Francis Fukuyama reviews in The American Interest a book by philosophy professor Arthur Melzer that I reviewed last year in Taki’s Magazine about the evidence for Leo Strauss’s theory of esoteric writing. Fukuyama writes:
The first part of Philosophy Between the Lines is a simple chronicle of evidence of just how widespread the use of esoteric writing really was from the pre-Socratics through the 18th century. Melzer presents an impressive litany of important (and not-so-important) thinkers across the centuries, including Cicero, Alfarabi, Aquinas, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Bacon, Hobbes, Diderot, and Rousseau, who either pointed to hidden meanings in their own writings, or acknowledged esotericism in their reading of other writers. He also presents some clear examples of esotericism in practice, as when Machiavelli in The Prince misquotes a familiar Bible story in a way that underscores the broader critique of Christianity he is apparently making.Why assume that esoteric writing is a lost art? The ancient Greek philosophers took pains to not make it too obvious to the masses that they doubted the traditional Homeric gods in order that they not suffer the same fate as Socrates. Today when leading thinkers forget to be esoteric enough about their skepticism toward the current idols of the tribe, they don’t lose their lives, they just lose their jobs pour encourager les autres.
This section of the book is wonderfully erudite and leaves no uncertainty that esotericism was indeed a major art that is now all but lost.
For example, Larry Summers lost the presidency of Harvard after publicly doubting that discrimination could be the only explanation for why half of Harvard mechanical engineering professors weren’t women, and James D. Watson lost his job as head of a great medical research laboratory for mentioning that he didn’t believe the conventional wisdom that 100 years of IQ testing is just a giant conspiracy to ruin the self-esteem of Africans.
Fukuyama writes about Melzer:
One obvious question posed by a book on esotericism is whether the author is himself writing esoterically, perhaps with regard to the advice to be gleaned from it by younger Straussians.Major thinkers who have managed to hold onto their jobs are likely to have some adeptness at practicing esotericism.
For example, the late William D. Hamilton, the most insightful evolutionary theorist of the second half of the 20th Century, published views on politics and human nature that would have gotten him in deep trouble if he had used a more quotable prose style. But he had an amazing knack of writing in a discursive fashion that deflected the attention of the volunteer auxiliary thought policemen.
Unfortunately, Hamilton’s admirers have a hard time keeping in mind exactly what he was getting at, too. A decade ago, I’d often try to quote Hamilton in discussions at GNXP.com and would wind up having to transcribe Mencius Moldbug-sized slabs of prose.
Interestingly, in 2011 Fukuyama published a would-be magnum opus The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, claiming to introduce the insights of Hamilton about kin selection to political science. I pointed out in my review in The American Conservative:
Hamilton’s math was popularized by Edward O. Wilson’s 1975 bombshell Sociobiology and by Richard Dawkins’s 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. (A more accurate title would have been The Dynastic Gene.) According to Fukuyama, however, political science has scandalously ignored the implications of these famous books. That’s true in general, although I have on my bookshelves academic works pointing out the fascinating political implications of kin selection by Pierre L. van den Berghe, Frank Salter, Tatu Vanhanen, and J.P. Rushton, none of whom Fukuyama cites.So, was Fukuyama practicing Straussian esotericism to cover his tracks to his “controversial” predecessors? Hard to say …
Confusingly, even though Hamilton used the everyday term “nepotism,” Fukuyama insists on calling this urge “patrimonialism.” Why misuse “patrimonialism,” an obscure term invented by Max Weber for another purpose (and which isn’t in Microsoft Word’s spell-checker), when “nepotism” is universally comprehensible? Perhaps because Fukuyama doesn’t want anyone to associate his book with the three-decade-old study of “ethnic nepotism.”
Or perhaps he was he just too lazy to read up on them?
After all, the safest form of esotericism is ignorance.