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

Strauss, the Bible, and Modernity

Strauss famously insists in a number of his writings that the Bible does indeed pose a major challenge to philosophy in what he calls “the strict and classical sense” of the term (see 212)—although for him, that challenge comes from the intrinsic weight of Biblical teachings rather than from the brute fact of their “success,” and hence from Judaism at least as much as from Christianity.[1] Precisely what Strauss thought the status of philosophy could be in the face of that challenge remains the most significant question dividing his students today.[2] But Strauss does not bring up that question at any point in the “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero” that he wrote in response to Kojeve’s review. At the beginning of that “Restatement,” immediately after summarizing Kojeve’s (and Voegelin’s) objection that “the classical . . . orientation has . . . been made obsolete by the triumph of the Biblical orientation,” Strauss summarizes what he calls “my position” as follows: It is not clear that we have “good or sufficient reason for abandoning the classical frame of reference,” for there remains “the possibility that present day tyranny finds its place within the classical framework, i.e., that it cannot be understood adequately except within the classical framework”; even though “present day tyranny” is obviously “fundamentally different from the tyranny analyzed by the classics,” we might still be able “to assert that present day tyranny cannot be understood adequately except within the classical frame of reference,” which would mean asserting “that the classics were justified” in all their value judgments that would bear on the differences between ancient and modern tyranny (177-178*). His “Restatement” thus defends the possibility of maintaining even today the classical thinkers’ normative “framework,” “frame of reference,” or “orientation,” or as he also says, the “principles” in light of which they understood the world and formed concrete moral-political judgments (see 189, 183). It does not defend the necessity or truth of that framework or those principles. Strauss later goes so far as to emphasize that the classical framework rests on a major ontological or metaphysical “presupposition” that “is not self-evident” and that he does not attempt to demonstrate to be true (212). But defending even the possibility or viability of the classical framework today requires a refutation of Kojeve’s claim that that framework has manifestly been left behind by history and is simply untenable in the face of “the triumph of the Biblical orientation.” Strauss’s “Restatement” therefore argues, not that classical political philosophy is in fact capable of meeting the challenge of the Bible, but merely that it is superior to Kojeve’s Hegelian alternative and to modern philosophy more generally, whose attempt to meet that challenge leads to a dead end.[3]

Strauss spends only about two pages of the “Restatement” responding explicitly to a claim by Kojeve to the effect that (as Strauss there summarizes it) “the classical frame of reference must be modified radically by the introduction of an element of Biblical origin” (189-191). Kojeve had spent six pages of his forty-page review of Strauss arguing that the “pagan” or “Master” morality exemplified by Xenophon’s character Simonides needs to be synthesized with “Judeo-Christian” or “Slave” morality (189; see 140-142). The “Master” desires honor above all and seeks tyranny as a means to it; the “Slave” recognizes better than the Master the “joy” of “conscientiously” or “disinterestedly” “carrying out his project or . . . transforming his ‘idea’ or even ‘ideal’ into a reality shaped by his own efforts’; and a “political man” informed by Hegelian philosophy will synthesize these two points of view by seeking rule over the universal and homogeneous state, which is at once “the actualization of the supreme political ideal of mankind” and the greatest possible source of the “honor” that is better characterized as universal “recognition” (140-146). To this apparent demonstration of the insufficiency of the “classical or ‘pagan’ orientation,” Strauss responds by first repeating more clearly his original contention that Xenophon’s Simonides does not seriously hold the view Kojeve attributes to him (189-190;

cf. 87-90, 102), then by offering some evidence that “one does not characterize Socrates” (whom Xenophon admired more than he did Simonides) “adequately by calling him a Master,” and finally by arguing that Xenophon and the other “classics” saw the highest good not as honor, nor indeed as the mere realization of one’s ideals, but rather as “noble or virtuous work.” There is, Strauss concludes, “no apparent need for supplementing their teaching by an element taken from the [purportedly Biblical] morality of Slaves” (190-191). But as interesting as these arguments may be, Strauss can hardly mean them as a serious refutation of Kojeve, who had never claimed that either Xenophon or Socrates subscribed to “Master” morality. Kojeve had insisted rather that Socrates must have felt the “joy” that any philosopher experiences in fulfilling his conscientious or “disinterested” “duty” to pursue truth, i.e., that Socrates’ view, too, would have contained some elements of “Slave” morality (see 159, 155; cf. 140141). It is therefore not surprising that, after this short argument, Strauss spends some twenty more pages responding to Kojeve’s review—and to repeat, Strauss takes the “gist” of that review in its entirety, not merely of its discussion of Master and Slave morality, to be the obsolescence of the classics in the face of “the triumph of the Biblical orientation.”[4]

Strauss’s more serious response to Kojeve’s claims about the Bible and political philosophy can be seen if we first note his agreement with an important premise of those claims: Strauss does agree that Hegel’s political philosophy is part of an effort to respond to a challenge that the Bible poses to the enterprise of philosophy as such. More precisely, Strauss thinks that “Hegel’s moral and political teaching . . . continued, and in a certain respect radicalized, the modern tradition” of political philosophy that was “originated by Machiavelli” (192), and that this modern tradition originated as a new philosophic response to the Bible’s apparently insurmountable challenge to the tradition of classical philosophy. For as he says elsewhere, “according to the classics, science presupposes that the world is intelligible,” and “it was especially due to the influence of the Bible that [this] classical view became questionable” for certain early modern philosophers, including at least Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes. “Reflection guided by the Biblical notion of creation”—particularly that notion as understood by the Protestant Reformers, who had rejected “the reconciliation attempted by Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas between the Biblical and the Aristotelian teachings”—had forced these early moderns to adopt the view that “the world as created by God . . . is inaccessible to human knowledge,” from which they concluded that “the world as far as we can understand it” must be, not the unintelligible “given” world, but rather the world as freely and consciously “constructed” by “the human mind.”[5] (As Strauss also emphasizes in the “Restatement,” the “moderns” as such reject the classics’ belief in a natural “kinship” between the human soul and the “eternal cause or causes of the whole” [201].) The new modern epistemological doctrine was, for its part, the basis for modern natural science’s turn from the study of (inaccessible) final causes or natural ends to the study of efficient causes or of what we can “make.”[6] And Strauss asserts, strikingly, that there is a “hidden connection” between this modern-scientific turn from natural ends to efficient causes, on the one hand, and on the other hand the Machiavellian turn within political philosophy toward the “question of the roots of social order as distinguished from the question of its purpose.”[7] Machiavellian political philosophy is thus connected somehow to the rejection of “the notion of natural ends,” a rejection that was carried through and applied consistently to natural science only by Bacon and Machiavelli’s other philosophic successors.[8] For this reason, Strauss can say that all modern philosophy is “influenced . . . by the teaching of the Bible”:[9] its scientific, and apparently also its political, orientation is somehow determined by a Biblically inspired doubt in the validity of a basic presupposition of classical philosophy.

Several passages in Strauss’s “Restatement” serve to clarify this unconventional assertion about the connection between Baconian innovations in natural science and Machiavellian innovations in political philosophy. Machiavelli is first mentioned in Strauss’s initial response to Voegelin, whose review of On Tyranny had compared Machiavelli to Xenophon.[10] As we just saw also in the case of Kojeve, Strauss has little difficulty refuting Voegelin’s explicit argument concerning the Bible—namely that, in Strauss’s reformulation, Machiavelli was able to understand tyranny better than the classics did “due to the influence on Machiavelli of the Biblical tradition” (183-184). But he immediately opens up the possibility that Voegelin’s reformulated thesis might have more validity than the arguments that Voegelin had given for that thesis: “It is impossible,” Strauss insists, “to say how far the epoch-making change that was effected by Machiavelli is due to the indirect influence of the Biblical tradition, before that change has been fully understood in itself” (184-185).[11] If the “gist” of the criticism common to Voegelin and Kojeve is then that “the classical frame of reference,” in the face of “the triumph of the Biblical orientation,” must be “radically modified” as Machiavelli radically modified it (see again 177-178), then we can understand that criticism only by understanding “the epoch-making change that was effected by Machiavelli” in political philosophy and the “indirect influence” that the Bible had on that change.

Strauss himself summarizes that change as follows: Machiavelli “rejects classical political philosophy because of its ‘utopian’ character, i.e., because of its orientation by the perfection of the nature of man. He rejects in particular the contemplative life. Realizing the connection between the contemplative life and moral virtue, he replaces moral virtue by political virtue or patriotism” (184*). (The “political virtue” referred to here is of course, as Strauss elaborates elsewhere, political virtue or patriotism defined without reference to moral virtue and hence identical to “collective selfishness,” the virtue of a “condottiere” as distinguished from a citizen-soldier.)[12] By referring to Machiavelli’s rejection of the classics’ “orientation by the perfection of the nature of man” or by man’s “natural end,” Strauss connects this rejection to the rejection of “the notion of natural ends” simply and hence to the Biblically-derived skepticism that he believes induced that rejection (184, emphasis added; 106n5).[13] Machiavelli rejected “moral virtue” only because of its “connection” with the contemplative life: the latter was so to speak his primary target, and he did not mistake moral virtue for the “perfection of the nature of man” as understood by the classics.[14] And his rejection of the contemplative life was only a “particular” aspect of his rejection of “classical political philosophy”: apparently Machiavelli, like Strauss himself, saw the “contemplative life” (the life of the philosopher as described to nonphilosophers) as a part and even the crucial part of “classical political philosophy,” i.e., of the classical science of man.[15] Nonetheless, Strauss identifies Machiavelli’s “rejection of classical political philosophy” with his “longing for classical virtu as distinguished from, and opposed to, Biblical righteousness” (184, emphasis added). Machiavellian virtu is not only “distinguished from” Biblical morality as a mere consequence of Machiavelli’s attack on the contemplative life, as it was “distinguished from” moral virtue simply, but rather is in its very origin “opposed to” the Biblical teaching about man’s place in the whole.

Strauss says later in the “Restatement” that Machiavelli “originated” “the modern [political] tradition that emancipated the passions and hence ‘competition,’” and did so “through a conscious break with the strict moral demands made by both the Bible and classical philosophy”—those moral demands having of course called for restraints on human “passions.” The tradition of “Machiavellian politics” that emerges from this break with the classics “was perfected by such men as Hobbes,” whose “doctrine of the state of nature” shows its Machiavellian origins in that it “constructs human society by starting from the untrue assumption that man as man is thinkable as a being that lacks awareness of sacred restraints” (192).[16] “Hegel continued, and in a certain respect radicalized” that same tradition by making his “fundamental teaching regarding Master and Slave” rest on the Hobbesian state of nature doctrine and hence, ultimately, on the same Machiavellian “assumption that man as man is thinkable as a being that lacks awareness of sacred restraints” (192*).[17] In light of the foregoing, we should conclude that Machiavelli adopted this radically novel “assumption,” in deliberate opposition to both the Bible and the classics, as part of an effort to offer a new, nonteleological science of man that would overcome the apparently insurmountable doubts that the Bible had raised about that natural intelligibility of the world (including the human world) which had been presupposed by the classics’ teleological science of man and hence by classical political philosophy.[18] Strauss’s attack on this novel assumption will therefore be a linchpin of his critique of Kojeve, Hegel, and indeed the whole tradition of modern political philosophy that Machiavelli originated.

Strauss’s critique of the Machiavellian tradition begins from the necessary political consequences of that tradition.[19] On the basis of Machiavelli’s innovation, he says, “the distinction between doctrines which are [politically] dangerous and doctrines which are not dangerous, loses its significance” (184*).[20] Strauss is not denying that Machiavellian politics can distinguish between dangerous and nondangerous doctrines, since of course both the Hobbesian commonwealth and the Hegelian state allow for public censorship of politically dangerous doctrines,[21] but he insists that that “distinc?tion” loses in Machiavelli the “significance” that it had had for classical political philosophy. We can learn what this “significance” was from Strauss’s earlier statement that although the classics would have admitted “the legitimacy of Caesarism,” i.e., of absolute monarchy after “the republican constitutional order has completely broken down,” they chose to be “almost silent” about Caesarism because the “doctrine” of its legitimacy is “a dangerous doctrine” even though true (180). Caesarism, or “postconstitutional” absolute rule, “presupposes the decline, if not the extinction, of civic virtue or of public spirit,[22] and it necessarily perpetuates the condition”; therefore, “to stress the fact that it is just to replace constitutional rule by absolute rule, if the common good requires that change, means to cast a doubt on the absolute sanctity of the constitutional order,” which will in turn make it easier for “dangerous” men to “bring about a state of affairs in which the common good requires the establishment of their absolute rule” (179-180). In other words, if people doubt the “sanctity” of their constitutional order, they will become less devoted to defending it, less public spirited, and so more vulnerable to the machinations of a “Caesar” who both relies on and advances their moral degeneration. As Strauss shows in the following paragraph, Xenophon depicted such a “Caesar” in his Cyropae- dia, in which Cyrus the Great begins his career by undertaking the moral “corruption” of the Persian aristocrats and soon transforms a “stable and healthy aristocracy” into a morally “rotten” “Oriental despotism” (180-182).[23] In short, the classical “significance” of the distinction between dangerous and nondangerous doctrines is that dangerous doctrines, even if true, tend when spread to corrupt that “moral virtue” whose importance to political life was asserted by the classics and denied by Machiavelli.

The same political innovation that caused Machiavelli to reject the classical distinction between dangerous and nondangerous doctrines is also, according to Strauss, responsible for the single aspect of the modern world that most forces us to wonder whether the classical “framework” can be adequate for the analysis of our social and political life: modern technology (see 177-178). For when Aristotle (on Strauss’s interpretation) explicitly rejected the suggestion that technological innovation should be encouraged, he did so because such innovation was “dangerous to political stability,” since “‘the rule of law’ requires as infrequent changes of laws as possible. . . . The rule of laws as the classics understood it can exist only in a ‘conservative’ society” (120n46, emphasis added).[24] We have just seen that according to the classics, citizens’ attachment to a given “constitutional order” generally requires that they falsely attribute “sanctity” and hence permanence to that order. Aristotle therefore expected that frequent changes in the social order, apparently including even technological changes,[25] would disturb that attachment in much the same way as the “doctrine of Caesarism” and so would be incompatible with “the rule of laws as the classics understood it.” On the other hand, “the speedy introduction of improvements of all kinds is obviously compatible with beneficent tyranny” (120n46). And Strauss asserts that the abandonment of the distinction between kingship and tyranny, or between rule of laws and rule without laws, is essential to “the epoch-making change effected by Machiavelli” (24).[26] Machiavelli’s innovation is then a necessary prerequisite, if not for the development of modern technology, at least for the evaluation of that development as anything other than “‘unnatural,’ i.e., . . . destructive of humanity,” as the classics would have evaluated it (cf. 178; 208). For “the emancipation of technology . . . from moral and political control” necessarily undermines “the rule of laws” in the classical sense: it undermines the possibility of political arrangements in which citizens somehow attribute “sanctity” to their laws or identify them with those “sacred restraints” the awareness of which, according to the Machiavellian tradition, can be lost without any corresponding loss of our humanity.[27] Modern philosophers’ agreement with that Machiavellian denial is then at the root of their new willingness to encourage, as the classics would never have encouraged, the development of technology—a willingness that has had incalculable effects on the world we live in.

Cyrus was able to erode the Persian aristocrats’ sense of sacred restraints, to encourage them to pursue “external rewards” rather than moral virtue for its own sake (181-182*). In a limited way he “emancipated” their “passions” (cf. 192). Strauss does not then deny that there is a great deal of support in natural human “passions” for the Machiavellian project of allowing all humanity to become what Persia, to a much more limited degree, became under Cyrus (i.e., a “planetary Oriental despotism” [208]). Man’s “awareness of sacred restraints” can be diminished. Strauss insists only that according to the classics, this diminishment would necessarily be a diminishment of man’s self-awareness. For Kojeve, the Machiavellian project of emancipating man from this awareness (leaving him as a “being that is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition”) can and will fully succeed in producing the universal and homogenous state, which presupposes both “unlimited technological progress” and the end of the rule of “law” (cf. 192, 186, 211).[28] For Strauss, if this project does so succeed, then that final state will be “the state of Nietzsche’s last man,” “the state in which . . . man loses his humanity” by losing his awareness of sacred restraints (208).[29] Or if instead, as Strauss seems more inclined to believe, there are natural limits preventing the full success of the Machiavellian project (193; cf. 203, 238),[30] then the extent of its success will still be the extent of our estrangement from our true nature or from self-knowledge. This is why, according to Strauss, the classics rejected in advance, “as destructive of humanity,” the Machiavellian emancipation of technology (178) as well as the

“tyrannical” or desacralized politics—whether Hobbesian, Lockean, or Hegelian—whose steady advance necessarily accompanies that of technology.[31] And it is also why Strauss rejected Kojeve’s solution to the problem that the Bible poses for philosophy. “Machiavellian wisdom,” and therefore also Kojeve’s Hegelian wisdom, “has no necessary connection with moderation,” i.e., with self-knowledge (184*), and hence is no wisdom at all (101).[32]

  • [1] See, inter alia, Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University ofChicago, 1953), 74-75; Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays andLectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Kenneth Hart Green (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 107-131. It is impossible to imagine Strausssaying that “we have had” the Bible for (only) “almost two thousand years.” Inreferring to other writings of Strauss’s I have avoided any written after 1954, soas not to read into the “Restatement” any views he might have arrived at onlyafter publishing it.
  • [2] Michael Zuckert, “Straussians,” in The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, ed.Steven B. Smith (New York: Cambridge University, 2009), 265-275.
  • [3] According to Grant, Strauss does not even go this far but defends only the morelimited thesis that the classical view is internally consistent. Grant bases thisclaim at least in part on the defective French translation of Strauss’s final paragraph, which he had not been able to read in the original English (“Tyrannyand Wisdom,” 54-55; cf. Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, vii-viii). Meyer(Ende der Geschichte, 197) adopts the view, common among Kojeve scholars, thatStrauss defends the actual truth of the classical position rather than its mereviability.
  • [4] Several scholars take Strauss’s discussion of Master and Slave morality as a serious argument against Kojeve’s actual theses: Grant, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” 67;Cooper, End of History, 332; Nadon, “Philosophic Politics,” 82; Joshua Parens,“Strauss on Maimonides’ Secretive Political Science,” in Major, Leo Strauss’sDefense, 119.
  • [5] Leo Strauss, “On a New Interpretation of Plato’s Political Philosophy,” SocialResearch 13 (l946), 338-339.
  • [6] Strauss, “Plato’s Political Philosophy,” 338-339; Natural Right and History, 170177, esp. 175.
  • [7] Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? and other Studies (Chicago: Universityof Chicago, 1959), 289-290.
  • [8] Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 47.
  • [9] Strauss, “Plato’s Political Philosophy,” 328.
  • [10] See Voegelin’s review (cited above at note 6), 242-244.
  • [11] See also Grant, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” 68.
  • [12] Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, 184; Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?,42; Natural Right and History, 178.
  • [13] See Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 47; Grant, “Tyranny and Wisdom,”61-62.
  • [14] See Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 134.
  • [15] Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 91-94 (emphasis added); see Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 134.
  • [16] On Machiavelli’s interest in “what Hobbes would have called ‘the state ofnature,’” see Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 289-290.
  • [17] See also Cooper, End of History, 44-45, 329.
  • [18] See Nathan Tarcov, “On a Certain Critique of ‘Straussianism’,” in Leo Strauss:Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker, eds. Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), 267-268; NasserBehnegar, “Reading ‘What is Political Philosophy?’,” in Major, Leo Strauss’sDefense, 36-37.
  • [19] Grant, “Tyranny and Wisdom,” 55-56.
  • [20] The sentence is not in the published English version: see Patard, “Leo Strauss’s‘Restatement’,” 39.
  • [21] See Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 185-186; Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, 211.
  • [22] It will become clear that this “civic virtue or public spirit” must be taken in amore ordinary or moral sense than the Machiavellian “political virtue or patriotism” discussed above.
  • [23] Further confirming that Strauss views Cyrus as a “Caesar” is the fact that hegives his lengthy interpretation of the Cyropaedia as a response to Voegelin’sclaim that the classics “failed to establish” a doctrine of Caesarism, as well asStrauss’s statement that, out of Romulus, Theseus, Moses, and Cyrus, “certainlyRomulus, Theseus, and Moses were ‘preconstitutional’ rulers.” Gourevitch andRoth, On Tyranny, 180-182, 184.
  • [24] Grant (“Tyranny and Wisdom,” 60) offers a different reading of Strauss’s interpretation of the classics’ rejection of technology.
  • [25] Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 15.
  • [26] See also Cooper, End of History, 335.
  • [27] Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 37; see Grant, “Tyranny and Wisdom,”64-65.
  • [28] As Cooper summarizes Kojeve’s view, “Modern, atheistic, mortal human beingslack reverence”; they “revere no limits because they are not conscious of any”;“modern man has no awe of nature’s sacredness” (End of History, 192-193, 334).See also Grant (“Tyranny and Wisdom,” 72) on “what remnants of sacredrestraints still linger in the minds of men” in contemporary Western countries.
  • [29] See Meyer, Ende der Geschichte, 198.
  • [30] See also Meyer, Ende der Geschichte, 198-199.
  • [31] Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, 47-49, 53-54.
  • [32] For this interpretation of “moderation,” see Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny,56, in light of the elaboration at Leo Strauss, “Farabi’s Plato,” in Louis GinzbergJubilee Volume, English Section, ed. American Academy for Jewish Research(New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1945), 366.
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