Friday, October 24, 2014

Exegesis in the Springtime

 There's good discussion appended, so I encourage you to click through for more.

For my readers unfamiliar with Leo Strauss, his main claims were that philosophers, poets, scribes, translators, and playwrights encode hidden messages and secret knowledge in their writing. Naive readers can enjoy the surface meaning of books, plays, poems, whatever and walk away content. But for the initiated, the hidden wisdom is what matters. Finding the hidden meaning of coded text is called "exegesis." The discipline of finding the hidden meaning in any work, written or otherwise is called "hermeneutics." As you might imagine, it's a tough claim to test empirically, though there are good game theoretical reasons to believe that writers with little direct political clout might wish to hide heretical ideas inside coded text.

The question then is: why should anyone bother to look for Straussian encoding in more modern works? There is no longer an Inquisition interested in strapping heretics to a dunking stool. Anyone in the secular west can write as they wish, without fear of state reprisal.

Answer (1): Straussian writing is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be practiced lest it atrophy. Sure, there's little political suppression of disfavored speech these days, but forward induction urges risk-averse writers to keep their nibs sharp in case a totalitarian regime takes over, burns the books, and marches the heretics up the gallows scaffolding.

Answer (2): Straussian writing is a defense against the soft coercion of tribal exclusion. Are you a Team Blue partisan wishing to criticize the Chief Executive ca. 2009? Are you a Team Red partisan wishing to criticize the Chief Executive ca. 2002? Maybe you'll be gently dis-invited to write for DailyKos/NRO if you make your criticism plain. Even if the BATNA is not dire, it still remains unattractive.

Answer (3): Straussian writing is fun. Contrast a Straussian message with outright satire. Satire is an outrageous caricature of a position, with a very obvious exegesis; no special training is required to understand the "hidden" message. You simply have to be not-stupid. Straussian exegesis, to the contrary (when done properly) needs a key to unlock the mysteries held within. For example, if I'm guilty of Strausianism from time to time, the key is a passing familiarity with public choice economics. For the Tao Te Ching, the key is obtained after solving a series of koans. For Seussian Straussians, you need merely eat it in a box with a fox.

Answer (4): Straussian writing is accidental. Exegesis is prone to Type I errors, especially if the reader is actively on the hunt. Joe McCarthy was a hermeneutical Communist hunter. If you have the stomach for it, perform a search for "Illuminati" and browse what you find.

Answer (5): Straussian writing keeps out the riff-raff. If you want to go Full Nietzsche (never go Full Nietzsche), hidden knowledge should be reserved only for the eyes of those courageous few who have the fortitude to pass through the crucible of enlightenment. This is perhaps reasonable for some select religious texts. Recall that much of the Gospels are parables.

Get lost, Richard O'Brien
The risk of censure, be it political, religious, or secular, means that writing that could be salient to elites is not euvoluntary: writing plainly could result in outcomes unfavorable to the author. Straussian encoding is a partial defense against that. Hermeneutics makes writing more euvoluntary.



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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?