Secret Teaching

Harvey Mansfield, "Secret Teaching," Claremont Review of Books, Spring: 2015.

Harvey Mansfield reviews Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines in the Spring 2015 Claremont Review of Books.


It is not easy to say just how good a book Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines is. It does not constitute the discovery, or recapture, of the great books and of their relevance to us, which was the accomplishment of Leo Strauss in the previous century. But it derives, as he says, from Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952) and provides an important introduction to the great books and to the character that shows them to be great, their esotericism. Today most everyone would freely admit that a great book offers a challenge to the mind, that to understand it requires a penetrating mind. “Esotericism” is the perfection of this requirement: let that begin a definition of the term.

A great book is the presentation of a great mind, one that reaches beyond its time to a universal audience, past and future. It draws from the experience of the past and from other great books preceding it, and it seeks an audience willing to question the assumptions of its time. Yet, because a great mind must live in a time, a great book addresses its time as well as a universal audience. To address one’s own time one must live within its assumptions; to reach beyond one must question them. With the recognition of a double need to assume and to question one arrives at the necessity for a double addressing, to a double audience, each side at odds with the other. With the necessity of addressing a double audience, one arrives at the necessity of esotericism, and of its twin, exotericism.

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Happily, Arthur Melzer, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, does not reason as abstractly as this. For this easy deductive reasoning makes esotericism seem altogether reasonable: the experts speak abstrusely to one another and have a simpler language for those who have no need for the finer points of truth. Melzer starts, however, from the resistance to esotericism in our time, precisely on the part of our experts, our intellectual historians and philosophy professors, who do not merely overlook the existence of esotericism but also, when confronted with it, deny its very possibility. It is amazing to consider how so much evidence of esotericism is so widely disregarded and, when brought to the attention of the experts, so resolutely, even ferociously, denied.

Melzer presents some of “the hundreds of statements by philosophers from every historical period openly testifying to the use of esoteric writing.” From this task of collecting from so many sources, he shows just how much empirical evidence of esotericism there is for modern scholars to resist. Of course he had to accomplish his compilation unaided by the citations or the annotations of these scholars, who have managed to suppress normal human curiosity over secretive communication and to deflect their own announced scholarly goal of analyzing the historical importance of ideas. How could it happen that something so reasonable, so well attested, and so intrinsically interesting as philosophic esotericism has had what he calls a “lost history”?

Claremont Review of Books