Philosophy, Truth, and Esoteric Doctrines

For two centuries, the dominant scholarly view of the notion of esoteric or “secret” philosophic doctrines, particularly as regards the canonical thinkers, is that such a notion is simply out of the question. Though the history of philosophy is replete with direct and indirect references to public teachings which vary from private beliefs, and to the philosopher’s need for circumspection in speaking of the highest matters, modern scholarship — which is inherently unphilosophical or pre-philosophical, and is practiced for the most part by non-philosophers — remains vehemently opposed to any consideration of such things, and does so from a perspective of defending the moral honor of philosophy. Hence, the rare scholars who do give credence to some form of esotericism in reading the great philosophers — most famously Leo Strauss and his “school” — tend to come under harsh criticism within mainstream academia, as though their claims were violating the very dignity of the philosophers in question.

This modern scholarly consensus against the presumed distinction of esoteric and exoteric teachings in the works of the great thinkers, right down to denying the accusations of Socrates’ contempories that he was a dissembler as mere misunderstandings of his philosophy, comes in various nuances, but its essential logic amounts to this:

A person devoted to the search for truth would never lie or dissemble.
A philosopher is a person devoted to the search for truth.
Therefore, a philosopher would never lie or dissemble.

The first premise begs the question, and is furthermore almost equivalent to a non sequitur. How does it follow from the fact that a man is devoted to the search for truth that he would always tell the truth? Does this premise not treat the capital-T truth for which the philosopher is essentially and ultimately searching as conflatable with, or reducible to, the mere facts, which a man may, in a certain context, wish to withhold or misrepresent for some practical (and not necessarily improper) purpose?

In addition, since, as the greatest philosophers of education would uniformly insist, teaching, at least about the most important matters, has much less in common with filling a cup than with lighting a fire, is it not almost self-evident that there may, in the course of genuine teaching, be many things better left elided or undeclared — dissembled about, if you will — as a matter of best educational practice?

Finally, though this notion is out of step with modern egalitarian right-thinking, might not a person of the highest insight and seriousness regard some of his ideas, some truths, as potentially harmful to the general wellbeing of the community, or, alternatively, as likely to draw irrational suspicion or punishment upon himself, and therefore wish to withhold or deny these ideas publicly, either in deference to an honest concern for the common good or out of self-protectiveness in the face of fanatical pieties and/or state injunctions against politically unacceptable ideas?¬†Socrates famously and clearly dissembles and obfuscates in Plato’s Apology, which is our only eyewitness account of the trial in which he was condemned to death. As to why he dissembles, part of the explanation is presented by Socrates himself, when he asks himself, on behalf of the judges, why, if he is so talented and wise, he has chosen not to participate in Athenian political life beyond the inescapable necessities of citizenship. His answer, in short, is that if he had participated in public life, in the sense of offering his thoughts and teachings openly as advice to the state, he would certainly have died long ago, and thus been of no benefit either to himself or the city.

For the truth is that no man who opposes you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against evil and wrongdoing in the state, will ever survive; he who truly wants to fight for what is right, if he wishes to live even for a little while, must do so as a private man and not a public one. (Apology, 31d-32a, emphasis added)

There, in the most straightforward form, is the philosophic case for speaking differently in public than one does in private, and more specifically for seeking to benefit society indirectly, by way of teaching the best men in isolation from, and, as is implied, in defiance of, the public standards and teachings of the multitude, i.e., of society as a whole.

But Socrates, famously, never wrote his philosophic ideas, so one might conclude that his “private teaching” was his only teaching. His student Plato, on the other hand, and following most of the important thinkers of the tradition, did write. Hence, for them, the private teaching alone was not sufficient; another form of communication would also be required, one which could reach far beyond the range of intimate conversation, while escaping the fate that Socrates explicitly claims to have avoided simply by not disseminating his views to the wider public at all. For the philosopher who writes, at least, there seems to be no practical solution but that one must have public and private teachings, exoteric and esoteric doctrines if you will, the latter intended for a select few souls of personal acquaintance, the former for a broader public over whose intellectual ability and moral character one necessarily has no selective filter.

As for the specific form of exoteric writing employed by any given philosopher, or the precise nature of the relation between the private and public teachings, we need not speculate here — though one must presume that the two teachings will not simply stand in indifference to one another, but rather, for example, be related as direct to indirect communication, or as noetic intuition to quasi-mythological representation. For the record, however, I might note that the acknowledgment of a real and properly philosophic reason, if not necessity, for a serious thinker to present a public (especially written) teaching distinct from his private thought, does not commit one to any Straussian secret formula for deciphering exoteric doctrines, as though these doctrines, i.e., the publicly known works of the great philosophers, were written as schematic diagrams or treasure maps which, if decoded, would lead the initiated few directly to the true, private doctrine.

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