is always the unavoidable possibility that less-well-intentioned readers will exercise a “perverse ingenuity,” as some critics of esotericism have called it, and produce deliberately wanton interpretations. This cannot be avoided, but in the final accounting, it is irrelevant. Such readers are not the intended recipients of the puzzle maker’s picture in the first place; they are not likely to be potential beneficiaries of the philosophic spirit. And the potentially philosophic thinkers are, after all, the raison d’etre of esotericism in its pedagogical form.
Melzer has two sentences in particular in his book with which I was instantly taken. “Reason is universal, but life is particular” (p. 82) is the first. The idea is an humanitarian and philanthropic one: despite all of our vast differences, all human beings, by virtue of being human beings, are capable of exercising and arriving at mutual understanding through reason. This is, really, the only irreducible principle of equality and shared humanity we can be sure of. It is no mistake, then, that this would be an appropriate mantra to attribute to the practitioners of esotericism: they write in such a way as to take into account our particularities while simultaneously enticing our innate and shared ability to reason, by not insulting our potential intelligence, by not discounting our common humanity. This also explains why esoteric writers across time and space have written so differently: Plato had to deal with the particular illusions of classical Greeks, Shakespeare with those of Elizabethan Englishmen, Nietzsche with those of nihilistic late-modern Germans. And it explains why we, so far removed from them in time, space, and background, can read, understand, and be moved by them. I will stick my neck out to assert that, at bottom, the core teachings of these writers, and a plethora of others, have been essentially the same: invitations to philosophy.
The second sentence is this: “how one reads is inseparable from why and what one reads” (p. 292). I had planned to wax poetic on this point, but I won’t insult your intelligence – I think anything I could have said about it is already clear. And if it isn’t, pick up Melzer’s excellent book. Given the events of 2016, we could do ourselves worse favours than to recall the possibility of communicating across the barriers of particularity, by appealing to nothing other than our common humanity through our common reason and love of truth.
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