On Straussian Esoteric Readings

People have been hornswoggled about how hard proper Straussian esoteric reading is - or perhaps about how proper Straussian esoteric reading is hard. All you have to do is track separately:

  • The literal implications of the text which add up to something coherent
  • The connotative subtext that doesn't literally add up to anything coherent

This is hard because people lose reading comprehension when triggered (and we're triggered MUCH more often than the connotative subtext of trauma discourse would imply); it's hard to stay logical while engaging with misdirection, but reading comprehension requires logic.

The drug to use is weed (at a level where you're still able to words), not alcohol. Makes it much easier to parse a sentence, be confused about whether it's true, and then realize: "Oh, that's a lie. That makes sense. I see why someone would tell that lie. Moving on..." (Or maybe it's just me.)

Exoteric vs esoteric isn't necessarily a binary between the literal implications of the text and the connotative subtext. Sometimes the esoteric reading involves making inferences from contrasts between those two aspects, and the exoteric involves a kind of muddle.

Let's take Plato's Republic as an example. There's one part where Socrates compares the warrior caste to guard dogs, making some comment about how dogs are inherently philosophical, i.e. knowledge-loving, because they will bark at anything unfamiliar. This is backwards and makes no sense except as some kind of joke commenting on an underlying conflic between the philosopher-ruler caste and guard-dog caste, but exoteric readings tend to just take it as Plato's opinion that dogs love learning because they hate new things.

Richard Polt's article Recent Translations of the Republic does a good job of explaining that case (pp 463-4).

Likewise with all the times Socrates says something to the effect of "here is a wacky story that I heard a vague rumor of and it might be a good idea to behave as though it were true" and people just report the story as Plato's belief.

9 thoughts on “On Straussian Esoteric Readings

  1. Tanya

    I have recently had a very similar thought, except not about Straussian interpretation but rather detection of hostile intent in real-life situations. Specifically, why people are so easily confused when hostile actions are carried out while alongside a benevolent-sounding narrative. For example, violence by a person in position of authority under the pretext of “it’s for your own good”. One would naively assume that in such a situation the victim would be influenced by actions more than words in determining their subsequent actions, but empirical evidence suggests quite the opposite. It seems that in addition to triggered-ness there must also be some other tradeoff mechanism at play which places heavier weight on certain inferences (eg inferences based on what has been said) versus others (inferences based on what had been _done_), and the two types don’t integrate very well.

    1. Benquo Post author

      A simple explanation in line with the standard research on CPTSD is that people often go along with a dominant authority's narratives because they perceive the authority to be a successful transgressor, and feel safest going along with the direction of violence.

      1. Tanya

        In that case, it is quite interesting to observe how the hormonal reward in terms of the experience of righteousness is tied in so closely with this phenomenon. Does it then imply that the phenomenology of righteousness is simply that of anticipated direction in which successful transgression is possible?

        1. Benquo Post author

          "High of righteousness" isn't an unambiguous pointer for me, a concrete example might help.

          But I suspect what's going on there is scapegoating, which at least sometimes points in the direction you suggest. Punishment in general is suspect - a license for violence by intermediaries - and when the priests of Ra are successfully execrating someone as an Evil Snake Who Plays Adversarial Games, their object-level accusations needn't be false (and are more powerful when true), but how likely is it that the person who's *most* specialized in conflict is the person conspicuously losing one?

          1. Tanya

            By "high of righteousness" I mean the experience of enjoyment when thinking one is fully in the right while fighting against someone perceived as fully in the wrong. The righteousness high is, in the extreme, the experience of a "true believer" crusader killing families of the "infidels". It is a state that the brain has to enter in order to not feel hesitations with actions which would ordinarily cause aversion due to the social and moral risk they create. Usually this state is "purchased" by the mind by mentally dehumanizing the opponent (i.e. somehow assigning them to the far end of the out-group). Think about what allows people to think someone has "deserved" a misfortune of some kind. The experience of Mandate of Heaven from the perspective of the king.

            In a more mundane setting, the easiest example I can think of is the feeling that causes people to get into heated political debates (or any other kind of debate for that matter) without any attempt at nuance.

          2. Benquo Post author

            Yes, I think the "righteousness high", i.e. MtG "White", i.e. Team Good, is the feeling of license - and even a mandate - to commit overt violence on behalf of the community, and in a way that manages to combine the feeling of prosocial behavior and winning zero-sum games. It's fundamentally a behavior of people captured by Simulacrum Level 3 (while overtly transgressive "bad guy" violence is SL4). It's the high of a "license to kill."

  2. Tanya

    If yes, this would have very serious implications for ethics. If the high of righteousness is always suspect, it kind of disassembles the basis on which "ethics-based" ideologies are held together.


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