Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
FOUR Leo Strauss’s Decisive Reply to Alexandre Kojeve
At the beginning of the Cold War (and facing its then unknown possibilities), two philosophers, a political conservative and a Stalinist of sorts, quarreled over the proper attitude toward tyranny. Having witnessed the blindness of the contemporary sages to the twentieth-century tyrannies, Leo Strauss sought in On Tyranny to unearth the classical critique of tyranny. But as his excavation site he chose not the pages of Plato and Aristotle, but the only classical work in which a wise man praises the tyrannical life: Hiero or Tyrannicus. In Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s forgotten dialogue, Alexandre Kojeve could see a living problem and even the motif of history that he captures under the title: “Tyranny and Wisdom.” Dissatisfied with Strauss’s exposition of the problem and even more with his solution, Kojeve argues that the resolution of man’s philosophical and political problems requires the cooperation of philosophers and rulers, including tyrants who “of all possible statesmen . . . [are] unquestionably the most likely to receive and to implement the philosopher’s advice” (OT 165), that such cooperation is possible through the intermediation of intellectuals, and that this possibility has been demonstrated by history, which is ultimately governed by nothing other than philosophic ideas. Strauss deeply appreciated Kojeve’s review: “I am glad to see, once again, that we agree about what the genuine problems are, problems that are nowadays on all sides either denied (Existentialism) or trivialized (Marxism and Thomism). Besides that I am glad that finally someone represents the modern position intelligently and in full knowledge” (OT 243-244). Nonetheless, he did not revise his position. He restated it. Thus, with the benefit of modern developments and experience, the two philosophers reenacted the old quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.
To make the case for Strauss, I naturally turn to “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” where Strauss addresses Kojeve’s objections “point by point” (OT vii), defending the classical position while turning the modern attack against itself. Despite its title, this work is very much in need of an interpretation. In asking Kojeve to review his original study, Strauss gives the helpful advice that “I am one of those who refuse to go through open doors when one can enter just as well through a keyhole” (OT 236). This captures On Tyranny well, a very detailed and even “microscopic” interpretation that opens large issues that concern man as man. One of its purposes was to train a new generation of the youth in the art of reading works like Xenophon’s (OT 28). Accordingly, Strauss gives them the help they need, which often comes in the form of shockingly bold statements sprinkled in the midst of textual minutiae. The “Restatement” is a different animal, dealing with the most general issues in a moral tone and a style that in some places is almost “Victorian.” Here Strauss becomes a magician who enters simultaneously through a keyhole and a public gate. Big themes and pathos are everywhere though they are almost always accompanied with odd formulations, which are difficult to understand but easy to ignore since the big picture seems clear enough. A clue to the purpose of his rhetoric is found in a letter, where Strauss promises to reply to Kojeve’s criticism “with the utmost thoroughness and decisiveness in a public setting’ (OT 243, emphasis added). Strauss wished to defend his position before the public. At the same time, he wished to address with “utmost thoroughness and decisiveness” Kojeve, who was one of the three people in the world “who will understand what I am driving at” (OT 236, 239). Now, the tension between these two aims is apt to produce some static in the transmission of the message, and it seems likely that this contributed to Kojeve’s failure to understand the full force of Strauss’s criticism. Despite Strauss’s urgent request, Kojeve never responded in public. He did write a letter (OT 255-256), the substance of which prompted Strauss to wonder “whether I have understood you or you me on all points” (OT 257). Strauss’s rhetoric, however, is not the only source of misunderstanding. Debates of this sort put at risk one’s whole being, and there are differences in men’s souls, even among such masters of understanding, that prevent winged words from carrying their precious cargo, turning them into hapless fluttering prisoners of their page.
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