Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

Arthur M. Melzer

Language: English

Pages: 464

ISBN: 022617509X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Winner of a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Award in 2016

Philosophical esotericism--the practice of communicating one's unorthodox thoughts "between the lines"--was a common practice until the end of the eighteenth century. The famous Encyclopédie of Diderot, for instance, not only discusses this practice in over twenty different articles, but admits to employing it itself. The history of Western thought contains hundreds of such statements by major philosophers testifying to the use of esoteric writing in their own work or others'. Despite this long and well-documented history, however, esotericism is often dismissed today as a rare occurrence. But by ignoring esotericism, we risk cutting ourselves off from a full understanding of Western philosophical thought.
Arthur M. Melzer serves as our deeply knowledgeable guide in this capacious and engaging history of philosophical esotericism. Walking readers through both an ancient (Plato) and a modern (Machiavelli) esoteric work, he explains what esotericism is--and is not. It relies not on secret codes, but simply on a more intensive use of familiar rhetorical techniques like metaphor, irony, and insinuation. Melzer explores the various motives that led thinkers in different times and places to engage in this strange practice, while also exploring the motives that lead more recent thinkers not only to dislike and avoid this practice but to deny its very existence. In the book's final section, "A Beginner's Guide to Esoteric Reading," Melzer turns to how we might once again cultivate the long-forgotten art of reading esoteric works.

Philosophy Between the Lines is the first comprehensive, book-length study of the history and theoretical basis of philosophical esotericism, and it provides a crucial guide to how many major writings--philosophical, but also theological, political, and literary--were composed prior to the nineteenth century.











gods.’”90 To put it in a less grudging and more accurate way, if the Metaphysics presents Aristotle’s true view of theology, then almost the entire treatment of the gods in these two works is “merely exoteric.”91 If we go on to take up the related question of providence, we see a similar pattern. It has seemed obvious to many of Aristotle’s interpreters, not unreasonably, that since his god is purely contemplative, indeed self-­ contemplative, there is no basis in Aristotle’s thought for

strongly to the opposite view: there are certain important truths that those not living a purified, philosophic life will find useless, or harmful, or intolerable. Thus, it is important to avoid saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. One must be a “safe speaker” (as Xenophon called Socrates)—a concept that sounds strange in our garrulous and loose-­ lipped age.6 As Diogenes Laertius reports in his “life of Anacharsis”: “To the 74 Chapter Three question, ‘What among men is both good and

praxis” is. But if we have proved to be blind to esotericism, that is probably because we do not see clearly the problem to which it is the response. Let me hazard a quick outline of the issue, tracing it from its most obvious and elementary beginnings through its historical transformations in order to see how it gives rise to the practice of philosophical esotericism in its four distinct forms. This very broad-­brush discussion will prepare the chapters to follow, where it will be fleshed out

scholars who, in their dismissive characterizations of esotericism—“obsession,” “delusion,” “aberration,” “perverse”—give accurate expression to the predilections of our time concerning this issue.5 But the clearest evidence pointing to a unique resistance in modern culture emerges from the comparison of our attitudes toward esotericism with those of other places and times—the comparative study of “esotericism reception.” It is a simple, empirical fact, such comparisons show, that no other

with access to his personal archives as well as the memoirs of his colleagues, Joan Neuberger has shown that his film Ivan the Terrible, which was commissioned by Stalin and awarded a Stalin Prize, was in fact an Aesopian work covertly communicating a “critique of tyranny and a brilliant challenge to the conventions of Socialist Realism.” Eisenstein was well aware that a film with such a conception of Ivan would require a special strategy to evade the censors. “The most effective way of hiding

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