Telling the Truth When Truth-Telling is Hard to Do: Reflections on Reading Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss

In keeping with the theme of truth-telling that I’ve developed over the last couple of posts, I recently read Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss. The book itself was not written as a book, but it is a collection of four articles with an introduction to their theme–itself based on a fifth article–that all revolve around the same idea: esoteric writing and the art of writing (and, therefore, reading) “between the lines.”

The concept of esoteric writing is not hard to grasp, even if it is often hard to locate and expand upon within philosophical texts. The basic argument is that the great works of philosophy produced in antiquity, from Plato up through the Middle Ages, were written on two levels: the exoteric, or outer teaching, and the esoteric, or hidden teaching. This method of writing was made necessary because of the kinds of societies that they were written into. For example, using the Greek city-states to illustrate, Strauss says this:

It is often said that the Greek city was a totalitarian society. It embraced and regulated morals, divine worship, tragedy and comedy. There was however one activity which was essentially private and trans-political: philosophy. Even the philosophic schools were founded by men without authority, by private men.

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Page 21

In other words, the men who wrote the great works of philosophy were, by-and-large, not men with power or authority in society. This was problematic for them–illustrated most famously in the death of Socrates–because the philosophic quest for eternal truths, more often than not, brought the philosopher up against the reigning ideas and culture of the day. For a man like Socrates, who taught the objectivity and obligation of virtue, this meant that if one recognizes the obligation of obeying objective virtues then they were in danger of disobeying or, more dangerously, calling into question the community’s own norms and beliefs. This was especially the case since Socrates claimed that virtue (or, if you like, morality) consisted of a specific type of knowledge. Because he taught publicly and chose to live consistently with his public teaching, Socrates was charged with impiety and corruption of the youth, convicted, and died in the Athenian jail by socially-pressured suicide.

In other words, Socrates was pursued as a criminal because he expressed publicly what he believed to be the truth, and the truth, as it turned out, did not conform to the views of the Athenian establishment. This was a lesson that at least one of his students–Plato–learned, and if Strauss is to be believed (and I see no reason to think otherwise), so did most of the great philosophers who followed.

It’s also noteworthy that Strauss himself, regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century, took this insight to heart. Strauss’ thought is known best because the bulk of his written work comes to us in the form of commentary and exposition of other philosophers’ writing. That is to say that we know what Strauss himself thought because he wrote mostly about how he understood what other philosophers had written and he did so largely in the context of history of philosophy.

Another important connection to notice is that the accusations against Socrates arose because of the political actions of two of his former students. In other words, Socrates is blamed for what two other people chose to do with his ideas. Similarly, Leo Strauss has been blamed for the policies of some of his students who formed the core of neoconservatism in the United States, although Persecution and the Art of Writing precedes the neoconservative movement that he ostensibly influenced.

What I couldn’t help contemplating all along is whether esoteric writing was something that could also be irresponsible, depending on context. The cultural and political contexts of past philosophers, Strauss included, is one thing, but is there ever a time in which–despite the dangers–philosophers {construed broadly as “lovers of wisdom” and seekers of truth} should refuse to engage in esoteric writing? Take, for example, our present cultural and political contexts, which are undeniably filled with all kinds of un-truths and bold lies. Would it be responsible for anyone concerned with understanding truth and putting it into practice to ignore this atmosphere of self-deception?

Strauss’ observations about the relationship between the philosopher and the dominant religion of his culture might point the way. In several places, Strauss remarks on the fact that to be a philosopher one need not be irreligious or anti-religion. Even if the dominant religion teaches some things that the philosopher cannot agree with internally, nothing precludes him from being outwardly religious, especially insofar as religion can be a guide to virtue. However, practicing this is itself a form of esotericism because it requires one to keep hidden his true beliefs and thoughts. The following passage is particularly insightful:

In case the given society is hostile to philosophy, the Law of Reason advises the philosopher either to leave that society and to search for another society, or else to try to lead his fellows gradually toward a more reasonable attitude, i.e., for the time being to adapt his conduct, as far as is necessary, to the requirements of that society: what at first glance appears to be a repudiation of the Law of Reason in favor of another rule of life, proves on closer investigation to be one form of observing the very Law of Reason. The Law of Reason is then not indissolubly bound up with any particular form of society [. . .]

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Page 137

Reading this passage, I couldn’t help but think that not only is this the way for the philosopher to influence an un-virtuous society but it could also be the way that someone wishing to destroy virtue might influence the virtuous society. I wrote that passage in my notebook and, below it, asked the following question:

“Is this itself an esoteric exposure of how opponents of the Law of Reason [or, alternatively, classical liberalism] come to dominate a society to the point that esoteric communication, such as Strauss is discussing, becomes necessary?”

What I’m saying is that Strauss speaks of esoteric writing as essential for the truth-seeker (i.e., the philosopher) during periods of history where his society and its culture and politics are hostile to both the seeking and the communication of truth. But how, at least in our historical context, does such a society come about? Obviously, on some level, opponents of free inquiry and free expression must come to power. How do they do that? To some degree, they do it by practicing esoteric writing.

Strauss wrote this about Baruch Spinoza’s esoteric writing in Theologico-Political Treatise:

If it is the essence of the wise man that he is able to live under every form of government, i.e., even in societies in which freedom of speech is strictly denied, it is of his essence that he is able to live without ever expressing those of his thoughts whose expression happens to be forbidden. The philosopher who knows the truth, must be prepared to refrain from expressing it, not so much for reasons of convenience as for reasons of duty. Whereas truth requires that one should not accommodate the words of the Bible to one’s own opinions, piety requires that everyone should accommodate the words of the Bible to his own opinions, i.e., that one should give one’s own opinions a biblical appearance.

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Page 180

If you live in a society dominated by biblical language, ethics, motifs, and ideas, then to avoid persecution in those instances when you disagree with the Bible (or the commonly accepted interpretation of the Bible), you must make your ideas appear to be derived from the Bible. This is one reason why Strauss could also say this:

It is hardly necessary to add that it is precisely this view of the non-categoric character of the rules of social conduct which permits the philosopher to hold that a man who has become a philosopher, may adhere in his deeds and speeches to a religion to which he does not adhere in his thoughts; it is this view, I say, which is underlying the exotericism of the philosophers.

Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Page 139

Putting those two quotes together, one can see that Strauss is suggesting that a philosopher can, by all appearances, be in perfect outward agreement with the society around him but hold to–and secretly communicate–ideas and beliefs that are opposed to that society. Not just that, but he can find ways of communicating his philosophy so that it can influence the society without the society itself knowing it. Obviously, this is possible whether those ideas are good or bad, virtuous or wicked. Thinking of it thus, Strauss’ exposition of esoteric writing as a key to understanding the great philosophers of antiquity sounds a lot like the “long march through the institutions” of Gramsci and Dutschke.

In the United States, most major institutions, from universities, to public schools, to media, and even government agencies, have fallen prey to the insidious, slow, but highly successful advance of ideologies and philosophies that are anti-liberty, anti-democratic, and anti-religion, especially anti-Christian. The simplest explanation–accurate but not entirely complete–is the widespread acceptance of critical theory as the basic presupposition in terms of philosophy, theory, and methodology in the social and behavioral sciences and humanities. Many people have only become aware of this problem in the last few years and ask, quite sincerely, “how did this happen?” Again, the simplest answer–but not an entirely complete one–is that the opponents of classical liberalism, free markets, and free society first took control of philosophy departments and from there, essentially took over the universities. Most importantly for critical theory’s ubiquity and the public’s unquestioning acceptance of critical assumptions is the takeover of public schools. Young adults today do not question neo-Marxist assumptions because it’s what they were taught, from kindergarten through post-graduate studies (c.f., Giroux 2003).

In other words, and in terms I think Strauss would approve, this all happened esoterically. America–to its own deep loss–did not read between the lines.

This leads to a few conclusions based on these reflections.

  1. The time for conservative (classical liberal, traditionalist) use of esoteric methods has not come in the sense of avoiding persecution, but it’s not entirely off the table. We still have free expression in the United States, we should be using it.
  2. Although Socrates’ story is tragic, it is also heroic. Societies need Socrates-like people, people who genuinely seek truth and communicate it publicly, freely, and without fear.
  3. There is a time for esoteric writing–to be more like Maimonides and Spinoza (to draw examples from Persecution and the Art of Writing), but that time is not now. We should be learning how to both write and read esoterically, but we should be confronting the enemies of liberty and virtue boldly head-on while the opportunity exists.
  4. Where esotericism is useful is in the retaking of institutions. For those who are capable of doing so, using esoteric methods to gain a foothold in institutions should be done. To defeat the enemies of liberty, we must observe the tactics of the enemies of liberty. This requires, in some sense, a certain Machiavellian realism (c.f., Burnham 2020, 27-44).

But reflecting on the lessons to be learned from Strauss does not end there. In the last few weeks, one of the most talked-about public controversies in American social media has been an ad campaign run by the luxury goods company, Balenciaga.

There’s been a lot of speculation in response about what, exactly, this ad campaign was intended to communicate. Just looking at the pictures in the tweet captioned above, a few obvious questions come up: Why was this little girl holding a teddy bear dressed in BDSM garb? Why was a page from a Supreme Court opinion talking about child pornography in the context of the First Amendment placed in the ad? And why include the kid at all, given the kinds of products being advertised?

Based on these obvious initial questions, folks around the internet started doing deep dives into other Balenciaga ad campaigns, especially those involving children. In a style reminiscent of the Netflix hit, Don’t F**k with Cats, people started to find other strange connections. From a religious perspective, few are as interesting as the discovery of a role of caution tape in an ad involving a child with the name of the company intentionally misspelled as Baalenciaga.

For most readers, it does not need to be explicitly pointed out that Ba’al is an ancient Canaanite deity, mentioned in the Bible as a rival against Yahweh for the religious devotion of the Israelites. It is also documented that the sacrifices offered to Ba’al often came in the form of devotees’ human children (Newton 1996, 106). All of this has prompted many to ask, overall, what in the hell (no pun intended) is all of this about? What, exactly, is going on?

One possibility is that what we’re witnessing is a case of intended esotericism stepping over the boundary into exotericism. In other words, maybe Balenciaga has unintentionally tipped its hand and revealed that there’s a lot more to high society than $675 t-shirts and $1,000 Crocs. At least one person has suggested, based on his reading of the Malleus Maleficarum, that this is an example of sorcery–an attempt to invoke the assistance of demonic entities in achieving power and influence.

Of course, given the reigning cultural consciousness, most people’s initial reaction to such an assertion is to dismiss it as, at best, conspiracy-theory and, at worst, deranged, unscientific paranoia. But we oughtn’t be so fast to make such judgments.

No less an intellect than Jacques Ellul had this today in his book, If You Are the Son of God:

So I can very well say without hesitation that all those who have political power, even if they use it well, have acquired it by demonic mediation and even if they are not conscious of it, they are worshippers of diabolos.

Jacques Ellul, If You Are the Son of God: The Suffering and Temptations of Jesus

Ellul makes this statement after analyzing what he calls the “political temptation” of Jesus by the devil in the desert (c.f., Luke 4:5-8). In the text, the devil openly claims that he has not just authority over all the kingdoms of the earth but the authority to “give it to anyone I want” (Lk 4:6). Importantly, Jesus does not dispute this claim, but simply responds to the exchange the devil offers: worship him in return for political power. Ellul takes this to mean, for good reasons, that all political power on earth is mediated by demonic forces: “So he took Him [Jesus] up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The Devil said to Him, ‘I will give You their splendor and all this authority, because it has been given over to me” (Lk 4:5-6).

Who wants to wield power? Who wants to take advantage of political glory? Obviously, it is the person who is already possessed by a spirit of power. One “gets into politics” to satisfy one’s will to power. The politician’s discourse on “the public good” and his explicit devotion to the cause of humanity and so forth are all smoke screens about the reality of power itself and about all politicians. Our text is very harsh: those seeking political authority must not only be indwelt by the spirit of power but, what is more, must worship the one who can give this power–the devil, the tempter.

Jacques Ellul, If You Are the Son of God: The Suffering and Temptations of Jesus

Ellul’s logic in this regard is hard to disagree with. If the devil is the entity who grants political power and that grant of power is contingent upon worship, then anyone who posses political power, by necessity, worships the devil. Now, whether one agrees with that is beside the point. What’s more important here is what he says about the “smoke screens” that the powerful use to fool the public. In some sense, he’s talking about a form of esotericism. Those who seek political power, and those who want to hold on to political power, must have an esoteric philosophy (the will to power) and an exoteric philosophy (the public good). And to be successful, they must successfully conceal the esoteric from the masses. It’s hard to imagine a successful political campaign based on the slogan: “I want to get elected because I crave power and want to tell people what to do.”

Of course, if Ellul (and Joshua Charles’ reading of the Malleus Maleficarum) are correct, then it stands to reason that at least some of the elite in society know that they are worshippers of the lesser, demonic gods. Those that know this run the risk of letting the truth slip, no matter how esoteric. After all, that Baalenciaga caution tape wasn’t made without the supervision of someone and mistakes like that (and the inclusion of a child porn court case) don’t happen. This brings us back around to the necessity of telling the truth openly in our current environment. We aren’t going to beat the nonsense by being esoteric. By telling the truth boldly, we also avoid accusations of bearing false witness or of hiding our true intentions which, at the very least, is evident in the Baal . . . Balenciaga ads.

What does all of that have to do with Leo Strauss, with whom I started these reflections?

First, there’s his remarks about the great philosophers being men without power. This is an interesting contradistinction given the things Ellul says about the powerful based on the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps it isn’t just that the powerful can, and very well might, persecute the philosopher who not only seeks but says the truth. This isn’t just because the powerful are opposed to the truth but because they fear it. “You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe–and they shudder” (James 2:19).

On some level, I think his work in Persecution and the Art of Writing was communicating that the elite, who do not have the best intentions of mass publics in mind, communicate philosophically in secret but openly. That’s not the only meaning that one can derive, but I think it’s an important one, especially given our current cultural environment. We are dangerously close to a society in which the elite will be able to persecute the heretics and esoteric writing may be necessary. This is evident particularly in light of Apple’s suppression of iPhone capabilities during the recent protests in China. And whether the Baalenciaga affair, or any of the other recent, blatant demonstrations that our cultural and political elites no longer have a problem with us knowing they play by different rules, was revealed consciously or carelessly is immaterial. In keeping with Strauss’ theme, which started this reflection: they’re now saying the quiet part out loud. This means we–the truth seekers and truth tellers–cannot be quiet.

We must speak openly, freely, and boldly while we have the chance. Who knows who the devil is going to put in power next.


Burnham, James. 2020. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. London, UK: Lume Books.

Ellul, Jacques. 2014. If You Are the Son of God: The Suffering and Temptations of Jesus. Translated by Anne-Marie Andreasson-Hogg. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Giroux, Henry A. 2003. “Public Pedagogy and the Politics of Resistance: Notes on a Critical Theory of Educational Struggle.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 35 (1): 5-16.

Newton, Michael. 1996. “Written in Blood: A History of Human Sacrifice.” Journal of Psychohistory 24, no. 2 (Fall): 104-131.

Strauss, Leo. 1988. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

One response to “Telling the Truth When Truth-Telling is Hard to Do: Reflections on Reading Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss”

  1. […] there’s something deeper going on, something on the level of what Leo Strauss talks about in Persecution and the Art of Writing. DeLonge and his collaborators are writing “between the lines” in order to tell us […]

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