In his essay ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ (1941), the political philosopher Leo Strauss painted a picture of intellectual life that should offend me as a person with political commitments to democracy and egalitarianism, and philosophical commitments to pluralism and against monism, yet I return to it again and again. I want to understand why.
Strauss proposed that a practice he called ‘esoteric writing’ has endured throughout the history of philosophy, as philosophers hid their most important teachings behind ‘exoteric’ ones. They wrote ‘between the lines’, using intentional slips and mistakes as trail blazes that intelligent readers might follow to reach their deeper, and more dangerous, points. The nature of philosophy, he thought, made this necessary. Philosophical questions tended to challenge the authority of the gods of the city. Without esoteric writing, philosophers might face persecution for asking difficult and inconvenient questions, questions that seemed subversive by virtue of their sceptical spirit. In what sense are the Bible’s teachings true, if at all? What legitimates the rule of kings? How do we know that we’re in the world at all, and aren’t brains floating in vats? The philosophical few appreciate such questions, but the un-philosophical many do not. Strauss turned his historical observation into a normative conclusion: philosophers should wall off philosophical investigation from public life, including public political life.