Friday, July 10, 2015

Arnhart: "Did Leo Strauss Think that Liberalism's Success Denied the Need for Esoteric Writing?"

Check out Larry Arnart's post here. A taste:
...  On the one hand, Strauss seems to agree with the pre-modern view that esoteric writing is necessary and desirable because of the natural conflict between the philosophic life of the few and the moral, religious, or political life of the many.  On the other hand, Strauss seems to agree with the modern view that in a liberal or open society, there is no natural conflict between the philosophic life and the practical life, and therefore esoteric writing is unnecessary and undesirable.
Thoughts: I believe esoteric writing is still used in modern open society because of the "meet the old boss, same as the new boss" dynamic. Small l "liberal" society turned out to be not as "open" and "liberal" in the ideal for everybody as might have been imagined or desired.

Still, as bad as today's ideological and political tyrants in liberal democracies may be, the context in which the pre-moderns needed to write esoterically was far worse. Back then, those who bucked the line could be, not just fired from their jobs or have their reputations ruined in respectable society, but burned at the stake or otherwise forced to leave the nation-state.

So I think of John Locke for instance, someone the Straussians have notoriously analyzed for his "esoteric" sentiments. They claim he was an esoteric atheist. I don't believe this. Locke exoterically claimed to believe in God, be a Christian, that "Jesus was Messiah" (and that was his test for lowest-common-denominator "Christianity"); but he never claimed that one must believe in doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc. to be a "Christian."

Now, I DO think Locke was up to something esoterically, exactly what, we can never be sure. Personally, I don't believe Locke was an atheist but a secret unitarian or Trinity denier. That is, if I could go back in time and pin Locke down with truth serum and ask him "do you believe in the Trinity and Incarnation" I firmly believe his answer would be "Absolutely not. In fact, I deny these doctrines."

Instead, Locke just studiously avoided putting his specific cards on the table as it related to those doctrines. When a critic of his said his refusal to assert orthodox Trinitarian doctrines as part of the necessary minimums for what it means to be a "Christian" necessarily meant he denied the Trinity and was therefore a "Socinian," Locke replied that nothing in his writings clearly denied the Trinity. (He simply didn't affirm the doctrine.)

The problem for Locke is that if he wanted to deny the Trinity, it was illegal in England at that time for him to so do; England like the rest of pre-Englightenment Christendom would, at worst, execute heretics (including those who denied the Trinity). Locke also left the England in exile for Holland because of the controversial nature of his ideas.

I'm no fan of political correctness, but how many Americans today feel they need to and ACTUALLY DO leave the country because of their ideas? That's the context in which Locke not only existed but the politics of which he attempted to transcend in favor of something more tolerant, open and "rights oriented." Small l "liberalism." What Locke helped to establish.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Ever read left-wing academic types? They're scared to death of each other. They write so esoterically, hide what they really think so deeply behind weasel words that you fall asleep before they ever get near their point.

jimmiraybob said...


Thanks for this post. I read Arthur Melzer's book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing when it first came out but haven't seen a lot of commentary about it. While I think that Melzer presents a fairly convincing case with respect to esoteric writing, which given enough reading of the works and authors that he cites one reasonably suspects as much, I'm not very much up on Strauss.

I think that between the Arnhart series and looking up the cited volume of Perspectives on Political Science, I will have a greater perspective when I get back to rereading Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines.

As Melzer states in the book, and I'm paraphrasing, he's not necessarily endorsing all that is Strauss or esotericism but felt that the discussion needed to be ignited. Looks like it worked.