The art of esoteric reading—scrutinizing a text for “hidden meanings”—has been lost.
For more than two thousand years, this art was a widely acknowledged way of reading philosophy. It was an understood that wise men wrote “esoterically,” which is to say carefully, so that an insensitive reader would fail to notice the structures, subtleties, and apparent paradoxes that fully informed the meaning of a work.
This approach could reveal that a text professing to be about the goodness of religion could actually be an argument for atheism, or that a dialogue championing the rule of philosopher kings could actually be intended to show that such a form of rule is impossible.
Today, most scholars reject the idea of esoteric writing, even denying that it ever existed. This blindness has consequences. In Philosophy Between the Lines, Arthur M. Melzer explores the history of esoteric writing and argues that if we refuse to understand it we will inevitably misread and underestimate the greatest books of Western Civilization.
Properly understood, esoteric reading is merely careful reading. Small variations are important. The esoteric reader gets much of the argument through suggestion and allusion, rather than direct statements. To do this, the reader must pay close attention to the order and framing of a text. The reader views any problems or inconsistences in the work not as errors but as riddles put forth by the author to be unraveled.
But not every reader will read a philosophic text carefully, a fact of which esoteric writers are well aware. They keep this in mind as they write, such that their books written have two tiers of interpretation: An “exoteric” reading for those who read it carelessly, and an “esoteric” reading for those able to look closely.
Melzer exhaustively shows that, historically, to write philosophically was to write esoterically. He quotes Aristotle, Alfarabi, Aquinas, and Augustine, to the effect that, as Augustine says, philosophy must be “guided through shady and thorny thickets, for the possession of the few, rather than allowed to wander through open through spaces where cattle [i.e., the ‘common herd’] break through.”
And those are just the A’s. Melzer’s documentation of references to this phenomenon was so extensive that, in addition to the book, he provides an extensive online appendix, with hundreds of additional citations.
Learning to read these writers requires understanding why they would have gone to such lengths to make themselves difficult to understand. According to Melzer, esoteric writing arose out of the defining problem of the human condition: the problem of theory and praxis.
Man’s nature is essentially double. He has a theoretical part, which is pure reason, and a practical part, which is social and political. The two are in conflict: Political society holds together because it is built mostly on shared conventions and myths. The philosopher, who sees the weaknesses in these, threatens society.
Because this tension was dangerous for both society and the philosopher, the ancient philosophers wrote esoterically. They also believed that the tension was unresolvable. Melzer calls this the “conflictual,” or tragic view.
The Enlightenment philosophers believed that as the old orthodoxies faded away, cities would come to be ruled by reason and science, and the need for secrecy would be eliminated. These were the new “harmonist” philosophers. They would continue to write esoterically, with an eye towards the day when the conflict would end.
For both the harmonist and the conflictualist philosophers, the theory-praxis problem was a central feature of human life. The conflictualists focused on managing this tension—and the harmonists were determined to solve it.
Now we live in an era so dominated by the harmonists that we have forgotten the conflict, Melzer says. We no longer argue over whether it can be solved, only how.
Our blindness to the existence of esoteric writing, Melzer says, comes from our fundamental resistance even to the suggestion that human nature is defined by an unsolvable problem.
The problem of theory and praxis produces four motives for esoteric writing: defensive, protective, political, and pedagogical. The defensive motive is practical. The philosopher, living under an oppressive regime, makes his most radical points only subtlety, never directly. If he speaks openly, he could be marginalized, or even killed. Today, Melzer points out, dissidents everywhere are practicing the “esoteric assertion of freedom.”
Yet some philosophers would not have written openly even if they felt they had nothing personally to fear. This is because they believed that that their ideas would be actively harmful to society if widely believed. Therefore, they engaged in “protective” esotericism, revealing all they knew only to the few who could handle such truths.
This elitism is hateful to our democratic sensibilities. Yet, “it is important to remind ourselves that our purpose here is not to defend these earlier views,” Melzer says, but “solely to answer the historical question of whether these premises were widely believed and acted upon by past thinkers, especially in the pre-Enlightenment period.” Writers who did not live in democratic ages—and even some who did—generally did not share our modern commitment to egalitarianism.
The Enlightenment philosophers were more optimistic about the effects of pure rationality on the political community. They practiced “political” esotericism, subtly attempting to make reason’s influence felt in society.
This practice—esotericism with a view to political or social change—leads us to the “pedagogic” motive for esoteric writing. For the same reason society rejects the philosopher, students may reject philosophy: being forced to question one’s deepest beliefs is painful. Therefore, students must be led gently through the process. But the pedagogic motive for esoteric writing doesn’t just mean holding back knowledge until the student is ready. Practitioners believed that esoteric writing was a mirror of the nature of wisdom itself. Wisdom is elusive and hidden, and the discipline of esoteric reading—which trains the mind to appreciate subtleties, complexities, and contradictions—trains the mind for philosophy. Wisdom itself cannot be fully captured, and thus can never be stated explicitly, displayed as though a prisoner in a cage.
Because they believed that wisdom can only be hinted at, practitioners of esoteric writing were deeply suspicious of the art of writing itself. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates says that writing is harmful to learning. Solemn texts, he says “can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.” This is because unlike direct interaction between a teacher and a student, reading requires nothing from the pupil but receptivity. Reading permits laziness.
Esoteric reading addresses some of the ancient misgivings about writing. It requires approaching a book as if it were full of problems and questions, not a monologue to be swallowed.
When non-esoteric readers—most of us—come across something we disagree with in a text, our automatic reaction is to dismiss it, especially if we think we have found an obvious error. When we read, our reactions tend to be “self-confirming” and flattering to our ignorance.
To assume that the author is wiser than us is a “self-correcting” virtue that can “save us from the debilitating influence of our laziness, vanity, and prejudice.”
A mind capable of the kind of mastery and detail required for esoteric writing is difficult for us to imagine. Many modern readers, and especially modern academics, reject the idea of human greatness implicit in the belief that someone who wrote a book thousands of years ago had greater access to wisdom than they do.
But then again, Melzer says, in a digression, “most people cannot imagine playing an entire game of chess blindfolded, but there are people who can play twenty such games simultaneously. The current world record is forty-six. There is a great danger in claiming to know what human beings are and are not capable of.”
The loss of esoteric reading has done a great deal of damage to modern education. Reviving the art of esoteric reading is necessary not only because it allows for a more accurate appreciation of older philosophic texts but also, Melzer says, because the shallow and dismissive “exoteric” readings in vogue today inevitably disappoint even the most enthusiastic students. To this end, the book contains a helpful introductory guide to esoteric reading.
This lost art cultivates in the reader the habit of disciplined wonder. It reveals that the greatest of books are valuable teachers even today, rather than the historical curiosities that those who are ignorant of the art of esoteric reading believe them to be.