In this day and age, we are accustomed to think ourselves skilled at looking what lies beneath. Whether we are conspiracy buffs who always think there is a dark puppet master coordinating the evil of this world (who invariably is some kind of human group), or whether we are critical scholars who prefer to take ancient texts and read them against the grain because we cannot believe the story of the Bible at face value (and wish to deny its ultimately heavenly authority, even as a statement of history), we are looking for what lies beneath. It is ironic, but perhaps fitting, that in such an age where superficiality has run so rampant, that there exists such a widespread desire to ignore the surface whatsoever. It appears that we are at crosspurposes with ourselves. We either idolize the surface to such an extent that no one can live up to the image (and we are disappointed in those who cannot reach our impossible standards) or we neglect the surface altogether and dig cavernous subterranean interpretations or schools in direct variance to the small scraps of historical evidence we possess, leaving only our own wishes and biases for interpretations even as we self-seriously congratulate ourselves for avoiding bias.
This is a problem. I’m not quite sure what the source of the problem is, but it is something that I find troubling. The reason is because there ought to be a connection between the inside and outside. A genuine scholar and interpreter is not afraid that there are multiple meanings. I am someone who tends to be both pretty direct in my surface meanings and also simultaneously someone who writes and speaks with a lot of layers of meaning underneath, rewarding those who view what I am saying with some subtlety, and often irony. These deeper meanings do not in any way negate the surface meaning, they just add depth to it. We are impoverished intellectually and culturally, to say nothing of morally, when we feel that we must either ignore the surface (because it is obvious, after all) or if we lack the moral sensitivity to ponder the nuance and irony of a deeper study.
Let us give one large example (though many would suffice). My intellectual development as a historian and political philosopher was deeply influenced by a man named Harry Jaffa, who has written very thoughtful and excellent books about both Abraham Lincoln as well as William Shakespeare. He himself was a student of a man called Leo Strauss, a political philosopher who made his career on the interplay between the exoteric (that is, surface) and esoteric (that is, hidden) meanings of Machiavelli’s classic devil’s work of political philosophy, The Prince.
Machiavelli’s The Prince is a work that is sorely misunderstood. This is because it goes against the grain of Machiavelli’s writings, which generally portray him as a humanistic Hellenistic philosopher with a fondness for Greek and Roman plays (which he updated into Italian), was a sincere republican who also wanted to reinstitute the civilian militias of the Roman Republic to overthrow the corrupt princelings who then dominated Italy. He wrote The Prince after his regime fell and he was tortured for some period of time, seeking (unsuccessfully) to gain the support of the restored Medici rulers. He died in retirement a little later, his book used to permanently tar him as a supporter of naked and brutal totalitarian rule.
It was Strauss’ idea (and I think it was a sound one) to view Machiavelli’s work as having both esoteric and exoteric levels. If we examine the context of Machiavelli’s time, we would see that nations like France and Spain were deliberately supporting or trying to dominate parts of the Italian peninsula to keep Italy weak and disunited, and they were helped by Italian princelings who hated each other, married and murdered wives from various other “royal” families in the area, including the Papal States, but who agreed that the hoi polloi (or common folk) of the people had no place in government except to be cannon fodder in various wars fought by empires over Italy’s destiny.
Strauss (and I would agree with him) judge Machiavelli as a sincere republican. I would find him troubling as a Hellenist (since I am not a Hellenist myself), but I believe his republican sentiments were sincere, if heathen. He was genuinely cultured, sophisticated, and also not at all interested in traditional morality. He also genuinely believed that the people (however he defined that, at least the “middle classes” and small landowners) of Italy needed to have a say and an involvement in local politics. His book The Prince purports to give a guide to those who wish to hold true power by fear rather than love, but what it is instead is a poison draught to regimes who seek to base their rule on naked power without any sort of legitimacy, like those of the Medici and many dictators of our own time.
The poison is this–if a regime wishes to gain legitimacy by moral grounds (say, biblical Christianity) it is restrained by biblical law (see, for example, Deuteronomy 20:14-20, or Romans 13:1-7), which make even kings and emperors as mere viceroys and servants of God, accountable for enforcing His standards of righteousness on evildoers in their kingdoms. Kings (and Machiavelli knew this well, not wishing either to be subject to biblical standards of morality) do not wish to be thought of as the mere errand boys of God. But Machiavelli’s advice was fatal for regimes who thought that they needed no legitimacy for rule, because as soon as the old man dies or grows weak, the young lions fight for his kingdom. Without legitimacy there is no respect once one’s power declines. And so dictators, even dying ones, become paranoid, unwilling to trust those they have ruthlessly cheated and exploited, unable to enjoy the fruits of power because of how they obtained and used it.
This paradox is true no matter whether one is in a monarchy or a dictatorship or a democracy. Whenever a nation presumes its legitimacy and does not consider itself bound by any external standard, be it divine law or a constitution, and seeks to make itself viewed as divine, it will be held responsible for each and every disaster that occurs, and held responsible for the well being of its increasingly irresponsible and dependent people. No government can endure under these circumstances, for no human government can do for man what man cannot or will not do for itself, and people eventually revolt from being taxed for the effort. Likewise, if rulers seek luxury from the backs of their people or from siphoning off funds from natural resources, eventually the money runs out and the state is both morally and politically and economically bankrupt. Eventually all leaders and governments are shown to be mere men, not gods.
To examine such matters required a historical perspective and a critical eye, but to see what lies beneath does not require that we neglect the surface appearance nor focus entirely on it. It is merely seeing the whole picture that provides the context for both the surface meaning and depth. The depth does not contradict or overwhelm the surface, nor is the surface all there is. Both the topography and what lies beneath must be searched out, understood, and placed in context, for neither is ultimately irrelevant to the astute observer of events. Let us be so astute.