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


Kojeve, Revelation, and History

Strauss’s original monograph on the Hiero had made two passing footnote references to the Bible, each alluding to a contrast between classical and Biblical moral teachings (see 117n61 on justice and 125n5l on love). But Kojeve’s review mentions neither of these, and its primary theme is not the Bible but “the political action of philosophers” or the relation between “tyranny and wisdom.”[1] As Kojeve says, “the question of principle that remains to be resolved [between himself and Strauss] is whether or not the wise man, in his capacity as a wise man, . . . wants to . . . confront reality by giving the tyrant ‘realistic’ advice,” or put another way, whether the “philosopher” (the only “wise man” in existence up until now) “should govern, or whether he should only advise the tyrant, or whether he should not rather abstain from all political action” (147, 167; see also 153). Kojeve answers, in his own name and that of Hegel, that philosophers have advised and should continue to advise tyrants, and in particular that the rule of modern tyrants such as Stalin is justified on the grounds that they ultimately serve this “political action of philosophers” (169-176).

Kojeve advances this understanding of the relation between philosophy and tyranny in opposition to what he calls the “Epicurean” understanding of philosophy. According to this understanding, which “at first sight . . . appears . . . even implied by the very definition of philosophy,” philosophers want nothing so much as to be left alone to pursue “the Truth” in solitude, isolated from the “changing and tumultuous world,” while avoiding as much as possible any “action” which would as such distract them from this pursuit of Truth (150-152). Kojeve attributes this understanding of philosophy, with only a bit of hesitation, to Strauss (152n3). He criticizes it on the ground that it presupposes a “theistic” understanding of “Being” and of “Truth” (a point to which we will return shortly), but he adds another criticism, which he says can be made independently of one’s understanding of Being and Truth (151-152, 152-153). The philosophic ideal of isolated contemplation, he says, presupposes that one has in fact arrived at the truth of a matter as soon as one achieves a feeling of “subjective certainty” about it, or that “the necessary and sufficient criterion of truth” is that feeling of certainty that appears to attach to “clear and distinct ideas,” to “intellectual intuition,” to “axioms,” or even to “divine revelations.” But this “criterion of ‘evidence,’” although it was accepted by “all ‘rationalist’ philosophers from Plato to Husserl,” is in Kojeve’s view “invalidated by the sole fact that there have always been illuminati and ‘false prophets’ on earth, who never had the least doubt concerning the truth of their ‘intuitions’ or of the authenticity of the ‘revelations’ they received in one form or another” (153). Kojeve is inclined to identify such false prophets as “‘pathological’” cases or “madmen” (153, 159). Since he elsewhere emphasizes not only his own atheism but the “radical” or “consistent” atheism of the Hegelian philosophy he defends, it is safe to assume that he would include among such “madmen” or “false prophets” all Biblical prophets, as well as anyone else who claims to have received “individual revelation from a transcendent God” (152, 161, 158).[2] For Kojeve, Strauss’s classical philosophy suffers from a fatal flaw in that it lacks any rational criterion for distinguishing the truths that philosophers seek and attain from the falsehoods that some pathological pseudo-prophets, including Biblical prophets, put forth as “revealed truths.”

The first solution that Kojeve offers to this problem is philosophic friendship: a philosopher surrounded by a group of friends can be “confident” that he is not a madman, since his friends would expel him from their society if he were (153-154). But Kojeve never claims to find this solution satisfactory. He even makes clear that the solution of philosophic friendship was accepted (at least in practice) by the ancient Epicureans themselves and certainly by the Socratics, a point with which Strauss will emphatically agree (cf. 154 with 194). It cannot, then, be an adequate solution to the problem that Kojeve says has in fact vitiated all non-Hegelian (including

Epicurean and Socratic) “rationalism.” And Kojeve shows us why it cannot, for he emphasizes that “we can call” someone mad only when he is “entirely alone in taking” his personal belief or revelation “for a truth,” i.e., when “even the other madmen refuse to believe” him (153).[3] Circles of philosophic friends, then, exclude madness only by definition: madness “is essentially asocial” and so cannot be called madness when it is shared (154-155). We would have to conclude that apparent cases of “madness” such as Biblical prophets do not qualify as mad in the strict sense, since many of these men were able to accrue more than a few followers (“other madmen”) who emphatically did believe in the “truth” of their revelations. Someone, for example, who openly “identifies with God the Father” could be called mad in the strict sense only if he had found no other madmen who believed this claim of his (154-155). Kojeve does not elaborate on this example, but it does point unmistakably to the most successful of all Biblical prophets, who made precisely this claim and has indeed persuaded untold millions to “believe” it.[4] For Kojeve, Strauss’s classical philosophy lacks a rational criterion for distinguishing its circles of philosophic friends from religious sects founded by successful pseudo-prophets.[5]

Kojeve therefore asserts that circles of philosophic friends do not solve the problem of “subjective certainty,” since such circles fail to exclude, and in fact tend to perpetuate, the “prejudices” that happen to be shared by the given circle. These prejudices may even be as false as the Biblical doctrines, and a philosopher as such must “turn away” from all such falsehoods “as quickly and as completely as possible.” Hence a true philosopher “has to try to live in the wide world,” “in ‘the market place,’” outside of any “closed society” or circle of friends (154-155). Here, again, Kojeve knows he is preaching nothing more than what Socrates himself manifestly practiced (155).[6] But Socrates turns out not to have grasped the full implications of this need for a philosopher to live “in the wide world.” For Kojeve later expands on this point as follows: “The ‘success’ of his philosophical pedagogy is the sole ‘objective’ criterion of the truth of the philosopher’s ‘doctrine’: the fact of his having disciples . . . is his guarantee against the danger of madness, and his disciples’ ‘success’ in private and public life is the ‘objective’ proof of the (relative) ‘truth’ of his doctrine” (163). Kojeve thus reiterates that acquiring “disciples” keeps one by definition from what can strictly be called “madness”— which, he again emphasizes here, is an intrinsic danger for anyone who believes to have received a “revelation”—but he now adds that stepping beyond the circle of disciples into “the wide world” means above all attempting to produce “successful” disciples, whose success alone proves that the “doctrines” the philosopher taught them are objectively true and not merely shared prejudices (ibid.). And on the grounds that the highest form of “success” would be political success, Kojeve suggests that considerations along these lines have moved “most philosophers” in history to feel “strongly inclined” to participate in politics even though most of them were not fully “conscious” of the true reason they had to do so (ibid.).[7]

That reason, according to Kojeve, is fully articulated only by his own version of Hegelian philosophy. Only the Hegelian, non- “theistic” understanding of “Being and Truth” can explain why a philosopher would have a “philosophically valid reason to communicate

his knowledge”; the alternative, “theistic . . . conception” of Being and Truth, which Strauss’s “Epicurean” understanding of the “isolated ” philosopher must presuppose, can provide no such explanation (158). According to the “theistic conception,”

Being is essentially immutable in itself and eternally identical with itself, and . . . it is completely revealed for all eternity in and by an intelligence that is perfect from the first; and this adequate revelation of the timeless totality of Being is, then, the Truth. Man (the philosopher) can at any moment participate in this Truth, either as the result of an action issuing from the Truth itself (“divine revelation”), or by his own individual effort to understand (the Platonic “intellectual intuition”). (151-152)

But if one rejects this theistic conception, the only “consistent” alternative is to “accept the radical Hegelian atheism according to which Being itself is essentially temporal (Being=Becoming) and creates itself insofar as it is discursively revealed in the course of history (or as history: revealed Being=Truth=Man=History)” (152). This is as much as to “replace God (understood as consciousness and will surpassing individual human consciousness and will) by Society (the State) and History” (161). According to this Hegelian alternative, “Truth” can only be what is revealed by Society and History. But this means that “whatever is, in fact, beyond the range of social and historical verification, is forever relegated to the realm of opinion (doxa).” Thus neither “intentions” nor “subjective certainty” nor anything else that can be known only by “introspection” can be a sufficient criterion of knowledge; only what is revealed “by Society” and “in the course of history” can be “known in the ‘scientific’ sense of the term” (161-162, 160). By “communicating” his opinions to his students, a philosopher is submitting those opinions to the test of “social and historical verification,” and only the effects of those opinions in the world of becoming “as it is discursively revealed in the course of history”—which is to say, only the historical “success” of the disciples who have received those opinions—can verify that those opinions are objectively true and not merely shared prejudices. Historical success provides the objective standard to which all claims to truth (whether philosophic or prophetic) can and must be submitted.

Now, we have seen evidence that among the “false prophets” whose existence poses a significant challenge to any atheistic philosopher’s claim to have arrived at “objective truth” about the universe, Kojeve is particularly concerned with one whose disciples appear to have enjoyed greater “success” than those of any other prophet in history. This makes sense in light of Kojeve’s further statement that, as long as there remain individuals who disagree with a given solution to a particular philosophic problem, a philosopher will experience the need to address these disagreements through further “discussion” of that problem and so cannot be said to have truly solved it. A true philosophic solution would require that dissenting individuals be not only “refuted” but “convinced” or otherwise “eliminated” (167-168). In a world full of individuals who are convinced by the doctrines of a successful prophet over against those of an atheistic philosopher, then, that philosopher cannot be said to have arrived at any “objective truth” about the fundamental nature of the universe. Nonetheless, Kojeve asserts confidently that his test of historical verification does or will eventually permit philosophers to achieve the “definitive solution to a problem (that is to say, a solution that remains unchanging for all time to come)” (167). His explanation for this confidence shows his agreement with Strauss on at least one crucial point, namely the centrality of political philosophy to philosophy as a whole (see 212).[8] Definitive solutions to philosophic problems can emerge, says Kojeve, “only once . . . history reaches its final stage in and through the universal and homogeneous State which, since it implies the citizens’ ‘satisfaction,’ excludes any possibility of negating action, hence of all negation in general, and, hence, of any new discussion of what has already been established” (168). (By “negating action” Kojeve means action whose “aim is to negate existing imperfection, perfection being . . . not yet attained” [156].) In other words, in the universal and homogenous state that Kojeve sees arriving at the end of History, humanity will have achieved a state of such “perfection” that it will not even be “possible” for citizens to “discuss,” or to think seriously about, the possibility of significant change to

“what has already been established.”[9] Since this universal “satisfaction” is said to be necessary for resolving the problem of “subjective certainty,” we would expect it to be connected somehow with the “elimination” of all successful disciples of false prophets.

Kojeve does not state this connection in so many words, but a few other points in his review make it clear. For one, he says that a defining characteristic of the universal and homogeneous state is that it includes the universal and reciprocal recognition of the “eminently human value” of each and all, which means among other things that each individual is treated as equally “worthy” of being listened to simply because of who he is, as one listens to an “oracle” (143-146, although cf. 156). This implies that in the universal and homogeneous state, no person will be seen as any more of an “oracle” than another: the recognition of oracles or prophets as such, as anything more than fellow human beings, will have ceased.[10] Relatedly, Kojeve asserts that the “idea of human homogeneity” on which the final state is based was originally a “religious Christian idea,” but adds that that “idea” takes its final and politically operative form only once “modern philosophy [has] succeeded in secularizing it ^rationalizing it, transforming it into coherent discourse),” that is, in showing it to be “fully actualized” in the here and now rather than “only in the beyond” (172-173). Modern political philosophy has shown that what Christianity promised in the next life can be “fully actualized” in this life.[11] When it is at last so actualized, citizens of the universal and homogeneous state will experience in this world the satisfaction of those hopes that Christians had directed toward the next.[12] This explains Kojeve’s claim that secular political homogeneity will assure to human beings such a degree of “satisfaction” that they can no longer think seriously about abolishing “what has already been established”: they will no longer be able to think seriously about returning to a religious doctrine that would deny, contrary to their own experience, that their deepest desires can be satisfied in this world.[13] At that point the otherworldly Christian understanding of “homogeneity,” and the view of the universe that goes with it, would be more than refuted; it would be outlived.[14] And Kojeve himself goes so far as to say that at the end of History the same will be true of Biblical doctrine as such. Our historical progress toward the universal and homogeneous state enables us to make philosophical progress toward “Wisdom or Truth,” he says, and without such progress, we could “never have the book (‘Bible’) of Wisdom that could definitively replace the book by that title which we have had for nearly two thousand years” (175). It is Kojeve’s greatest hope for the end of History that it will provide us at last with that book, literally or figu- ratively.[15] And that hope, to repeat, is what drives Kojeve’s endorsement of the actions of Stalin and other modern tyrants, which are justified insofar as they contribute to the eventual creation of the universal and homogeneous state where wisdom will at last be possible (see again 169-176; also 262).[16]

We can now summarize the role played by the Bible in Kojeve’s understanding of the philosophic problem of “subjective certainty.” Kojeve believes that, while an atheistic philosopher like himself may be inclined to think of Biblical or other theistic prophets as madmen, he is not strictly speaking in a position to call them that as long as they find followers who believe them—and Jesus is of course the prophet who has done this with the greatest success. Even if a circle of philosophic friends might agree on certain anti-Biblical cosmological doctrines, they cannot yet be sure that those doctrines are more than shared prejudices, and the epistemic tools at the disposal of classical philosophy offer them no way of disposing definitively of this possibility. But the Hegelian interpretation of modern political philosophy reveals that, at the coming of the universal and homogeneous state, all human beings will have achieved such this- worldly “satisfaction” as to be incapable of listening to Jesus or any other theistic prophet. Then, if any such prophet should somehow arise, he would at last be entirely isolated and so could finally be dismissed as a “madman” in the strict sense—and even “locked up” (see 255).[17] Atheistic “Wisdom,” true knowledge of Being, will be achievable then and only then. While atheism could not rise above the level of mere “philosophy,” pursuit of wisdom, so long as its claims about Being retained essentially the same cognitive status (“subjective certainties”) as the parallel claims made by prophets, the dialectic of History is alone capable of elevating the former’s status to that of “objective truths.” This would then be the fullest meaning of the “success” that a philosopher must hope for in his students: a Hegelian philosopher will communicate his thoughts so that his students, either directly as “tyrants” or indirectly as the “intellectuals” who influence them, may contribute to this fulfillment of History in the universal and homogenous state. They would thus contribute to philosophy or to the human progress toward Wisdom (173-176), a progress to which the existence of the Bible and its numerous adherents would seem otherwise to pose an insurmountable obstacle.

In principle, Kojeve’s discussion of “madness” and the problem of “subjective certainty” would allow that other “false prophets” or “illuminati ” might pose just as much of an obstacle to Wisdom as Biblical prophets do. But we have seen Kojeve offer repeated, if quiet, indications that the latter are by far the obstacle foremost on his mind. Since the “success” of the universal and homogeneous state is the criterion by which he hopes that the Bible will one day be (more than) refuted, it is fair to conjecture that his emphasis on the Bible, and particularly on Christianity, derives in turn from the large-scale “success” that its teachings have enjoyed over the past “two thousand years.”[18] Certainly his reference to that time frame is enough to raise a doubt whether, in his mind, the ancient Greek philosophers would have faced any obstacle to their philosophizing comparable to that faced by philosophers confronted with Christianity today. Strauss, at any rate, seems to have drawn the plausible conclusion that Kojeve would answer this question in the negative—that for Kojeve, classical philosophy might have been difficult or impossible to criticize in its own historical time period but is manifestly inadequate to ours. And this at last allows us to explain why, according to Strauss, the “gist” of Kojeve’s review is that “the classical, or ‘pagan,’ orientation has . . . been made obsolete by the triumph of the Biblical orientation.” Kojeve’s criticism of Strauss is that the “success” of Biblical prophecy, or “the triumph of the Biblical orientation,” requires a response from political philosophy that is provided only by Hegel’s interpretation of the moderns, and certainly not by the classics.

  • [1] These are, respectively, the original and reprinted titles of Kojeve’s review(“L’actionpolitique desphilosophes” and “Tyrannie et sagesse”).
  • [2] See Gourevitch, “Philosophy and Politics,” 298n128.
  • [3] All emphasis in quotations is original unless otherwise noted.
  • [4] Roth (“Natural Right,” 418) and Drury (Alexandre Kojeve, 147) appear to missthe significance of this example. Cooper (End of History, 31) shows that theexample is taken from Hobbes’ discussion of “madness” in chapter 8 of Leviathan (see Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck [New York: Cambridge, 1996], 55). Butbecause Cooper does not mention Kojeve’s own use of the example (cf. End ofHistory, 268-269), he is able to present Kojeve as somewhat friendlier to Jesus(186-187)—although even the passages that he does cite do not bear out thispresentation. For those passages cf. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.,ed. Allan Bloom (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 1969), 71-74; see alsoRiley, “Introduction to Alexandre Kojeve,” 10-11; Meyer, Ende der Geschichte,100.
  • [5] Roth (“Natural Right,” 418), Smith (Reading Leo Strauss, 146-147), Pippin(“Being, Time, and Politics,” 151), Nichols (Alexandre Kojeve, 123-124), Drury(Alexandre Kojeve, 148), and Meyer (Ende der Geschichte, 196) all overlook thequiet emphasis on religious themes in Kojeve’s description of this “madness.”
  • [6] See Pelluchon, Leo Strauss, 217-218.
  • [7] Contrast Auffret’s claim (Alexandre Kojeve, 332-335) that for Kojeve, philosophers are intrinsically incapable of real political participation and can successfully “counsel princes” only after first becoming “postphilosophic,” “wise” men.All translations from works cited in other languages are my own.
  • [8] See also Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, xviii, xxii; Smith, Reading LeoStrauss, 130.
  • [9] Strauss says, “If I understand [Kojeve] correctly, he is satisfied that ‘the universal and homogeneous state’ is the simply best social order”; Kojeve himselfhad called it “the actualization of the supreme political ideal of mankind”(Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, 192 and 146; see also xvi); Frost, “Kojeve’sEsquisse” 598-599; Cooper, End of History, 276-277; Riley, “Introduction toAlexandre Kojeve,” 10. Roth asserts, however, that Kojeve regards the final stateas good only “because it is final,” and that “whether one approves of” that stateis “not relevant here” (“Natural Right,” 419, 421). Smith (Reading Leo Strauss,154) makes a similar claim, supporting it with one clause from a private letterof Kojeve’s. That letter (see Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, 255) does admitthat the final “satisfaction” may be less universal than Kojeve had made it seem,but on the question of the final state’s goodness, the relevant clause from the letter appears to me more ambiguous than it appears to Smith. Pippin points out,though, that even the admission that the citizens of the final state are not universally satisfied seems already to pose a problem for Kojeve’s argument about“historical verification” (“Being, Time, and Politics,” 157).
  • [10] See also Goldford, “Kojeve’s Reading of Hegel,” 286n49.
  • [11] See Frost, “Kojeve’s Esquisse,” 602n25; Nichols, Alexandre Kojeve, 121; alsoDrury, Alexandre Kojeve, 33-35.
  • [12] See Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 101.
  • [13] See Meyer, Ende der Geschichte, 148.
  • [14] See Leo Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz: Beitrage zum Verstandnis Maimunis undseiner Vorlaufer, reprinted in Gesammelte Schriften: Band 2, ed. Heinrich Meier(1935; repr., Stuttgart: Metzler, 1997), 21 (cited by original page numbers).Contrast Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 110.
  • [15] Grant (“Tyranny and Wisdom,” 53) asserts that according to Kojeve, Hegel hasalready “produced” precisely this “book.” Kojeve’s other writings do sometimesgive the impression that he thinks History has already ended, but I believe thathis review of Strauss offers important evidence that this is not entirely true; seealso Nichols, Alexandre Kojeve, 32.
  • [16] See also Cooper, End of History, 224, 271; Frost, “Kojeve’s Esquisse,” 600n17.
  • [17] Drury notes that “in [Kojeve’s] end-state, atheism is triumphant” and is the onlyinterpreter to mention that all religious believers would as such be among themadmen whom Kojeve would have “locked up” in that state, although she doesnot connect this with the problem of “subjective certainty” (Alexandre Kojeve, 50with 45; cf. 147-148). Frost says that on Kojeve’s view, only “obdurate, nostalgic, or simply crazy” individuals would be resistant to the final state (“Kojeve’sEsquisse” 599).
  • [18] “Kojeve has to (and does) accept the complaint that he is advocating the worship of success, . . . since he endorses Schiller’s dictum that die Weltgeschichte istdas Weltgericht.” Roth, “Natural Right,” 413.
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