Esotericism is the practice, widely employed by a variety of thinkers prior to and up through the early Enlightenment, of disguising their real meaning through ellipsis, surface contradiction, dispersal of their real arguments, and the like (indeed—they were misleading casual readers about their true intentions!). The understanding that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle made use of esotericism was central to Strauss’s own project of returning to their thought as an antidote to what he called the “crisis of modernity”, since it pointed to deeper truths hidden behind the evident meaning extracted by superficial readers. It was probably also one of the sources of distrust of Strauss and his followers by other academics, since it implied that initiates into the art of esoteric interpretation had access to meanings unavailable to others.Mr Fukuyama's focus is on rehabilitating the reputation of philosopher Leo Strauss. In the course of his argument, though, he gets at the heart of the disarray in the higher learning.
I am much struck today by the total disarray of the humanities in American academia. The job market prizes quantitative skills far higher than qualitative ones; there is also a widespread feeling that while anyone can become an English or classics major, learning a “hard” skill like statistics or physics is far more difficult. The humanities as taught in many contemporary universities have only themselves to blame for the latter view: Under the influence of postmodernism and deconstructionism, textual interpretation has become lazy, arbitrary, indulgently expressive, and scornful of the idea that books have anything true to teach their readers. Esoteric reading reestablishes a discipline that has been lost, for it requires close and slow reading, and it restores an assumption that there is in fact a “true” interpretation reflecting the author’s intent that is not simply the whim of the interpreter.Yes, and in the absence of standards, all that remains is a muddle.
Many contemporary inhabitants of liberal democratic societies are perfectly comfortable with relativism because they think that it encourages toleration and liberal politics. The opposite of relativism, after all, is absolutism (is it not?)—the arrogant and potentially tyrannical belief that there is only one truth. This is true enough in one sense. But as Melzer points out, the postmodernist project is itself incoherent and self-undermining. If all beliefs are equally true or historically contingent, if the belief in reason is simply an ethnocentric Western prejudice, then there is no superior moral position from which to judge even the most abhorrent practices—as well as, of course, no epistemological basis for postmodernism itself.Properly viewed, relativism is intellectual discipline: upon encountering a novel practice, ask yourself why that practice might have emerged, without immediately judging whether the underlying reasons are desirable or not. That discipline, however, does not lead to the conclusion that all beliefs are equally true. Historically contingent, yes. Emergent, yes. Condemning adherents to a crabbed existence, sometimes. Evolutionarily stable, thus not necessarily.
Moreover, compared to our easygoing democratic relativists today, Nietzsche and Heidegger were ruthlessly consistent. Relativism could easily support a doctrine like fascism that promoted the rule of the weak by the strong, for if there is no basis for “right”, then all that remains is “might.” We see echoes of this dilemma all around us today: We (believers in liberal democracy) see practices we don’t like in places like China or by the Islamic State in the Levant, but when asked to explain why this discomfort doesn’t simply reflect our own ethnocentrism, we are tongue-tied because we have already denied the premise that reason can help uncover truth, even if incompletely and contingently.
That's second nature to anyone who has been exposed to the distinction between positive and normative economics.