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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve



Timothy W. Burns and Bryan-Paul Frost

The years 2013-2014 marked several anniversaries in respect to the debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve in the former’s On Tyranny} These include the sixtieth anniversary of the [1]

original publication of the debate in French (1954); the fiftieth anniversary of that debate published in English (1963-1964); and finally, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s original article “The End of History?” (1989), which made Kojeve’s name familiar to a new generation of the learned public, and which helped to inspire renewed interest in Kojeve’s claim that liberal democracy (or what he called the universal and homogenous state) presents the final and most perfect form of government.[2] This edited volume uses these occasions to reexamine critically the debate as a whole and to demonstrate why it possesses a timelessness that few philosophic or scholarly debates have ever achieved. All articles herein were written expressly for this volume, and the authors include both senior- and junior-level scholars from disciplines in political science, philosophy, and classical studies. Within manageable limits, the editors have striven to cover the high points of the debate, including its general context, who might have won (if either of them), and its wider philosophical relevance. No interpretive orthodoxy has been insisted upon (as will be evident from the diverse conclusions presented); every contributor, however, is animated by a sincere and very profound desire to learn from the debate and to convey their insights to a wider public, even if they may ultimately disagree with Strauss, Kojeve, and/or both. The editors believe that this is the first edited volume on the debate as a whole, and therefore that it makes a unique and positive contribution to the State University of New York Press series on the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss, edited by Kenneth Hart Green.[3]

On Tyranny has been a perennial favorite study among students of Strauss and Kojeve, and many influential and illuminating articles and book chapters have previously been published on the debate.[4] With precision, economy, and often startling clarity, these thinkers put forward the basic ideas and foundational premises of classical and modern political thought. Indeed, they go so far as to suggest that if either one of them is wrong then the other must be right in all or most things, implying that these are two of the most fundamental alternatives in human life and thought. Although diametrically opposed in the answers to almost all of the most important questions, they seem to agree completely on what those most important questions are, as is evidenced from the debate itself: How does one read and interpret a philosophic text? Has Biblical faith transformed human consciousness? Is history a rational and purposive process? Can political life ever be fully rational and satisfying? What is the character of philosophy and politics? What is the highest way of life, and how is it accurately characterized? Indeed, it is hard to imagine a question of genuine political significance that is not somehow addressed or touched on in their exchange. Of course, this does not mean that the debate stands as the final and most authoritative or mature expression of their thoughts: Both went on to write a number of other works after this one, and their philosophic correspondence began to cool after the publication of the debate. Nevertheless, there is a freshness to this debate; it has remained remarkably crisp over time, and neither thinker ever disavowed what he claimed therein.

For the best account of the genesis of the debate, we refer the reader to Emmanuel Patard’s preface to his critical edition of Strauss’s “Restatement,” which includes extensive references to the

Leo Strauss Papers and the Fonds Kojeve.[5] We here limit ourselves to providing some brief biographical information for readers who might be unfamiliar with the two friendly protagonists.

  • [1] Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny was originally published in English in 1948 by Political Science Classics (New York), with a forward by the New School’s AlvinJohnson. A French translation, De la tyrannie, which included Kojeve’s “Tyranny and Wisdom,” first appeared in 1954 (Paris: Gallimard). A second American edition of On Tyranny, edited by Allan Bloom and including a translationof Kojeve’s “Tyranny and Wisdom,” appeared in 1963 (New York: Free Pressof Glencoe). On Tyranny was republished, in a revised and expanded edition,including the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, in English in 1991, edited byVictor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (New York: Free Press). (A Frenchedition of this revised and expanded edition appeared in 1997, published byGallimard.) A second edition of the revised and expanded edition was published in 2000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); it “restore[d] the concluding paragraph of Strauss’s ‘Restatement’” and corrected some errors in thetext (“Preface to the University of Chicago Edition,” viii). A final third and“corrected and expanded edition” was published in 2013 (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press) that included “an omitted paragraph” on page 193 (“Prefaceto the Corrected and Expanded Edition,” viii). The contributors to this volumehave used a variety of editions, depending on their pedagogical needs and thecharacter of their articles.
  • [2] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest 16 (Summer1989): 3-18, subsequently enlarged into The End of History and the Last Man(New York: Free Press, 1992), and reissued with a new “Afterward” (New York:Free Press, 2006).
  • [3] See, for example, Corine Pelluchon, Leo Strauss and the Crisis of Rationalism:Another Reason, Another Enlightenment, trans. Robert Howse (Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press, 2015); Jeffrey Alan Bernstein, Leo Strauss on theBorders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History (Albany: State University of NewYork Press, 2015); Tucker Landy, After Leo Strauss: New Directions in PlatonicPolitical Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015); AryehTepper, Progressive Minds, Conservative Politics: Leo Strauss’s Later Writings onMaimonides (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014); and DavidJanssens, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy, Prophecy, and Politics in LeoStrauss’s Early Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).
  • [4] See, for example, Victor Gourevitch, “Philosophy and Politics, I—II,” The Reviewof Metaphysics 22 (nos. 1-2, 1968): 58-84, 281-328; George Grant, Technology and Empire (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1969), 79-109; Michael S.Roth, Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 83-146, as well as collected essaysin The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of History (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1995); Robert B. Pippin, “Being, Time, andPolitics: The Strauss-Kojeve Debate,” History and Theory 32 (no. 2, 1993): 138—161; James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 214-231; and the“Introduction” to the editions of On Tyranny, eds. Gourevitch and Roth.
  • [5] Emmanuel Patard, “‘Restatement,’ by Leo Strauss (Critical Edition),” Interpretation 36 (no. 1,2008): 3-27.
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