Esotericism: how one understands the issue depends very greatly on the degree to which one identifies or distinguishes between politics and religion. Philosophy early on had to fight on two fronts. In its contest with religion it wound up arguing that it (philosophy) ultimately aimed at the same realities as religion; it declared in syllogism what religion declared in symbols. Religion rejoined that philosophy is impiety; that speaking of religion as Symbol amounts to abolishing it; yet religion has also sometimes let itself be persuaded, if it could do so on its own terms. Philosophy, in its conciliatory moods, has always been at pains to avoid too condescending a tone. In its non-conciliatory moods it is at pains to avoid sounding too accommodating. The latter moods have (so far) been rarer.
To politics, on the other hand, philosophy argued that it (philosophy) could be an asset; it could define the conditions of the ideal state. Even if such conditions might never be wholly attainable, still the interests of philosophy and politics were compatible. Sometimes politics was condescending to philosophy, and occasionally it was flattered by it (which religion rarely was); for its part, philosophy had to alternate between playing court counselor, or staying out of the way. So far no one has ever tried to force the philosophers to rule.
Philosophy’s struggle with religion was begun by philosophy; indeed, it was practically an inter-religious dispute at first. Its struggle with politics was begun by politics; philosophy in fact looked more or less like a new and dangerous religious sect to the politicians. In the trial of Socrates, politics commandeered the objections of religion and made use of them—playing one sect against another; and since then the two fronts have always seemed to be fronts of a single war. It is even a possible political position to dispute that there is any independent religious position—independent from politics—at all.
In our own era this is all too common. The default position amongst Western intelligentsia has tended to be that power is the fundamental category to which everything else reduces. If the ancient church fathers argue against Gnostic practices, this (it is assumed) must have been because Gnosticism threatened their power. (This is the standard account more or less universally accepted from Elaine Pagels, despite whatever differences scholars may have with her interpretations of Gnostic doctrines). If the Left wants to establish a single-payer healthcare system in the U.S., or the Right strives against the effort, this is taken in either case be a move to consolidate power. Of course, the power-motive is usually overtly ascribed only to the other side; I am moved by pursuit of the truth or the best policy; you are opposing me out of will-to-power. But no one is really taken in by this sort of bad faith; it eats away at one’s account of one’s own motives too, and beneath the protests is the cynical axiom that the Good or the True is What You Can Get Away With.
The establishment version of this stance is well represented by Richard Rorty; the counterculture ‘pop’ version is Robert Anton Wilson. I’ve learned a good deal from both of them, so I don’t wish to seem to merely belittle this relativism; but it is clearly untenable by itself. No one is capable of believing this line for more than two or three seconds. And yet as a meme, it is astonishingly long-lived; it goes back, as you have already recognized, to the Sophists (as depicted by Plato anyway): Thrasymachus, Callicles, and so on, arguing that the only nomos is the will of the strong, and Vae victis. This is the infamous argument the Athenian delegation gave to the Melians.
If you believe that everything reduces to power, then of course religion is the ultimate crime and alibi, the best cloak for power, because it gets at people at the most intimate existential level. But (on this assumption) this intimate existential level has no legitimacy in itself; it is simply a weak spot in the human psyche. If however you dispute this equation, then whatever the evils capable of being carried out under the auspices of religion, there remains the real concern of religion—precisely with this existential core, what Tillich calls Ultimate Concern. (Of course for Cynical Reason, there can be no Ultimate Concern; there is only the appetite of the moment). If you do grant this, then you have pried apart politics and religion. And depending upon whether this gap exists or not, you will read the notion of philosophical esotericism differently.
This, of course, assuming you believe in esotericism at all—a separate question, but one I am not addressing here. Leo Strauss has laid out the classic case for holding that ancient, medieval, renaissance and early modern philosophers wrote esoterically, and while I have some quarrels with his take, I essentially am persuaded. I can detail some of his claims in other posts, but anyone unfamiliar with him will do far better to read him directly.
I believe, however, that Strauss conflates the struggles philosophy conducts with religion and with politics, so that the former becomes a function of the latter. Strauss sees philosophy making cosmetic concessions to religion for the sake of a political settlement (in order that the philosopher may pursue philosophy unmolested). I see a further layer. Strauss does recognize philosophy’s claim to seek the truth of religion, the truth which religion must pursue in mythical or symbolic or otherwise inexact terms. But his dour conclusion seems often to be that this is itself a cover; that philosophy’s ultimate conclusions are indeed what the city suspects—a bleak nihilism, a picture of a cosmos empty of reason or purpose. It was, Strauss thinks, this vision which was too terrible to be shared with the polis, and had to be carefully guarded and made available only to the student who was ready.
My conclusion is otherwise. Ancient philosophers were more than witnesses to a progressive critique of religion; they were its instigators. They knew very well that this critique of religion was inexorable. Friends of truth, they had no desire to veer from it. But in addition to the concerns Strauss perceives (lest a bracing truth be revealed too quickly), philosophers were motivated by something more: a desire to keep the critique from taking too much; from decaying into (what we would call) nihilism. This aim was not political but philosophical: the truth was indeed what religion wanted to express in its inchoate way, and as truth it needed to be preserved, precisely from the language that had hitherto kept it. One could say that this was not a cosmological but a moral truth—that philosophy aims at the cultivation of a disposition, not at a formulatable creed—but the case is in fact more subtle, for the very distinction between moral and cosmological is precisely a feature of the critique of religion, and one of the features philosophy suspects most of being “too much.”
In other words, I take the philosophers at their word when they say they are pursuing the same truths as religion; the melancholy conclusions one sometimes senses in Strauss that the truth is “too terrible” to be made generally known, I take to be either a stage along the philosophical way, or a projection of Strauss’ own modernity. Nonetheless, I am sure that Strauss is correct in claiming that philosophy writes “esoterically;” I contest only the aim, which is (I hold) to lead the student to philosophical insight, an insight that cannot be reached directly. Philosophy “argues” this way: because it is the only way. Or rather: there are many ways, but all of them are indirect. What this means is that esotericism is not incidental to philosophy or its historical situation. It is a strategy adopted out of neither convenience nor necessity; rather, it is of the essence of the realization at which philosophy aims.
In a letter to Ludwig Ficker, Wittgenstein writes concerning the Tractatus:
My work consists of two parts: of that which is under consideration here and of all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.