Two years ago, I spent a long Monday evening at the airport in Charleston, South Carolina, waiting, along with some other people who had been at my niece’s destination wedding, for the skies to clear. There was so much time to talk that the conversation sometimes turned serious. “Who’s this guy,” asked one of my sister’s friends, “who writes about secret truths? I can’t remember his name.”
“You mean Leo Strauss?” I said.
“Yeah. I read a review of some new books about him in the Times last week. Where does he come from all of a sudden? I majored in philosophy at Columbia, and I never heard of him before.”
As a student at Cornell at around the same time that this man had been at Columbia, and having studied with several of Strauss’ students, including Allan Bloom and Werner Dannhauser, I had myself heard a lot about Strauss as an undergraduate—and forever afterward. We now had a subject that could last, I thought, at least as long as the storm. “If you start saying that a writer said one thing and meant another, if that’s your principle of interpretation,” my friend complained, reasonably enough, “then you can argue that anybody said anything. There’s no way of knowing what anyone meant.”
I tried to argue otherwise—or not so much to argue as to provide a rough sketch of Strauss’ ideas with regard to the tension between rational truth and the needs of society that impelled so many philosophers to express themselves cautiously, even surreptitiously, both for their own good and for the good of everyone else, and how one could probe beneath the surface of a text and figure out what an author really thought. But the Columbia man wasn’t buying any of it. And since there really wasn’t any great need to close the deal, I soon stopped trying to sell it. I told him that I would mail him some more convincing literature on the subject, and I eventually did, but when we subsequently met, we never returned to the matter.
What did I send him? Having a lot to choose from, I had picked two brief, lucid, and to my mind convincing accounts of Strauss’ methods and outlook. But I knew that there was a problem with these articles, and, for that matter, with all of the very good books about Leo Strauss that had appeared in recent years. Even the best of them—though intended to be accessible—were the kind of works that only academics could be expected to plow through.
Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing is about esoteric writing, not Leo Strauss, but Arthur Melzer makes no secret of his indebtedness to Strauss and Straussians. Melzer, a professor of political science at Michigan State, fell under their spell at Cornell, at the same time I did. He is not a particularly prolific writer, but he is an exceedingly careful and graceful one, and, after many years of effort, has produced a truly accessible book about esotericism. I wish I could have read aloud from it in the Charleston airport, especially from the wonderful chapter in which Melzer presents “A Beginner’s Guide to Esoteric Reading.” This chapter, as its author acknowledges, does not scrape deeply beneath the surface, but it more than suffices to show that esoteric interpretation is by no means an arbitrary process.
Faced once again with a conversational challenge like the one I confronted two years ago, I would now be able to make a better start than I did even without having Melzer’s book in my carry-on luggage. I could just whip out my smartphone, go to www.press.uchicago.edu/sites/melzer, and start reading from the book’s 100-page electronic appendix of testimonies on the part of thinkers throughout the ages that they or their predecessors expressed their true beliefs only “between the lines.” Here I’ll cite just two, one from antiquity and one from the more recent past. Here’s what the 4th-century Constantinople philosopher Themistius had to say about Aristotle:
It is characteristic of Aristotle to think that the same arguments are not beneficial for the many and for the philosophers, just as the same drugs and diet are not beneficial for those in the peak of health and those profoundly ill, but for some, those drugs and diet are beneficial that are truly healthful, and for others, those that are suited to the present [defective] condition of the body. As a result, he called the latter outsiders and composed for them undemanding arguments, but he closed off the other arguments and safely handed them on to the few.
And listen to Thomas Paine describe Montesquieu as someone who went “as far as a writer under a despotic government could well proceed: and being obliged to divide himself between principle and prudence, his mind often appears under a veil, and we ought to give him credit for more than he has expressed.”
Melzer makes it clear from the beginning of his book that philosophical esotericism is something he wants to explain rather than justify. As he tells us in his Acknowledgments, he doesn’t even like it. “My natural taste is for writers who say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say. I can barely tolerate subtlety. If I could have my wish, the whole phenomenon of esoteric writing would simply disappear.” Melzer doesn’t restrict himself, however, to providing esotericism with a decent burial, as these opening remarks might suggest. He aims not only to elucidate its nature but to put it in social context and to clarify its philosophical underpinnings.
One of Melzer’s original contributions to the discussion of his subject is his labeling of “the four forms of philosophical esotericism” as defensive, protective, pedagogical, and political. Readers who know even a little about Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing already have a good idea of the purpose of “defensive” esotericism. Because philosophers are by nature free spirits who, as Melzer writes, live in tension “with the long-standing customs, myths, and prejudices” of their societies, most of them, at least in pre-Enlightenment times, resided “in society like alien and suspicious characters: wary, nervous, and with one eye always on the exit.” In order to stay put and to survive, such people “were forced to develop—as standard equipment for the philosophical way of life—a protective mask and an art of esoteric speech.” They wrote, in short, with forked pens.
But philosophers had more on their minds than their own security; they were also worried about the well-being of their potential persecutors. They had to protect them and everybody else from dangerous truths that would threaten their traditional way of life. Indeed, much of the work “philosophers undertook to escape persecution they undertook also to avoid harming society.” They believed that they should keep “the falseness of the basic myths and prejudices of their society . . . mostly to themselves for the good of society.” This is how Themistius seems to have read Aristotle.
Unlike defensive or protective esotericism, the pedagogical variety is concerned not with hiding truths but with “the transmission of philosophical understanding.” Since “genuine philosophical depth and insight cannot simply be written down and transmitted from one generation to another,” but must be carefully inculcated, in stages, philosophical authors often employed techniques that sought to regulate the tempo of education. They reaffirmed conventional opinions while subtly and surreptitiously indicating their falseness, in the hope that their more discerning readers would, at the right moment, get the point.
Melzer’s fourth category of esoteric writing differs from the other three, which all began in antiquity and are rooted in what he calls “the conflictual view of theory and praxis,” the notion that there is an inevitable tension between philosophical rationalism and ordinary social life. Political esotericism, by contrast, is an exclusively modern phenomenon. Its practitioners held that social and political life can and should be entirely rationalized—but only “cautiously and gradually,” in the manner of Montesquieu, as described by Thomas Paine. As Melzer puts it, those who resorted to this form of writing sought “to promote precisely what protective esotericism exists to prevent: the widespread social influence of philosophical rationalism.” Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and many others, even the daring editors of the Encyclopedia—they all employed this tactic of pretending to be in accord with a traditional outlook while at the same time subtly undermining it in their writings.
This modern political esotericism was eventually so successful that it erased the memory of the other forms of esotericism altogether:
As the Enlightenment experiment moved forward, overturning old prejudices and superstitions, and (in most places) without dire consequences or social collapse, the whole premise of protective esotericism—that a healthy society absolutely requires prejudices and illusions—came to seem less and less plausible. The slow march of progress—the improvement of the world through the public dissemination of truth—slowly buried the conflictual perspective, until people forgot that it had ever been there. It came to seem that classical rationalism was always nothing but a nascent form of eighteenth-century rationalism—harmonist, enlightening, and progressive. The Enlightenment image of the philosopher—the public-spirited rationalist bringing light to the world—came to seem the only one. And therefore esotericism was never anything but the practice of mystics and astrologers.
Melzer sounds rather regretful here—but why? After all, if he wishes that the whole phenomenon of esoteric writing would simply disappear, what’s so bad about forgetting that it ever existed?
In the final, most important, and only truly difficult chapter of his book, Melzer argues that the price paid by our civilization for relinquishing esotericism has in fact been extraordinarily high and also, more hopefully, that at least some of what has been lost can be regained. After declaring that everything he has said earlier in the book about “the historical reality of esoteric philosophical writing . . . will continue to stand, unscathed” even if one rejects what follows, Melzer makes a case for Leo Strauss.
Strauss, as Melzer portrays him, believed that the Enlightenment’s misdirected and overambitious project had not only failed but had paved the way to dangerous forms of irrationalism. It had left reason vulnerable to a “double attack” against which he wanted to defend it, an assault coming from religious orthodoxy, on the one hand, and historicism, on the other. In order “to keep things manageable,” Melzer confines his account exclusively to Strauss’ reply to historicism, and by extension, its postmodern descendants.
Historicism is dangerous because it denies the existence of any standpoint from which it is possible to judge any one of “an indefinite number of conflicting cultures, metanarratives, or Weltanschauungen” to be truer than the others. It leaves its adherents altogether adrift, and, most dangerously, it isn’t an utterly spurious doctrine. “According to Strauss,” Melzer tells us, “there is a relative truth to historicism: it is true of modern thought.” But it wasn’t true of classical rationalism, whose greatest representatives demonstrated their ability to rise above their various cultural and historical contexts. Strauss’ “recovery of the art of esoteric interpretation—which shows that the classical philosophers were not so much reflecting their times as hiding from them—opened the way to a comprehensive, new understanding of classical thought that was not only more genuine, in his view, but more able to fend off the historicist critique.”
For Strauss, the goal was not progress but “return.” This did not mean that it was necessary, as Melzer puts it, that “the Enlightenment somehow be undone—a change that he hardly envisioned—in order for historicism to be overturned.” But even if the clock could not really be turned back, modern thinkers can still “liberate themselves from historicism so long as they recover the art of esoteric reading and engage in patient historical studies that will free them from modern prejudices while acquainting them with the genuine Socratic alternative.”
Enticed by the prospect of a refuge from historicism, Melzer’s readers may hope to find at the end of his book at least a summary of the specific results to which this alternative path leads. But they will not find any shortcuts, only directions to other (Straussian and non-Straussian) books. The closest thing that Melzer provides to a nutshell is the longest direct quotation from Strauss to be found anywhere in Philosophy Between the Lines:
Socrates was so far from being committed to a specific cosmology that his knowledge was knowledge of ignorance. Knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance. It is knowledge of the elusive character of the truth, of the whole . . . He held therefore that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation. We may also say that he viewed man in the light of the unchangeable ideas, i.e., of the fundamental and permanent problems.
The Greek answer to our modern crisis, rediscovered by Strauss, is not a set of definitive answers but a lesson on how to spend one’s life in a realm characterized, as Melzer puts it, by “the persistence, amid the flux of answers, of the same fundamental questions.”
All of this would require much closer consideration if I were writing, say, in The Athens Review of Books, but I want to turn my attention to what Melzer quite conspicuously omits: a serious treatment of Strauss’ famous pair of irreconcilable but equally irrefutable alternatives: Athens, representing free inquiry, and Jerusalem, representing loving obedience to a God who has revealed His will. (The word “Jerusalem” does not appear at all in his book.)
Melzer does note that Strauss was strongly attracted to Judaism, but he considers his relationship to religion to be “less relevant to the present inquiry” than his response to historicism “since it is not connected to the phenomenon of esotericism in as intimate and complex a way.” I have my doubts about this, but instead of expressing them I want to consider what Melzer says in the footnote to this sentence in the light of political philosopher Tracy Strong’s book jacket blurb: “It is necessarily left to the reader of this excellent work to decide if Melzer has written an exoteric or esoteric book.” Melzer’s footnote refers us to the work of Kenneth Hart Green, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, whose numerous works on Strauss all revolve around the question of Athens and Jerusalem and portray him as a thinker for whom Jerusalem remained a very real alternative. The footnote ultimately recommends to us, however, “above all, Heinrich Meier’s superb Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem.” Readers who turn to Meier’s book, published more than a decade ago, can see for themselves how little credence it gives to the idea that Strauss still considered Jerusalem a genuine option. They may then wonder whether Melzer, whether he likes esotericism or not, has here resorted to protective esotericism, pedagogical esotericism, or maybe a little bit of both.
While Melzer is by no means alone in treating Strauss’ Jewish concerns as inessential to his main message, there are many others who regard his writings on the Jews and Judaism as indispensable guides not only to his own efforts to resolve what he called the “theological-political predicament,” from the time of his life in the Weimar Republic onward but to an understanding of the situation of modern Jewry in general. Among them, of course, is Kenneth Hart Green, who has been writing about Strauss as a Jewish thinker at least since his days as a graduate student at Brandeis in the 1970s (where we first met; it’s a small world). His many publications include an edited collection of Strauss’ later writings on modern Jewish thought, and he is also the editor of a series that includes Michael Zank’s translation and scholarly edition of Strauss’ early writings, mostly on matters pertaining to Judaism. Now Green has filled in the chronological gap between these two collections with a 696-page volume entitled Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings. And he has simultaneously published a companion volume, Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides, which is also something of a sequel to the book he published more than 20 years ago, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss.
In Maimonides, Green tells us, Strauss found a thinker who was neither the strictly orthodox figure most previous scholars had considered him to be, nor, as others have claimed, a covert denier of the truths of Judaism. Instead, he saw him as “a truly intrepid explorer and searcher for enlightenment in the realm of thought, allowing truth and not dogma or prejudice to guide him.” Maimonides’ forays into the unknown took him into territory that was too treacherous for most Jews and had to be concealed from their view by means of esoteric writing, which left it visible only to those who were equipped to cope with it. According to Strauss, Maimonides’ intention in writing this way “was absolutely and always to educate those bolder souls who need unvarnished instruction and who can ‘handle the truth,’ and simultaneously to reassure those tamer souls who need a safe and pleasant message.” Dangerous as the unvarnished philosophical truth might have been to ordinary Jews, however, it was in no sense heretical. Strauss believed, Green says, that Maimonides was “always a loyal Jewish thinker and defender of the Jewish faith.”
What, then, was the nature of the defense of Judaism that had to be concealed from the vulgar? What did Strauss believe Maimonides’ secret teaching to be? Green is rather elusive on this subject. He stresses again and again Strauss’ view of Maimonides as someone who pursued the truth “with a completely free mind,” but he seems on the whole to maintain that it was only this unbridled activity itself, and none of the particular ideas to which it led, that had to be concealed from public view.
And what did “Maimonides’ authentic thought” mean for Strauss? “Maimonides’ perception,” Green says,
of a deep tension in human beings—between philosophic life and the life of the Torah—resonated very powerfully for Strauss, and may have shaped much of his thinking, insofar as his study of Maimonides contributed to his own growth and progress as a thinker . . . Certainly Strauss was ready to affirm, along with Maimonides, that this tension cannot be brought to a complete and total harmony in an unredeemed world, and this it represents as a sort of perennial quarrel in the human heart and mind. The struggle to bring about a greater amount of harmony . . . is what Maimonides and Strauss shared together, however differently this effort may have been performed by each of them.
Green thus gives us a Strauss who takes not just Athens but Athens and Jerusalem entirely seriously, and who sees the cure for historicism not in the one or the other but in “keeping the two opponents and competitors for the truth in civilized, even if often paradoxical, conversation.”
This representation of Strauss has a lot to support it, but it’s somewhat harder to justify now than it was a couple of decades ago, when Green produced his first book. This is due in part to the publication of some of Strauss’ correspondence from the late 1930s, when he was in the throes of discovering esotericism, mostly through his rereading of Maimonides in conjunction with the Muslim philosopher Alfarabi. In a letter to his friend and fellow historian of philosophy Jacob Klein on February 16, 1938, he sums up the importance of his research:
This will yield the interesting result that a simply historical determination—the determination that Maimonides in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew—is of considerable present-day significance: the incompatibility in principle of philosophy and Judaism.
What he has in his hands, Strauss tells Klein, is a “bomb,” and if he were to drop it a “great battle” would result. For, as the scholar Nahum Glatzer had alerted him, “to pull Maimonides out of Judaism is to pull out its foundation.”
Green, of course, is familiar with Strauss’ letter to Klein (as well as every other document even remotely connected with his subject) and quotes it—but he does so very cautiously. Glatzer’s warning, he writes, did not deter Strauss “from a private willingness to characterize his ‘hunch’ about Maimonides, that he ‘was a ‘philosopher’ in a far more radical sense than is usually assumed . . .’” What Green does not fully reveal in this context is just how radical Strauss then considered Maimonides to be. Elsewhere, however, at a safe remove from his treatment of the letter, he does let his readers see the bomb—Strauss’ statement that Maimonides “in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew”—and then immediately tries to defuse it. It was as obvious to Strauss as to everyone else that, Green writes, Maimonides
was evidently a Jew in the beliefs which, enacted as law, he definitely himself followed, and indeed which he “legislated,” or rather reiterated and organized, as law code. But he chose to follow them because he had reasons to so choose. Those reasons relate to the fact that the truth did not always reside in the beliefs; instead, this truth may rather reside in the function which those beliefs performed. This is to say, they serve a true or necessary purpose of sustaining Jewish life and its specific teachings, just as one may apply those same moral and religious truths to human life or traditions in general.
If Green intends here to say that Strauss believed, at least in the late 1930s, that Maimonides thought that the fundamental truths of Judaism were all true only inasmuch as they were socially useful, then Strauss was indeed saying something quite explosive. It is difficult to distinguish between such a pragmatic approach to religion and the view that religion rests on socially necessary falsehoods. If Green means to say that Strauss believed Maimonides considered only some Jewish beliefs to be true in this sense, then it is hard to see why Strauss would have feared that his discovery would rock the foundations of Judaism.
Green, in the end, devotes only a small amount of attention to Strauss’ letter to Klein, and, no doubt, it is safer to rely on what Strauss said and wrote publicly than his private musings. The problem is that Strauss, as Green reminds us, took Glatzer’s warning very seriously and decided
to temper what he judged the quality of dynamite in what he was conveying. This issued in a presentation of Maimonides’ teaching that manifested the artful care, intellectual precision, moral purpose, and skillful literary restraint which Maimonides himself had exercised, and which he expressly intended his readers to imitate.
Strauss’ emulation of what Green calls Maimonides’ “labyrinthine” style of writing renders his own essays on Maimonides’ work hard to fathom, to say the least. They are, as Green says, “a perplexing guide to the perplexities.” I myself have returned to some of the later and more difficult ones quite often over the years and have never come away with the sense that I understood them adequately—not even recently, after rereading them with the aid of Green’s illuminating introductions and notes. I certainly cannot claim to have understood them well enough to decide what kind of a Jew he really thought Maimonides was, at bottom, or, for that matter, what kind of Jew Strauss himself ultimately disclosed himself to be in his other writings.
I am not in despair about this. It once did mean a great deal to me that Strauss spoke of the existence of the omnipotent God as an “irrefutable premise” on the basis of which “all biblical miracles and revelations” can be considered possible. But now, even if I were to learn that he was just pretending to believe this, and that he was just pretending to think that Maimonides believed it, even, in fact, if someone were to prove to me that Maimonides himself was only feigning piety, and was at bottom “absolutely no Jew,” I think I could take that news in stride. If, on the other hand, Green were to be proved correct, and it could be shown that Maimonides brought together Athens and Jerusalem, philosophy and revelation, in the way that he thinks Strauss thinks he did, and that Strauss followed more or less in Maimonides’ footsteps, I don’t think that it would strengthen my faith significantly. In fact, even if I knew or thought I knew which Maimonides and which Strauss were the true ones, I might still prefer the other ones.
Of one thing, however, I am certain, and Arthur Melzer has shown it irrefutably: Philosophers from ancient times to our own (or at least until the day before yesterday) have not always said exactly what they meant, and they have not always meant exactly what they said.
We were sitting in our apartment one evening when a Spanish philosopher dropped in ...
While not the most dramatic of all the biblical stories, the quietly moving book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, continues to resonate in Western literature.
David Assaf introduces us to Hasidic Rebbes who ride into small towns and take over. (If cowboys were Hasidim, this would be Deadwood.)
Robert Lowell, the most famous poet in America, icon of the antiwar movement, consummate Boston Brahmin, was especially glad to speak with a Jewish group because, he drawled, “I’m an eighth, you know.”