Ancient Philosophical Motives for Esoteric Writing

Boethius begins by reminding Symmachus - his father-in-law, mentor, protector - that their shared inquiries could properly be spoken only between them.10 Boethius pleads this as one excuse for the roughness of his writing. He has had little chance to polish it in conversation. He also reminds Symmachus of what a lettered patrician hardly needs explained: there are venerable customs of reserve in the most respected philosophic schools that they inherit together.

The customs would have needed more explaining to Aquinas, who knew only small portions of the library of ancient philosophy. So, for example, Thomas was largely ignorant of the texts of Platonic and neo-Platonic eso-tericism, not to speak of the mystagogical collages made from them in late antiquity. Of the practice of esotericism in Islamic authors such as Farabi, he seems to have known little or nothing. He does not even remark on the esoteric prologue to Maimonides's Guide, parts of which he borrowed. Despite the limits on his reading, however, Thomas did know some of the chief motives adduced in antiquity for philosophical esotericism. He refers to them in a number of places.

In his literal exposition of Aristotle's On the Heavens, Thomas explains at some length the difference between exoteric and esoteric genres.

. . . one should consider that there were two kinds of dogmas (dogmata) among the philosophers. There were some that were placed before the public

9 Ernest Fortin suggests, for example, that the techniques of esoteric writing were rediscovered by the generation after Thomas. See E. L. Fortin, Dissidence et philosophie au moyen âge: Dante et ses antécédents, Cahiers d'études médiévales 6 (Montreal: Bellarmin, and Paris: J. Vrin, 1981), p. 68.

10 As in Thomas Aquinas, Super De Trin. expositio proemii.

(lit., the many) from the beginning according to the order of teaching; these were called encyclia. Others, more subtle, were proposed to already advanced listeners; these were called syntagmatica, that is, coordinate [teachings] (coordi-nalia), or acroamatica, that is, [teachings] for listening (auditionalia).11

Thomas refers to the same distinction when he explains the traditional subtitle of Aristotle's Physics: "This is the book of Physics, which is also called Concerning Physics or Natural [Philosophy] that is Listened To, since it was handed down to listeners in the manner of teaching (per modum doctrinae)'.'12 Thomas correlates the two genres with two manners of teaching adopted to two different audiences, one open and one restricted.

Boethius announces that he will restrict his audience by coining new and obscure terms. While Thomas endorses the distinction of philosophic audiences, he is not happy to approve deliberate obscurity. He has learned that the earliest philosophers or proto-philosophers were "theologizing poets" who composed in meter.13 His harsh view of the limits of poetry prevents him from regarding their writings as anything more than a prelude to phil-osophy.14 Thomas has read further that some ancient commentators believed that Plato wrote so as to conceal his true teaching behind stories and enigmas.15 These readers faulted Aristotle for attacking only the surface meaning, while others defended his interpretations. Thomas shrugs off the controversy as beside the point of his reading: what matters is to get through dialectically opposed opinions to the truth about things.

The only passages in which Thomas paraphrases advice about writing obscurely are passages in theological works. Thus, in the commentary on Boethius, Thomas does not dissent from the terminological innovations. Again, in the commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius's Divine Names, Thomas explains that the obscure style is not due to the author's ineptitude, but rather to his care that sacred truths should be concealed from unbelievers.16

11 Sent. De caelo 1.21. The terms "coordinalia" and "auditionalia" occur only here in Thomas's entire corpus. They derive from Moerbeke's translation of Simplicius's commentary on De caelo, which text Thomas has on his desk as he writes.

13 Sent. De Anima 1.12. The "poet theologians," including Orpheus, are elsewhere placed before philosophy or distinguished from it; see Sent. Phys. 2.2, Sent. Metaph. 12.6 and 12.12, Sent. Meteora 2.1.

14 On the contrast between poetry and philosophy, see Sent. Metaph. 1.3-4 generally and such specific remarks as occur in 1.15. For the somewhat different, but no weaker contrast between poetic and theological use of images, see Scriptum Sent. 1.1.5 arg. 3 and ad 3, Summa theol. 1.19 arg. 1 and ad 1.

15 Sent. De caelo 1.22, which reports the disagreement between Simplicius and Alexander.

16 Super De div. nom. proem.

Yet Thomas immediately corrects the Platonic error that leads to some of the oddest locutions in Pseudo-Dionysius. The point is evident: the Platon-ists were mistaken about being and about how to describe being. Pseudo-Dionysius has license as a Christian author to adopt the Platonists' style, because he is presumed not to share their errors.17 Still Thomas does not excuse philosophers from writing clearly, especially if their lack of clarity is due to bad philosophy. While Thomas is perfectly willing to admit distinctions of audience in philosophic teaching, he is not ready to admit as corollary the philosophic use of dissimulation or obscurity.

For Thomas, the real issue in philosophical esotericism concerns pedagogical order. What is suitable for the public is what is suitable at the beginning, since they are presumed to be beginners. Different things can be taught to advanced students, to the listeners who have already been through a course of study. The connection between esotericism and curriculum is underlined whenever Thomas treats Aristotle's practice of teaching. One famous passage comes at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle urges that neither the young nor the morally immature can study ethics well. Thomas explains that the young ought not to study ethics or any part of politics because they lack experience enough to judge the truth or falsity of what they hear.18 Exposed to the words of ethics or politics, they would risk skepticism or credulity. Passion's followers and the incontinent ought not to study ethics because they cannot act on it. The overly passionate are addicted to particular things and do not rise to the universality of knowledge; the incontinent do not act on what they know.19 Thomas leaves the risk here unstated, but it appears to be frustrating the natural end of learning. Those who can never reach the end of a study are at risk of hating it and all other learning.

Somewhat later in the exposition of Nicomachean Ethics, Thomas encounters the passage in which Aristotle explains why the young can become mathematicians, but not students of natural philosophy or of metaphysics. The reason is again a lack of experience. Thomas adds that the proper order of study is to move from what requires little experience to what requires much: logic, then mathematics, then natural philosophy, then moral matters, and then the things of wisdom, divine things.20 Experience is not merely the passage of time. Moral matters require "experience and a soul free from passions"; wisdom requires a powerful capacity to escape from

17 For another example, De spir. creat. 8 ad 9.

imagination. Thomas endorses the order of study even when he is not reading Aristotle. So, in the commentary on the Book of Causes, he repeats as the proper order an ascent from logic through mathematics to natural philosophy, then to ethics, and finally to metaphysics.21 More tellingly, he approves the Aristotelian sequence when arguing through issues raised by Boethius's On the Trinity.22

Thomas treats the order of philosophic study apart from questions about the political conditions for philosophy. Nowhere can I find that Thomas considers an author's desire to escape persecution a motive for esoteric writing. The dangers to be forestalled by reserve in teaching are not dangers of civic reprisal against the teacher. They are dangers for those who might be hurt by learning philosophy badly. When Thomas adopts Maimonides's list of the failures that plague the actual pursuit of philosophy, there is no mention of violent regimes. The failures follow on weakness, slowness, and preoccupation.23 Esotericism addresses the dangers posed by these failures when it enforces a pedagogical order. Pedagogical order is internal to philosophy, which is presumed to have sovereignty over its teaching.

Thomas does rehearse passages in which Aristotle says that even speculative studies are to be governed by civic rulers. He ends by emphasizing that no ruler can prescribe doctrine. The city may regulate the circumstances of teaching, never its truths. To take one example, from the exposition of the Ethics:

Politics may order that some teach or learn geometry. For these acts, so far as they are voluntary, belong to the matter of morality and can be ordered to the end of human life. But the student of politics does not teach the geometer what to conclude about the triangle, since this does not fall under human will, nor can it be ordered to human life, but depends rather on the very reason of things.

The simple lesson in this passage is that rulers cannot legislate the structure of creation. True enough, it might be objected, but rather beside the point. If rulers cannot alter truths about triangles, they can certainly control the teaching of those truths. For Thomas to presume pedagogical autonomy is simply to ignore what happens when regimes systematically suppress or adulterate philosophy.

21 Super De causis 1.

23 Super De Trin. 3.1 corp, De verit. 14.10 corp, Contra gent. 1.4, Summa theol. 1.1.1 and 2-2.2.4.

Thomas's presumption of pedagogical autonomy is not ignorance or naïveté, but a sign of the abstractness that issues about the history of philosophy have for him. Thomas is perfectly familiar with the civic regulation of teaching and, indeed, with cases where certain teachings have been brutally repressed. He prays a liturgy that commemorates many martyrs, after all, and he belongs to an Order that championed the suppression of heresy. Thomas's best thoughts about teaching within the city are thoughts about teachings on faith within a Christian regime. Questions about the practice of philosophy must be abstract for Thomas because he takes "philosophy" as a name for the unfulfilled condition of wisdom under paganism. A Christian may not remain a philosopher, I repeat, and so a Christian can only conceive living philosophically as a prelude to the life of grace. If we want Thomas's best thoughts about esotericism, we must turn to his views on theological motives for it.

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