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


Tyranny and Wisdom

Who is to undertake the revolutionary actions necessary to establish the universal, homogeneous state? And what is the status of the idea of this state? Kojeve’s answer to the first question is the heart of the argument presented in “Tyranny and Wisdom.” Very briefly, Kojeve concludes there that the political history of the West is characterized by “the deeds of statesmen or tyrants, which they perform (consciously or not) as a function of the ideas of philosophers, adapted for practical purposes by intellectuals” (OT 176). To elaborate further, the philosophers posit philosophical ideals or ends without indicating the means necessary for their actualization. That is, they fail to connect the present situation to the posited ideal future. The task of intellectuals is to bridge “the theoretical gap between utopia and reality” (OT 175). In fact, Kojeve begins and ends his discussion with the observation that philosophers’ utopian theories are met rightly by statesmanly silence; that absent the mediation of the intellectuals statesmen and tyrants rightly do not listen to the philosophers’ advice because it cannot guide action here and now (cf. OT 138 and 176). Only advice with direct connections to political reality can be implemented by “the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous State)” (OT 175). Thus, according to Kojeve, the utopian ideal of the philosophers is the precondition of the political actions of the reforming tyrant which, in turn, are the preconditions of the absolute knowledge of the wise man. In short, wisdom requires tyranny.

But what is the status of the idea of the universal, homogeneous State? Is it the ideal Simonides presents to Hiero? That is, is it a “utopia” that “does not show us how, here and now, to begin to transform the given concrete reality with a view to bringing it into conformity with the proposed ideal in the future,” and thus in need of intellectual mediation aimed at its implementation (OT 138)? Or, is it “an ‘active’ (revolutionary) idea” (OT 137)? As Kojeve explains in The Notion of Authority,

The revolutionary idea is a theory or doctrine (insofar as possible coherent and in principle universal, that is to say, permitting the “deduction” of all the concrete cases), that can and must engender the transformational action of the present and creational [action] of the political future. The idea triggers the action in “announcing” a project, in indicating a “goal”; and it determines and guides the action in elaborating a “program.” So as not to be “utopian” in opposing the political present, this project and this program must fully comprehend it: they must be realizable beginning from the given present (and not presuppose inexistent conditions).

(NA 195-196 [101])

The revolutionary idea, which is the fruit of the labor of the intellectuals, ties the projected future to the immediate present, permitting one to see how to actualize the projected future. As such, its necessary (but not sufficient) condition is a coherent and comprehensible account of the present, one that shows what is implied in and what is possible from the current state. The revolutionary idea provides the content of the revolution; it provides the end and indicates the means to this end. The revolutionary idea posits a future that is not a simple development of what is already implied in the present; rather, it reorients or negates “the ‘natural’ or ‘automatic’ evolution of the present” (NA 195 [101]). The success of the revolution is dependent on the existence of a revolutionary situation (the necessary and sufficient conditions referred to above for the growth of the germ of the universal, homogeneous state). In other words, one requires “a nation ready to abandon a present determined by an immediate past, and to collaborate for the active realization (that is to say, creation) of a present that should serve as a base for a future other than that which would be born without the intervention of negational action” (NA 197 [102]).

Now, an important aspect of Kojeve’s discussion in “Tyranny and Wisdom” is his argument that the universal, homogeneous state represents the inevitable development of the philosophic project that stretches all that way back to Socrates by way of Alexander, Aristotle, Plato, and perhaps even Xenophon (OT 170). Furthermore, Kojeve explicitly claims that “in our day, the universal and homogeneous state has become a political goal as well” (OT 173). Taken together, these two assertions would seem to imply that the universal, homogeneous state is immanent within the evolution of the present, and thus that it cannot be a revolutionary idea, at least according to Kojeve’s definition of such an idea. This is not to say that it never was a revolutionary idea.

There is, however, another possibility, which is perhaps even more interesting. Given the existence of a revolutionary situation, one can exploit it by presenting a revolutionary idea. But what if, when faced with this situation, one does not have or cannot make use of a revolutionary idea? Then, according to Kojeve, one must simulate its existence. This “simulacrum of an idea” is intended to "maintain (for a certain time) the revolutionary situation (without which genuine revolutionary action is not possible),” and to ensure that the nation does not fall back "into the ‘automatic prolongation’ of the immediate past across the present into the future” (NA 198 [103]). The intent is to preserve the potential for revolution by simulating revolution. "It is a matter therefore of presenting to the nation the political forms that appear revolutionary, all in attributing to them an ‘inoffensive’ content: that is to say, either no content at all, or a non-revolutionary content; in other words, compatible with the present given (with the given distribution of forces and of political possibilities)” (NA 198 [103]). In light of Kojeve’s depiction of the development of the universal, homogeneous state in "Tyranny and Wisdom,” and his treatment of revolutions in The Notion of Authority, it is permissible to ask whether the universal, homogeneous state is a placeholder. That is, Kojeve’s depiction of the universal, homogeneous state as immanent within the evolution of present political circumstances and thus as nonrevolutionary (at least as he defines the term), prompts the question of whether the universal, homogeneous state is simply a simulacrum of a revolutionary idea. Determining whether, in the final analysis, the universal, homogeneous state is a simulacrum of a revolutionary idea, an active revolutionary idea, or another utopia waiting to be modified, lies beyond the scope of our present concern. Nevertheless, the question points toward the example of Kojeve himself: Did he consider himself to be an intellectual modifying Hegelian wisdom for the use of a future tyrant, or a philosopher positing an ideal future, or the wise man seeking to realize his wisdom through political action? Must we not ask:

What was the relationship between wisdom and tyranny in the life of the man who worked in the French Ministry of Economic Affairs and helped create the European Economic Community and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the European Union and World Trade Organization, respectively)?

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