This is a post about Mormonism and Leo Strauss. Among the ideas for which Strauss is famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) is the claim that most of the great philosophers of the past have a secret, esoteric meaning that they have hidden in the text of their works. In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argued that most philosophers wrote under conditions where a full explanation of their true opinions would be either personally dangerous or socially destructive. Accordingly, they wrote in a way that directed attention away from their real meaning, which could nevertheless be discerned by those elect souls who could see the subtly hidden messages lurking below the surface.
For certain writers, Strauss’s claim seems justified. His main scholarly interest was in the work of thinkers in the Islamic philosophical tradition such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Moses Maimonides (a medieval Jew whose philosophical interlocutors were mainly Muslim). For these thinkers — particularly Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (called Averroese in the West) — I think that Strauss has a good case, if for no other reason than that they rather explicitly said that their writings had a secret esoteric meaning. For other philosophers, the case for secret meanings is less compelling.
For many years my mother worked as an editor for various Mormon scholars. She is a very good writer who insists on clear declarative sentences. No long tortured passive-voiced sentence fragments allowed. She tells of continually advising authors to rephrase particularly tortured passages of prose into shorter, clearer sentences only to be met by resistance. Sometimes the authors were simply in love with the fancied elegance of their writing, but frequently the resistance was political. The authors did not want to be clear. They wanted the security of obscure language, the ability to disclaim ideas that were too socially dangerous, either to themselves personally or to the community of the saints. Those with ears to hear, however, were expected to see and understand the esoteric meaning. Strauss (and Ibn Rushd) would have been proud. One could easily get carried away with this, but I suspect that there are any number of works in Mormon studies that will bear a Straussian reading.
Of course, one can take the hermeneutics of supicion too far. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on Maimonides in which I relied in part on some of Strauss’s work. True to the form of his philosophical idols, however, Strauss himself wrote in an esoteric vein, his true meaning hidden from the casual reader. The interpretive task was further complicated by the fact that the passage from Maimonides that I was dealing with was a commentary on a passage of the Torah that Maimonides insisted had an esoteric meaning. Hence, I was trying to find the hidden esoteric meaning of a commentary on the hidden esoteric meaning of a commentary on the hidden esoteric meaning of yet a third text. Needless to say, it was a hall of mirrors more suited to a Le Carre novel than philosophy, the sort of experience that drives a person to analytic philosophy.
Accordingly, those setting forth to divine the hidden meaning of texts in Mormon studies beware. At some point, you should just say “to hell with it” and take things at face value. Still, some Mormon texts contain subversive esoteric treasures for those who can find them. Perhaps the text of this blog post is one of them. Or perhaps not…