October 31, 2014


What if Leo Strauss was right? : A new book by Arthur Melzer convincingly defends Strauss' theory of esotericism, which could have major repercussions on Western thought (Damon Linker, 10/31/14, The Week)

Philosophy originally arose as a way of life singularly devoted to determining whether a particular society's customs are good and whether its origin stories are true. This placed philosophy in a fundamentally antagonistic position to society, which understandably viewed radical philosophical questioning as a grave threat. Theory and practice, contemplation and social-communal-moral life, were presumed to stand in ineradicable tension with one another. It was because of this seemingly permanent tension that philosophers chose to practice protective esotericism.

Today, in societies that allow and even encourage the criticism that virtually all other forms of political life have sought to control or stamp out, philosophers are perfectly free to pose any subversive question they wish. Yet Melzer wants his readers to see that even our own open societies typically refrain from questioning certain foundational customs and opinions -- and that the pursuit of philosophic wisdom requires that we subject even these most cherished convictions to relentless examination and scrutiny.

Take the account of the "noble lie" in Plato's Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.

On Melzer's reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss' student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.

Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others -- in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else -- and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them -- coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)

In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn't to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.

Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.

Strauss didn't teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.

...that we don't actually lie about them, they just aren't injustices.  

Posted by at October 31, 2014 6:49 PM

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