On Esotericism

John Smith, according to Jill Lepore, was prone to making things up. He claimed to have bedded princesses while battling by land or sea the world over. Russia, Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, Poland – it’s almost like he had his own Eurail pass and then some. It makes sense, then, to question his account of life at Jamestown, a colony that was starving to death before he set them to work. The only problem with questioning him is that it does seem that life did get better for those he ruled. Maybe he was too harsh and self-promoting when he attacked the indolent, aristocratic character of many of the colonists. But those under his charge recognized necessity and acted accordingly. They worked, for a time, not to starve.

Perhaps politics is about the recognition of necessity. Maybe it’s about agriculture, sewage systems, bonds for bridges, jobs, and defense. That can’t quite be right, though. If you have to put a traffic light next to that bridge, you’re not just buying something needed, but creating rules and norms. People come together in politics and create law, and laws have a life of their own. To challenge them is to challenge an entire people at a moment.  The law does not merely stem from necessity. It shapes citizens a certain way, making claims about what can be said or thought, defining the scope of one’s virtue and freedom. The law educates in ways with radical depth: in all societies, it has spoken what it is to be divine.

It feels tempting to strip clean politics, prophesying a return to simpler necessities. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates initially describes a city which lacks spectacles, fancy houses, and banking systems. Instead, there’s a farmer, housebuilder, weaver, and shoemaker. Socrates says four or five people can comprise this city of “utmost necessity” (369d).  This becomes far more complicated almost immediately. If each produces for all in common, not paying attention to how exactly he receives goods, then the city of utmost necessity could conceivably provide for everyone without people making claims. However, since it is more efficient to create a lot of an item and trade some of it for things you need, a concept of value sneaks into the simplest city (369e-370b). Socrates emphasizes that what is held in common is replaced by minding one’s own business. If you, a farmer, trade part of your foodstuffs for shoes, you’ve held the shoemaker at a distance in a way you wouldn’t if you saw him as part of a whole you and him comprise. Perfect justice involves not having to think about justice, but the very concept of individuality involves understanding the value of your claim.

The complications become a hundredfold in the space of a few lines of dialogue. After all, maybe one is better than being a farmer than shoemaker, and vice versa. Maybe each of us can excel at one job: one man, one art, each of us specialized for a role in civic life (370b). It is only a matter of time before Socrates asks whether some arts are more important than others, thus placing different values on human life, but the Republic does not go where any given society goes just yet. Socrates continues treating all arts as necessary, as crucial even. People need to do their best at their jobs and not make mistakes. By implication, everyone depends on their work (370b-d). This causes an explosion of specialization: carpenters, craftsmen, smiths, herdsmen, merchants, sailors, tradesmen, and laborers all join the city, as they help everyone else get their jobs done well (370d-371e). A currency is established in this wave, thus doing completely away with any remnant of the time things might have been held in common (371b-c).

However, Socrates takes this massive, boisterous city and stops. He was in dialogue with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, when discussing it. Adeimantus more than likely loves the quaint origin of this city and the end. The end occurs when Socrates asks where justice and injustice lie within the city (371e). Adeimantus can’t figure it out, so Socrates describes the citizens as happy. With “bread, wine, clothing, and shoes,” they will be satisfied with their work. They’ll have houses: no need for clothes in the summer, when they work, and clothes and shoes and homes are there for the winter. They’ll eat barley meal and wheat, drink wine, sing of the gods. They will have “sweet intercourse with one another,” not produce too many children, and guard against poverty and war (372a-c).

Perhaps this satisfies Adeimantus: the need for divine intervention in this vision hides neatly in the midst of simple joys. Glaucon calls this a “city of pigs,” angered at its lack of ambition. He wonders why these people don’t want relishes for their bread. When Socrates provides the relishes, he again complains why the city doesn’t feature people who have couches or tables (372d-e).

Swift once remarked that ancient esotericism followed the bee. The sweet produces more sweet, whereas modern esotericism follows the spider: from the foulest comes the fairest. It’s entirely possible for a young man to see himself like Adeimantus, hoping for a simpler, more honest world, or like Glaucon, seeing ambition as a reality one must grapple with. And if one sees oneself in their place, one stands chastened. Ask for simplicity and you need the gods to provide, strive and conquer and you trade your health for specious goods. The moral critique provided by ancient esotericism is quiet but powerful. You can name innumerable thinkers of revolution or prophets of the future who can’t escape its silent judgment. They’re too busy writing one paragraph summaries of Plato which say that Socrates posited an ideal city which was doomed to fail. That paragraph, of course, is prelude to the rest of their argument, where they will tell you about their city which cannot fail.

The question “What is justice?” might be the most powerful legacy of Plato and Xenophon. In their direct and indirect consideration of the Socratic life, they find Socrates divinely mad, seeking knowledge and the truth, and strangely moderate. Moderation towards other human beings and moderation towards the gods is justice of a sort. Socrates did not indulge in hubristic enterprises or preach atheism; he left Athenian convention intact. He kept his life simple and counseled his companions to practice virtue. A focus on moderation can be said to change the question of “What is justice?” to “What is man?” Man, according to Aristotle, is between beast and god. What does it mean to create standards one wants to live up to, but cannot fully attain? What does it mean to guard against regression? In the latter case, consider the one of the chief concerns of classical political thought: the tyrant. Tyranny is the result of democratic collapse, the Republic tells us. Governed by desire, a law unto himself, man is the worst of all the animals.


In a way, the classical legacy is too elegant, too beautiful, too simple. Cicero spoke of Socrates compelling philosophy, brought down from the heavens, to speak about the human things. Cicero hints at Socrates almost wrestling with philosophy, struggling with it. Whereas there are many times people go to old books, read, and instantly feel smarter about themselves and their world, refreshed by a magical fountain of knowledge. The classical legacy makes itself known through difficult, carefully wrought books that reward diligence. Those books educate, but they educate relative to their narrative. They treat large, pressing questions, but in showing how more typical answers fail, they sometimes miss that the challenge of human life isn’t formulating an answer, but a question.

Above all, classical political thought only alludes to the questions and thoughts born in anger, in exile, in darkness. I can think of no better example of this than Thucydides’ hidden but utterly pitiable autobiography in The Peloponnesian War. He caught the plague and somehow survived; he fought the brilliant Spartan commander Brasidas and lost; he was exiled for that loss. None of this comes to us in a paragraph entitled “About Me.” They are scattered in his work of hundreds of pages, and while one can see that this tactic does lend itself to generating great sympathy on the reader’s part, I have to wonder about the combination of a powerful restraint and incredible trauma.

Thucydides’ work is a great, tragic, daring history. It challenges the moral order of Homer and the storytelling of Herodotus. The Iliad and the Odyssey can be read as the withdrawal of the old order, that time when gods directly entitled heroes, god-men, to rule. The wrath of Achilles that is sung of in the first line of the Iliad causes the death of all the heroes, save one. Odysseus survives, but his job is not to rule, but to pass Ithaca down to Telemachus, who is emphatically not a hero. Martial virtues are replaced by domestic ones, and the Olympian gods themselves withdraw by the end of the Odyssey, preferring to be worshiped in accordance with virtue and law. Herodotus’ History dwells on Persian imperialism, taking their claims to justice and rule seriously. In doing this, he initially demythologizes Homer, talking about the events that lead up to the Trojan War as a tit for tat between Greeks and barbarians. The Greek gods are nowhere to be found as divine entities, as their names are found among regular people. Instead of virtue, Herodotus is interested in the stories people tell which define their political order. Quietly, a notion of “Greekness” emerges which opposes Persian excess, fighting for freedom and nobility rather than empire.

Thucydides will have none of this. His work is anchored by major speech after major speech. Of those speeches, he pledges that he remembers the ones he witnessed as best he could, and of the others, he put the words that must have been said in the speaker’s mouth. Necessity is Thucydides’ governing principle. If a speaker pleads for justice, that means there is some very pressing necessity that must be taken care of and need not be spoken about. If a speaker does his best to show how necessary something is, that indicates he is concerned about the justice of a given action.

You are more than likely wondering how I can call such a brutal, harsh look at the world “too elegant, too beautiful, too simple.” It does look like Thucydides’ personal tragedy is intimately wrapped up with his recounting of events. And it is true that Thucydides brings into being much of that thought we consider “modern:” a focus on power in politics, a “realism” starkly opposed to pious or moral concerns, a concern with stability all the while understanding its opposition to passion and, practically speaking, freedom. But honestly, I wish I were challenged a bit less intellectually, being told as opposed to shown.

Because when all is said and done, the people who need political philosophy the most aren’t those who make up the elite class. They’re not being groomed to rule or become captains of industry. The people who need to hear from Plato and Thucydides need to hear that reasonable people get angry, make mistakes, fight for what’s better, don’t give up. They need to know that their anger matters just as much as any tolerance they profess or virtue they show, even though society keeps them as second or third class citizens. Even though rules are applied strictly to them where others get a pass. Even though they are forced to apply for jobs where the posting was merely a formality on the employer’s part. Even though they can be given nothing and still be told they are being given everything, and resented for it. Those who need political philosophy are always measured against another’s greatness, and found wanting. They’re the Other, the reason for the breakdown, considered deserving of exile by those who never feel shame.

The beauty of esoteric writing is also its curse. Dig deep into an esoteric work and you find the author’s humanity. You find the pain and the anger and the bewilderment. It’s beautiful but it takes years of careful probing. It takes years to find the slow burn of anger and disappointment, sitting there with the ideas which changed the world. Where do we find the self-respect we need, the ability to stand up to bullies and not break in the present? Where do we find the discipline to be ourselves? Certainly not among our fellow readers, where people can punish you for an “incorrect” read for years of your life, not to mention dismiss you because you’re different.

The fundamental problem of classical esotericism is that in the end you’re left alone. There’s you and the book, and in the book is a person you think you see. John Smith was an ass who once in his life did right. He knew he did right, as he saw that colony of his in America improve. When he was recalled to England, he was desperate to get back, but it was not to be. He died desperate. Was he broken? The only feeling pulsing through my veins right now is the number of times I’ve been ashamed to be myself compared to the utter lack of shame my country feels. Thucydides probably understood the great irony of his own narrative: the opposition of justice and necessity ultimately points to the necessity of justice.

Notes & References

Lepore, Jill. The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. 17-30.

Plato. The Republic. Ed. Allan Bloom. 2nd ed. New York: Basic, 1968. 46-49.

Strictly speaking, justice is moderation toward men, piety moderation toward gods. This is discussed in the following: Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. Reprint. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004. 101.

Swift’s distinction between ancient and modern esotericism is discussed in the following: Benardete, Seth. “Strauss on Plato” in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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