Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts

Previously, I wrote about Strauss’s method of “reading between the lines.” After searching around for a link to a page that would explain this idea, I found that there were very few places on the internet where it is actually explained. To rectify this problem, I’d highly recommend reading Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. It is a magnificent book.

But if you don’t have time to read it, I’d like to provide a quick précis of the idea. Essentially, Strauss explains that, oftentimes in history, writers are under certain constraints while writing. This may take a cultural form, as in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, written under the constraints of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, or a legal form, as Spinoza felt in his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology Theologico-Politcal Treatise (apparently under threat of persecution by the Church). Whatever constraints an author may be under, they often are led to “hide” their “true” teaching behind layers of contradiction, ambiguity, obfuscation, or misleading emphasis. Thus, it is up to the reader in a sense to familiarize herself with this tendency and dive into a study of the historical, personal, linguistic, formal and cultural details related to a work.

Strauss breaks out two levels of a book that can be analyzed, the exoteric and the esoteric. This leads us to Strauss’s hermeneutic approach to literature, and what were, for me, the reason for reading the book in the first place. Tools like these are extremely important for any student of the humanities, particularly for the student of politics.

The exoteric is the level of the obvious, the level that at which most of us engage when we watch the average action/adventure/comedy film, read the news or an entertaining listicle on the internet. It’s for those moments when all we want is a good, entertaining story or “just the facts.” As Strauss points out, it’s also the level that Spinoza and many other Enlightenment thinkers wanted to popularize in order for the masses to advance into the daylight of widely-known scientific knowledge. Strauss calls this intelligible as opposed to hieroglyphic writing. Spinoza seems to want to make all writing intelligible so that everyone who cares to read any book can immediately (i.e., without mediation) understand it. According to Strauss, Spinoza wanted to end the practice of hieroglyphic writing to effect this change, even to the point of rejecting the entire tradition of political philosophy in the Tractatus Politicus.

However, when it comes to reading old books, including the work of Spinoza himself, this is only half the picture. Strauss spends a substantial portion of Persecution showing how Spinoza uses hieroglyphic techniques to mask what he really wants to say. And, in fact, Strauss argues that the real aim of the Theologico-Political Treatise was to articulate the relation between reason and revelation while providing practical suggestions for how the two should inform the political (p. 200).

Thus we are left wondering, is intelligible writing really even possible? Thinkers like Derrida and Gadamer hold that we are always involved in language in such a way that access to a sense of what the author meant or how he engaged with his social, intellectual and political milieu is not even possible. Strauss, on the other hand, holds that access of this kind is possible and that it in fact opens up a whole new level of understanding (esoteric) for the reader willing to do this type of intellectual heavy lifting.

This opens up the paradox for the writer trying to do this type of analysis who comes across writers like Spinoza who assert the possibility of intelligible, exoteric writing. In Strauss’s words,

“Historical understanding, the revitalization of earlier ways of thinking was originally meant as a corrective for the specific shortcomings of the modern mind. This impulse was however vitiated from the outset by the belief which accompanied it, that modern thought… was superior to the thought of the past. Thus, what was primarily intended as a corrective for the modern mind, was easily perverted into a confirmation of the dogma of the superiority of modern thought to all earlier thought. Historical understanding lost its liberating force by becoming historicism… (p. 158)

There was a meeting between Gadamer and Derrida on this point. I need to read it to get a better sense for how these thinkers understand this problem.

One thought on “Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts”

  1. I remember the great Bible scholar Fr Fitzmye SJ coming to class after reading Gadamer and I think he said ‘Where’s the beef?” — I am quite sure no one registered the comment but me.

    Strauss is light in the darkness but sometimes he was wrong — and I think on Locke and the American Founding he was profoundly wrong. Harry Jaffa, Thomas West, Robert Reilly– I go with them: The Founders read Locke without the exoteric/esoteric distinction..


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