This morning, for no particular reason I’ve been poking around in Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing by Arthur M. Melzer
In addition to the various particular errors we may make regarding particular thinkers, there is also a common mistake that we commit again and again in our interpretation of all thinkers. We mistake the philosopher’s surface, exoteric teaching for his true one. And again, these surface teachings, however much they may vary from thinker to thinker, all have one essential thing in common: they are carefully designed to create the false appearance of conformity to the most powerful dogmas of the time, which it is too dangerous to question openly.
Therefore, the established custom of reading esoteric writers non-esoterically has a very precise and predictable efect on the practice of scholarship. It gives rise to a systematically recurring misimpression: everywhere we look, we see the dispiriting spectacle of the human mind vanquished by the hegemonic ideas of its times.
It appears that even our most celebrated geniuses—our Aristotles and Shakespeares—with all their extraordinary gifts and agonized eforts, always end up just confirming the myths of their particular “cave.” It is difficult to overstate the profound inluence of this recurring experience. It forms a crucial but unseen part of the intellectual background of our times, motivating the late modern or postmodern predisposition to the radical critique and disempowerment of reason. In the age of the forgetfulness of esotericism, it comes to seem obvious to everyone that the human mind is not free but wholly contextualized, culture-bound, socially determined. And if that is so, then all our truths are ultimately local, accidental, and temporary; our highest wisdom, only the hometown ethnocentrism polished up.
The awareness of esotericism, by contrast, reveals the falseness, the calculated insincerity of this ubiquitous facade of philosophical conformity—which now comes to sight as an ironic and artful act of resistance. Behind this defensive wall, sheltered and encouraged by it, thrives a secret underground of daring and dissent, a freewheeling speak-easy of the mind. But we, who should celebrate this, are somehow reluctant to believe it. Yet, as an old Ethiopian proverb observes, “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply—and silently farts.” Every subject class has its silent arts of resistance—the philosophers too. For where force is lacking, fraud and secrecy are the primary agents of freedom. If modern scholars thought more like wily peasants, they would be less resistant to the essential truth that there is always more freedom in the world than the compliant surface of things would lead one to suppose. Thus, the true history of human reason is of necessity a secret history: when the practice of philosophic secrecy is once seen, then the faculty of human reason no longer appears quite as servile and culture-bound as it inevitably does to us.
In short, the ignorance of esotericism, by blinding us to the hidden world of freedom, keeps us in ignorance of ourselves—of the surprising power and independence of the human mind, of its unsuspected capacity to resist time and place.
I am wondering if I might, through the art of esoteric writing, be better able to speak the truth about the systematic oppression, alienation and marginalization of the most vulnerable members of our society — while avoiding persecution by those who enjoy grossly unfair privilege and power so ubiquitous it seems normal and natural?