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This article is a republication, by permission, of a chapter of the author’s book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (University of Chicago Press, 2014). The piece provides a beginner’s guide to techniques and devices used in esoteric writing. Among the techniques and devices described are the following: dissembling the true message (sometimes by presenting it as from a disputant, beggar, or buffoon, sometimes by arguing against it in ways that enhance awareness of its truth); dissembling the true target (exoterically speaking of Y when the real target is some other thing Z); developing a compelling argument and then taking it back; textual incongruity (for example, departing from a declared plan); conspicuous inconsistency or self-contradiction; the commission of errors that the author’s demonstrated competence and mastery would not allow (for example, altering a quotation in a significant way); dispersal (dispersing argumentation for a tacit viewpoint throughout the text); expressing very striking or intense thoughts in an oblique or ancillary fashion, such as in a meandering digression or in the notes; meaningful silence or conspicuous omission (as when the text creates expectations of coming to something that then remains unaddressed or unstated); alluding subtly to the writings or opinions of a significant figure; and placing thoughts of particular significance in middle of the text or in the exact center of a list or sequence.
Podcast related to this article: Arthur Melzer on the History, Analysis, and Significance of Esotericism (EJW Audio, July 2015).