According to the late Leo Strauss, some of the West’s greatest devotees of philosophical truth and reason encoded their beliefs in hints, irony, and deliberate self-contradiction, interpretable only by those initiated into the art of esoteric reading. In Philosophy between the Lines, Arthur Melzer musters empirical evidence that, from Plato to Montesquieu, central Western thinkers really did employ that method of writing. Commenting on the implications of Melzer’s analysis for today’s academic infatuation with postmodernism, deconstruction, and cultural relativism, Francis Fukuyama writes:
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. . . . 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. . . .
The recovery of the rationalist project was central to Strauss’s life work—not the dogmatic reason of the Enlightenment, but rather the more skeptical version presented by Plato and Aristotle, a version less abstract and more embedded in the ordinary reality that humans perceived. But before there could be a return to that tradition, it had to be elucidated and rescued from centuries of accrued misinterpretation. This was why esotericism was so central to Strauss’s project: you could not understand the original effort to enthrone reason if you couldn’t read these earlier authors correctly.