They who have taken up bare theorems immediately wish to vomit them forth, as persons whose stomach is diseased do with food….if you do not digest it, the thing becomes truly an emetic, a crude food and unfit to eat. But after digestion show us some change in your ruling faculty…. eat like a man, drink like a man, dress, marry, beget children, do the office of a citizen, endure abuse, bear with an unreasonable brother, bear with your father, bear with your son, neighbor, companion. Show us these things that we may see that you have in truth learned something from the philosophers.
You say, “No; but come and hear me read commentaries.…I will expound to you the writings of Chrysippus as no other man can: I will explain his text most clearly: I will add also, if I can, the vehemence of Antipater and Archedemus.”
Is it then for this that young men shall leave their country and their parents, that they may come to this place, and hear you explain words? Ought they not to return with a capacity to endure, to be active in association with others, free from passions, free from perturbation, with such a provision for the journey of life with which they shall be able to bear well the things that happen and derive honour from them? And how can you give them any of these things which you do not possess?
….What else are you doing, man, than divulging the mysteries? You say, “there is a temple at Eleusis, and one here also. … The words are the same: how do the things done here differ from those done there?”
Most impious man, is there no difference? ….The thing is great, it is mystical, not a common thing, nor is it given to every man.
--Epictetus, Discourses III 21
The philosopher turns to esotericism not because he needs to hide things that are too terrible, or too scandalous, but because philosophy with those who are not philosophers turns into regurgitation, or becomes a provocation, and in either case turns out to be harmful – harmful to others, and indeed harmful to the philosopher who is less than adept. This harm doesn't come in the form of arrest warrants and banishment; it comes in the banal form of losing ones temper. It is not easy to be free from perturbation, to do the office of a citizen, to endure abuse and honor alike; and when you provoke those who are not philosophers with things that are too hard to digest, things that are out of place, you may find yourself out of your depth.
In other words, the rationale of esotericism – of saying to one’s philosophical friends what you would not say to others – is not just to protect others from the bleak void, nor to keep philosophers from being disparaged or outlawed, but because philosophers are not perfect, and when an imperfect soul encounters antagonism, it often throws one out of equilibrium. It isn’t an accident of philosophy; it’s an integral part of philosophical discipline.
The philosopher, holding that the unexamined life is not worth living, wants the best for both themselves and for their interlocutors, and so of course tries to spur them to further reflection. The response is, let us say, not always enthusiastic -- and one should worry if it it were. People become irritated, resistant, bored, impatient, suspicious, shamefaced, indignant; and one of the common mistakes the philosopher (well, this philosopher) can make is to take this personally. It leads to, and reinforces, a tangle of unbecoming and very un-philosophical behaviors: resentment, fear of judgment, disdain, and so on -- enough to keep a Nietzschean diagnosis busy for quite a while. The easiest way I know to combat this is simply to remember that no one owes it to you to philosophize with you -- and, if I may put it this way, non-consensual philosophy is no philosophy at all. More and more I think that the one of the most crucial moves in the philosophical repertoire is the tactical retreat -- the art of knowing when to stop pushing it. It is of course important to discern between this and mere cowardice, or even mere conflict-avoidance -- let alone a secret superiority-complex, or even a pleasure in willful deception. Point being: there’s plenty of work to do on yourself before you get to saving all of Athens.
If you just read the first part of Epictetus’ charge, you can come away thinking that philosophy needs to inculcate good, solid skills in living, and that blowhards who talk about wisdom but whose lives area a shambles are impostors. Which is probably true. But then Epictetus illustrates this problem in a weird way: by saying that the impostors are “profaning the mysteries,” blathering about things they don’t understand and declaring on the street things that ought not to be revealed out of context.
Part of Epictetus’ case is, quite plausibly, that the corruption of wisdom into mere mouthing of syllogisms or “commentary” on canonical works – a critique that every Straussian should meditate upon long and hard – is locked in a reinforcing chicken-and-egg cycle with the abandonment of esotericism. Mere erudition would then be a symptom of the loss of esoteric practice, and vice-versa.
In a post that opens with a citation from Epictetus, it should go without saying that a certain kind of erudition can be worth pursuing. But it ought to further the real task: the hard work of entering deeply into the ramifications of one’s ignorance, while holding onto one's commitment to truth. Otherwise this would just be a regurgitated commentary on an ancient denunciation of commentary.