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

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The Subsequent Correspondence

As noted earlier, when Strauss asked Kojeve to review On Tyranny, he said that he “knows of no one besides you and [Jacob] Klein who will understand what I am after.” This compliment is not insignificant, but it should not be overestimated. It applies to Klein as well as to Kojeve. And in a talk given toward the end of his life, “A Giving of Accounts,” Strauss makes clear that his old and admirable friend Jacob Klein, whom he praised on every other public occasion, had not really grasped the revolutionary discovery that Strauss had made in classical political philosophy, a discovery which, as we have seen, entailed a radical disjunction between political and philosophic life and hence required liberation from the modern presupposition, exemplified best by Kant, that the moral life is the highest life simply.

I attached much greater importance than Klein did and does to the tension between philosophy and the city, even the best city. . . . Philosophy is as such transpolitical, transreligious, and transmoral, but the city is and ought to be moral and religious. . . . To illustrate this point, moral man, merely moral man, the kaloskagathos in the common meaning of the term, is not simply closer to the philosopher than a man of the dubious morality of Alcibiades. . . .

This view of philosophy was derived from my study of pre-modern philosophy. It implies that modern philosophy has a radically different character. . . . In modern times the gulf between philosophy and the city was bridged, or believed to have been bridged. . . . If we call moralism the view that morality or moral virtue is the highest, I am doubtful if it occurs in antiquity at all.[1]

Strauss made this disagreement public in spite of the fact that Klein had much earlier been instrumental in the rediscovery of esotericism, which had permitted both Strauss and Klein to succeed in reviving ancient texts where Heidegger, who had also read those texts with seriousness, had not.[2]

The correspondence between Strauss and Kojeve that took place after the publication of their debate confirms that the same gulf separated Kojeve and Strauss. It certainly confirms that Kojeve, no less than Klein, missed what Strauss had to say concerning the status of the moral life. In making his argument to Kojeve in one of the letters Strauss even evinces Alcibiades in the same manner that he will years later, when stating his disagreement with Klein. In a letter dated 11 April 1957, Kojeve presents the conventional Hegelian reading of Plato according to which Socrates saves justice, rescuing by reasoning with them those who had fallen victim to the sophists. Kojeve goes so far as to claim that the Platonic teaching that all knowledge is recollection (anamnesis) is a mythical presentation of the fact of the conscience—of our innate knowledge of good and evil (OT 266-267). In his letter of reply Strauss says bluntly:

[T]here is no “conscience” in Plato; anamnesis is not conscience (see Natural Right and History, p. I50n. re Polemarchus). Indeed, misology is the worst. . . . [T]herefore, there is ultimately no superiority of the merely honorable man to the sophist (contrary to Kant) or for that matter to Alc (cf. N. R. &H, p. 151). (OT275)

The pages in Natural Right and History (as well as the four or so leading up to them) to which Strauss here points Kojeve are some of the most radical and far-reaching of any that he published. Most notable for our purposes is that Strauss refers in the note on page 150 to Socrates as not a preacher of justice but as one who patiently investigates the problem of justice—of justice that cannot exist without divine providence—by examining the “citizen morality” found in a man like Polemarchus.

Kojeve for his part later indicated in another writing (“The Emperor Julian and His Art of Writing,” written for Strauss’s festschrift)[3] that he believed he had defeated the threat posed to his understanding of the history of philosophy, and therein his understanding of humanity, by Strauss’s rediscovery of esoteric writing— that his reworking of Hegel could accommodate Strauss’s important rediscovery as it had Heideggerian thinking. But in truth the article demonstrates that Kojeve never went beyond comprehending the reasons for cautious writing, which Strauss had already identified in the mid-1920s—that is, prior to his rediscovery of esotericism.[4] Kojeve’s failure to understand the deepest reasons that Strauss had discerned for esoteric writing confirms his failure to have grasped Strauss’s rediscovery of the purpose of Socratic dialectic and its grounding of the philosophic life.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts,” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis ofModernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green (Albany: State University of New YorkPress, 1997), 463-464.
  • [2] Leo Strauss, “An Unspoken Prologue to a Public Lecture at St. John’s College inHonor ofJacob Klein,”Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 450; and “AGiving of Accounts,” 462.
  • [3] Alexandre Kojeve, Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss, ed. Joseph Cropsey (New York: Basic Books,1964), 95-113.
  • [4] Strauss had as early as 1924 (that is, long before his reorientation and his recovery of classical political philosophy) recognized cautious writing driven by fearof persecution. See, for example, Leo Strauss, “Cohen’s Analysis of Spinoza’sBible Science,” in Leo Strauss: The Early Writings, 1921-1932, ed. Michael Zank(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 140-172, especially 148,151, 153, 158.
 
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