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

Overview of the Present Volume

Timothy W. Burns begins this volume with a discussion of “The Place of the Strauss-Kojeve Debate in the Work of Leo Strauss.” Burns notes that what Leo Strauss called the “reorientation” of his thought in the early 1930s, when he moved from seeing a return to classical political philosophy as impossible to seeing it as both possible and necessary for the grounding of the rational life, took place shortly before he met Kojeve in Paris—before either of them had established their academic reputations and after both had studied the work of Heidegger. Strauss found in Kojeve a brilliant and serious representative of the thought of Hegel, whom Strauss considered to be the most comprehensive of modern philosophers. Moreover, Kojeve understood Hegel’s thought, updated in the light of Heidegger, to be capable of withstanding the deep critique of rationalism that had been launched by Nietzsche and Heidegger, and indeed to be what Hegel had called it: the final teaching, or wisdom. As someone who understood modernity in all of its ramifications for modern life, and did not flinch from but instead embraced those ramifications, Kojeve was one of the few thinkers with whom the reoriented Strauss shared a common ground and hence with whom he could fruitfully disagree. On Tyranny therefore affords us an opportunity to consider the case for and against the modern understanding of the human soul and healthy political life as it was understood by two of the twentieth-century’s greatest thinkers. It likewise permits us to understand more fully than many of his works both Strauss’s admiration for the modern project and to examine his reasons for returning to classical political philosophy.

In “The Philosophic Background of Alexandre Kojeve’s ‘Tyranny and Wisdom’,” Murray S. Y. Bessette sketches the philosophic foundations of Kojeve’s critique of Strauss’s On Tyranny. To that end, Bessette first describes Kojeve’s account of the rise of self-consciousness as a function of the anthropogenetic desire for recognition. Satisfying this desire requires man to overcome his biological desires, meaning he must risk his life in a violent struggle for the sake of a nonbiological end. This struggle culminates in the simultaneous birth of the autonomous and dependent self-consciousnesses of Master and Slave. The subsequent interaction of Masters and Slaves—discussed in an overview of the Master-Slave dialectic—is the engine of the historical process, driving it toward the end of history and the birth of the universal, homogeneous state wherein Master and Slave (both dead ends from the perspective of human satisfaction) are overcome and the satisfied citizen is born. This absolute moment coincides with the end of philosophy (i.e., discourse) and the attainment of wisdom (i.e., absolute knowledge or concept). Thus, Kojeve’s account of philosophy and wisdom, which emphasizes their temporal nature, naturally follows and leads to a final consideration of his view of the relationship between wisdom and political power. This question of whether, in light of human temporality and finitude, the philosopher should govern, advise, or abstain from political life has been an enduring subject of philosophy, which, according to Kojeve, history has answered through the relations of philosophers, tyrants, and intellectuals, and the filiation between utopias and revolutionary ideas.

Daniel E. Burns’s “The Place of the Bible in the Strauss-Kojeve Debate” takes as its point of departure Strauss’s surprising claim that “the gist” of Kojeve’s criticism of him consists in the claim that classical political philosophy has been “made obsolete by the triumph of the Biblical orientation.” The existing scholarship on Kojeve has not seen any such claim as central to his criticism of Strauss, so Burns’s chapter begins by defending Strauss’s interpretation of Kojeve’s “Tyrannie et sagesse”: Burns argues that, although Kojeve does not make this fully explicit, the Bible does in Kojeve’s mind pose a massive challenge to the very enterprise of philosophy that can be overcome only by Hegelian philosophy, and certainly not by classical philosophy. Burns then sketches Strauss’s response to this criticism of Kojeve’s. Strauss agrees that modern philosophy as such is an attempt to overcome the challenge to philosophy posed by the Bible, but against Kojeve he argues, not that classical philosophy can in fact respond to that challenge, but merely that modern philosophy’s attempt to do so leads to a dead end. Modern political philosophy denies the natural character of the “awareness of sacred restraints” that Strauss sees as essential to humanity, and its practical effect is a large-scale diminishing of that awareness. The success of political modernity has therefore put up new obstacles to human self-knowledge and so, far from making the world safe for philosophy as Kojeve had imagined, has endangered its very possibility among “modern men.”

In chapters 4 and 5, Nasser Behnegar and Bryan-Paul Frost modestly attempt to assess who might have won the debate and why. In “Leo Strauss’s Decisive Reply to Alexandre Kojeve,” Behnegar begins with the observation that according to Kojeve, ancient political philosophy failed to solve the fundamental problems of philosophy because of its utopianism, its ignorance of the possibilities disclosed by the Biblical outlook, its unwillingness to transform political reality, and its misconception of the best social order. This chapter argues that Strauss’s “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” successfully responds to all of these objections (and much more). Nonetheless, Behnegar observes, the “Restatement” leaves open the debate between modern philosophy and ancient philosophy, since Kojeve’s version of modern philosophy is inferior to that of early modern philosophers, and of Machiavelli’s in particular. Thus, Strauss’s response to Kojeve is both decisive and open-ended. Indeed, Behnegar concludes with the suggestion that because of the decisiveness and open-endedness of Strauss’s response, Strauss’s praise of Kojeve, both in the “Restatement” and in their correspondence, might contain a heretofore unnoticed but important element of irony. In “Who Won the Strauss-Kojeve Debate?”, Frost gives what he considers the best possible case for Kojeve’s position. Although no Kojevean himself, Frost begins by examining how Kojeve saw and framed the debate. After Strauss offers a painstaking and nearly line-by-line interpretation of Xenophon’s dialogue, Kojeve more or less dismisses that interpretation and offers (quite literally) an alternative worldview. By coming to understand what Kojeve thought

Strauss’s larger motive or project was, Frost argues, we can understand better Kojeve’s response as well as Strauss’s “Restatement.” The chapter then articulates their areas of agreement. Although this is often overlooked in the debate, Kojeve and Strauss shared a broad, common understanding about several fundamental issues, in particular about the character of wisdom as a (if not the) qualification to rule, and about politics and philosophy as the two most serious contenders for the claim to be the highest way of life. Finally, Frost discusses how the debate largely revolves around three key issues, namely subjective certainty, the philosopher’s philosophic pedagogy, and the nature of a truly just society. Frost concludes that neither Strauss nor Kojeve won the debate, or to say nearly the same thing, Kojeve certainly did not lose it.

In “The Epistolary Exchange between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve,” Mark J. Lutz discusses the rich personal correspondence between the two thinkers. Although he acknowledges that in On Tyranny, Strauss and Kojeve pursue fundamental questions about the meaning of philosophy and about its relation to politics, Lutz also argues that as profound and provocative as their discussion may be, they acknowledge in their private correspondence that they do not say in print everything that they have been thinking about these subjects. Fortunately, they use their letters to elaborate what they agree is the fundamental issue between them, the issue that they call “the question of Being.” Reflecting on Strauss’s formulation of this question at the end of their public exchange, Kojeve writes Strauss to suggest that they disagree not only about Being but also about justice. This letter leads each of them in turn to explain and to explore their philosophic differences in a series of letters focused on the works of Plato. In these letters Strauss provides especially illuminating comments on Plato’s understanding of justice and on various aspects of “the theory of the ideas.” In the end, these letters help us to understand not only how Kojeve incorporates Plato’s theory of the ideas into his own, Hegelian framework but also why Strauss thinks that the genuine, classical philosopher must pursue the question of justice as Socrates does in order to make progress in the question of Being.

Waller R. Newell’s essay, “Kojeve’s Hegel, Hegel’s Hegel, and Strauss’s Hegel,” explores the comparative absence in Strauss’s position in On Tyranny of a middle range between the severe dichotomy of tyranny and wisdom that is characteristic of that work. Strauss sounds as if he is arguing that only if there is no such thing as the independent activity of the philosophic life could Kojeve’s position be correct: The independence of the philosophic life is the only certain defense against tyranny, particularly the modern version of tyranny, which, as Kojeve would have it, can claim to have actualized the universalistic teaching of ancient thought itself. In exploring these currents in Strauss’s thinking, Newell pursues several related questions. He suggests that the full account of Strauss’s thinking going beyond On Tyranny is more complex, offering precisely that middle range approach to the understanding of tyranny that Newell finds relatively absent in the dialogue with Kojeve. Strauss finds in Hegel himself evidence of this middle range, as well as a family resemblance with classical thought that, while not tantamount to an actual agreement with or restoration of the classics, placed Hegel in Strauss’s view head and shoulders above his contemporaries, showing an appreciation of Hegel that would have to distinguish radically Strauss’s reading of him from that of Kojeve. Strauss, Newell argues, equates Kojeve and Hegel in On Tyranny for the purpose of this one discussion.

Richard L. Velkley’s “History, Tyranny, and the Presuppositions of Philosophy” notes that in the concluding sentence of “The Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” Strauss makes a critical reference to the thought of Martin Heidegger, without naming this philosopher, while at the same time seemingly making common cause with Alexandre Kojeve in this critical reference. On a superficial reading, Strauss seems to congratulate himself and Kojeve for devoting themselves to the “grave subject” of the relation of tyranny and wisdom, or society and philosophy, neglected by others who “did nothing but talk of Being.” But this reference to Heidegger is far from being only a self-congratulatory dismissal; it brings forward the very figure whose thought on the “basic presuppositions” of philosophy has been crucial to the two debaters. On more than one level Strauss is ironic: the two debaters are deeply, but variously, indebted to the criticized thinker. Kojeve comes under fire from Strauss in the “Restatement” for his own apology for tyrants, a failure linking him to Heidegger, and Kojeve’s presupposition of the historical character of Being, whereby “unqualified attachment to human concerns becomes the source of philosophic understanding,” relates Kojeve closely to Heidegger’s account of Being as historical. Employing the “Restatement” and other passages in Strauss’s work, Velkley exposes Strauss’s comparative assessments of Kojeve and Heidegger as thinkers on the relations of philosophy, politics, and Being. Strauss’s account of the “idea of philosophy” departs from the fusion of philosophy and religion that occurs in the historical thinking of Heidegger and Kojeve.

The chapter “The Notion of an End of History: Philosophic Origins and Recent Applications,” by James H. Nichols, Jr., begins with a reflection on the strangeness of the notion of an end of history. Other conceptions make more immediate common sense: history is cyclical; history is forever progressive; history is so profoundly affected by chance that it displays no comprehensible pattern but is just one thing after another. The chapter shows how, in such thinkers as Rousseau and Kant, a philosophic analysis of historical development came to take center stage in political philosophy. Hegel, in Kojeve’s interpretation, first made the philosophic claim to have understood history as a rational whole, and the chapter explores why Hegel’s claim required the notion that history had ended. In examining Kojeve’s treatment of the end of history, the chapter distinguishes two positions. Earlier, Kojeve took a stance similar to Marx’s, arguing that the end of history was not yet a present reality; hence Hegel’s system was not yet a truth but a rational project to guide action. Later, Kojeve argued that Hegel was indeed correct in the first place, when he asserted that history had in fact ended. From this perspective, events since 1806 are not world historical changes but the working out of details about the end’s realization. The chapter then examines Francis Fukuyama’s restatement of the later Kojevian thesis in the context of events as the Cold War wound down some twenty-five years ago. It ends with a reflection on Strauss’s abiding interest in the Kojevian philosophic endeavor.

The appendix, by Emmanuel Patard, presents for the first time the full and unabridged edition of Kojeve’s “Tyrannie et sagesse.” Returning to Kojeve’s original manuscripts at the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Patard here transcribes portions of Kojeve’s text that Kojeve himself was compelled by reason of space to delete from previously published versions. Patard is without question the editor of the best critical editions of On Tyranny, having done similar work in respect to Strauss’s “Restatement.” This new, scrupulously edited version of Koj eve’s full text will stand as the standard edition in scholarly literature. (It is to be hoped that in the future, a full French version of the text will be published.) Whether this new version of “Tyranny and Wisdom” significantly changes or alters Kojeve’s overall position is probably doubtful; instead, it helps to highlight the great fecundity of his thought both before and immediately after the war. The additions help to clarify many of the ideas and themes on which Kojeve was working during this time but which have only recently come to light, perhaps most notably The Notion of Authority}2 Allan Bloom stated that On Tyranny was “must reading for our time.” Bloom was in a unique position to know personally the truth of his pronouncement: As a lifelong student of Leo Strauss and an intimate friend of Alexandre Kojeve, Bloom was vividly aware of the fundamental alternatives that each of these philosophers presented (even if he clearly sided with Strauss over Kojeve, while never dismissing or disparaging the latter’s position).[1] [2] The editors and contributors would add this small correction to Bloom’s statement, but one with which we believe he would readily concur: As long as tyranny remains coeval with political life, and as long as the need to ground the philosophic life is grasped by human beings, the Strauss- Kojeve debate will remain must reading.

  • [1] Alexandre Kojeve, The Notion of Authority, trans. Hager Weslati, ed. and intro.Francois Terre (London: Verso, 2014).
  • [2] See Bloom’s remembrances of both Strauss and Kojeve in Giants and Dwarfs:Essays 1960-1990 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 235-255 and 268273, respectively. It should be recalled that Bloom was also the editor of Kojeve’sIntroduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (firstpublished by Basic Books [New York, 1969]), and then reissued by CornellUniversity Press’s Agora Edition in 1980, assembled by Raymond Queneau andtranslated by James H. Nichols, Jr.
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