Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous “double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.” They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines, which careful readers could figure out by paying attention to various anomalies in the text.
In short, Melzer shows how much is at stake in the subject of esoteric writing: no less than the issue of the freedom of the human intellect. By losing sight of esotericism, modern thinkers have radically changed their conception of philosophy and have come to question its original claim to be the search for true knowledge as opposed to the limited opinions of particular political communities. In the terms of Plato’s Republic, contemporary thinkers deny that the philosopher can ever ascend from the intellectual cave constituted by the city. In his most significant contribution, Melzer argues persuasively against this view, insisting that only an understanding of the use of esoteric writing in earlier philosophers can alert us to a perennial human potentiality: freedom of thought. In Melzer’s view, grasping the importance of esoteric writing is a liberating and inspiring experience:
The whole course of Western philosophical thought is not so well-known and settled as we have long thought it to be. Beneath its conventional exterior, it is more daring, original, and alive.
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