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

Strauss’s On Tyranny

Strauss presents the original work as needed for anyone who wishes “to bring to light the deepest roots of modern political thought,” as he puts it in the fifth paragraph of On Tyranny. Later, in the “Restatement,” he argues that the reading and rereading of the Hiero will in the best case produce a “change of orientation” in the reader (OT 185). As we will see, these two ends complement one another. But as he explains here at some length, to achieve these ends there is a need to approach Socratic political science, or any thought of the past, in a nonhistoricist manner. And here, before the publication of Persecution and the Art of Writing or of Natural Right and History,

he makes the case for exoteric or Socratic rhetoric as something to which historicism has made us oblivious. The essay explicitly sets out to train those who would read Xenophon and writers like him so that a future generation will find “cumbersome introductions like the present study” superfluous (OT 28). And indeed, especially in contrast to his two subsequent books on Xenophon’s work, which are notoriously difficult of access or require patience of a different sort than does this work, On Tyranny spells out very many details, even in its chapter divisions (“The Title,” “The Setting,” etc.). Yet this work, too, is not without reticence.

The “theoretical teaching” of the Hiero to which Strauss points and that we wish to highlight is “the problem of law and legitimacy” (OT 76), or “the problematic character of the ‘rule of laws,’” a “grave, not to say awe-inspiring, subject” addressed also by a stranger, the Eleatic Stranger, in Plato’s Statesman (whose aim is a critique of divine law). It is a teaching that serves the purpose “of bringing to light the nature of political things.” It is “a most striking expression of the problem, or of the problematic character, of law and legitimacy.” That problem is the imperfect or even “blind” character of legal justice, and the unwise character of the rule of legitimate government (OT 99).

It is Simonides who grasps that problem, and confirms it through dialectic, which causes him to lead a life altogether different from that of Hiero. The tyrant Hiero proves, surprisingly, to have a “citizen spirit,” or to be “attached to his city,” while Simonides is able to “live as a stranger” (OT 57; cf. 76). So, too, Strauss notes Hiero’s “desire to be loved by human beings,” characterizing it as an “erotic desire” to be loved indiscriminately. Eros causes the tyrant “to become the willing servant and benefactor of all his subjects” (OT 88). By contrast Simonides, “the wise man,” “has no such desire.” He is “satisfied with the admiration . . . of a small minority” (OT 88) whose benefactor he needs not even be (OT 90), and is ultimately satisfied with self-admiration (OT 88, with 102). Grasping the problem of law appears to have the amazing effect of dissipating the erotic desire that is at the root of public service.

We earlier noted the final sentence of On Tyranny and how Strauss there promises in a subsequent work or series of works “a comprehensive and detailed analysis of Xenophon’s Socratic writings.” This promise, too, is explicitly tied to the theme of divine law and its problematic. The promised analysis will determine according to Strauss what the “attitude of the citizen-philosopher Socrates” is to gentlemanliness, that is—as he indicates—to the belief that the natural order is traceable to gods, that the laws “praise” that order rather than compelling us, and that obedience to law is therefore intrinsically pleasant. The alternative to this gentlemanliness, of which the representative in Xenophon’s writings is Ischomachus of the Oeconomicus, entails the view held by both Hiero and Simonides that the natural order is traceable to chance, that the laws therefore “compel” certain actions and feelings, and that obeying the laws is not intrinsically pleasant (OT 105).[1] As the footnotes to Strauss’s study of the Hiero, and indeed his comparison of Hiero and Simonides to Ischomachus, make plain, Strauss had already himself undertaken extensive study of Xenophon’s Socratic writings when he composed On Tyranny. He had, that is, already at this time come to see the Socratic attention to the question of gentlemanliness as the path to the resolution of the question of the gods. And he had therefore come to see the philosophic life as not merely distinct from but different in kind from political life.

  • [1] Consider in this regard Strauss’s statement to Klein, 16 February 1939 (GS 3:537-538): “Anyway, the moral is also in [Xenophon] purely exoteric, and aboutone word out of two is ambiguous. Kaloskagathos was in the Socratic ‘circle’ aninjurious word, as well as ‘philistine’ or ‘bourgeois’ in the 19th century” ( Patard 28).
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