Leo Strauss on the phenomenon of “esoteric writing”

The works of Leo Strauss about the phenomenon of esoteric writing in a context of persecution is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of his legacy. The readers learn with him how to read political philosophy as a “detective story”

The assumption that classical text should be « read between lines » proceeds directly from Strauss’s interest in the theologico-political question. The philosopher needs to justify himself, and the right of free enquiry, both in the eyes of the city and in the eyes of religion. To the extent that he deviates from orthodoxy or social accepted view he will have to conceal his real teaching, practice esoteric writings. Only a certain type of reader will be able to crack the code, to understand his real intention.

This may sound quite conventional in a way. But it proves a quite unsettling hypothesis when interpreting for instance medieval texts. Take what Strauss writes about Farabi, who is generally considered as a neo-platonician:

At the beginning of the treatise On the Attainment of Happiness with which he prefaces his summaries of the philosophies of Plato and of Aristotle, Farabi employs the distinction- between “the happiness of this world in this life” and “the ultimate happiness· in the other life” as a matter of course. In the Plato, which is the second and therefore the least exposed part of a tripartite work, the distinction of the two kinds of happiness is completely dropped. What this silence means becomes clear from the fact that in the whole Plato (which contains summaries of the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, the Phaedo, and the Republic), there is no mention of the immortality of the soul: Farabi’s Plato silently rejects Plato’s doctrine of a life after death.

Farabi could go so far in the Plato, not merely because that treatise is the least exposed and the shortest part of a larger work, but also because .it sets forth explicitly the views of another man. As has been mentioned, he treats differently the two kinds of happiness in On the Attainment of Happiness and in the Plato; and he treats religious knowledge somewhat differently in the Enumeration of the Sciences and in the Plato. Proceeding in accordance with the same rule, he pronounces more or less orthodox views concerning the life after death in The Virtuous Religious Community and The Political Governments, i.e., in works in which he speaks in his own name. More precisely, in The Virtuous Religious Community, he pronounces simply orthodox views, and in The Political Governments he pronounces views which, if heretical, could nonetheless still be considered tolerable. But in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics he declares that there is only the happiness of this life, and that all divergent statements are based on “ravings and old women’s tales.'”

Farabi avails himself then of the specific immunity of the commentator or of the historian in order to speak his mind concerning grave matters in his “historical” works, rather than in the works in which he speaks in his own name. Yet could not Farabi, as a commentator, have expounded, without a muttering of dissent, such views as he rejected as a man? Could he not have been attracted, as a student of philosophy, by what he abhorred as a believer? Could his mind not have been of the type that is attributed to the Latin Averroists? It almost suffices to state this suspicion in order to see that it is unfounded. The Latin Averroists gave a most literal interpretation of extremely heretical teachings. But Farabi did just the reverse: he gave an extremely unliteral interpretation of a relatively tolerable teaching. Precisely as a mere commentator of Plato, Farabi was compelled to embrace the doctrine of a life after death. His flagrant deviation from the letter of Plato’s teaching, or his refusal to succumb to Plato’s charms, proves sufficiently that he rejected the belief in a happiness different from the happiness of this life, or the belief in another life. His silence about the immortality of the soul in a treatise designed to present the philosophy of Plato “from its beginning to its end” places beyond any reasonable doubt the inference that the statements asserting the immortality of the ;soul, which occur in some of his other writings, must be regarded as accommodations to the accepted views.

(…)

In the light of these considerations, it would appear to be rash to identify the teaching of the falasifa with what they taught most frequently or most conspicuously. The attempt to establish their serious teaching is rendered still more difficult by the fact that some opponents of the falasifa seem to have thought it necessary to help the falasifa in concealing their teaching, because they feared the harm which its publication would cause to those of their fellow-believers whose faith was weak.

What Farabi indicates in regard to the procedure of the true philosophers, is confirmed by a number of remarks about the philosophic distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric teaching which occur in the writings of his successors. Farabi’s Plato informs us about the most obvious and the crudest reason why this antiquated or forgotten distinction was needed. Philosophy and the philosophers were “in grave danger:’ Society did not recognize philosophy or the right of philosophizing. There was no harmony between philosophy and society. (Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing)

For Leo Strauss, it is because Liberalism has gradually come to prevail in western societies after the Enlightenment, that the phenomenon of esoteric writings has been progressively forgotten (and even denied by historicists). The beginning of modernity was characterized by a progressive collapse of the boundaries between esoteric and exoteric writings. The result is that most readers, even academics, will tend to remain at an exoteric understanding of the classics. The liberal dogma of public transparency has been extended even to those who could not afford it.

The concept of “esoteric writing” is a powerful hermeneutic key that forces us to pay a closer attention to « familiar » texts. In the present western context, persecution may no longer come from religion, but on the contrary from an aggressive secularism or from the hegemony of liberalism that force religious or conservative thinkers to hide their real intention. It was probably the type of attitude that Strauss himself was cultivating in his works.

One may wonder though whether Strauss does not remain trap in a too simplistic post-enlightenment dichotomy between faith and reason, compared for instance to Voegelin’s richer analysis of the phenomenon of noetic illumination in Plato and Aristotle. Strauss takes for granted that reason and faith are irreconcilable, ignoring not only a vast body of literature in the three monotheisms but also possibly distorting the very essence of the teaching of Plato.

The content of the esoteric truth that would be buried behind an exoteric language is itself not very interesting: a post-enlightenment skepticism toward the supernatural. The question of Strauss’s personal religious views has never been fully sorted out but it often seems that “his” esoteric truth is simply that there is no God and no immortality of the soul, that the summum bonum is the life of the intellect, understood in a very secular sense.  In other words, truth is ugly, a cause of individual despair as well as collective disorder. Only an elite can stand it. It sounds a little bit more like Nietzsche than like Plato, doesn’t it?

Strauss alerts us about the phenomenon of esoteric writings. He awakens us from our liberal “dogmatic slumbers”. It does not mean however that we have to accept Strauss’s nihilism as the esoteric truth concealed by the philosophers of the past.

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