Persecution and the Art of Mormon Writing

July 24, 2006 | 16 comments
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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…

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16 Responses to Persecution and the Art of Mormon Writing

  1. Mark Butler on July 24, 2006 at 12:57 am

    Well, if it does, you are very adept at hiding it in a composition of extreme clarity, Nate. Great post.

  2. tyler on July 24, 2006 at 1:28 am

    I’ve been searching for the date of the second coming in this post for hours now; still, no luck…

  3. DKL on July 24, 2006 at 1:33 am

    Nate: …the sort of experience that drives a person to analytic philosophy.

    LOL. It seems that I’m not without sympathy here.

  4. Mark Butler on July 24, 2006 at 2:43 am

    The thing that slightly annoys me is that so many seem to think that the Second Coming might be tommorrow, when so very many scriptures and prophetic statements indicate pretty reliably that there are a lot of things that have to happen between now and then.

    D&C 77 makes abundantly clear that the Second Coming will not be in the very beginning of the seventh thousand years and refers to two chapters of Revelations that have a symbolic description of the plan for the interval inbetween, and further describes some pretty significant things to be accomplished:

    12 Q. What are we to understand by the sounding of the trumpets, mentioned in the 8th chapter of Revelation?

    A. We are to understand that as God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day he finished his work, and sanctified it, and also formed man out of the dust of the earth, even so, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years will the Lord God sanctify the earth, and complete the salvation of man, and judge all things, and shall redeem all things, except that which he hath not put into his power, when he shall have sealed all things, unto the end of all things; and the sounding of the trumpets of the seven angels are the preparing and finishing of his work, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years—the preparing of the way before the time of his coming.

    13 Q. When are the things to be accomplished, which are written in the 9th chapter of Revelation?

    A. They are to be accomplished after the opening of the seventh seal, before the coming of Christ.

    Now if you go and chase down prophecies that fit the description of what the Lord said will occur prior to and in preparation for his coming, it seems that we have far more guidance as to what will need to occur before he comes than practically anything that occurs in the years after.

    To mention one very obvious thing, we have not yet seen the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, a desolating scourge that will cover the whole earth, from which the righteous will be protected in a miraculous fashion.

    Also by any reasonable estimation, the times of the Gentiles have not been fulfilled. One sign of that fulfilment is the physical gathering of Israel, not just the spiritual:

    And this I have told you concerning Jerusalem; and when that day shall come, shall a remnant be scattered among all nations;
    But they shall be gathered again; but they shall remain until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
    (D&C 45:24-25)

  5. Adam Greenwood on July 24, 2006 at 11:00 am

    “I’ve been searching for the date of the second coming in this post for hours now.”

    You have to assign the letters their proper numeric value, and then engage in a number of transformations. A word to the wise . . .

  6. Wilfried on July 24, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Great post, Nate. It seems that I spent half of my academic career correcting passive sentences which my students wrote in papers and dissertations. And splitting them in two or three slices (the sentences, I mean). Students so quickly develop a taste for the intricate to hide inadequacies. Reminds me of the “fashionable nonsense” in the Sokal hoax “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

  7. Christian Y. Cardall on July 24, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    Yes! Yes.

    Aside from any consciously esoteric or subversive undertakings, I suspect the situation is complicated further by the fact that the nature and motivations—not to mention entirely unforeseen readings—of their works are often not apparent to the authors themselves in the moment of creation. The need for potentially dangerous discovery and cautious problem-solving is no small part of why any such writing occurs in the first place.

  8. DKL on July 24, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    It’s worth noting that Jesus spoke in terms elusive enough to lead to wars between those advocating some interpretation. I think it’s fair to say that this is one area where we should probably not strive to be like Jesus.

  9. Nate Oman on July 24, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    I also wonder if the tortured prose of some Mormon scholarship comes from the fact that many Mormon scholars are independent researchers and autodidacts. Obfuscation and jargon may be a way of plastering over intellectual insecurities. In my work, I know that when I start engaging philosophical or economic arguments I have a tendency to start laying on the jargon pretty thick in large part, I think, because I am compesating for the fact that at the end of the day I am just a lawyer…

  10. J. Stapley on July 24, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Great post, Nate. I very much appreciate your mom’s editorial insight. While I do think that that there is a significant amount of obfuscation that arises from incompetence or from the desire to obscure insufficiencies, there is a tremendous body of work that is could be considered through the Straussian lense. A great example is Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith tapes. I listened to them in when I was 14 and thought they were cool and then found them again last year and thought they were still cool; but, with a mind full of esoteric data, it was evident that he was delineating a ton of stuff that wouldn’t be evident without that esoteric knowledge.

    Even in General Conference. There are certain topics that are only alluded to, and without certain knowledge the hidden meaning would be lost. This provides for plausible deniable and for a healthy distance from and respectful discussion of the private/sacred. I think Mormon scholars in general don’t like to explicitly talk about the ramifications of the Temple, in all its sacral incarnations. They would rather use allusion or euphemism.

  11. Clark on July 24, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    Esoterism is part and parcel of the Mormon mindset especially given the Masonic overtones. Once you throw in some of the apologetic writings, especially Nibley, then you have a near Straussian view of all historic writers. This has to be tempered and I think apologetics has largely weened itself from some of the excesses of the past. But I do think this affects how folks are want to write.

  12. DKL on July 24, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    If you read the Rorschach’s biography, you’ll find out that he was quite persecuted in his time for his beliefs. I wonder what great mysteries are hidden in his famous ink blots.

  13. Mark Butler on July 24, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    Frankly, I think most of Nibley’s writings are a world apart from the general Mormon tradition.

  14. Mark Butler on July 24, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    That is not to say that many historical authors were not inspired, but I find it hard to believe that what putatively were trying to conceal from most of the world is likely to be where that inspiration was most manifest. Esotericism only works in a scriptural / temple context because the spirit is there to testify of the true meaning when necessary. Without the Spirit, esotericism amounts to works of darkness.

  15. Bryan Benson on July 25, 2006 at 3:59 am

    Another way to look at Strauss\’s understanding of esotericism is to say simply that the authors to whom he ascribed its practice were interested in educating those of their readers who were looking for the education, as opposed to spelling things out for all to see. Plato, for example, states (in his Seventh Letter) that he would never openly state his understanding of \”nature\” (physis), since it would fill some with contempt–hence the danger of persecution–and others with a false notion of understanding (perhaps an esoteric statement in itself, though it\’s difficult to see how). Esotericism, especially as connected with Leo Strauss, seems to take on sinister connotations. When I was in graduate school, in a very Straussian environment, one of the little running jokes was that the statement, \”There is no God, sssssshhhhh\” was the sum of esotericism. But my experience in reading some of the authors to whom Strauss points is that they want me to work for what I get out of the text, since by so doing I will have come to understand something myself. In other words, esotericism is not, I think, simply concealing one\’s subversive opinion within a text, but rather embedding within the text a chain of reasoning that can be followed or not followed, depending on how interested the reader really is. After all, what genuine philosopher would be happy with someone who just agreed with his opinion about something? Since such philosophers rely on reason alone, it may be that their esotericism amounts to works of darkness, but only if reason by itself ultimately leaves us in the dark. At any rate, to return to my point, I would define genuine esotericism as a form of pedagogy. I believe any suspected esotericism in Mormon writing could be judged by this standard. In this regard, and on a lighter note, I suppose some works could be considered to have an esoteric teaching that do not actually intend one. To illustrate: I recall that from Benjamin Franklin\’s autobiography his account of reading a faithful refutation of arguments for deism. He ended up being more persuaded by the arguments for deism than by the refutations.

  16. Christian Y. Cardall on July 25, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    To illustrate: I recall that from Benjamin Franklin\’s autobiography his account of reading a faithful refutation of arguments for deism. He ended up being more persuaded by the arguments for deism than by the refutations.

    This is, of course, the knife-edge upon which FARMS lives.