Save Us IV: The Real Idea, Research Time, 15/12/2015

See, the interesting thing about this esotericism idea is that it’s basically the presumption that there are hidden meanings in texts. There’s a conspiratorial twist to it, because it seems Strauss talks about a true hidden meaning, what the author was really trying to say.

The esoteric conception of writing seems to be that a great author is always subversive, but hiding his subversion to avoid persecution from a hostile public. So while he might appear to be a particularly nuanced thinker of his current epoch's mainstream, he’s actually a radical pushing ideas that the masses and the powerful would find horrifying.

A provocative thing to say, that Strauss' vision of
interpretation makes philosophy into a tradition of
conspiratorial thinking. Hard to put Spinoza in the
same category as David Icke.
Investigating this hidden meaning, and what it could be, is interpretation. This is the bulk of what philosophers today do: they study the great works of their field's history and interpret them. 

Most of the interpretation that goes on in today's academic world* is ersatz at best, empty wheel-spinning too often, and masturbatory at worst.

* I was quite happy that Kastely’s Plato book wasn’t one of these. While it didn't have a concrete political program in today's context, his interpretation of Plato himself as a radical democrat – almost an anarchist by some lights – at the heart and origin of Western philosophy is a message we should all hear.

Professors in the humanities are under intense career pressure to publish as much and as quickly as possible. They have to demonstrate research productivity with regular articles in the most prestigious journals. 

Peer reviewers at such journals are under pressure to reject as much as possible because of a high volume of submissions, and to maintain a reputation of prestige that comes with a high rejection rate. 

So the easiest way to pass these gatekeepers is to write an interpretation with enough formal rigour to pass muster as an argument, and that otherwise fits the general paradigm of inoffensive historical scholarship. Original, but nothing that really challenges the profession’s conventional thinking.

This isn't just what professors face when they have to
grade their papers, but also when they become editors
of the most prestigious journals in their fields. They
have high rejection rates to maintain their prestige, but
because they're so prestigious, they get an enormous
number of submissions from ambitious young
professors desperate for a publication credit that
could make or break a tenure-track job application.
Yet here you are writing in a tradition whose landmark works actually did challenge and change conventional thinking. This is a paradox I'm glad I've stepped away from.

But take Leo Strauss seriously and you face the idea that philosophy is a tradition of conspiratorial trickery. The great works of philosophy changed their culture’s way of thinking, but were only successful because they made a radical new way of thought look like it followed naturally from the ordinary.

If a writer expressed his radical ideas too blatantly, the shock would make the population reject the change. Socrates is the example. He was the most confrontational, nakedly honest philosopher in the tradition.** And that total honesty got him executed for political crimes, as a subversive challenging Athenian morality and tradition.

** I think Spinoza comes close, but his most radical work The Ethics was weird enough to be blatantly radical but still escape reactionary wrath. Besides, he had already alienated the entire Dutch public with the open atheism of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

This is what I think is so valuable about Kastely's book.*** He not only makes Plato an esoteric thinker – hiding a radical democracy in a work, The Republic, that’s typically taught as Plato’s totalitarian vision of the perfect society.

*** And what I tried to express in my dialogical review last month. But I think I let the dramatic aspects of the dialogue overcome the more philosophical examination. It’ll be better next time.

He’s an esoteric thinker on a mission to redeem his old teacher, by incorporating him into a method that could be more successful at challenging popular morality and political culture than open confrontation. And this is supposedly Plato's real mission.

This is an idea of Strauss' that breaks with the usual talk of interpretation. It gives interpretation a precise, correct content. There’s something to discover in a great philosophical work that was there from the beginning.

Strauss quite likes this idea that there’s a single real true meaning always out there for us to discover. The idea that there is no such truth is one of the notions he considers to have destroyed political thinking and philosophy generally. The stereotype is that this idea came with postmodernism.

But in Natural Right and History, Strauss argues that it comes from Thomas Hobbes. To be continued . . .

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