Manners, not esotericism!

At the recommendation of a reader, I am reviewing Arthur M. Melzer's Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press, 2014). Melzer is a Straussian who has latched onto Strauss's idea that philosophers commonly hid their "true doctrine" (their esoteric teaching) while giving lip service to common pieties. I must say that so far I find Melzer's case quite a stretch, as it seems to me he regularly interprets passages as evidence of esotericism that appear to have far more straight-forward readings.

For instance, Melzer quotes Erasmus criticizing Luther:

“For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handing than to pile one cause of hatred on another…A prudent steward will husband the truth – to bring it out, I mean, when the business requires it, and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out for every man what is appropriate for him – [but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has poured it all out at once, making everything public.”

Now, if I had run across this passage anywhere but in a book on esoteric writing, I would not have suspected for a single moment that such writing was what Erasmus was talking about! No, like a mother lecturing her teenager on criticizing all of Aunt Flora’s behavior in one go—better to “husband the truth… and bring it out so much as is requisite,” rather than give her the “bitter taste” of exposing all of her faults at once—what I would have thought was that Erasmus was lecturing Luther on was tact. And still, having encountered in a book on esoteric writing, I am still inclined to think Erasmus is talking about simple tact, and not esotericism at all.


  1. Gene, I'm honored that you took up my recommendation. I found the most compelling point in the book to be not so much the particular examples of supposed esotericism, but rather the sheer number and quality of quotations *about* the phenomenon from great thinkers, suggesting a widespread pre-Enlightenment consensus about the existence, prevalence, and perhaps even desirability, of esoteric writing. I am not a historian of philosophy, though, and this is not my area of expertise. It is certainly possible that in my naïveté and enthusiasm for discovering new ideas that I gave the book a more glowing and uncritical review than it deserved. If so, I am sure I will be humbled and enlightened by your review, which in any case I very much look forward to reading.


    1. Mike, I'm happy to have a look at the book. It's an interesting topic. Let's see what I think when I am done.


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