Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

by Arthur M. Melzer


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ISBN-13: 9780226479170
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/22/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 471
Sales rank: 692,839
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Arthur M. Melzer is professor of political science at Michigan State University, where he is also cofounder and codirector of the Symposium on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy. He is the author of The Natural Goodness of Man.

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Philosophy Between the Lines

The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

By Arthur M. Melzer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17512-6


The Testimonial Evidence for Esotericism

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.


If a long and now-forgotten tradition of philosophical esotericism really did exist in the West, how could we ever prove that? How could we even know it?

The surest way would be if the philosophers themselves told us. And so they have. For what is necessarily secret in esotericism is the content of the hidden doctrine, but not its existence. For a whole variety of reasons, one philosopher may choose to report on the esoteric practices of another. And sometimes, less often to be sure, a philosopher may speak of his own esotericism. He might be moved to do so, for example, to explain to those who would dismiss his text as problematic and contradictory that these defects are not accidental, or to positively encourage his readers to pay closer attention and find the secret teaching if they can, or to give them some small guidance regarding how to go about it. Of course, all of this would be visible to the censors too—but not necessarily in a way that would allow them to prove anything. Moreover, in certain sophisticated times or indulgent ones, such an acknowledgment might even be reassuring to the ruling class, being an open display of the author's deference to their authority and a declaration of his commitment to hide from the impressionable multitude anything that might be misunderstood or corrupting. There is no necessary inconsistency in speaking openly about secrecy.

Thus, philosophic testimony to esotericism is definitely possible. The only question is: does it actually exist—beyond some isolated instances? Once one makes up one's mind to go looking for it, it turns out to be surprisingly easy to find. There are hundreds of such statements, stemming from every period and strain of Western thought, testifying to the reality of esotericism.

Since it would be tedious to read a long list of such quotations, I will present here just a brief representative sample running to about thirty passages that roughly cover the span of Western philosophical thought prior to 1800. Many more passages will be found woven into the argument of the chapters to follow. And in an online appendix (available at, I present the full, chronological compilation of the testimony that I have been able to find up to this point. Although certainly not exhaustive, it runs to well over seventy-five pages. Almost every major thinker from Homer to Nietzsche is included, as either the source or the subject of such testimony (or both).

To be sure, quotations of this kind presented with little context will lack the scholarly solidity and persuasive force of more detailed and contextualized presentations. For present purposes, I do not even distinguish among the four different variants of or motives for esoteric writing (although, I do select one example—Aristotle—to discuss in fuller detail). These shortcomings will be remedied (to the extent possible in a synoptic work of this kind) in chapters 5 through 8 with their greater concreteness and specificity.

But for the moment, I rely on the sheer power of numbers. One contextless quotation will lack persuasive power; but if it is followed by another and still another, all making the same general point, the effect becomes cumulative. The effect is also retrospective: the solidity of the whole lends new plausibility to each component part. On a second reading, we are less reluctant to take each passage at face value. Dots can be powerful when connected.

Let us consider the evidence then. Afterward we will press the question of what it does and does not prove.


Perhaps the most obvious way to begin our search for the open acknowledgment of esotericism is to proceed as any schoolchild would: let us look it up in the encyclopedia. That is where one hopes to find, not the possibly idiosyncratic or obscure speculations of some one thinker, but what a larger group, even a given society holds to be general knowledge. Yet, if one looks at contemporary encyclopedias, or even goes back a century, one will not find much or anything about esoteric writing. This is the period of the great forgetting.

But if one goes back to around 1750, to the famous Encyclopedia written and edited by Diderot and other leading figures of the French Enlightenment, suddenly the situation is completely different. This influential work, the centerpiece of the Enlightenment, makes mention of esotericism in no less than twenty-eight different articles, by many different authors, including one expressly devoted to the subject and bearing the title "Exoteric and Esoteric." The thesis of this article, from which we have quoted before, is that "the ancient philosophers had a double doctrine; the one external, public or exoteric; the other internal, secret or esoteric." What is more, the author, one Samuel Formey, appears to see no need—and indeed makes no effort—to marshal evidence for this assertion. He treats it as noncontroversial, a matter of general knowledge—which indeed it was. If one consults, for example, the Dictionary of the Academy Française, fifth edition (1798), under the word exoteric one finds a brief definition—"exterior, public"—to which is appended a short phrase to help illustrate the use of the term. The phrase chosen is: "The exoteric dogmas of the ancient philosophers."

More evidence of this practice as an item of common knowledge will be seen if we continue to work our way backward in time. In England, about a decade before the Encyclopedia, we find a short but perfectly explicit disquisition on esotericism, running to about twenty-five pages, contained within Bishop William Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated (1738), a famous critique of Deism. Warburton argues at length that "the ancient Sages did actually say one Thing when they thought another. This appears from that general Practice in the Greek Philosophy, of a two-fold Doctrine; the External and the Internal; a vulgar and a secret." Today it may seem unremarkable that this statement, indeed this lengthy disquisition, appeared in Warburton's book, which has now been forgotten along with its author. Thus, it is important to recall: this book was one of the single most influential and widely read works of the eighteenth century.

About twenty years before that, John Toland, an important English Deist and friend of Locke, published an entire treatise on esotericism. A short work, it bore the lengthy title: Clidophorus, or, of the Exoteric and Esoteric Philosophy; that is, Of the External and Internal Doctrine of the Ancients: The one open and public, accommodated to popular prejudices and the Religions established by Law; the other private and secret, wherein, to the few capable and discrete, was taught the real Truth stripped of all disguises (1720). According to Toland, esotericism "was the common practice of all the ancient philosophers."

A bit earlier, in Germany, we find the philosopher Leibniz speaking along the same lines: "The ancients distinguished the 'exoteric' or popular mode of exposition from the 'esoteric' one which is suitable for those who are seriously concerned to discover the truth" (1704).

Earlier still, a similar claim can be found in Pierre Bayle's encyclopedic Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695–97). In his article on Aristotle, he states: "the method of the ancient masters [i.e., philosophers] was founded on good reasons. They had dogmas for the general public and dogmas for the disciples initiated into the mysteries."

At about the same time (1692), Thomas Burnet, the English cosmological and theological thinker, much admired by Newton, published his Archæologiæ philosophicæ, in which he remarks:

It is well known, that the ancient wise Men and Philosophers, very seldom set forth the naked and open Truth; but exhibited it veiled or painted after various manners; by Symbols, Hieroglyphicks, Allegories, Types, Fables, Parables, popular Discourses, and other Images. This I pass by in general as sufficiently known.

Finally, in 1605, Francis Bacon, while using a very different vocabulary, makes essentially the same point. The ancients, he claimed, employed two different manners of writing, the "Enigmatical and Disclosed." "The pretense [of the Enigmatical] is to remove the vulgar capacities from being admitted to the secrets of knowledges, and to reserve them to selected auditors, or wits of such sharpness as can pierce the veil."

In sum, with perfect explicitness, all these early modern writers—spanning three countries and one hundred fifty years—attribute esotericism to virtually all ancient philosophers and philosophic poets and seem to regard this fact as well-known. But what was their view of modern philosophers—regarding whom, after all, their testimony might be held to be more reliable? In keeping with a common practice, most of these writers maintain a discreet silence about thinkers closer to their own time. But this silence is broken by John Toland toward the end of Clidophorus, his treatise on esotericism: "I have more than once hinted that the External and Internal Doctrine are as much now in use as ever." In another work, he repeats that esotericism is "practiced not by the Ancients alone; for to declare the Truth, it is more in Use among the Moderns, although they profess it is less allowed."

For example, according to Leibniz:

Descartes took care not to speak so plainly [as Hobbes] but he could not help revealing his opinions in passing, with such address that he would not be understood save by those who examine profoundly these kinds of subjects.

Toland's claim about the virtually universal use of esotericism among the moderns (as well as the ancients) is supported more broadly by an important letter written by Diderot in 1773, which we will have occasion to quote again. It is addressed to François Hemsterhuis, a minor Dutch author whose book—which apparently employed esoteric restraint to avoid persecution—he had just read:

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 discern their true sentiments.

The Eumolpides [Athenian high priests] caused Aristotle to alternately admit and reject final causes.

Here Buffon [the eighteenth-century French naturalist] embraces all the principles of materialists; elsewhere he advances entirely opposite propositions.

And what must one say of Voltaire, who says with Locke that matter can think, with Toland that the world is eternal, with Tindal that freedom is a chimera [i.e., three irreligious theses], but who acknowledges a punishing and rewarding God? Was he inconsistent? Or did he fear the doctor of the Sorbonne [the church]?

Me, I saved myself by the most agile irony that I could find, by generalities, by terseness, and by obscurity.

I know only one modern author who spoke clearly and without detours; but he is hardly known.

In this remarkable letter, Diderot—who stood at the very center of the Enlightenment "republic of letters"—essentially claims that, with the exception of one writer (he means Holbach, who was, among other things, a more or less open atheist and materialist), all modern thinkers known to him wrote esoterically—including himself. What is more, with extraordinary prescience, he conjectures that future readers, living in a world in which intolerance and persecution will have been overcome, will no longer understand the cause of the curious contradictions and detours they find in these writers and so "will not know how to discern their true sentiments." In short, he predicts precisely the intellectual "misfortune," the forgetfulness of esotericism, that, by 1811, Goethe had begun to observe, and that today holds us firmly in its grip. A large part of the thesis of the present book is contained in this one letter.

The ubiquity of esotericism in modern as well as ancient times is also described in numerous passages of Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind and, as we have already seen, by Rousseau, who speaks of "the distinction between the two doctrines so eagerly received by all the Philosophers, and by which they professed in secret sentiments contrary to those they taught publicly." Rousseau also openly acknowledges that he himself wrote esoterically.

Resuming our backward march, we hear Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, declare, in a letter of 1521:

I know that sometimes it is a good man's duty to conceal the truth, and not to publish it regardless of times and places, before every audience and by every method, and everywhere complete.

In this spirit, he criticizes Martin Luther in another letter for "making everything public and giving even cobblers a share in what is normally handled by scholars as mysteries reserved for the initiated."

Also consider the early Italian humanist and poet Boccaccio who, in his Life of Dante (1357), asserts that all great poets write on two levels—for the "little lambs" and the "great elephants." The same narrative passage will present

the text and the mystery that lies beneath it. Thus, it simultaneously challenges the intellect of the wise while it gives comfort to the minds of the simple. It possesses [i.e., presents] openly something to give children nourishment and yet reserves in secret something to hold with fascinated admiration the minds of the deepest meditators. Therefore, it is like a river, so to speak, both shallow and deep, in which the little lamb may wade with its feet and the great elephant may swim freely.

Moving back to the medieval period, let us briefly survey the big four philosopher/theologians: Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Alfarabi, and Augustine. They, again, are very explicit. Aquinas recommends the use of esotericism, arguing (in 1258):

Certain things can be explained to the wise in private which we should keep silent about in public.... Therefore, these matters should be concealed with obscure language, so that they will benefit the wise who understand them and be hidden from the uneducated who are unable to grasp them.

Similarly, Maimonides, writing in the twelfth century, declares:

These matters [of theology] are only for a few solitary individuals of a very special sort, not for the multitude. For this reason, they should be hidden from the beginner, and he should be prevented from taking them up, just as a small baby is prevented from taking coarse foods and from lifting heavy weights.

Therefore, he openly states in the Guide of the Perplexed that in discussing such matters he will not offer anything beyond what he calls "the chapter headings." And, he continues:

Even those are not set down in order or arranged in coherent fashion in this Treatise, but rather are scattered and entangled with other subjects.... For my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed.

The tenth-century Arabic philosopher Alfarabi states in his commentary on Plato's Laws:

The wise Plato did not feel free to reveal and uncover the sciences for all men. Therefore, he followed the practice of using symbols, riddles, obscurity, and difficulty, so that science would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and be deformed, or into the hands of one who does not know its worth or who uses it improperly. In this he was right.

Finally Augustine, who speaks frequently of esotericism, asserts (in 386) that the pure stream of philosophy should be

guided through shady and thorny thickets, for the possession of the few, rather than allowed to wander through open spaces where cattle [i.e., the "common herd"] break through, and where it is impossible for it to be kept clear and pure.... I think that that method or art of concealing the truth is a useful invention.

Let us turn, last, to Greek and Roman antiquity. We have seen some solid evidence that the awareness and practice of esoteric writing were quite common in the early modern period and in medieval times as well. Thus, there would be nothing odd if the ancients were also esoteric. Indeed, it would be surprising if they were exceptions to this very broad trend. Furthermore, we have heard the testimony of a wide range of both modern and medieval thinkers expressing their considered view that virtually all of the ancient philosophers wrote esoterically, that the classical world was in fact the true home and original model of philosophical esotericism. Still, the open acknowledgment by philosophers of their own esotericism was less common in the ancient world than it became in medieval and modern times. In view of this fact, as well as the central importance of the classics in the history of esotericism, it will help to proceed a bit more slowly through the big three: Cicero, Plato, and especially Aristotle, to whom I will devote a separate section.


Excerpted from Philosophy Between the Lines by Arthur M. Melzer. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: What Is Philosophical Esotericism?

Part One
The General Evidence and Argument for the Reality of Philosophical Esotericism
1. The Testimonial Evidence for Esotericism
2. Interlude: Two Brief Examples
3. The Theoretical Basis of Philosophical Esotericism: The “Problem of Theory and Praxis”
4. Objections, Resistance, and Blindness to Esotericism

Part Two
The Four Forms of Philosophical Esotericism
5. Fear of Persecution: Defensive Esotericism
6. Dangerous Truths: Protective Esotericism
7. The Educational Benefits of Obscurity: Pedagogical Esotericism
8. Rationalizing the World: Political Esotericism

Part Three
The Consequences of the Recovery of Esotericism
9. A Beginner’s Guide to Esoteric Reading
10. Defending Reason: Esotericism and the Critique of Historicism


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