Is there any subject more esoteric than esoteric writing? Turn to the groundbreaking book on the subject, Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), and you’ll find such chapter headings as “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari” and “How to Study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise”—topics seemingly of interest only to the most scholarly of scholars. Yet in Philosophy Between the Lines, Arthur Melzer shows that understanding esoteric writing is vital to understanding Western culture and, indeed, culture in general. People interested in a wide variety of subjects—from literary interpretation to philosophy to politics to the history of religious beliefs—need to know something about esoteric, or secret, writing. By producing this clear and comprehensive account of the phenomenon, Melzer has performed a heroic service, finally making it possible for general readers to understand esoteric writing and why it has become such a controversial issue.
As his title indicates, Melzer deals specifically with esoteric writing in philosophy (and thus not with such subjects as alchemy and various forms of religious mysticism, such as Gnosticism and Kabbalah). He begins with the fact that philosophy is a hazardous venture. In their quest for true knowledge, philosophers are forced to question the unexamined assumptions of the communities in which they live, including any authoritative political opinions and fundamental religious beliefs. This kind of free inquiry places philosophers in jeopardy with civic authorities, as evidenced by the way Athens put Socrates to death on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. And Socrates didn’t even write books; he left no papyrus trail for his prosecutors.
Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous “double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.” They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines, which careful readers could figure out by paying attention to various anomalies in the text.
For example, philosophical works often contain contradictions that just about anybody can spot. Superficial readers will treat such contradictions as mere mistakes on the part of the philosophers, but, as Melzer argues, this apparent stupidity is really a deeper form of cleverness. Contradictions appear in a specific configuration: Orthodox views are often strategically positioned at the beginning and end of a work (where conventional readers are most likely to notice them and be mollified by their comforting presence), while opposing, unorthodox views are safely tucked away in the least exposed portions of a text (often right in the middle), to be ferreted out only by intrepid readers. To speak in spy language: The task of the esoteric reader is to distinguish the true information an author is trying to convey from the disinformation he deploys to distract and confuse his enemies.
Such a bare summary cannot do justice to the subtlety and persuasiveness of Melzer’s argument. Philosophy Between the Lines is a rhetorical tour de force. For one thing, Melzer has spent years accumulating hard evidence from the history of philosophical discourse attesting to the widespread use of esoteric writing. These statements could not be more straightforward and explicit. For example, in his article on Aristotle in Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-97), Pierre Bayle writes: “The method of the ancient masters was founded on good reasons. They had dogmas for the general public and dogmas for the disciples initiated into the mysteries.” In a 1773 letter, Denis Diderot wrote to fellow esoteric writer François Hemsterhuis: “You are one example among many others where intolerance has constrained the truth and dressed philosophy in a clown suit, so that posterity, struck by their contradictions, of which they don’t know the cause, will not know how to discover their true sentiments.” Melzer’s most telling quotation is appropriately from Machiavelli (in a letter to the Italian historian Guicciardini):