For a while I have noticed Tyler Cowen using the term “Straussian reading”. I like reading, so I got intrigued by the idea of a way to read that is more powerful than the normal way of reading things, and started learning about the concept of Straussian reading.
The idea is that when you read something, there are sometimes two layers of meaning. There is the “exoteric”, most-obvious meaning, which is the normal meaning that normal meaning would reveal. After you understand the exoteric meaning, if you keep thinking about it, you may be able to understand a deeper “esoteric” meaning. This initially seems like some sort of Da Vinci Code nonsense, but hang with me for a moment.
The best introduction to Straussian reading I have found so far is Philosophy Between The Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Here’s a passage that does a great job describing the concept:
Imagine you have received a letter in the mail from your beloved, from whom you have been separated for many long months. (An old-fashioned tale, where there are still beloveds—and letters.) You fear that her feelings toward you may have suffered some alteration. As you hold her letter in your unsteady hands, you are instantly in the place that makes one a good reader. You are responsive to her every word. You are exquisitely alive to every shade and nuance of what she has said—and not said.
“Dearest John.” You know that she always uses “dearest” in letters to you, so the word here means nothing in particular; but her “with love” ending is the weakest of the three variations that she typically uses. The letter is quite cheerful, describing in detail all the things she has been doing. One of them reminds her of something the two of you once did together. “That was a lot of fun,” she exclaims. “Fun”—a resolutely friendly word, not a romantic one. You find yourself weighing every word in a relative scale: it represents not only itself but the negation of every other word that might have been used in its place. Somewhere buried in the middle of the letter, thrown in with an offhandedness that seems too studied, she briefly answers the question you asked her: yes, as it turns out, she has run into Bill Smith—your main rival for her affection. Then it’s back to chatty and cheerful descriptions until the end.
It is clear to you what the letter means. She is letting you down easy, preparing an eventual break. The message is partly in what she has said—the Bill Smith remark, and that lukewarm ending—but primarily in what she has not said. The letter is full of her activities, but not a word of her feelings. There is no moment of intimacy. It is engaging and cheerful but cold. And her cheerfulness is the coldest thing: how could she be so happy if she were missing you? Which points to the most crucial fact: she has said not one word about missing you. That silence fairly screams in your ear.
Just imagine knowing (for example) Plato so well, that you could read The Republic in this way, pondering unusual word choices and thinking deeply about what was not said.
Why would someone write in this way, with hidden esoteric meaning, rather than just saying what they mean? In this example, your beloved feels that you can’t handle the raw truth. Fear of persecution is another common rationale for esoteric writing. Socrates was executed for his beliefs, so do you really think Plato would just write down everything he honestly believed? The theory is that writing esoterically lets Plato hint at his deeper thoughts, like suspicion of the whole Greek religious system, while escaping punishment for his beliefs.
If Straussian reading were only something that applied to the ancient Greeks, I would lose interest in the concept. As a Silicon Valley techie, I am going to try to read “startup advice literature” in this way. It is fairly common for successful people in the startup scene to be attacked for their beliefs in one way or another. Yet their unpopular beliefs may be contributing to their success. So wouldn’t it be useful to know what those unpopular beliefs are?
For example, the Peter Thiel interview question:
Tell me something that’s true that very few people agree with you on.
Thiel himself evades answering this. I suspect that he has more secret beliefs that are even more controversial than the controversial beliefs he has already been publicly criticized for. And presumably dozens or hundreds of successful entrepreneurs have been interviewed by Peter Thiel and asked this question. What were their answers? I think people are embarrassed or afraid to share the good answers publicly. So I’m tempted to reread Zero to One and try to step up my Straussian reading game.