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Sunday, September 1, 2019

On The Esoteric Writings of the Past Philosophers

Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss has offered a unique perspective on why several past philosophers have composed their treatises in such an esoteric style that it takes a man of a considerable level of philosophical competence to crack their code and discover their ideas. He suggests that the past philosophers were hiding certain ideas due to political reasons. The following excerpt from his Introduction to his book Persecution and The Art of Writing elucidates the role that esoteric writing has played in preserving the independence of philosophical thought:
"What Farabi indicates in regard to the procedure of the true philosophers, is confirmed by a number of remarks about the philosophic distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric teaching which occur in the writings of his successors. Farabi's Plato informs us about the most obvious and the crudest reason why this antiquated or forgotten distinction was needed. Philosophy and the philosophers were "in grave danger." Society did not recognize philosophy or the right of philosophizing. There was no harmony between philosophy and society. The philosophers were very far from being exponents of society or of parties. They defended the interests of philosophy and of nothing else. In doing this, they believed indeed that they were defending the highest interests of mankind. The exoteric teaching was needed for protecting philosophy. It was the armor in which philosophy had to appear. It was needed for political reasons. It was the form in which philosophy became visible to the political community. It was the political aspect of philosophy. It was "political" philosophy."
This concept of “esoteric writing” by Strauss is important because it informs us that the historical philosophical treatises cannot be understood unless we devote ourselves to a careful study—the philosophy in these texts is buried under esoteric passages and they have to be read between the lines. In our modern times, the philosophers in most countries enjoy the freedom to express their thought—they can communicate their views to their readers directly, without any fear of persecution. That is why the art of philosophizing in an esoteric style is losing popularity. The exoteric/esoteric distinction in philosophy is on the decline.

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