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

The Wise Man

The wise man, according to the first part of Kojeve’s tripartite definition, is he who can provide comprehensible and satisfactory answers to all questions concerning his actions such that the totality of the answers forms a coherent discourse. Naturally we can ask: To whom must the answers be comprehensible? Obviously, they need not be comprehensible to all men, as it may be the case that some are incapable of comprehending—not to mention those who may be unwilling to comprehend. Aside from comprehensibility is the related (but not identical) notion of satisfactory. For answers to be satisfactory they must be comprehensible, yet one could comprehend fully an answer and nevertheless find it unsatisfactory. As a result we need to add another related notion, that of coherence. Satisfactory answers will, in short, be both coherent (individually and collectively) and comprehensible.

Yet we are still faced with the question of who evaluates or judges the answers of the would-be wise man. In the first instance, it is the wise man who is the judge in his own case.[1] In the second instance, the judge is the one who holds the wise man to be the ideal and who seeks to determine whether or not this ideal can be realized. In our case, this individual is Kojeve. So we must ask: Does Kojeve think Hegel is wise? Is he satisfied with Hegel’s answers? As Kojeve makes clear, he is not: Hegel’s system is not circular and thus not sufficient (at least not yet) (ILH 291n1 [98n9]). This fact actually points toward a problem for the second part of the definition of the wise man: as Kojeve expresses this problem, making reference to the “absolute night” of the Brahmins and the “Nirvana” of the Buddhists, “there is no doubt that [some] men have been satisfied in unconsciousness, because they have voluntarily remained in identity to themselves [i.e., sought simply to Be and not to Become, e.g., a siddha] until their death” (ILH 278 [84]). It may be the case that ignorance is bliss, that is, that ignorance of one’s insufficiency or incompleteness is satisfying; that unconscious unconsciousness may be as satisfying as full self-consciousness. The problem posed by the existence and satisfaction of the “unconscious ‘Wise Man’” is disposed of by asking him to defend or explain his satisfaction; the “unconscious ‘Wise Man’” who is consistent “will refuse all discussion” (ILH 279 [84]). Unlike the “conscious Wise Man,” who is able to provide a full, coherent, comprehensible, and thus, satisfying account of his satisfaction, the “unconscious ‘Wise Man’” cannot. Thus, as we see, we come back to the first part of the definition in working through the second. What about the third part—that the wise man is the morally perfect man? Kojeve’s account connects the idea of moral perfection to the idea of being a model of human existence: the morally perfect human being would serve as the model for all men, with conformity to that model being the motive and final end of their actions.[2] This is, according to Kojeve, the necessary condition of the meaning of any idea of moral perfection. Against this idea, however, is raised the possibility of the existence of several irreducible existential types and of a consequent “ethical relativism,” wherein “the concept of ‘perfection’ is strictly identical to that of ‘subjective satisfaction’” (ILH 274 [79]).[3] The problem of ethical relativism is akin (if not identical) to the problem of the unconscious ‘Wise Man.’ The solution, too, is similar, “namely, one completes the concept of subjective satisfaction by that of objective satisfaction—i.e., of satisfaction by universal recognition (ILH275 [79]).

It is worth asking at this point: Does wisdom have to be universally recognized for it to be wisdom? Given that universal recognition in the literal sense cannot be had (i.e., some men are unwilling to be convinced of the Hegelian definition of human being), this cannot be the case. Rather, what is meant by ‘the universal recognition of wisdom’ is something along the lines of ‘universally recognized by all those competent to judge or recognized by all those who accept the model as ideal.’ As Kojeve indicates, this borders on tautology and, as a result, is unsatisfactory (ILH 275 [80]). The reason the Hegelian demonstration is insufficient, according to Kojeve, is that Hegel presupposes not only that human being is self-consciousness, but also that “Self-Consciousness naturally, spontaneously, tends to extend itself, to expand, to spread through the whole domain of the reality given to man and in man” (ILH 277 [82]). Here we get the principle of genesis in history, the reason why history has the trajectory and outcome Hegel suggests. But one may well doubt the truth of this assumption, to suggest that the spread, the development of self-consciousness may not be strictly necessary, and thus, that history may not have a necessary trajectory. We have already confronted one fact that cuts against Hegel’s assumption: the satisfaction of unconscious unconsciousness. As a result, Kojeve improves upon Hegel’s assumption, saying, “it is necessary to suppose not only a Self-Consciousness, but also a Self-Consciousness that always has a tendency to extend itself as much as possible” (ILH 277 [82]). In other words, it is necessary to assume the existence of the philosopher.

  • [1] Connected to this is the question of the Epicurus’s Garden, Bayle’s Republicof Letters, and, perhaps for Kojeve, Strauss’s own School. Crucial to Kojeve’scritique of the elitism of the School in “Tyranny and Wisdom” is his interpretation of Socrates’ dialectical investigations. In short, for Kojeve, these investigations reveal Socrates’ concern for the opinion of others (who are competentin his view) of what he says and does (cf. OT 158-161). A potential difficultywith this view comes to light once one considers who precisely is being investigated by way of these interrogations: it is not Socrates, but the politicians, poets,sophists, and craftsmen whose speeches and actions are subject to analysis. Foran insightful discussion of Socrates’ practice of self-confirmation through theinvestigation of others, see David M. Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates:Plato’s Apology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), especially79-81.
  • [2] Kojeve observes that the unconscious ‘Wise Men’ have attained moral perfection insofar as “there have been men who took them as the model” (ILH 279[84]).
  • [3] One can think of this alternative possibility as the supposition that there aremultiple peaks in the mountain range of humanity (i.e., artist, saint, philosopher), each of which is genuinely or objectively a peak, and none of which arereducible to any other.
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