The Exoteric and Esoteric

In this video, Murray Rothbard draws a useful distinction between the “exoteric” (public) philosophy of Ayn Rand, and her “esoteric” (insider) precepts.

While he puts an amusing spin on the tensions between these two poles, at the same time he has no doubt of the high quality of Ayn Rand’s “exoteric” work.

Even so, purges of followers ran from the 1960s onwards and continued in debates after Ayn Rand’s death.

As Murray suggests, these same tensions have played out in religions, although they’ve also occurred in other areas that have developed defined bodies of thought (regardless of how logical they are).

A similar thing has happened over recent years, for instance, in the abolitionist animal rights movement. Many people acknowledge the fine exoteric writing of its leader, Gary Francione.

Yet, this movement has also been besest by schisms over the years, partly due to legitimate differences over philosophy, but also to Gary Francione’s at times abrasive nature.

This doesn’t mean the esoteric creed is necessarily wrong, but the behaviour of Gary and his inner circle can cause people to react in resentment, rather than simply disagreement.

Steve Best has said of Gary Francione:

When wearing his public mask, he appears as principled, professional, fair, and kind; in his private dealings, however – as his former disciples and critics consistently reveal – he is arrogant, controlling, insulting, duplicitous, conniving, aggressive, and verbally abusive.

This assessment may be extreme, perhaps clouded by bitterness, but Murray’s reflections on his association with Ayn Rand serve as a general warning that if esoteric ‘teachings’ start to regularly involve disagreeble elements that diverge from their exoteric base, there’s likely trouble afoot.

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