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Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost…

Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

by Arthur M. Melzer

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The human, all-too-human practice of hiding or dissimulating ‘the truth’ is common. We rarely say or write exactly what we are thinking, no matter what the particular context. More specifically, the form of dissimulation whereby ‘the truth’ is intentionally hidden for the sake of the ‘chosen few,’ i.e. esotericism, is commonly held to be part of the practices of the occult, or the more mystical elements of particular religions. However, in a religious or occult context, there is a specific dogma to be dissimulated, one that usually has its source in purported divine inspiration. In the context of philosophy, this has not been the case. Esoteric writing, in the philosophical sense, is the practice of shaping a text in such a way as to dissimulate one’s ‘true’ ideas in the guise of ideas that are more politically palatable, thus allowing one to communicate different ideas to different audiences using the same text. Esoteric writing is a way of solving Plato’s problem, found in the Phaedrus, that speaking is inherently superior to writing due to the speaker being able to modify her language in accordance with the listener’s character. However, depending on one’s philosophical interests, not to mention political leanings, the discussion of esoteric writing’s existence in the history of philosophy tends to elicit either veneration or condemnation; tertium non datur. This is for a variety of reasons, the most prominent being esoteric writing’s close association with the scholar primarily responsible for its 20th-century rediscovery, Leo Strauss. Thankfully, Arthur M. Melzer’s book Philosophy Between The Lines does not fall into the morass of vehemently pro- or anti-Strauss rhetoric. Instead, in focussing on the particular topic of esoteric writing, Melzer adeptly shines a spotlight on what is arguably Strauss’s most important claim concerning the interpretation of past thinkers without thereby adopting an archetypally Straussian perspective on the issue.
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There is not a truth existing which I fear . . . or would wish unknown to the whole world. —THOMAS JEFFERSON
Must one be senseless among the senseless? No; but one must be wise in secret. —DIDEROT
For Shikha and Prateik
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Forgotten fields, like unweeded gardens, grow a bit wild.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 022617509X, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:07 -0400)

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