Some Thoughts about Esoteric Writing (3/28/11)

I was reading earlier from Laurence Lampert’s essay about Leo Strauss (‘The Recovery of Esoteric Writing’) and from Strauss himself (concerning Xenophon’s willingness to appear stupider than he was—for the rest of recorded time—in order to conceal his true thoughts behind a mask). Lampert’s intriguing essay opens with Strauss’s 1938-39 discovery of Maimonides’ use of esoteric writing strategies as a way of appearing to be an orthodox Jew while in fact he was a genuine philosopher who fully understood that reason and monotheistic theology (and the morality built upon its dubious foundations) were in fundamental conflict. This momentous discovery of Strauss’s—that this sacrosanct, foundational figure in Judaism was in fact pretending to believe what he did not actually subscribe to—led (through Averroes) back to the Greeks—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, to Plato, whose influence over western civilization has been incalculable.

A few of the ‘truths’ (about how these genuinely philosophical Greeks saw nature and the human situation) may be listed:

  1. Death ends everything; personal immortality is no more than a consoling myth to give courage to the hoi polloi, who are too fainthearted to stomach the ‘deadly’ truth.
  2. Genuine philosophy (logos), because it is repugnant and hated by the many (‘the city’), must be sheltered by salutary stories (mythos) if it is to survive through time. The code word for this in Strauss is ‘Platonizing.’
  3. The few genuine philosophers were not interested in politics, per se, but in truth, which is both sobering and intoxicating to them, but ‘deadly’ and demoralizing to the many. It was this tension which gave rise to political philosophy, the aim of which was to shelter philosophy from the city and the city from philosophy.

Strauss—in his early study of Plato’s Laws—saw that the philosopher rightly understood that morality’s authority is founded not upon reason, or logos, but upon religion (mythos) for the many. Consequently, genuine philosophers (who, as Nietzsche says, are ‘commanders and legislators’) must prudently make use of religion in their ‘philanthropic’ campaigns to lead mankind in a salutary direction. It is their love of the human that motivates genuine philosophers in this philanthropic activity. In Lampert’s view, Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche were three such ‘philanthropic’ genuine philosophers. Bacon and Descartes both practiced esoteric writing in their ground-breaking campaigns to lead humanity (by way of their sympathetic, alert readers) in the new direction it has taken under their powerful influence. Nietzsche—believing that several hundred years of scientific skepticism and critical thinking (among the educated classes in the West) had prepared humanity for a more honest and frank disclosure of truths that have been kept under wraps since ancient times—dispensed with the ‘Platonizing’ and the ‘noble lies’ that have heretofore reigned over Western culture.

A brief challenge occurred during the Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation (a popular uprising, a ‘herd’ phenomenon, according to Nietzsche) restored the sovereignty of ‘after-worldly’ Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’). It is primarily this quasi-ascetic, ‘after-worldly’ metaphysical delusion that Nietzsche seeks to uproot, deride, and overcome—a delusion shared by millions—and which profoundly obstructs and hampers humanity’s love of the earth, of this world—the only world, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. We have forsaken and betrayed our true and only homeworld by swallowing and being swindled by this metaphysical-epistemological ruse that devalues the actual world in favor of some ‘true’ and ‘transcendent’ one that only exists in our duped imaginations.

So, Plato and Nietzsche (and, for that matter, all genuine philosophers who have uncovered the ‘truth about beings’ and have faced that sobering truth with reason) are in fundamental agreement about ‘the way of things,’ but because ‘times have changed’ in crucial respects since Plato composed his dialogues, Nietzsche decided to take the gamble of lifting the veil that his predecessors had kept over ‘Isis.’ Plato—who learned this from Socrates’ fate—reckoned that ‘the many’ (non-philosophers) were not ready to receive and to withstand the truths uncovered by natural (unaided) reason without succumbing to wanton immorality and despair. Therefore, he prudently (and seductively) painted a picture of philosophy (in the portrait of the martyred Socrates) that was benign, fascinating, and salutary—rather than starkly sobering and subversive of conventional values, norms, and beliefs. Such an enormous undertaking demanded extraordinary skill and a depth of understanding seldom equaled in the history of western culture, for Plato had to work in the service of two diametrically opposed aims within the individual works he was devising: he had to console and mollify those (weaker and more tender-minded) readers who required salutary lies in order to make life worth living, while at the same time he was providing hints, clues, and piercing questions that might lead his stronger and more resourceful readers (like Nietzsche and Strauss) to radically different (opposite) opinions—nay, truthful insights into reality, the human situation, and the actual order of things.

A problem with Nietzsche’s ‘anti-Christian’ concerns about our nihilistic, ‘after-worldly’ neglect of this world is that this simply does not accord with the facts of life for many, perhaps most educated persons living today. Few persons I know agonize over the question of an afterlife—and whatever people think (or don’t think) about our post-mortem fates, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their engrossed, enthralled—I am tempted to add ‘ensnared’—condition vis-à-vis this world, the mundane, matter of fact world of the here and now. The problem is not that people—or most people here and even in Asia—suffer from a flimsy allegiance to, or blocked connection with, this world (the apparent world of here and now) because they are fearfully or deludedly preoccupied with concerns about ‘the next life.’ ‘Educated’ persons often regard those who subscribe to that old story as throwbacks to pre-modern times. They are the butt of jokes and sneers. A much larger chunk of the general population is exceedingly immersed in the pleasures and pains, the concerns and opportunities, presented by this world. Nietzsche got much closer to the way things are now in his scathing portrait of ‘the last man’ in Zarathustra. Those pathetic, trivial flea-beetle couch potatoes are very much this-worldlings, not after-worldlings. But the quality of their connection to the earth—and to this world of the here and now—is just as shallow, insipid, and pitiful as their equally barbaric and unimpressive ancestors’ connection with the ‘spiritual’ world often appears to have been. The problem—in either direction—toward the realm of the spirit or towards the earth—concerns the quality of the connection.

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