The Exoteric And Esoteric

The Exoteric And Esoteric

Murray Rothbard, one of the greatest polymaths of all times made an interesting observation of religious cults: “Every religious cult has two sets of differing and distinctive creeds: the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric creed is the official, public doctrine, the creed which attracts the acolyte in the first place and brings him into the movement as a rank-and-file member. The quite different creed is the unknown, hidden agenda, a creed which is only known to its full extent by the top leadership, the “high priests” of the cult.” Murray Rothbard is said to have had some stubborn heterodox tendencies, but when he feels something is awry, you’d better take him seriously.

The glaring contradiction between the open and hidden agenda of religious cults is quite illuminating. It is true not just of religious cults, but of social movements, ideologies and of course, the most complex and ridiculous of all: human beings. Socialists and Objectivists swear by reason, science and logic, but beneath all their pretensions, we find nothing but the corpse of irrationality-of subjectivity, of feelings. We shall call this the exoteric-esoteric dichotomy.

I have always looked at self-styled humanitarians with amusement. There is always the spurious, condescending concern about the sad plight of the poor who are, of course, trapped by bewildering circumstances beyond their control. In the eyes of the humanitarian, the poor are oppressed, suppressed and marginalized by the elitist middle class that is bent on having the ‘India Fashion Week’ covered than on partying with the ‘milk-and-honey good’ tribals in Attapady. But, nothing makes him more uncomfortable than the ‘nouveau rich’-the arrogant barbarians who have found their way out of the very “hopeless poverty” over which the humanitarian often drools with compassion.Their exoteric agenda is deep compassion for the low IQ/low character masses. Their esoteric agenda is demagoguery and power lust. Our eccentric novelist-philosopher was not far off the mark when she wrote “A humanitarian who starts with declarations of love for mankind ends with a sea of blood.”

Objectivists’ often snarl that they are not second-handers concerned about others opinions. I know that there is always the appeal of the ubermensch Howard Roark telling Ellsworth Toohey: “I don’t even think of you!” But, nothing bothers them more than the fact that others do not “worship them as much as they worship Ayn Rand.” To an Objectivist, independence is the supreme value. However, this ‘supreme value’ is always (Yes, always) sacrificed at the altar of Randroidism. Here we again see the exoteric-esoteric dichotomy.

Mom Scolding a toddler. But, is he worthy of our suspicion?

Wherever we look, we see the blatant contradiction between the exoteric and esoteric.  Teenagers enter college in the name of noble pursuit of knowledge, but in the end all they have is that almighty-piece-of-paper after years of “partying, football games, and sorority dances”. They step into the world with imbecilic stares and incommunicable confusion. We all know it, but few can escape the lure of a college education subsidized by the innocent taxpayer. Professors have life and death control over students, and feel that these silly teenagers who snatch a far better deal when they get out should be harshly disciplined and shown their rightful place. If we bunked classes, skipped exams or failed to kowtow to those grumpy old ladies and old bozos, we were sent home (Home, sweet home) for 6 months to cool our heels for the next semester. All in the name of education! In school, toddlers who commit the grave sin of crossing the boundaries of ascetic discipline are firmly smacked. Little do they know that the lady who spanks them is either venting her frustration over her “long-standing virginity” or dealing with mother-in-law’s nagging! As it often happens, they all have an incurable fetish! A 13 year old friend of mine was suspended from school after trying her sarcasm on such a punitive teacher.Her mock: “I can of course understand the frustrations of a forty five year old virgin.”, was soon rewarded with a suspension. But, she was a naughty child, and her long-suffering mother lived in continuous fear that she will hit her back. She once said rolling her eyes: “My mom thinks that I need counseling. Bah.” I was the only kid I knew who indulged in such wicked psychologizing. Others were convinced that it was all ‘for their own good.’ Whenever I caught myself thinking along such lines, I consciously diverted my attention to better things-like Tom Sawyer, only to end up wondering “transgressively”: “What if Tom hadn’t been noble?”. It wouldn’t have been a pretty picture for Becky Thatcher, right? 

We often feel that we are in the office to get a job done, and in the end, collect adequate monetary compensation for our hard toil. It is supposed to be a voluntary contractual deal in which we should set our priorities right. Of course, this is an important aspect of the whole process, but this is the exoteric agenda. There is a lot more to it. Once a person feels that he need not worry where the next meal would come from, he wants his ego to be massaged. As time progresses, the aim of having ones ego inflated trumps the desire to think, learn, work or co-operate. Now, this is the esoteric agenda.

Volumes could be written on my own experiences with this dichotomy. But, I will spare Stalin, Hitler and Mao here. They are on an entirely different level altogether, and not even worthy of my rigorous analysis. I should think of harmless ones which buzz around our head like fleas, and die down instantly when we smash.

Some time back, I was working on a climate change project. One day an older bloke dropped in and started working on it. To avoid sounding bored, I asked him: “What do you think of our position on this issue?” It never occurred to him that someone can have a position. He believed that everything is a point of view, and that we should choose whichever point of view that helps us fill our pockets best. Once my Ex-Boss wondered: “How can I even talk to him?” He was by no means exaggerating or trying to make me feel like a genius. This chap had a largely underdeveloped brain, or in other words, his brain had a huge scope for development. I felt smug, condescending sympathy, only to regret it later. And then there was the great weasel word: “But”. Murray Rothbard was not alone in noticing that such weasel words are used when one is intending to convey a message which has a meaning contrary to ones pretensions. His favorite conversation starter was: “I am not your boss, but…” When he used to rub it in,I started feeling that there is much wisdom in the old-fashioned cynicism. “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.” I am far from being a shrewd judge of human nature or anything else for that matter, but after faltering here and there, a toddler finally learns to walk.

I was not mistaken. I never was. Soon, I started noticing some retarded, dominating tendencies. I rarely tell someone when I move out to have lunch, but one day he decided to let everyone know that he is no longer amused. The scene he created for such a silly matter was not at all pretty. It was not lame at all, and we all understood that he possessed immense self-esteem. It was purely a work related matter. But, then, in silent understanding, I caught myself thinking of the abstract concepts of ‘hopeless insecurity’ and ‘inferiority complex’. At that phase I didn’t mind letting things go. Why do people have to spoil things for nothing? I wondered. He was abysmally read, was neither here nor there, and often couldn’t make heads or tails out of what he came across. There was no rubbish he didn’t believe in, and there was no bromide which didn’t come out of his mouth. He was the quintessential dud.

I considered him too small an object to be worthy of my anger. I started doubting my shallow judgment only when he succeeded in convincing me that I was largely responsible for all the screw-ups in this organization. I wanted to pay up for it and leave the job. But, I couldn’t help wondering: “How could that be true? How is it even possible?” Each and every statement of his contradicted another, and the last thing he wanted was me to look into the Excel sheet and see things for myself. By evening, I sensed that his claims were largely exaggerated. Months later, I heard that it turned out to be an outright lie. In between I heard nonsense to this effect: “You think you know everything.” “You never give up.”

I dismissed his blabbering, but as much as we love to think it to be endless, we all have known that there are limits to our patience. At the end I shouted in a way the whole office was shocked into dreadful silence. I justified myself: “Brothers, you asked for it!” He walked out of the room, and was down with fever for two days. Others heard only that I shouted at this poor guy. “Mommy yelled at me today”. Yes, but Mommy yelled for a reason. But as it was known that I was a saint who had long attained Nirvana, virtually no one took him seriously. He never co-operated in work matters later, and did everything to prevent me from working. He was soon fired!

One day our IT consultant came to me and said: “He will not be with us from today onwards. We cannot afford him anymore.” Being a perfect gentleman who wouldn’t hurt a fly publicly, the IT guy was being sensitive. I wondered: “He was fired or what?” and enjoyed the subtleties in the way his sentences were framed. I felt that I should also learn to tell things in such a charming, pleasant manner.  I have a lot to learn. There was an expression of childish delight and amusement on my face, which I struggled to hide in embarrassment, and everyone who noticed it was appalled. I remember cheerfully writing a mail to my Ex-Boss: “I can only hope that a person who wondered why we can’t indulge in intellectual depravity when “everything is a point of view” is now hoping against hope that reality is flexible after all, and what happened to him is just another “point of view” that could be bent according to his whims and fancies. Gosh, what a wicked child I must be to take delight and amusement when my fellow human beings fall by the wayside? Where does discretion fit into all this-or tactfulness-or norms of civilized discourse-or common decency? I am really appalled by my own immorality. Hopefully, before it is too late, reality will be my most punitive teacher and teach the much-needed lesson that all this helps a long way when it comes to things one shouldn’t speak, or even think!”

When I caught him with a Google talk status message: “I am not in denial. I am just selective about the reality I accept.”, I set mine accordingly: “Ha! The selective blindness of two bit whores!”. He instantly blocked me. I was depressed as I couldn’t hurt him anymore. I was a mean, mean boy who believed in revenge and made a fetish out of such petty amusements. In short, I was kiddish.

Aww, it hurts so much!

One day when I was at my evil Ex-Boss’ house, he came to say Goodbye. I felt that he had really ‘good manners’, and an almost non-existent spine. But, he was quite practical. He said “Thanks” to my Ex-Boss who looked at him as if he was saying:”Go away”. He turned to me, his mortal enemy, and said “Thank you.” I was not much responsive either. There were tears in his eyes. In hindsight, I feel sick to the core when I think of what he had become, and the humiliation he went through.

His exoteric agenda was work, and esoteric agenda was domination and getting his ego massaged. I think the exoteric-esoteric dichotomy is an interesting prism through which we should look at workplace relationships. I have never noticed a work related mistake leading to a mess. But a minor blow to their ego is enough to drive people insane. When they approach you with a task, their primary concern would be control, and the fear of being rejected. The task at hand plays a minor, supportive role. Of course, there are people who need their work to get done, and little more. They do not look at each and every word they hear, and each and every gesture they see with a fear that it could be a dreadful blow to their fragile ego. They are more concerned about not offending others than being offended. But, they are rare exceptions and end up receiving genuine respect.

Recently, a girl came to insist that I should send my work soon. I had seen her walking around shaking her head. I often hear of the characteristic “Ready ReckOner”. I also heard that it is a public secret here that I poke fun at her on Facebook. But, it was all in good taste.  I barely knew her. It was not that I didn’t hear that people say mean things about me when I am not around. Like: “He talks in a condescending manner and makes fun of us on Facebook. He has read ‘The Fountainhead’ 18 times. After leaving the office at 8 30 in the morning after production, he was back to the office in an hour.” The little girl next to me sneered: “Whenever I tell him something, he would look at me and say: ‘I didn’t get you!’ Because of his “attitude problem”, I don’t even look at him these days!” That head shaking doll was also appalled : “He wrote on Facebook that I shake my head like an obedient high school girl and all. It was too much for me, Yaar.” Someone in the next room stopped to wonder: “I mean, What is his problem? He doesn’t have a girl friend or what?” In the end, they all passed the final judgment: “He is a complete weirdo.” And took a collective decision: “We should make him sit near the new Assistant Editor so that both can debate with each other. They will make a wonderful pair!” I was laughing out loud after hearing all this!

I agreed that I will finish the work as soon as possible. She popped up a couple of times to see to it that I am not shirking. When such things happen, I know at the back of my mind that the esoteric agenda is something else. But, I dismissed the thought inwardly and bent over backwards not to sound dismissive. I was asked by another person to work on an article on an immediate basis. In between, she again appeared and said with a twinkle in her eyes: “I will report.” I was amused, and was suddenly reminded of how a classmate sulked in LKG: “I will complain to the class teacher.” The three year old me ended up crying. I wondered why I was turning all misty eyed and reaching for those rose tinted glasses. But, I soon forgot the whole incident.

Many days later, I wanted to know something and went ahead to ask her. I heard her mumble hysterically, as if she was spitting venom. I was always slow to grasp. I was taken aback, but later things fell into place. She was burning in humiliation for the last ten days, waiting eagerly for an opportunity to strike back. Her hidden agenda hadn’t worked out that well. It is understandable. The dichotomy became visible. I understood everything.

This exoteric-esoteric dichotomy teaches us of man’s never ending desire for the unearned. Human beings have a great need for respect, attention and appreciation. When they find it impossible to get enough supply through legitimate means, they turn helpless and neurotic. But, why is it so hard to bring in some genuine competence, and treat people with fairness and respect? Why is it so hard to live by the old-fashioned code of common sense, common honesty and common decency? I often wonder whether I should just laugh at their faces and ask gently: “Oh, but were you hurt?” But, then again, I am a mean, mean boy.

Read: Corruption In Liberty Institute


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