Esotericism and Modernity: An Encounter with Leo Strauss
Strauss championed a philosophy of history according to which philosophers characteristically hide their actual beliefs when writing about ethics and politics. This paper begins by suggesting that an esoteric philosophy of history encourages a set of specific biases when writing histories of philosophy. Proponents of esotericism are liable to be far too ready to conclude that philosophers intended to hide their beliefs; they are likely to be insufficiently attuned to the varied contexts in which philosophers write; and they are likely to be too ready to assimilate the beliefs of philosophers to a norm. Thereafter the paper considers the presence of these biases in Strauss's account of modernity. Strauss allows for waves of modernity but he defines these waves as part of a single, monolithic project that is defined in contrast to the esoteric character of ancient philosophy and that leads inexorably to nihilism. Once we correct for the biases mentioned above, however, modernity appears as a series of projects located in specific contexts and confronting particular dilemmas. Again, where Strauss presents our own era as one of crisis, this revised account of modernity suggests that we merely confront the more local issue of how to forge a community out of self-governing individuals.