The Educational Benefits of Obscurity: Pedagogical Esotericism – Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing – Arthur M. Melzer
I libri chiari ci rendono superficiali, quelli oscuri ci motivano. Solo il lettore frustrato è un buon lettore.
one must embrace obscurity (of the right kind) as something essential to effective philosophical communication. Naturally, this seems counterintuitive, not to say twisted and perverse.
Note:LA COMUNICAZIONE FILOSOFICA
If it is indeed the case that the practice of esoteric writing is a genuine and widespread historical phenomenon, that is largely bad news for scholars. It means a lot more work.
Note:ALLONTANARE I PIGRI
obscurity is not just an ugly obstacle to understanding, as we have been assuming up until now, but rather something engaging, even charming, and at any rate good for us—an important aid to our philosophical development.
Note:Euro ELOGIO DELL”OSCURITÀ
Take the case of Alexander Herzen, the great nineteenth-century Russian writer and revolutionary. He knew at first hand the evils of czarist censorship, having been arrested several times, and he knew the difficult constraints of “Aesopian language.”… Still, as a writer, he also had a fine sensitivity to matters of rhetoric and persuasion, which led him to the following observations in praise of esoteric writing: censorship is highly conducive to progress in the mastery of style and in the ability to restrain one’s words. . . . In allegorical discourse there is perceptible excitement and struggle: this discourse is more impassioned than any straight exposition. The word implied has greater force beneath its veil and is always transparent to those who care to understand. A thought which is checked has greater meaning concentrated in it—it has a sharper edge; to speak in such a way that the thought is plain yet remains to be put into words by the reader himself is the best persuasion. Implication increases the power of language….
Note:ELOGIO DELLA CENSURA
THE MODERN ETHIC OF LITERALNESS AND CLARITY
we find obscurity hateful. To be sure, there are fields so inherently difficult and counterintuitive that a fair amount of obscurity is unavoidable—as in contemporary physics. The thing we hate is voluntary obscurity.
Note:LA SENSIBILITÀ CONTEMPORANEA
especially we in the Anglo-American world, where philosophy is viewed as something that is—or at least ought to be—an exact and rigorous matter that should not stoop to “rhetoric,” ambiguity, or multivocal speech of any kind. We proudly stand by an ethic of literalness and clarity.
Yet as obvious and normal as this attitude may seem to us, historically speaking it is quite rare. As soon as one ventures beyond the narrow shores of our modern world—whether one looks to the ancient Greeks and Romans or to the Bible and the Koran or to the traditional societies of the East, of Africa, and of Native America—virtually everywhere one finds the same thing: “The words of the wise and their riddles.”
Note:NELLA STORIA TUTTO È INDOVINELLO
Indeed, classical rationalism at its peak (as distinguished from Enlightenment rationalism) regarded the issue of whether wisdom is teachable at all as a grave and open question. In Plato’s Protagoras (319a–320c), we see Socrates arguing that wisdom and virtue cannot be taught (although they can be learned).
Compounding this difficulty, classical thinkers were also very much preoccupied with the problem of writing. Can books ever be useful for such education, or must all genuinely philosophical instruction be oral and personal? In Plato’s Phaedrus, this question was answered firmly in the negative by Socrates, who, like Pythagoras before him, eschewed philosophical writing altogether.
Note:SCRIVERE O PARLARE?
Thomas Aquinas in explaining the fact that Jesus—the other great teacher of the West—also did not write, argued that the most excellent teachers must follow the practice of Pythagoras and Socrates, for “Christ’s doctrine . . . cannot be expressed in writing.”
Note:IL METODO DI GESÙ
The movement against ambiguity led by Western intellectuals since the seventeenth century figures as a unique development in world history.
Note:CONTRO L’AMBIGUITÀ… ILLUMINISMO
The whole reorientation of philosophy that one sees in Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes, especially the harmonist effort to give philosophic reason a new level of power and control within the world of practice, gave new and fundamental importance to certainty and exactness.
Similarly, in the sphere of religion, ascetic Puritanism, with its ideal of sincerity, its dislike of adornment, and its suspicion of arcane, priestly doctrine led to a call for plain, simple, and direct speaking—a kind of semantic prudishness.
on the political level, Bacon, Spinoza, Hobbes, and the Enlightenment thinkers emphasized that prejudice and superstition—and the oppressive political and religious powers they support—draw much of their strength from the human tendency to be fooled by obscure speech, by metaphors, rhetoric, poetry, and the other nonrational aspects of human discourse.
Note:VALENZA POLITICA DELLA CHIAREZZA
It seems obvious to us that philosophy should be a pure matter of propositions and arguments, rigorously laid out, as in a contemporary journal of analytic philosophy. But this attitude rests on a premise: the hyperrationalist assumption, inherited from the Enlightenment, that human beings can be addressed from the start as rationalists seeking the truth.
Note:LA RAGIONE CONOSCE E NOI VOGLIAMO CONOSCERE…PREMESSA NECESSARIA
But as the tradition of classical rationalism emphasized, we may be “rational animals” in that we possess the faculty of reason, but we are hardly born rationalists.
Note:CLASSICI: IN NOI IL RAZIONALISMO NON È NATURALE
THREE DANGERS OF READING
With respect to philosophy, there is a real danger that, in the words of Voltaire, “the multitude of books is making us ignorant.”
The first danger of reading books is that it allows you to skip too many stages, shortcutting the proper intellectual development.
Note:IL LIBRO ACCELLERA INDEBITAMENTE L’APPRENDIMENTO
As Socrates argues in the Phaedrus—putting these words in the mouth of an Egyptian god, Thamus, who is rebuking the inventor of writing—through writing “you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction, and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant” (275a–b).
Note:CONOSCENZA SOLO APPARENTE
The false presumption of wisdom, which is generated by books, presents the greatest obstacle to the acquisition of the real thing. Whence the inner logic of Milton’s description: “Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.”
Note:ILLUSIONE DI CONOSCENZA
This same problem is elaborated very powerfully in Emile, Rousseau’s book on education: “I hate books. They only teach one to talk about what one does not know.” And again: “Too much reading only serves to produce presumptuous
Intellectual humility and the keen sense of our ignorance are the necessary starting points for genuine philosophical development;
But book learning thwarts philosophic education by fostering not only a false presumption of wisdom but also an enfeebling passivity. “Much reading is an oppression of the mind,” remarks William Penn, “and extinguishes the natural candle, which is the reason of so many senseless scholars in the world.”10 As Montaigne puts it: “We let ourselves lean so heavily on the arms of others that we annihilate our own powers.”… Schopenhauer: When we read, another person thinks for us:…
Note:MOLTA LETTURA MOLTA PASSIVITÀ
The solution to this problem is to be found, once again, in employing a salutary obscurity that does not allow the readers passively to rely on the writer’s thinking, but forces them to think for themselves.
Note:L’OSCURITÀ CI RISVEGLIA
Thomas Aquinas, in considering the question of why the Bible often uses veiled, metaphorical language, remarks: “The very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”
Note:TOMMASO SULLE METAFORE BIBLICHE
Neoplatonist, in discussing why the Greeks shrouded their religious teachings in myth, remarks: There is this first benefit from myths, that we have to search and do not have our minds idle.
Note:FUNZIONE DEI MITI
Still another danger of reading, closely related to that of mental passivity, is the development of an excessive trust and dependence on the author.
To quote Montaigne: We know how to say: “Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle.” But what do we say ourselves?
Cicero’s solution was to frustrate the reader’s “unreasonable degree of curiosity” by ensuring that his own final position remained unclear.
Note:FRUSTRARE IL LETTORE
THE PARADOX OF PHILOSOPHICAL EDUCATION
For philosophical education requires not merely that one avoid discouraging the reader in these three ways from employing his own mind, but that one positively motivate him to think and, above all, to think authentically and for himself.
Note:MOTIVARE IL LETTORE
philosophy aims, not at “right opinion,” but “knowledge”: not simply at possessing correct answers but at knowing how and why they are correct.
Note:CONOSCERE E SAPERE
it is only thinking for oneself in this deeply personal sense that produces a real and transformative effect upon the soul.
Note:PENSARE DA SÈ
If this is the character of genuine philosophy, then it really is an open question whether it is teachable. Wisdom cannot be told.
Note:LA SAGGEZZA NON SI INSEGNA
Do not give away the answers. The Socratic teacher leaves the most important things unsaid
Note:IL METODO SOCRATICO NON REGALA LE RISPOSTE
Yet, second, there is also something positive that the teacher or writer can do: he can stimulate the student to think for himself—
Note:STIMOLO A PENSARE PER SÈ
But, third, for this thinking and questioning to maintain an authentic connection to the student’s life, it must be dialectical.
A fourth element of the Socratic method—actually, just a further aspect of its dialectical character—is that a proper philosophical education must proceed in stages…The student must not be encouraged to race through these stages to the end,… Our lives do not change as quickly as our thoughts….
Note:PROCEDERE PER GRADI
Tempo is everything. Prematurity—showing the student more than he is ready to understand or digest at the moment—is the great wrecker of educations… “never show the child anything he cannot see.”…
Note:IL TEMPISMO È TUTTO
it highlights what is so terribly problematic about books: they are impersonal and fixed… That indeed is Socrates’s primary objection to writing as stated in the Phaedrus (275d–e)—the univocity of writing….
Note:IL PROBLEMA DEI LIBRI
To promote a genuinely philosophical education, in sum, it is necessary to write esoterically in at least four ways—to withhold the answers, to begin by embracing received opinion, to guide the reader by way of hints and riddles, and to address the different stages of understanding by writing on multiple levels.
Note:LA SOLUZIONE ESOTERICA
THE RHETORICAL EFFECT OF OBSCURITY
Even if it is true that one hinders philosophic education in various ways by telling a student too much, still doesn’t one hinder it even more by saying too little?
Everyone loves a secret. Mystery is alluring. Hide something and we will seek it. This simple fact is the first premise of all pedagogical esotericism.
Note:FASCINO DEL MISTERO
Jesus—who hides his thought in parables—gives this famous literary advice: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine”
Note:NON DATE PERLE AI PORCI
according to Nietzsche: The misfortune suffered by clear-minded and easily understood writers is that they are taken for shallow and thus little effort is expended on reading them:
LA SFORTUNA DELLO SCRITTORE CHIARO
As Augustine puts it: All those truths which are presented to us in figures tend, in some manner, to nourish and arouse the flame of love
that there is nothing immature or irrational in the power of obscurity to generate philosophical motivations such as these.
thinkers. Nietzsche, that master of the coy and aphoristic style, speaks of The effectiveness of the incomplete.—
Montesquieu alluded to this same “effectiveness of the incomplete” in his famous remark quoted above: “One must not always so exhaust a subject that one leaves nothing for the reader to do.
These, then, are the main essentials of persuasiveness; to which may be added that indicated by Theophrastus when he says that all possible points should not be punctiliously and tediously elaborated, but some should be left to the comprehension and inference of the hearer who when he perceives what you have omitted becomes not only your hearer but your witness, and a very friendly witness too. For he thinks himself intelligent because you have afforded him the means of showing his intelligence. It seems like a slur on your hearer to tell him everything as though he were a simpleton.
He particularly admires Thucydides’s pedagogical style: “He reports the facts without judging them, but he omits none of the circumstances proper to make us judge them ourselves.”
The other ancient historian most famous for his brevity and obscurity is Tacitus. The specific pleasure and encouragement produced by his rhetoric are nicely described by Sir Richard Baker (1568–1645), the English historian and writer.
Again, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian recommends that when arguing in court, one speak elliptically and just let the facts silently point to your claim, because then [t]his ensures that the judge himself searches for something which perhaps he would not believe if he heard it, and then believes what he thinks he has found out for himself.38
Boccaccio, in his Life of Dante, declares: “Whatever has been gained by hard work has a certain pleasure. . . . Therefore, in order that [the truth] should be more appreciated by being gained through labor and for that reason better preserved, poets hid it under many details which seem contrary to it.”
Note:BOCCACCIO SU DANTE
Love of the Hidden and Reverence for the Obscure
A second general aspect of obscurity’s appeal is the well-known phenomenon that whatever is veiled strikes us as more alluring and desirable.
Note:L’AURA DEL MISTERO E DEL PROIBITO
A Charm invests a face Imperfectly beheld— The Lady dare not lift her Veil For fear it be dispelled42
THE RHETORICAL EFFECT OF THE PROSAIC
The modern rationalist, the believer in literalness and clarity, holds that by writing in a dry, neutral, and rigorous manner one appeals directly to the rational faculties, without any involvement of rhetorical bias. The problem is that such a style is not really neutral, for the prosaic too has a powerful rhetorical effect and not a simply rational or salutary one.
Note:LA RETORICA NON E’ MAI NEUTRALIZZABILE
husbanded. “Silence is a fence around wisdom,” states Maimonides.43 Indeed, Pythagoras was famous for imposing a lengthy period of silence on his students to prepare their souls for philosophy.
open. For example, Diogenes Laertius, in his account of the notoriously obscure writings of Heraclitus, remarks: “according to some, he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt.”
THE BURDEN OF ESOTERIC INTERPRETATION
If past thinkers deliberately wrote their books in the manner suggested, they would impose on the reader the enormous burden of navigating artificial labyrinths, solving elaborate puzzles, and cracking obscure codes—and all of this effort would be needed just in order to arrive at an understanding of what the book’s real argument is. The reader will then scarcely have time or energy left to do the real business of philosophy:
Note:PERCHE’ VESSARE IL LETTORE?
LEISURE AND ESOTERIC LITERACY
Today we labor under the great burden of a philosophic tradition that now stretches back 2,500 years. There are hundreds of major philosophical works to master and—since the rise of modern scholarship about 150 years ago—there are also hundreds of secondary writings devoted to each one of these primary works. Indeed, in our time, it is hardly possible to walk through the stacks of a major research library and not feel, among other things, oppressed by the crushing weight of so many books. The fact is that modern scholars find themselves in an impossible intellectual situation, which, though it is seldom thematically discussed, conditions all of their hermeneutical instincts. It strongly inclines us to dismiss as implausible—because simply unbearable—any suggestion that would increase our already overwhelming scholarly burden. But of course this condition of overload did not always exist.
Note:IL CONTESTO: IERI C’ERA POCO DA LEGGERE E MOLTO DA MEDITARE… E L’INDOVINELLO ALLETTAVA
John Stuart Mill remarks: It must be remembered that they [the Greeks and Romans] had more time, and they wrote chiefly for a select class, possessed of leisure. To us who write in a hurry for people who read in a hurry, the attempt to give an equal degree of finish would be a loss of time.
Note:IL PIACERE DI PERDER TEMPO CON I LIBRI
Tocqueville: One ought to remark, furthermore, that in all of antiquity books were rare and expensive,
Note:POCHE FONTI SU CUI FANTASTICARE
Furthermore, having a taste for literary subtlety and having grown up with a literature that practiced it, ancient readers would have learned the rudiments of esoteric reading almost along with the art of reading itself.
Note:DECIFRARE=LEGGERE (PER GLI ANTICHI)
ESOTERICISM VS. THE MODERN IDEAS OF PROGRESS AND PUBLICATION
the pressure of unread books, the disappearance of a leisured culture of aristocratic understatement, and the want of socialization in esoteric ways
Note:LA PRESSIONE DEI LIBRI NON LETTI
Faith in progress is based on the (very un-Socratic) assumption that wisdom or knowledge can be not only taught but “published” in the modern sense: written down in books in such a way as to be easily and genuinely appropriated, so that the next generation, after a brief period of learning, can begin where the previous one left off.
A second, related assumption of modern progress-philosophy is that intellectual production functions in essentially the same way as economic production: the progress of both results from “teamwork,” from the division of labor or specialization within a group.
Note:PROGRESSO E DIVISIONE DEL LAVORO (LA COMUNICQAZIONE DEVE ESSERE FACILE E LINEARE)
THE ESOTERIC BOOK AS AN IMITATION OF NATURE
Classical philosophical texts were written not primarily for scholars and other workers in a collective enterprise but for the “rare individual,” the person of extraordinary philosophical and interpretive gifts,
Note:SCRIVERE PER IL SINGOLO, NON PER IL GRUPPO
The objection assumes that the deciphering of an esoteric text is a task altogether different from—and therefore obstructive of—philosophizing. It assumes that the puzzles contained in the esoteric book are purely “artificial” and unrelated to the puzzles in reality that occupy the philosopher. But this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, one of the primary purposes of pedagogical concealment is precisely to train the reader for the kind of thinking needed to philosophize. But whether and how it is able to serve this purpose depend on how one understands the true character of philosophy and of the reality it seeks to penetrate.
Note:ALLENARE A DECIFRARE LA NATURA DECIFRANDO IL TESTO
Socrates, for example, who claimed to know only that he knew nothing, was a skeptic in this sense—to adopt here the interpretation of Leo Strauss. For Socrates, philosophy is knowledge of ignorance.
Note:IL PROGRESSO PER SOCRATE
one cannot know that one is fundamentally ignorant without knowing that the world poses fundamental questions to which one does not have the definitive answer.
Note:CONOSCERE LA PROPRIA IGNORANZA
if this is the case, then the puzzle-quality of an esoteric text would not be artificial and obstructive of philosophy but rather natural and necessary, being an accurate imitation of reality. Thus, according to Strauss, Plato wrote his dialogues so as to “supply us not so much with an answer to the riddle of being as with a most articulate ‘imitation’ of that riddle.”53 Similarly, Thucydides’s history “imitates the enigmatic character of reality.”