My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

UPDATE: here is an overview of the first part of the two-part symposium of Melzer’s book, and a link to the journal.

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  1. Dr. Lariviere

     /  May 19, 2015

    I would like to know your opinion as to why, among all the European academic establishments (e.g. from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland… and so on), it has been from the UK, and in particular from England, that the most virulent and intransigent anti-Strauss rhetoric and single-minded stubborn resistance to his ideas have arisen. Have you given any careful consideration to this? Almost nobody in Britain admits to Strauss’s influence among them (although an angry or scornful reaction surely is a kind of influence), and his name is there almost an anathema – as I personally know. Melzer has merely performed the very easy task of proving that throughout the history of the West “esoteric” writing has been practiced. This cannot be denied by any learned and reasonable reader, and why should one want to deny it in the intelligent interest of truth? Many English scholars have been shouting for years that such considerations are meaningless and without merit. I see this is beginning slowly, reluctantly, albeit inevitably to change, and the English front is receding. Scholars in all the other nations have found Strauss’s treatment of the arts of writing immensely fertile; so why have the English found him so irritating and even infuriating? Straussians themselves are at a bit of loss to explain it, why the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Dutch, and the Poles have shown an openness to the truths Strauss was the first in many generations to recover in the realm of hermeneutics. So again the question forces itself on us, “why the English”? Could it have to do with their protection of their vanishing imperial right to interpret & determine the meaning of the philosophic traditions? Could it be their petulant unwillingness to admit the possibility that their peculiar interpretation of a philosophic tradition, and their intellectual inheritance was distinctly national and one sided? Could this be one more effect, not the least important one to be sure, of the decline and fall of the English imperial claims to intellectual privilege? We hear so much about “narratives” these days that I resist the terminology. But political authorities need intellectual justification. When the political cause vanishes, the snobbery remains (Cf, Kojeve, on Japan). This explanation will seem ridiculous to some disdainful persons perhaps, only because they wish to see it that way. I suspect this explanation will have less plausibility in, of all places, England.

  2. Thanks for your comments! A few thoughts.

    (1) Strauss’s name is anathema in most countries, not just the UK, for the reasons I identify in my “Anti-Strauss” paper: his interpretive approach is obviously flawed. It allows him to read what he wants into texts by looking for evidence that fits his interpretations and ignoring more plausible alternatives; most scholars rightly regard this with amusement. I don’t know if you are right about the reaction being stronger or more rhetorical in the UK than elsewhere – maybe so.

    (2) In my unhumble opinion, most critiques of Strauss do not engage with his work very effectively. But nor do most Straussians engage with the critiques very well: Melzer’s book is a case in point.

    (3) You refer to Melzer “proving” esotericism. No one should use the word “proof” unless doing mathematics or deductive logic. See, again, my “Anti-Strauss” paper or my review of Melzer, or my longer paper “Uncertainty and the History of Ideas”. It’s incredibly dangerous to think that any interpretation is certain, because then you stop looking for alternative explanations; this, again, is one reason why so much Straussian research is held in such low esteem by non-Straussians. I wish you could see that many of us have good intellectual reasons for being dismissive of much Straussian interpretation!

    (4) Melzer certainly makes a very good case for esotericism, and I say so in my review, just as I support esotericism in my “Anti-Strauss” paper, citing authors like Annabel Patterson. The problem, I argued, isn’t Strauss’s *esoteric* interpretation, but *Strauss’s* esoteric interpretation. It would be nice if Straussians could acknowledge that writers like me aren’t objecting to esotericism but to poor interpretation. Melzer never gets to grip with this point because he doesn’t engage with the important methodological criticisms of Strauss made by critics like Pocock, Klosko and me. Straussians need to stop attacking straw men and respond to the crucial methodological objections!

  3. Dr. Lariviere

     /  June 12, 2015

    You leave me with no alternative to using arguments that border on the ‘ad hominem’. Why do you seek to make your career on attacking Strauss and “Straussians”? It’s a currently fashionable and publicly respectable calling, I am sure, especially where you reside in the cloister of your college. But you then descend into a popular and vulgar pastime to win applause. Nevertheless, if you were interested in the genuine issues and not just in making a little name for yourself in the small world of Strauss criticism (along with other “accusers” like Altman, who you have yet to surpass in brilliant scholarly pedantry), then you would concentrate on the texts and great minds, as Strauss always did. If you really cared about the issues you would be grateful for Strauss’s important contribution to hermeneutics, which after a very long time of complete obscurity once again brought the question of esotericism to the fore. Plank, Einstein, and the others didn’t attack their predecessors relentlessly to make university careers for themselves. They built on their predecessor’s insights. One glance at Strauss’s corpus and his seminars prove he was driven by a desire to interpret. You play the sophisticated critic. Very well, but now it is time that you turn your marvelous interpretive powers to all the authors from Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Lucretius, Farabi, Averroes, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and too many others to mention. You had better get busy for, as Horace said “Ars longa, vita brevis.” We shall see what you come up with and whether it has the compelling and productive force of Strauss’s works. Vale.

  4. Thanks for your post, which doesn’t respond to any of my substantive points! It simply raises a new one.

    To respond to your new point: intellectual progress is partly built on critique. Strauss himself sometimes does the kind of critique you would prefer me not to do: he aims, rightly, to show where people go wrong. See for example his critique of Walker’s translation of Machiavelli, in The Review of Metaphysics (1953), or his critique of contemporary social science in Spaeth, ed., The Predicament of Modern Politics (1964).

    I too seek to show where people go wrong. My “Anti-Strauss” illustrates what goes wrong when we don’t have clear methodological principles. In my view, Strauss made serious mistakes which few of his defenders have spotted, such that they think he is a better interpreter than he is.

    When you engage with my critique, you can tell me where my critique goes wrong. That has got to be a more effective response than claiming that we shouldn’t write critiques!

  5. Dr. Lariviere

     /  June 14, 2015

    What appears as madness in one epoch might just as easily appear as sober and moderate rationality in another, and therefore it is impossible to decide in advance what “esotericism” might mean in or to any given author before one has read and interpreted him with the care appropriate to the author in question. In his letter to Gadamer, Strauss insists that he doesn’t have a “method”. Scholars are always looking for railings like ‘methods’ or “clear methodological principles”, because the seas of interpretation guarantee nothing stable, nothing clearly demonstrable to even the most mediocre of intellects – and I suppose that would also include the scholarly members of any sect (see “On Tyranny”). Strauss did engage in the criticism of scholars, but for the purpose of throwing off all their methodical apparatus so as to read the truly great authors in a healthy, open, and natural mental atmosphere. I will not even assert that Strauss himself never wrote about “the art of writing between the lines” in an ironic manner between the lines. One might wish to contrast Strauss’s approach with Nietzsche’s as found in his chapter “We Scholars”. Nietzsche annihilates the scholars as men unfit for ideas, spiritually unconnected to, nay, utter beneath the fundamental issues, preoccupied with their careers, while Strauss tries to give scholars a habitation and vocation worth inhabiting and fulfilling. What Strauss thought or wrote is by no means necessarily what his adherents or most loyal defenders may say or think about about him. Modern Scholars in particular don’t believe in an order of rank that doesn’t place them and their sterile methods at the top, and like a herd of termites, tireless trying to bring down great trees by chewing at the bark. Lessing called them locusts, because of their noise and destructiveness, and because each nameless generation of them die and vanish forever at the end of every summer. Schiller coined the term “Brotgelehrten” for them, because that is how they earn their living. Montesquieu called them ants, putting heaps of tiny pebbles in the path of any man who seeks to take wing and soar. If you think Strauss is such an inferior writer why do spend so much time making a career out of publishing attacks on him and his followers? Nietzsche wrote one small chapter on the cultural philistine David Strauss, but then turned his attention to more positive examples and presentation of the issues. You mention Strauss’ critique of Walker’s Machiavelli, apparently to make defensible your critical attitude. Unless I am mistaken that paper occupies a total of 10 pages! Strauss rarely cites himself, as you do, and refrains from playing the salesman to readers huckstering them explore his critiques of vain mediocrities. Your tireless and tiresome ridicule of Strauss’s “methods” makes one wonder what in the world makes you tick? Nietzsche said of the scholars, that one only needs to wind them up and they will go in any given direction, in this case one niche that might win some applause. The spirit of criticism is also revealing of the soul of the critic, and (to paraphrase a certain writer) charity demands that I not say more than that. Now perhaps you would like to address my point, and tell me what you think of Nietzsche’s attacks on the stifling and stultifying spirit of the scholars in “Beyond Good & Evil.” Was he right? Do his objections apply to our time? And is there perhaps even some irony in Nietzsche’s thunderous and annihilating attack on the pettiness and vanity of modern scholars in a careerist democratic age?

  6. Thanks for your reply – sorry for the delay in replying.

    The essence of my critique of Strauss is that he looks for evidence that fits his claims, finds it, and takes this to mean that he is right, without addressing plausible alternative interpretations. You say that Strauss read authors in “a healthy, open, and natural mental atmosphere”, but I have argued that he made some serious misreadings and over-interpretations of authors. This was happening even before his turn to esotericism in the late 1930s: Michael Oakeshott, who reviewed Strauss’s Hobbes book in what you would doubtless see as a more polite and less egocentric manner than I write about Strauss, points out eight times that Strauss overstretched his evidence to reach conclusions that just aren’t justified from the evidence. (Al Martinich has written an even more critical analysis of Strauss’s Hobbes interpretation in a forthcoming book ‘Reading Between The Lines’, ed. Winfried Schroeder.)

    So, if some textual interpreters have insufficient grasp of methods that they cannot see the importance of considering alternative interpretations, for example, then we *do* need papers like mine, to show what can go wrong with flawed methods. (Note that my “Anti-Strauss” paper wrongly referred to Strauss’s flawed “epistemological” approach. I should have said “methodological”.)

    I haven’t read Nietzsche’s attack on scholars, but a lot of what you describe in it sounds basically right to me. I shall read it with interest – thank you.

  1. Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy | BlauBlog

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