ARTHUR MELZER, PHILOSOPHY BETWEEN THE LINES: THE LOST ART OF ESOTERIC WRITING (University of Chicago Press, 2014)
I picked up this book, after seeing it reviewed, because I had been thinking about the claim I recently encountered that the work of Ivan Illich is a disguised form of theology. (This claim is made in Todd Hartch’s new book The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, where he says that “Illich’s writing had a hidden purpose.”) I am currently writing about Illich, and I thought that Melzer’s book might teach me something about esoteric writing and so help me to assess the claim that Illich is an esoteric writer. I soon found that this was a book that could do a lot more than that.
The word esoteric itself is probably one of the reasons that I was not expecting a work of such breadth as this one proved to be. I don’t mean that Melzer should have used a different word. Esoteric is certainly the accepted term of art for what Melzer discusses – philosophical writing that disguises some part of its purpose or hopes to be understood in different ways by different readers – but, for most contemporary readers, the word connotes something arcane and out of the way, while Melzer’s book concerns crucial issues in the history of both philosophy and politics. This, in fact, illustrates one of Melzer’s main points. Contemporary readers have lost any feel for the esoteric, sensing it as nothing more than a childish game, a form of “perverse ingenuity” as one critic says. But lacking this feel, he says, they become unable to understand how philosophy has been written through most of its history. And that misunderstanding is the occasion for his book. It is not, he tells us, that he has some esoteric purpose of his own, or even any particular liking for the genre – “I can barely tolerate subtlety,” he jokes in his introduction – but that he wants to make readers aware of a practice that he believes coloured “the whole conduct of intellectual life in the West over two millennia.”
He establishes the reality of this modern neglect early in the book with a quotation from Goethe, who wrote to a friend in 1811: “I have always considered it an evil, indeed a disaster which, in the second half of the previous century, gained more and more ground that one no longer drew a distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric.” Melzer then goes on to offer evidence of the predominance of this practice up to the last years of the 18th Century (and, indeed its continuance by other names into our own time, as we shall see). Here I will cite several key pieces of this evidence, just to give the flavour. First Plato from the Seventh Letter:
If it seemed to me that these [philosophical] matters could adequately be put down in writing for the many or be said, what could be nobler for us to have done in our lifetime than this, to write what is a great benefit for human beings and to lead nature forth into the light for all? But I do not think such an undertaking concerning these matters would be a good for human beings, unless for some few, those who are themselves able to discover them through a small indication; of the rest, it would unsuitably fill some of them with a mistaken contempt, and others with a lofty and empty hope as if they had learned awesome matters.
And two thousand years later, here is Jean Jacques Rousseau explaining, also in a letter, how his first discourse (On the Origin of Inequality) should be read:
It was only gradually and always for a few readers that I developed my ideas…I have often taken great pains to try to put into a sentence, a line, a word tossed off as if by chance the result of a long sequence of reflections. Often most of my readers must have found my discourses badly connected and almost entirely rambling, for lack of perceiving the trunk of which I showed them only the branches. But that was enough for those who know how to understand, and I have never wanted to speak to the others.
These are strong examples, but not at all isolated. Melzer offers considerable evidence that no philosophically minded writer before the 19th century believed that he could or should write entirely transparently, though the required degree of discretion and strategic obscurity remained a matter of dispute and discussion. For example, Melzer offers this wonderful quotation from Erasmus, opposing Luther’s all out attack on Rome, despite Erasmus’s sympathy for Luther’s aims:
For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile one cause of hatred on another…A prudent steward will husband the truth – to bring it out, I mean, when the business requires it, and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out for every man what is appropriate for him – [but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has poured it all out at once, making everything public.
Here Erasmus criticizes Luther for being insufficiently esoteric. And differences of this kind continue through the modern period. Everyone agrees on the need for some degree of indirection, but how much may be in dispute. For example, figures associated with the more radical wing of the Enlightenment sometimes criticized their more cautious confrères like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire for their hesitancies, but even they preserved some elements of esotericism. One such radical Denis Diderot still believed that “one must be wise in secret,” and Pierre Bayle, another, writing earlier, during the first wave of Enlightenment, had reproved the followers of Descartes with not knowing “what must be said and what must not be said.”
But here we come again to the difficulty which I have already mentioned with the term esoteric or esotericism. Erasmus’s difference with Luther could certainly be said to concern the proper degree of esotericism, i.e. Erasmus wishes Luther had spoken more esoterically, and Melzer uses the word in that broad sense. But it seems to me that it would be more accurate to say that Erasmus wishes Luther more discreet, more prudent, more diplomatic. Using the word esoteric cannot but invoke an element of dissimulation, unhealthy secrecy, perhaps even of conspiracy simply because these are connotations of this word as it is currently used. But I see nothing of this in what Erasmus says. In this sense, the word esoteric seems to unduly confine and limit Melzer’s meaning.
Let me expand this point slightly before going on. One of the things that excited me about Melzer’s book was that I began to see almost immediately that it could be understood as a book about something much more than an outré, superceded and slightly suspect practice of elitist philosophers who wanted either to deceive or manipulate their publics. Esoteric denotes willful secrecy – something intended only for initiates – but there is a sense in which all writing is esoteric writing. This is obviously true if one can’t read, but it remains true even as the various degrees of reading are achieved. For most people there will always be types of literature for which they have neither interest nor aptitude and which will therefore remain in that sense esoteric. But, all writing is esoteric in another sense as well because all writing of any ambition is bound to be more or less misunderstood. There is no frictionless transmission of meaning from one mind to another, and control, always partial, of potential misunderstanding will always be a great part of the writer’s art. This is not just because, as Socrates says in Phaedrus – Melzer quotes the passage – “every [written] speech rolls around everywhere, both among those who understand and among those for whom it is not fitting, and it does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.” It is also because nearly every word sets off a cascade of associations, which will necessarily differ from reader to reader. One doesn’t have to contemplate the interference patterns created by these waves of association for long before it begins to seem miraculous that we understand each other at all. In addition written language, simply by having been put in a fixed from, is reified – it becomes stupid, inert and unresponsive to its reader, an absence masquerading as a presence. It was for this reason that Heidegger first suggested the practice, later deployed more extensively by Jacques Derrida, of writing “under erasure” i.e. crossing out a word so that it remains legible under the erasure, and in that way giving a graphic representation of the fact that every word belies itself.
To say writing is esoteric in this sense is just to recognize its frailty as a vehicle. If the word is taken in this way, one gets around the charge that has been put against Melzer, as well as against Leo Strauss whose Persecution and The Art of Writing (1952) was the first book in recent times to draw attention to the importance of esotericismfor understanding philosophical writing. Bernard Yack, in his review of Melzer’s book for the electronic journal Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/53333-philosophy-between-the-lines-the-lost-history-of-esoteric-writing/) sums up this objection:
Those of us who were introduced to the history of moral and political philosophy by students of Leo Strauss -- in my case, Allan Bloom -- would sometimes ask for evidence backing their claim that the great writers of the past practiced a lost art of esoteric writing. The answers we received, I'm sorry to say, were never very satisfying: a scrap of Bacon here, a letter from Diderot there, a passage or two from Plato's Seventh Letter. Surely, so vast a conspiracy must have left a larger mark on Western literary culture? Where were the books and articles that connected all the dots? Without such confirmation, it was hard to dispel the suspicion that it was Strauss's charismatic authority, more than anything else, that confirmed the existence of this esoteric tradition for our teachers.
In this review, Yack goes on to say that he thinks Melzer has supplied what Strauss never did: a convincing compendium of evidence which includes “testimony from major figures in every age from Classical Antiquity through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, confirming knowledge and approval of these ways of esoteric means of communicating philosophic ideas.” And yet Yack says he is still unsatisfied, and thinks skeptics will remain unconvinced. The problem, he says, is that while Melzer has supplied plenty of persuasive testimony that philosophers thought they were writing, in some sense, esoterically, he has not given much evidence that “philosophers… let alone playwrights like Shakespeare and Sophocles, produce works that continuously subvert their most prominent arguments in ways that help readers construct an alternative, esoteric argument to take their place.” Yack goes on to say that he believes this type of esotericism to be “extremely rare” and to claim that Melzer has furnished no convincing example of it. The example that came to mind for me in reading Yack’s criticism of Melzer was Shakespeare’s Henry V where no less an authority than Northrop Frye finds beneath the plays seemingly jingoistic surface – “once more into the breach, dear friends” – a counter-current which subverts and counteracts the more conventional surface. Literature, whether philosophical, poetical or narrative, does, again and again, subvert, relativize and destabilize its ostensible commitments. But my point is that the word esoteric, as used in Melzer’s book, suggests something much more restricted than he has, in fact, indicated in his book. He raises issues concerning the nature of writing, the limits of politics, and the proper purpose of philosophy which go so far beyond the more limited question of whether writers have hidden agendas that I think he might have done well to scrap the words esoteric and esotericism in framing his argument.
That said, let me return to my discussion of the book and resume using the word he uses. Melzer, as I have said, has provided a scholarly treasure trove of evidence that philosophers from Pythagoras to Kierkegaard have held to some variation of Lao Tzu’s “those who know do not tell,” or at least do not tell in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong people. Some of this evidence comes from the New Testament, and Melzer’s discussion of the Gospel passages which recommend silence, secrecy and discretion was one of the sections of his book that I found most interesting. These passages are familiar, and, in that sense, it is not surprising that the New Testament should be included in a history of esotericism. But in another way it is surprising. Christianity, Nietzsche quipped, was “Platonism for the people,” and the remark has its point insofar as the church believed it could spoon out a subversive and explosive doctrine to everyone. It is surprising, therefore, to recall how often Jesus seems to recommend something more like what Melzer calls philosophical esotericism. Jesus was, first of all, like Socrates, an oralist who committed none of his teaching to writing. He was also careful what he said and where he said it. He taught in stories, explaining to his disciples that “the secret of the kingdom” was granted to them while “to those who are outside everything comes in parables.” He warned against casting “pearls before swine” lest “they [the swine] turn and rend you.” After quizzing the disciples about who they thought he was, and receiving the answer from Peter that he is the Christ, he enjoined him to tell no one about it. Likewise when he was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, he warned Peter, James and John to keep the whole story to themselves. Later, the apostle Paul also adjusted his doctrine to his audience, telling the Corinthians that, at first, he fed them on milk because they were not yet ready for solid food. Examples could be multiplied, but it seems clear enough that there are abundant traces in the gospels of a teacher well aware of the dangers full disclosure might pose to himself and others. There is also a huge tension between this esoteric practice, and the triumphalist strain in which trumpeting angels unfurl banners and shout the good news from the skies. Likewise there is a strain between the prudent teacher who practices protective esotericism, and the anointed one whose death is inevitable and whose passion has been entirely foretold. (“All this happened,” Matthew says, “to fulfill the prophecies in scripture.”) Arguably this tension continued in Christianity once it began to be formulated as a religion. This is not the place to argue the point but one might cite the resurrection as the very archetype of a doctrine that should have remained esoteric and been discussed only with the greatest discretion and reserve. Simone Weil held such a view. For her the “theology of glory” which proclaimed the resurrection as a triumphant happy ending and a universal destiny was a travesty, a denaturing of the bitter truth of the crucifixion. She affirmed the resurrection but only when hedged with the recognition of all the damage such an idea could do when shouted from the rooftops i.e. made exoteric.
Esoteric writing continues to the end of the 18th century, and, in some cases beyond – among 19th century writers, Melzer quotes Kierkegaard on the necessity of deceiving those who are deceived, as well as Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem which begins “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” – and the subject was never so hotly discussed as during the second half of the 18th century. This discussion culminated, Melzer says, during a thirty year period between 1750 and 1784. In 1750 Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in which he criticized popularizers who have “indiscreetly broken down the door of the sciences and let into their sanctuary a populace unworthy of approaching it.” In 1784Kant published his famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?” In between there was a discussion whose scope was unprecedented. Never in two millennia, Melzer says, had there been so intense and so open a discussion of “the social utility of truth and falsehood.” But this debate was concerned only with the tactical form of esotericism that Melzer calls political esotericism – everyone agreed on the aims of progress and universal enlightenment but disagreed on the proper pace of change. Ancient esotericism, which was much more thoroughgoing, had by then already been rejected by early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Bacon and Hobbes.
The great dividing line between ancient and modern philosophy, in Melzer’s account, runs between their respective views of the relations between theory and practice (he retains the Greek term praxis, but I’ll use practice here.) The ancients held that these relations were fundamentally conflictual – that the world could never be brought into conformity with the dictates of reason, and that to try to do so would be fatal to the health of society, as well as to the health of philosophers. Society, or the city, its ancient archetype, must live according to unreason, its security and continuity dependent on various noble lies – the sacred origin of the laws, the brotherhood of the citizens, the providential character of the division of labour, the sanctity of marriage etc. Philosophers might think beyond these necessary fictions, but, if they did so, they would practice various forms of esotericism in order to safeguard both themselves and their cities. Melzer lists four main forms of this esotericism: protective, by which the institutions of the city were shielded from the potentially corrosive effects of pure reason; defensive, by which the philosopher avoided persecution by veiling his doctrines in obscurity, ambiguity or outright misdirection; pedagogical, by which would-be initiates were guidedto pursue their own enlightenment rather than being handed ready made answers; and finally political, in which caution with dangerous truths was employed to some political end.
All these forms of esotericism were premised on the underlying conviction that political community and philosophical rationality must always follow different principles and that the “the two lives,” the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, could never be brought into complete harmony. Plato’s Republic, read esoterically, is a demonstration that this is so. But, once this art was lost, it was possible to get readings like the one offered in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) in which Plato is treated as a proto-fascist, a harbinger of modern totalitarianism who is offering, straight-faced, a blueprint for utopia. Melzer, like many other Platonists, sees Plato as ironic, offering the whole machinery of eugenics, banished poets, children removed from their parents, guardians, philosophers kings and all the rest as a satire on reason rampant and not a blueprint.
Modern philosophy begins with what German/American political philosopher Leo Strauss called “a lowering of the sights.” (There is a close relationship between Melzer and Strauss – some readers will already have recognized it – which I’ll come to presently.) Ancient philosophy pursued the highest good, even if it could not be realized. It was an attempt, as Melzer says, “to live in the mysterious light of the whole.” The moderns, beginning with Machiavelli, adopt more realistic aims. Fundamentally they reject the idea of an inherent disharmony between reason and political society. Classical philosophy had its head in the clouds – even in ancient Athens this was Aristophanes’ charge against Socrates in his play The Clouds – let it now come down to earth and formulate more practical aims. If the sights were set on comfortable self-preservation – on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and, if we were, as Bacon advises, to get control of nature by first following her, then reason and society could gradually be harmonized. Already in distant view is Marx’s famous maxim in his Theses on Feuerbach: Up ‘til now “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Philosophy, Melzer says, became militant.
This had several consequences. It put philosophy at perpetual risk of corruption by creating a temptation to rate political expediency higher than truth, or even to argue in extremis that political expediency is truth – Orwell followed this road to its end in 1984 and Animal Farm. It projected the ideal of progress, and, on the model of natural philosophy-becoming-science, made knowledge cumulative. Ancient pedagogical esotericism had demanded that each student should re-ascend the heights of philosophy for him or herself, rung by laborious rung. The idea of progress and accumulation allowed the philosopher to stand, with Newton, “on the shoulders of giants,” but it also left the assumptions that comprised these shoulders unexamined. So modern thought, Melzer says, grew abstract and out of touch with the long chains of ungrounded presuppositions on which it was founded.
A key reason for the militancy of modern thought was its sense, particularly during the Enlightenment, that it was locked in a life and death struggle with superstitition, priestcraft and dogmatic religion, which Hobbes summarized as“the kingdom of darkness.” This antagonism, Melzer argues, was born of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy during the centuries in which Christianity was establishing its spiritual dominion. Christianity, he says, was a religion without law – it had no sharia or halakhah. It was a spiritual religion declaring, as the apostle Paul says, that “we are released from the Law, having died to what was binding us, and so we are in a new service, that of the spirit, and not in the old service of a written code.” This was a revolutionary departure, in Melzer’s view, because religion and politics had up to this point been two faces of the same “theologico-political realm. In support of this point he quotes the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges who says in his book The Ancient City that “all political institutions had been religious institutions…the laws had been sacred formulas, and the kings and magistrates had been priests.” Christianity separated politics and religion, planting the seeds of the modern secular by positing, as Augustine would eventually say, two cities, the civitas dei and the civitas terrena, the city of God and the earthly city. It was moreover a “remarkably apolitical” religion because it failed to address “concrete social customs, mores and usages” as its Judaic matrix had, and as later religions like Islam would. Its character, Melzer argues, was of a “transcendent or universal religion of faith” which specified spiritual principles without offering practical or political guidance. This rather cloudy, abstract character, Melzer goes on, put it in particular need of philosophical elaboration. Bishops might fulminate against it – “It is not by philosophy that it has pleased God to save his people,” says Ambrose of Milan (337-397) – or ask with Tertullian (160-220), “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”; but Christianity needed philosophy in Melzer’s view, because, as a religion without law, it was destined to become “a doctrinal or dogmatic theological religion that made salvation contingent on the acceptance of certain often obscure or controversial dogmas.” In the elaboration of this doctrinal apparatus philosophy became a necessary accomplice. “Christianity kept philosophy alive but subdued and under house arrest,” is Melzer’s pithy formula. (Melzer doesn’t speak of specific teachings but I imagine he is thinking of doctrines like the Trinity, which achieved its canonical form at the Council of Constantinopole in 360, or the two natures of Christ hammered out at Chalcedon in 451.)
Christianity became a dogmatic religion, so concerned with its doctrinal integrity that it began to persecute and kill those it viewed as heretics. This created the paradox that preoccupied Voltaire: “Of all religions,” he wrote, “the Christian should…inspire the most toleration, but till now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.” It also created a fatal animus within philosophy towards religion and its “dark kingdom,” fatal because it led philosophy so deep into history and projects of historical change that philosophy finally came to see itself as a pawn of history. In short, philosophy became “historicist” or “relativist.” Melzer defines these two terms, to which he assigns a rough equivalence, as follows: “the view that moral values and social norms have no objective or universal validity but derive from the arbitrary commitments of one’s culture, which are not intrinsically superior to the different or opposite commitments of other cultures.” Karl Mannheim in an essay called “Historicism” written in 1924 claimed that this view “not only organizes, like an invisible hand, the work of social and cultural sciences but also permeates everyday thinking.” Hans Georg Gadamer says that “historical self-consciousness” is “the most important revolution among those we have undergone since the beginning of the modern epoch.” Closer to home, GeorgeGrant said the same in his 1969 Massey Lectures Time as History. We feel ourselves as so much the prisoners of time and circumstance, as Grant said in his agonized “A Platitude” in Technology and Empire, that we can experience what is absolutely and unquestionably good only through our desperate “intimations of deprival.”
It is, in a way, appropriate to quote and remember Grant here because Leo Strauss, who is the presiding intellectual influence in Melzer’s book, also played a decisive part in Grant’s life. It was in reading Strauss, Grant told me in an interview in 1985, that he came to the shattering thought that “perhaps the Western experiment, the experiment that had gone on since the 17th century in both natural science and political science, had been a mistake.” Now Strauss is a polarizing figure, and those who hate him, hate him a lot. In Canada Shadia Drury, a professor of Political Science at the University of Regina, has led the charge, portraying Strauss as a sinister elitist and the godfather of American neo-conservatism who espouses “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power.” Among American critics, Nicolas Xenos goes so far as to find in Strauss’s teaching a nucleus of “pure fascism.” (This charge is quoted in Strauss’s Wikipedia entry.) Melzer acknowledges the fuss – “If you don’t like Strauss…just try not to think about him,” he advises early in his book – but thinks it is all largely misunderstanding. Strauss’s “project,” Melzer says, “concerned not politics, as is almost universally assumed, but philosophy.” Reviewers like Bernard Yack, whom I cited above, have found this claim to be disingenuous – or, more politely, to be a form of defensive esotericism – and this seems true insofar as a project of defending philosophy from politics can certainly be described as itself political, but Melzer does make a good case that the history of philosophy was Strauss’s central concern.
Melzer’s book culminates in an assessment of Strauss’s critique of historicism and his plea for a return to the philosophical posture of the classical philosophers. Esoteric writing plays an important part in this critique. Beginning with his 1952 book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argued that an understanding of esotericism was crucial for an understanding of philosophy, and he continued to develop this idea in later works. Melzer digests his argument into six main points: 1) Historicism partly rests on the argument that philosophers chronically disagree and that this shows them to be enclosed within their own time, place and temperament. But if it is accepted that philosophers adopt various protective and pedagogical disguises, then careful reading may show them to be not so different as they appear at first glance. 2) Philosophers practicing defensive esotericism appear to be in greater agreement with the ruling ideas of their time than they actually are. 3) Without understanding esotericism we can’t appreciate the abyss the separates the ancients from the moderns. 4) Classic thought can only defend itself effectively if it is reinterpreted as radically skeptical, possessing no completed metaphysical system, but living rather, as Melzer says, “in the light of the mysterious character of the whole.” 5) Historicism can be understood as a reaction against the harm done to society by the abandonment of esotericism i.e. once philosophy threw caution to the winds and oversold reason, its Enlightenment pretensions had to be tamed, and this was done by re-grounding reason in historical circumstance. And, finally, 6) Historicism reflects the harm done to philosophy by the decline of esoteric writing. The idea here is that modern thought, insofar as it was militant and progressive, was also “abstract and derivative” i.e. it lacked the “direct connection to [the] pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” which had nourished ancient philosophy. In other words, the practice of esotericism was partly based on the idea that “pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” required protection from the corrosive effects of ungrounded reason. When this idea was abandoned, philosophy lost its grounding, and historicism became a plausible correction of the excessively abstract character which was imparted to modern philosophy by its overweening ambition.
Leo Strauss who died in in 1973, wrote of what he called the “crisis of modernity.” According to Melzer he understood it in the following way:
The legitimacy of Western science, philosophy and rationalism is being radically challenged by two opposite but mutually reinforcing movements – the ancient force of religious orthodoxy and the “postmodern” one of historicism or cultural relativism.
This crisis had come about because of the inherent defects of modern rationalism – Strauss speaks of the “self-destruction of rational philosophy.” The main reasons for this self-immolation were its dogmatic demand for certainty and presuppositionless “foundations”; its attachment to political realism, practical efficacy and historical progress; and, above all, its insistence on the harmony of theory and practice, rationality and politicality – a deformity produced by the intensity of its struggle with religion. Strauss hoped, and Melzer shares and has extended this hope, that, in Melzer’s words, “the rediscovery of esotericism may possibly open the path to a ‘posthistoricist or ‘post-modernist’ re-legitimation of reason through a new return to authentic Socratic rationalism.”
One reason why this desired goal may someday come about is that historicism in Strauss’s view destroys its own foundations. He felt for example that toleration, the primary virtue produced by cultural relativism, tends to reach its inherent limit when it discovers that it has no reason not to tolerate intolerance i.e. it possesses no internal resources by which it can discover what should be tolerated and what not. And Melzer has other reasons to hope. He argues, for example, in his book’s final pages, that classical thought is “a philosophy not of progress and enlightenment but of return.” Return, for me, evokes the great emphasis on homecoming and restoration in contemporary ecological thought and suggests that Melzer is shares this widespread longing. Classical thought, he goes on, “remains remarkably concrete, self-aware and rooted in ordinary experience.” Esotericism, in this attractive rendering, protects not only the elite space of the philosopher – elitism, a word usually spoken as a curse in our day, was always the weightiest charge against Strauss – but also the vernacular, untheorized world. Philosophy and vernacular life, in this view, are complements, not replacements for one another as they became in modernity when reason sought to remake society and was then supplanted in turn by periodic restorations of the claims of the irrational. Esotericism, understood this way, stands for the restraint that keeps philosophy within bounds, preserving its integrity, and preventing it from overstepping its proper sphere.
This is where Melzer ends, and I think it’s worth quoting fairly fully the contrast he draws on his final page between classical and modern thought.
Classical philosophy endeavored to legitimize itself, to illuminate and test its basic presuppositions, through the constant return to and confrontation with the world of pre-philosophic experience (relying on esotericism to preserve that world from transformation in the face of this confrontation.)
Modern thought is built on the opposite hope that by its success in transforming, enlightening and disenchanting the world and by its continual progress in explaining the kind of things it can explain, it will make all testimony to or experience of the kinds of things that it cannot explain to simply wither away. The world of traditional society, with its spirits, gods and poets, will simply disappear, refuted by history. In short modern thought hopes to legitimize itself precisely through the obliteration of pre-theoretic experience.
This is an inspiring conclusion, I think, though, as I have already said several times, I fear that the word esoteric unduly restricts the scope of the argument. Modesty, discretion, the ethics of concealment and unconcealment, the sense for the fitting or proportionate, the proper scope of prudence, the limitations of language, even the inherent contradictoriness of existence – all these are at some point in the book implications of the word esoteric. That’s a lot of work for one word to do, especially when its primary sense evokes the modern bugaboos of hierarchy and elitism. One can only hope that this book will make other readers see how fruitful a concept it can be in the hands of a lucid and generous writer like Melzer.
And what finally of the hope with which I began that I might get some insight into the question of whether Ivan Illich is an esoteric writer? Well, respecting all the provisos I have already made about the meaning of esoteric, I would answer with a qualified yes. Illich was certainly a writer who strictly limited his means, writing in a formal and highly condensed style that required considerable unpacking – it was a standing joke in the milieu we shared that some of his oldest friends had told him that it was only after I put out a book called Ivan Illich in Conversation in 1992 that they finally understood what he was talking about. It also true that he spoke only when he felt called to do so. The call might come from a friend or from some perceived public emergency but there was always an occasion, and no attempt to produce a summa or system that went beyond these occasions. Likewise, he made no systematic exposition of his Christian faith though it completely coloured his work. (I have never been happy with calling this “a hidden purpose,” as I quoted Todd Hartch as saying at the beginning of this review – there’s more on this point in my earlier review of Hartch’s book on this blog – but there’s no doubt that it was not always fully revealed either.)
So I would say that Illich as a teacher and writer observed some of the ethics that Melzer associates with esotericism. I would also say that attention to the esoteric dimension in the New Testament contributes to an understanding of Illich’s hypothesis that corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. Illich believed that the good news of the New Testament was something volatile and evanescent – the announcement of a freedom to love that could never be commanded or produced on demand. When this freedom was institutionalized and made to perform punctually and reliably, the best became the worst. The church, in this sense, is the essence of the exoteric, of that “brutal earnestness,” as Illich once called it, which believes that the truth can be shouted from the rooftops without irony or reserve and with no fear that it will be denatured in the process. So, insofar as Illich holds that the explosiveness of the Gospel demanded more tact and less triumphalism than the church would eventually show, he can also be understood as on the side of the esoteric. And finally I would say that Melzer’s book also contributed something to my understanding of the spirit of complementarity in Illich’s work. Illich, for me, is the great critic of monism – not a very satisfactory word I know, but I don’t know another for what I want to point to – a view of the world as a single homogeneous field reducible to a single principle or a single stuff. Illich wrote against the transformation of the duality of gender into the monism ofsex, against the overwhelming of vernacular life by professional service and expert opinion, against the reduction of imaginative talk to the uniform code of mediaspeak. Melzer’s view that philosophy should properly be in a relationship of mutual restraint, of complementarity, with what he calls the pre-theoretic or commonsense world accords very well with this disposition of Illich’s. Indeed what Melzer calls philosophy in its modern phase, marked as it is by universalism, political militance, and exoteric overreach, is very like what Illich sees as “Christianity,” trying to bring the whole world into line. But to pursue this thought would demand a complex adjustment of the vocabulary of Strauss and his school to the vocabulary of Illich and his tribe – school doesn’t quite seem to fit in Illich’s case – and that’s a task for another day.