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

Brief Biographies of Strauss and Kojeve

Leo Strauss was born in Prussia in 1899 and attended the University at Marburg, and then Hamburg, where he wrote his doctoral thesis under Ernst Cassirer.[1] In 1922, Strauss went to the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau for a postdoctoral year, to study under Edmund Husserl, but he also attended lecture courses given by

Martin Heidegger. He participated in Franz Rosenzweig’s Freies Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt-am-Main, and published articles in Der Jude and the Judische Rundschau, eventually coming to the attention of Julius Guttmann, who in 1925 offered him a position researching Jewish philosophy at the Akademie fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. There Strauss wrote his first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion as the Foundation of his Science of the Bible, Investigations into Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (published in 1930), and was part of the editorial team for the jubilee edition of Mendelssohn’s writings. The latter work introduced him to various German Jewish intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Others whom he met at the time and with whom he later carried on vigorous epistolatory exchanges were Karl Lowith, Gerhard Kruger, Gershom Scholem, Hans Jonas, Emil Fackenheim, and Paul Kraus. Many of these exchanges are published in Strauss’s Gesa- mmelte Schriften (Collected Writings), edited by Heinrich Meier. In 1932, he left for Paris, with a Rockefeller Scholarship. It was there that he became friends with Alexandre Kojeve, in whose first class on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (in 1933) Strauss enrolled. He moved to England in 1934, and in 1935, relocated to Cambridge; he received access to Hobbes’s early papers at Devonshire, and published there his first book on Hobbes, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, in which he promised in a footnote to write a book together with Kojeve on Hobbes and Hegel.[2] He immigrated to New York in 1937, and, after a research fellowship at Columbia University, was a visiting lecturer at a number of colleges before receiving more permanent employment at the New School for Social Research. In 1949 he joined the political science faculty at the University of Chicago, teaching there until 1967. He then spent three semesters at Claremont Men’s College, and four years at St. John’s College, Annapolis. He died in 1973, having published fifteen books and numerous articles in scholarly journals.

Strauss followed Goethe in seeing “the struggle between belief and unbelief,” or the question of the source of the obligations by which we guide our lives, as “‘the deepest theme of all world and human history.’”[3] As a morally serious young man he was gripped by the apparently irreconcilable conflict between nobility-inducing faith, on one hand, and the claims of science, on the other, which he referred to as “the theological-political problem.” In a manner helpful to others, he presented (in his 1965 Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion) the arguments by which he wrested himself free from modern presuppositions and the remnants of the Biblical and classical tradition that had been transformed by those presuppositions, so that the issue of faith versus reason could present itself in full clarity.[4] He made clear that he was assisted in this effort by Martin Heidegger’s shaking of the calcified “tradition” of Western philosophy.

Strauss stressed that his writings were appearing at a time when the possibility of philosophy, understood as reason’s search for enduring truth, so far from being taken for granted, had been radically called into question by the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Partly as a result of that questioning, the West had come to be characterized by a protracted collapse of confidence in the possibility of discovering, through reason, a genuine, universal understanding of the world, one by which we can and should take our bearings. Through his life’s work as a teacher and a scholar, Strauss faced and led others to face that situation squarely, and guided the way both to a recovery of the original ground for the rational life in Socratic political philosophy and to a respectful, painstakingly careful account of the developments in modern political philosophy that have led to our current situation. In the original On Tyranny and in the subsequent debate with Kojeve, as the essays in this volume attest, all of these matters are at issue.

Alexandre Kojeve (ne Kojevnikov) was born in Moscow on 11 May 1902 into a well-to-do bourgeois family (his uncle was the painter Wassily Kandinsky). Kojeve escaped from Russia in 1920 and spent the first half of the decade in Germany, where he completed his dissertation on the religious philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. Toward the end of 1926, Kojeve moved to Paris, where he continued his studies, and in 1933

he took over Alexandre Koyre’s seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, lecturing on this one book until 1939. Kojeve’s seminar achieved an exceptional notoriety: Not only was his interpretation of the Phenomenology recognized as compelling (albeit controversial), but the persons who attended and were subsequently influenced by his lectures reads like a veritable who’s who list of future French intellectuals. Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Andre Breton, Father Gaston Fessard, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, and many others attended Kojeve’s seminars at various times, and while not all agreed with his conclusions, many of them testified to his acumen, rigor, and great erudition. Kojeve’s lectures were collected, edited, and published in 1947 by Raymond Queneau. This, coupled with the publication of Jean Hyppolite’s translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit (undertaken between 1939 and 1941), helped to set the stage for the introduction and subsequent reign of Hegel and Hegelianism in postwar French intellectual life.[5] With the help of Robert Marjolin, Kojeve secured a job at the Direction des relations economiques exterieures after World War II, and for the next twenty years, he was instrumental in helping to shape France’s foreign trade and economic policy. According to everyone who worked with him, Kojeve was the eminence grise of French foreign economic policy, and he was involved in diplomatic events and treaties whose significance continue to define international affairs. After helping to implement the Marshall Plan, he was involved in promoting the European Economic Community (now the European Union); he was a central participant in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization); and he took a keen interest in encouraging Third World development (what is now routinely referred to as the North-South dialogue and aid). Although Kojeve continued to publish occasionally, his longer and more detailed studies in the history of philosophy and political thought were published posthumously. He died in 1968 after giving a speech in Brussels before a meeting of the Common Market.


  • [1] The account that follows is taken from Timothy W. Burns, “Leo Strauss,” inCongressional Quarterly’s Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought (September2013): 779 -784. For particulars, see the curriculum vitae spelled out in Strauss’sletter to Cyrus Adler, Paris, 30 November 1933, in Leo Strauss papers, Box 4,Folder 1, ed., trans., and intro. Emmanuel Patard, Leo Strauss at the New School forSocial Research (1938-1948): Essays, Lectures, and Courses on Ancient and ModernPolitical Philosophy (unpublished English translation of a doctoral dissertationcompleted at the Universite Paris I [Pantheon-Sorbonne], 2013), 674-684,and “Curriculum Vitae, 1936,” 686-689. For recent writings on Strauss, seeRobert Howse, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2014); Michael P. Zuckert and Catherine H. Zuckert, Leo Strauss andthe Problem of Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014);Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography, trans. Christopher Nadon(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Steven B. Smith, Reading LeoStrauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006);Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophyand American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); HeinrichMeier, Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem, trans. Marcus Brainard(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Thomas L. Pangle, Leo Strauss:An Introduction to His Thought and Intellectual Legacy (Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 2006); and Christopher Bruell, “A Return to Classical PoliticalPhilosophy and the Understanding of the American Founding,” Review ofPolitics 53 (no. 1, Winter 1991): 173-186. Edited volumes on Strauss’s thoughtinclude Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading “What Is PoliticalPhilosophy?”, ed. Rafael Major (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013);The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, ed. Steven B. Smith (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Companion To Leo Strauss’ Writings onClassical Thought, ed. Timothy W. Burns (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2015).
  • [2] Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy ofHobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, trans. ElsaM. Sinclair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1936] 1984), 58n1.
  • [3] Leo Strauss, Hobbes’s Critique of Religion, trans. Gabriel Bartlett and SvetozarMinkov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1936] 2011), 23.
  • [4] Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, trans. E. M. Sinclair (New York:Schocken Books, 1965), 1—31.
  • [5] Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction a la lecture de Hegel, ed. Raymond Queneau(Paris: Gallimard, 1947; second edition 1968).
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