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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Strauss II: esotericism and carnival

Leo Strauss can be credited as a definite influence in the advance of philological and rhetorical sensitivity towards philosophical texts within an academic discipline, philosophy, that, in America at least, has all too often rewarded philological and rhetorical insensitivity, which is another way of saying systematic wiseassness.
In particular, Strauss was sensitive to the citational situation set up, so often, in major philosophical texts. A passage in, say, the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit can be read exoterically by trying to connect its themes and arguments without ever putting it in relation to the complex figurations of knowledge that are presented in the main text – but from the point of view of the main text, the preface must itself be in there – it exists as text as a sort of quasi-indirect discourse, a citation within the dynamic creating the figures of reason. The sensitivity to what I am calling the citational moment motivates the notion of the esoteric side. We cannot directly say that in a text, the author is “just saying” .
But Strauss’s recovery of rhetoric is, unfortunately, bent to a larger set of principles that are generalized ahistorically and that simply leap over the moment in which they are, well, argued for. Here, esotericism becomes less a method than an ideology. This is Strauss’s argument about what the ancient philosophers were doing, and the persecution they feared:
“ They believed that the gulf separating "the wise" and "the vulgar" was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of "the few:' They were convinced that
philosophy as such was suspect to, and hated by, the majority of men.1G Even if they had had nothing to fear from any particular political quarter, those who started from that assumption would have been driven to the conclusion that public communication
of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times. They must conceal their opinions from all but philosophers, either by limiting themselves to oral instruction of a carefully selected group…”
I want to get back to “philosophy as such”, since it isn’t clear here, or anywhere in Strauss, just what exactly separates philosophy as such from other forms of reflection. But taking this passage as a whole, it is hard not to goggle at the sheer implausibility of it. The supposed creed of the philosophers is that there is a hierarchy in nature that separates the low from the high? And, in the tyrannic, militaristic, slaveholding societies that sprang up all around the eastern meditteranean, this was a esoteric secret? It is like being told that philosophers in the Confederate states had to hide the fact that they thought blacks inferior. On the contrary, persecution, historically, was directed at those ‘non’-philosophers who urged the opposite: that the high did not have any right, in nature, to rule over the low. That man is the measure of things – as Protagoras would have it.
The problem here is, I think, that Strauss takes the doctrines that he attributes to philosophers as definitional of philosophers. Which is why conflicting textual evidence is no problem for him:
An exoteric book contains then two teachings: a popular
teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground;
and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject,
which is indicated only between the lines. This is not to
deny that some great writers might have stated certain important
truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable
character: they would thus show how much they disapproved
of pronouncing the truths in question. There would then be
good reason for our finding in the greatest literature of the past
so many interesting devils, madmen, beggars, sophists, drunkards,
epicureans and buffoons. Those to whom such books are
truly addressed are, however, neither the unphilosophic majority
nor the perfect philosopher as such, but the young men who
might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to
be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable
for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is
merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teachingobscurity
of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions
of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc. Such fea- .
tures do not disturb the slumber of those who cannot see the
wood for the trees…
Strauss’s refusal to see, himself, the trees for the woody he has for the “intelligent young gentlemen” is what strikes me in this passage. I would argue that taking philosophy as such in too narrow and cultic a sense has put Strauss in a corner – when the texts in question seem citationally to undermine the high-low distinction that is so important to his definition of philosophy, he in essence ceases to take their rhetoric seriously. A more plausible theory of those range of abject and sublime figures would appeal to the by now very compendious anthropology of what Bakhtin called the carnivalesque. But this is an appeal that Strauss can’t contenance, because it goes outside of the discipline of philosophy to talk about philosophy. This violates the principle that the low don’t really think “philosophically” and resent it when others do so.
In essence, Strauss is sacrificing everything to preserve the romantic image of those young intelligent gentlemen. 

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