Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
ONE The Place of the Strauss-Kojeve Debate in the Work of Leo Strauss
Timothy W. Burns
The debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve that took place in the late 1940s is now being examined by a new generation of students. I attempt in this chapter to sketch for those students the place that this debate had in the body of Strauss’s life’s work. Because Kojeve understood modernity in all of its ramifications for life and did not flinch from but embraced those ramifications, he was one of the few thinkers with whom Strauss shared sufficient common ground to be able fruitfully to disagree. Strauss had even promised in a footnote in his second published book, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, to co-author with Kojeve a future study of Hegel’s work, in its indebtedness to and final full articulation of Hobbesian thought. The co-authored book never materialized, but the remarkable debate that Strauss subsequently orchestrated over On Tyranny affords an opportunity to hear the case for and against the classical and modern understandings of the human spirit, of healthy political life, and the philosophic life as these two thinkers grasped them. Most importantly, it permits us to understand better both Strauss’s admiration for modernity and his reasons for returning to classical political philosophy.
What became the exchange begins with the publication of On Tyranny, Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero. Letters from the late 1930s written to Jacob Klein, who had provided Strauss with initial help in the rediscovery of esotericism, express Strauss’s thrill in rediscovering esotericism in the works of many classical authors, but he twice singles out Xenophon as his favorite practitioner of this ancient art of writing. “Xenophon is my special favorite,” he tells Klein in 1939, “because he had the courage to disguise himself as a fool and so to go through the millennia—he is the biggest rascal that I know—I believe he does in his writings exactly what Socrates did in his life.” Some months later Strauss added, “About Xenophon, I did not exaggerate, by Hera: he is quite a great man, not inferior to Thucydides and Herodotus himself. The so-called failures of his stories are exclusively the consequences of his supreme contempt for the ridiculous erga of the kaloikagathoi. . . . In short, he is quite marvelous and from now on my uncontested favorite.” It is not surprising, then, that with the exception of an important chapter on Plato and Hobbes, in The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Strauss’s published writings on the ancients begin with studies of Xenophon, first of the
Constitution of the Lacedaemonians and then On Tyranny, written in 1944-1945, which he called in a letter to Julius Guttmann a “preliminary study,” explaining that “at some point I should like to finish the interpretation of Xenophon’s four Socratic writings,” a statement that echoes the concluding paragraph of On Tyranny. It is likewise not surprising, in light of Strauss’s stated reasons for his preference for Xenophon, that Strauss himself practiced a similar pretense, posing as a mere “scholar” while attributing to others the more exalted labels of “philosopher” or “great thinker.”
While these epistolary statements are thus both revealing of some important insights that Strauss was drawing from Xenophon’s writings and suggestive of his own manner of writing, they don’t tell us why Strauss had turned to the ancients at all, nor why, having completed On Tyranny, he actively sought to engage the Hegelian Kojeve in a debate on his findings. For this we need to grasp both what Kojeve represented and offered to thoughtful readers, and the reasons for Strauss’s turn to the alternative, classical understanding.
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