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

Strauss’s “Restatement”

As he had spoken in On Tyranny of “the problem of law,” so Strauss speaks in the “Restatement” of “the problem of virtue,” picking up where he left off in the concluding paragraph of On Tyranny by showing that at least according to Plato, as shown in the myth of Er (Republic X), “there is no adequate solution to the problem of virtue or happiness on the political or social plane” (OT 182). Strauss also returns to and elaborates on his claim concerning the philosopher’s self-admiration or lack of need of others. And he returns to the related subject of erotic desire and political life or public service.

As he had with Kruger and Lowith earlier in his life, so here with Eric Voeglin and Kojeve, Strauss draws attention to each interlocutor’s claim that classical thought is not helpful to us today without the introduction of an element of Biblical thought (OT 178, 183, 189). (Strauss devotes more attention to Kojeve’s version of this argument than to Voeglin’s.) The Biblical element in Kojeve’s presentation is, as we have seen, what the Hegelian calls the morality of the Slave. Kojeve claims that the Master-Slave synthesis is adequate to explain modern and classical thought, or to get at the truth of the matter, as Hegel had done. The Master, in love with honor, eventually discovers that he also is “conscientious,” or admires himself for completing a given task well, which is the Slave’s means of finding dignity. The alleged result is the Master’s envelopment in the final state of mutual reciprocal recognition.

Strauss attacks both parts of the Hegelian synthesis of Biblical and classical morality. He first objects that, unlike either of the two components that allegedly led to it, the synthesized “recognition” is not at all stern or morally demanding (OT 191-192), as indeed one can see in the Hegelian replacement of “virtue” by “freedom.” This is related to the absence of any hint of the divine or sacred in the called-for “recognition”; other humans bestow it, and it is held to be all that our hearts desire. Experiences that involve the divine—guilt or unworthiness or need for forgiveness, awe or need to revere or bow to the divine, hope for redemption—must have been merely wayward manifestations or earlier intimations of the desire for human recognition. Here is visible, in other words, the long-standing modern promise of a fully rational, atheistic society, whose articulation by Kojeve Strauss was undoubtedly counting on. Having received it, Strauss informs his readers that Kojeve is fully aware of the modern, Hobbesian origin of Hegel’s doctrine of human society. (This was, we recall, to be the subject of their projected book.) He criticizes Kojeve for his failure to acknowledge the “untrue assumption” on which both the Hobbesian and the Hegelian constructions rest, namely, that “man is thinkable as a being who lacks awareness of sacred restraints or as a being that is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition” (OT 192). As he had in the first expression of his reorientation (in 1932) noted that the Hobbesian understanding of human evil as bestial and hence innocent evil was inferior to the starting point of Socratic dialectic, wherein evil is seen as moral depravity,[1] so does he here criticize Kojeve for failing to abandon modernity’s exclusion of awareness of “sacred restraints” from our moral experiences. Strauss had rediscovered in Socratic political philosophy the need to submit the moral opinions, giving rise to and embodied in divine law, of the prescientific, “natural world” to the kind of dialectical scrutiny that one sees in both Xenophon and Plato, and wished to indicate to Kojeve the vital role of those opinions in the classical approach to the problem of science or philosophy.

The importance of doing so becomes especially apparent in the second part of Strauss’s critique of the Hegelian synthesis, which concerns the Master. Contrary to what Kojeve argues, the philosopher does not subscribe to the morality of the Master. Strauss emphasizes the extent to which we can know that the political man or “Master” differs from the philosopher: the former loves and seeks to be loved in return, indiscriminately, while the latter seeks admiration only from a small circle of worthies and ultimately from himself (OT 197). Responding directly to Kojeve’s contempt for the ascription of eros to political men, Strauss this time begins the argument with Xenophon’s claim that the household and the city are the same and that Xenophon counts Socrates (whom he has presented as married to the difficult Xanthippe) among the unmarried men at the end of his Symposium. In the sequel, using arguments drawn largely from Plato, Strauss spells out what this means, stating and then twice repeating the claim that the philosopher, unlike most human beings—“political men”—does not succumb to the temptation to think human things have great significance, since “his dominating passion is the desire for truth, i.e., for knowledge of . . . the eternal causes or causes of the whole” (OT 197-198). It is noteworthy that while Plato, in the section of the Republic to which Strauss here makes explicit supporting reference, might be taken to suggest that the philosopher is moved by an erotic love of the truth,[2] Strauss refrains from using this expression. He speaks instead of the philosopher’s “dominating passion,” reserving the term “erotic desire” for his description of the political man. While “the political man is consumed by erotic desire . . . in principle for all human beings” (OT 198), the philosopher is “radically detached from human beings as human beings” (OT 199; cf 212). Now Strauss does, to be sure, refer subsequently to “true or Socratic eros” (OT 202), but what he says here (OT 198) makes clear that the later qualifier “true or Socratic” is indicative of a difference in kind, resulting from a shedding or falling away of eros in the usual sense, in the philosopher. For eros is, Strauss goes on to say, “an attachment to beings which prompts one to serve them,” and “erotic desire craves reciprocity,” while the philosopher seeks only to understand the whole, not to serve it or to be loved by it. Erotic desire is, moreover, always a desire for some eternal human good, the attainment of which depends on human life having great significance, but the philosopher is characterized by his awareness that there is no such significance and hence no such good: “all human things and all human concerns reveal themselves to him in all clarity as paltry and ephemeral, and no one can find solid happiness in what he knows to be paltry and ephemeral” (OT 198). For the philosopher, as Strauss says next, echoing Plato’s Phaedo, fully aware that “what has come into being must perish again” (OT 200), tries “to make it his sole business to die and to be dead” (OT 199). He is “penetrated by a sense of the ultimate futility of all human causes” (OT 202; cf. 203: “liberation from the most potent natural charm”). Strauss’s argument against the existence of eros in the philosopher even approaches the (exaggerated) claim of Maimonides that the philosopher needs others only for “the needs of his body” (OT 199).

What Strauss argues (with remarkable frankness) in these passages is helpful for understanding what he later describes, in Natural

Right and History (175-176), as the modern attempt at “enhancing the status of man and of his ‘world’ by making him oblivious of the whole or of eternity,” an enhancing that characterizes modern thought from Hobbes to Heidegger. By “oblivion of eternity” Strauss means oblivion of human mortality in light of eternity. The moderns, he claims—starting with Hobbes and including “Hegel above all”— occlude our full and gripping awareness of the ultimate futility of all our deeds and the greatly diminished significance of the human things that this implies, so that they come to think that we can be completely at home, or satisfied, on earth (OT 212), rather than having to be resigned to the unavailability of such satisfaction. This loss of awareness of eternity is even required, Strauss argues, for philosophy to become revolutionary, to hope for this-worldly satisfaction, and even to have been initially disappointed by the failure of Providential care so as to seek a human solution to the human problem. In other words, it is indeed owing to Biblical thought—to a disappointment with its promise of a world providentially redeemed from sufferings—that “[m]odern man” is dissatisfied with utopias.[3]

It is true that this quite radical argument is soon modified or softened by Strauss’s claim that the philosopher acts beneficently where he can, and that he does indeed have significant love or friendship (philia) for certain human beings—namely, for potential philosophers, whose souls “reflect the eternal order” by being “well-ordered souls” (OT200-201). Yet Strauss then admits that this new argument (which he had already indicated was made in a “popular and hence unorthodox manner”) is defective: it cannot explain, for example, the souls of the pre-Socratic philosophers or of modern philosophers, who certainly did not think the whole harmonious (OT 201). More importantly, it presents the activity of Socratic dialectic as a search born of a desire for friends. It thereby abstracts from the theoretical intention of dialectics as it is presented, for example, in Book Seven of the Republic—as the novel attempt to ground the philosophic life.

Strauss soon alludes to that actual intention, in fact, when referring to the contradictory character of the opinions of Socrates’ interlocutors:

If the philosopher, trying to remedy the deficiency of “subjective certainty,” engages in conversation with others and observes again and again that his interlocutors, as they themselves are forced to admit, involve themselves in selfcontradictions or are unable to give any account of their questionable contentions, he will be reasonably confirmed in his estimate of himself. (OT 204)

Dialectic confirms for the Socratic philosopher that his is the right path. If Kojeve expects the philosopher to be out looking for some way to increase his insurance against the subjectivity of the cloister, Strauss presents the philosopher’s activity in the marketplace as having a related but different, or at least additional end: confirming something essential to the philosophic enterprise, something that the philosophic enterprise proper could not confirm.

Kojeve had spoken of “conscientious” work, or doing one’s duty for no other reason than duty, as the eventual activity of all human beings—including the philosopher. Strauss speaks of the philosopher having self-admiration, and being “in this respect” like someone who has a good conscience, that is, in not relying on the opinion of others (OT 204, emphasis added). He thereby points to the fact that the philosopher is not moved by a conscience in the manner that Kojeve believes. And as he adds a little later, the philosopher goes to the marketplace and engages in dialectic for a second reason, “to fish there for potential philosophers” (OT 205), that is, for those rare individuals for whom self-contradictions will result not in anger or indifference but in a reorientation toward the philosophic life. The ramifications of that reorientation are suggested, finally, when Strauss describes another activity of the philosopher—his “philosophic politics”—as consisting in among other things “satisfying the city that the philosophers are not atheists, that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences” (OT 205-206). Here, indirectly, Strauss lets out the most important aspect of the (rare) result of accepting the findings of dialectics, or of acknowledging the lack of significance of human affairs.

Toward the end of his “Restatement” (OT 208-211) Strauss makes clear what is entailed, politically, in the ignoring of the longing for eternity, or in the substitution of mere “satisfaction deriving from universal recognition” for the old sort of “happiness” (beatus, eudaimonia). It is either the eventual loss of humanity through the negating activity of technology, or a nihilistic revolt against the universal and homogeneous state.

Yet if the philosopher is one who has transcended the erotically driven quest to surmount mortality and has come to a serene acceptance of the futility of all human things, we might wonder why Strauss is so concerned that the universal and homogeneous state would be one “in which there is no longer a possibility of noble actions and of great deeds” (OT 209). One answer has been provided in his description of the man of outstanding political ambition as having the most potential to be a philosopher. It is men of this type, those whom Xenophon calls the “good natures,” whom the philosopher attempts “to lead . . . to philosophy both by training them and by liberating them from the charms which obstruct the philosophic effort” (OT 27).[4] The world state would be not only dreary but represent the end of humanity and all the subphilosophic and philosophic greatness that we admire.

Strauss concludes this section by articulating his own version of the Eternal Return of the Same, though he is quite clear about his own distinct intention in doing so. In the case of Nietzsche’s doctrine, Strauss would later claim, the intention was to preserve the possibility of suffering in order to preserve, against the secularized Biblical morality, the possibility of self-overcoming required for human greatness.[5] In Strauss’s own version (“would such a repetition of the process—a new lease on life for man’s humanity—not be preferable to the indefinite continuation of the inhuman end? Do we not enjoy the spring although we know the cycle of the seasons, although we know that winter will come again?” [OT 209]), the doctrine is used to counter the overly high expectation, visible in Hegel or Kojeve, of some final completion of human history, or the sense that it is tragic or Sisyphean if it yields no final overcoming of all problems. And while Nietzsche in Strauss’s telling had wavered between arguing that there is a nature (the Will to Power) and arguing that all doctrines are merely creations, finally coming down on the side of nature, Strauss himself explicitly asserts that there is nature.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, trans. E. M. Sinclair (New York:Schocken, 1965), “Preface,” 19, with “Comments on Der Begriff Des Politischenby Carl Schmitt,” 344-345. The original of this work was published as Die Reli-gionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft Untersuchungen zu Spi-nozas Theologisch-Politischem Traktat (Berlin: Akademi-Verlag, 1930).
  • [2] Strauss refers in OT 198 to Republic 486a, a passage that is part of a descriptionof the virtues of the philosopher that begins at 485b. I wish to stress that evenPlato might only be taken to suggest that the philosopher is moved by eroticlove. He actually has Socrates merely draw a parallel between someone who is“by nature erotically disposed toward someone” and the lover of wisdom (485c1;cf. 474c7-475a2); he does not have Socrates say that the lover of wisdom iserotic.
  • [3] Cf. OT 210 with The City and Man, 41-43. See also Timothy W. Burns, “LeoStrauss on the Origins of Hobbes’s Natural Science and Its Relation to theChallenge of Divine Revelation,” in Reorientation, 152-154n20.
  • [4] For Xenophon’s description of the good nature, see Memorabilia 4.1.2.
  • [5] See Timothy W. Burns, “A New Perspective on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good andEvil,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 39 (no. 3, Fall 2012):283-287.
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