Semiramis equo, Pasiphae tauro, Aristo Ephesius asinae se commiscuit, Fulvius equae, alii canibus, capris, &c., unde monstra nascuntur aliquando, Centauri, Sylvani, et ad terrorem hominum prodigiosa spectra: Nec cum brutis, sed ipsis hominibus rem habent, quod peccatum Sodomiae vulgo dicitur; et frequens olim vitium apud Orientalis illos fuit, Graecos nimirum, Italos, Afros, Asianos: Hercules Hylam habuit, Polycletum, Dionem, Perithoonta, Abderum et Phryga; alii et Euristium ab Hercule amatum tradunt. Socrates pulchrorum Adolescentum causa frequens Gymnasium adibat, flagitiosque spectaculo pascebat oculos, quod et Philebus et Phaedon, Rivales, Charmides et reliqui Platonis Dialogi, satis superque testatum faciunt: quod vero Alcibiades de eodem Socrate loquatur, lubens conticesco, sed et abhorreo; tantum incitamentum praebet libidini. At hunc perstrinxit Theodoretus lib. de curat. graec. affect. cap. ultimo. Quin et ipse Plato suum demiratur Agathonem, Xenophon, Cliniam, Virgilius Alexin, Anacreon Bathyllum: Quod autem de Nerone, Claudio, caeterorumque portentosa libidine memoriae proditum, mallem a Petronio, Suetonio, caeterisque petatis, quando omnem fidem excedat, quam a me expectetis; sed vetera querimur. Apud Asianos, Turcas, Italos, nunquam frequentius hoc quam hodierno die vitium; Diana Romanorum Sodomia; officinae horum alicubi apud Turcas,—qui saxis semina mandant—arenas arantes; et frequentes querelae, etiam inter ipsos conjuges hac de re,quae virorum concubitum illicitum calceo in oppositam partem verso magistratui indicant; nullum apud Italos familiare magis peccatum, qui et post Lucianum et Tatium, scriptis voluminibis defendunt. Johannes de la Casa, Beventinus Episcopus, divinum opus vocat, suave scelus, adeoque jactat, se non alia, usum Venere. Nihil usitatius apud monachos, Cardinales, sacrificulos, etiam furor hic ad mortem, ad insaniam. Angelus Politianus, ob pueri amorem, violentas sibi inanus injecit. Et horrendum sane dictu, quantum apud nos patrum memoria, scelus detestandum hoc saevierit! Quum enim Anno 1538.prudentissimus Rex Henricus Octavus cucullatorum coenobia, et sacrificorum collegia, votariorum, per venerabiles legum Doctores Thomam Leum, Richardum Laytonum visitari fecerat, &c., tanto numero reperti sunt apud eos scortatores, cinaedi, ganeones, paedicones, puerarii, paederastae, Sodomitae, (Balei verbis utor)Ganimedes, &c. ut in unoquoque eorum novam credideris Gomorrham. Sed vide si lubet eorundem Catalogum apud eundem Balcum;Puellae(inquit)in lectis dormire non poterant ob fratres necromanticos. Haec si apud votarios, monachos, sanctos scilicet homunciones, quid in foro, quid in aula factum suspiceris? quid apud nobiles, quid inter fornices, quam non foeditatem, quam non spurcitiem? Sileo interim turpes illas, et ne nominandas quidem monachorum mastrupationes, masturbatores.- Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3.ii.1
When I was younger--gosh, only a few short years ago--I went through a stage of fascination and love for the work of Leo Strauss. (It is preserved, perhaps unfortunately, in the archives of this blog.) It's not that I was interested in the Noble Lie or sympathetic to the goals of his supposed neoconservative intellectual descendants; I just happened to find the theory of texts and apocalyptic pathos of works like Persecution and the Art of Writing and the "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero" uniquely appealing, especially when spiced up with a vaguely illicit aura. Strauss's writings seemed to open the door to a vision of scholarly work far more mystical and Borgesian than anything the contemporary academy had to offer.
I will readily admit today that Strauss's work is deeply flawed, and, worse yet, that its surface impression of profundity and insight becomes flimsier and flimsier as it is examined more closely. In fact, this passage from Burton, which I have avoided translating in part deliberately and in part because my Latin sucks, is a good example of just how difficult it is for the Straussian method to cope with precisely the thing it seeks to discover.
In brief, Persecution and the Art of Writing offered a programmatic proposal and a very sketchy methodology for distinguishing between the exoteric and the esoteric components of a text. The idea was that pre-Hobbesian philosophers (but only Great Philosophers, according to Strauss's rather odd definition) lived under such a constant threat of persecution for their ideas that they developed a practice of transmitting secret knowledge through their texts to students who were capable of recognizing them. Through an analysis of the text's omissions and mistakes (which are always taken in this method to be deliberate), one could discover the philosopher's real ideas, which were often diametrically opposed to the exoteric statements presented in his work.
Burton is not a great philosopher, but here we have as blatant an example of a technique for esoteric writing as could be imagined. Lengthy passages which he did not want read by those unworthy of seeing them he wrote in Latin--and the criterion of worthiness was, conveniently, knowledge of Latin itself (related metonymically, of course, to the capacity for scholarship in general). The NYRB paperback edition, which is the one I read, only translates the first of these long passages. It seems that the esotericity of the more sexually-charged sections--evidently preserved with some care by whatever old Oxford fuddy-duddy provided NYRB's English text--has been able to survive until the present with only minimal difficulty.
The existence of such a clear, well-defined esoteric-writing technique, paradoxically, poses serious difficulties for Straussians. If something like this was available to nearly every philosopher working around Burton's time, and it certainly was, why would philosophers have to rely on the unstable language of omissions and mistakes? How come we see no argument for one and against the other? In what circumstances could two such techniques coexist, even tacitly? Straussians are by definition unable to answer these questions because their sole and ultimate authority is their private hermeneutic; with the apparition of something far more solid and concrete, its interpretive appeal disappears.
And finally, Burton's secret writing is more real than the Straussian one. A secret writing of sexuality is just more believable, more historically alive, than the mysterious political wisdom the Straussians inevitably pretend to discover. And that makes it so much less scary.