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

The Sufficiency of the Classical Framework

Kojeve denies that modern tyrannies can be understood by Simonides’ analysis. The proper framework for understanding all tyrannies (both modern and ancient) is the distinctly human desire to have one’s eminent human reality and dignity recognized by other human beings. This framework is a synthesis of what Kojeve calls the attitude of the Masters and that of the Slaves or the Workers, “which is that of ‘Judeo-Christian’ or even bourgeois’ man,” but Simonides’ account of tyranny is made entirely from the narrow “pagan” perspective of the Masters, who regard honor as the highest goal of man and the goal of real men.

Simonides justifies the life of a tyrant because it is productive of honor and “no human pleasure seems to come closer to what is divine than the joy connected with honors” (OT 15). Hiero objects that the honors that tyrants receive are based on fear, whereas true honor must be freely given, out of love for the man and gratitude for his public virtue and beneficence. To this Simonides responds that Hiero can win their love and therefore receive genuine honor by benefitting his subjects. Kojeve maintains that the above analysis does not adequately capture Hiero’s difficulty. The tyrant is indeed dissatisfied by the honors that are given out of fear, not because those who honor him do not love him but because he does not recognize the value of these men. As a real man, he values those who risk their lives for honor, but the people who submit to him do not by this very fact live up to his standard. The life of a tyrant is tragic because he is forced to kill those whose recognition he desires. If the problem is to be resolved, the “pagan” and “aristocratic” attitude must be supplemented by “the attitude of the ‘Slave.’” Kojeve here puts a new gloss on this attitude (absent from his treatment of the subject in his lectures on Hegel), by focusing on the pleasures of work. Although the Slave is forced to work for the benefit of someone else, ultimately work itself becomes a value for him and what is more his devotion to work frees him from his original fear of death: “The joy that comes from labor itself, and the desire to succeed in an undertaking, can, by themselves alone, prompt a man to undertake painful and dangerous labors” (OT 140). Unlike that of honor the joy of work need not be social as is evident from the pleasures of “a child, alone on a beach, mak[ing] sand-patties” or of a painter covering “the cliffs of some desert island with drawings” (OT 140). Kojeve focuses on the pleasure of work here because it offers a new motive for tyranny, the pleasures of performing an ideological task. The modern tyrant’s concern with ideology is not merely a new veneer on old wood. Love of honor may explain the occasionally bloody struggles of an idle aristocrat such as Auda abu Tayi, who rode with T E. Lawrence, but it does not explain the tireless labors of a Lenin. Most importantly, the synthesis of the two perspectives allows the tyrant to be satisfied with the recognition of his subjects, making his very desire for honor (understood as a desire for recognition) a motive for transforming his tyranny into a nontyrannical regime. To satisfy his own desire, the tyrant must aim not only to extend his empire over the entire globe, but also to raise the quality of human beings under his rule so that they become free and thus capable of recognizing him.

Strauss denies that classical philosophy suffers from the narrowness of the perspective of the Masters: “in translating one of the crucial passages, Kojeve omits the qualifying dokei (‘no human pleasure seems to come closer to what is divine than joy concerning honors’)” (OT 203). According to Simonides, the desire for honor is the dominating passion of andres (real men) and not anthropoi (ordinary human beings). But “according to Xenophon, and hence according to his Simonides, the aner is by no means the highest human type. The highest human type is the wise man” (OT 170).[1] Kojeve’s Masters treat human beings who are not motivated by honor as less than human and in this respect they fail to grasp the essential unity of the human race. But Strauss observes that Simonides’ apparent defense of the morality of the Masters implicitly acknowledges that all human beings seek pleasure, a truth that is easier seen by Slaves than by the Masters who would rather die than serve others. According to Socrates, the manly Gentlemen prefer the life of farmers to that of artisans because those who are bound to the land are most likely to defend it with their lives. Socrates, however, was not a farmer. The “Pagan Masters” may overvalue bravery, but the same cannot be said of Socrates: Xenophon does not “mention manliness in his two lists of Socrates’ virtues” (OT 190).

Strauss furthermore argues that the classical correction of the morality of Masters is sounder than Kojeve’s account of the attitude of Slaves or Workers, which is silent about the character of the job that provides disinterested pleasure. It makes a difference whether “the job is criminal or innocent, whether it is mere play or serious, and so on.” According to Strauss, “[w]hat Kojeve calls the pleasure deriving from doing one’s work well or from realizing one’s projects or one’s ideals was called by the classics the pleasure derived from virtuous or noble activity” (OT 190). Their analysis of this activity leads them to the marvelous conclusion that philosophizing and the persistent questioning and answering that it involves is “noble work” proper, which Strauss playfully describes as “the synthesis effected by the classics between the morality of workless nobility and the morality of ignoble work” (OT 191).

Having clarified and defended the classical framework, Strauss writes: “Simonides is therefore justified in saying that the desire for honor is the supreme motive of men who aspire to tyrannical power” (OT 191, emphasis added). Strauss has justified Simonides’ assertion because we now can see that it was not a praise of tyranny. But is it justified in the sense of being a true description of the supreme motive of such men? Since Kojeve expects that the desire for honor would be placed in the service of an ideological task, he in effect denies that the desire for honor is the supreme motive of tyrants. More specifically, he expects that the pleasures of performing an ideological task will transform the selfish desire for honor into a devotion to a cause. Strauss denies that this is possible because the ideological tasks that tyrants choose involve base deeds. Kojeve himself divorces the pleasure of performing work from any moral considerations. This is the meaning of his emphatic insistence that the pleasure of work can exist outside of a social context. But one cannot get a moral motive by combining two immoral attitudes. Strauss considers the possibility that the attraction to the ideological task may be rooted in a moral concern, in “a misguided desire to benefit [one’s] fellow men.” Although he does not rule out the role of love for one’s fellow men (to say honor is the supreme motive is not to say it is the sole motive), Strauss argues that this love is already transformed by the desire for honor or prestige.[2] Why does a man who seeks to benefit his fellow men take pleasure in actions that his fellow men generally regard as base? “The most charitable answer [the answer that is compatible with love as any kind of motive in his soul] is that he is blinded by desire for honor or prestige” (OT

191). The less charitable answer, I suppose, is that he takes pleasure in harming others. Kojeve grants that in the domain of political competition it is honor and not devotion to ideology that is the decisive factor. According to him, a statesman, especially one who aspires to tyranny, “does away with [his] rivals because [he] does not want the goal attained, the job done, by another, even if this other could do it equally well” (OT 141). He reports this behavior without condemning it presumably because he assumes that in the domain of rule it is the devotion to the ideology that is the decisive factor. But if the very attraction to the ideological task is informed by the desire for honor or prestige, this desire is apt to interfere with the interpretation of the task. Will not the gunk in the soul of the tyrant interfere with the performance of “‘objective’ tasks of the highest order”?

According to Kojeve, Hegel’s thought is based on a richer and more comprehensive framework than classical thought. Strauss dispels this impression by a series of sentences that begins with sarcasm: “Syntheses effect miracles. Kojeve’s or Hegel’s synthesis of classical and Biblical morality effects the miracle of producing an amazing lax morality out of two moralities both of which made very strict demands on self-restraint” (OT 191). A synthesis combines elements of two opposing positions while dropping other elements of each position. Kojeve drops from the morality of Masters and the morality of Slaves their distinctly moral elements: the primacy of virtue over honor and service to a higher being. As a result a teaching that is less moral than either of its component elements can pretend that it is morally richer than both. Kojeve’s synthesis is also a misrepresentation in another respect. While Kojeve gives the impression that Hegel’s teaching is a synthesis of the classical and Biblical morality, he actually believes that the “Judeo-Christian” man is only one embodiment of the attitude of Slaves or Workers. The Skeptic, the Stoic, and the Roman bourgeois man already embodied this attitude, which finds expression even in the Greek myth of Heracles. In discussing Kojeve’s moral teaching, Strauss’s tone gradually turns from sarcasm to moral disapproval:

Neither Biblical nor classical morality encourages us to try,

solely for the sake of our preferment or our glory, to oust

from their positions men who do the required work as well as we could. (Consider Aristotle, Politics 1271a10-19.) Neither Biblical nor classical morality encourages all statesmen to try to extend their authority over all men in order to achieve universal recognition. (OT 191)

One may object that Kojeve does not recommend that one should oust others from their positions simply for the sake of one’s preferment or glory. He merely reports the fact. But to report questionable actions without questioning them is to encourage them. Aristotle, in contrast, objects to Lycurgus for legislating laws that do not restrain ambition. Strauss disapproves not only of Kojeve’s lax moral teaching but also of the soundness of his judgment, which criticism is a prelude to a moral chastisement: “It does not seem to be sound that Kojeve encourages others by his speech to a course of action to which he himself would never stoop in deed” (OT 191). Kojeve is better than his moral teaching but for this reason he is not sound. Strauss then admonishes Kojeve to look into the real basis of his position: “If he did not suppress his better knowledge, it would be given to him to see that . . . Hegel continued, and in a certain respect radicalized, the modern tradition that emancipated the passions and hence ‘competition’” (OT 191-192). It turns out that “Hegel’s moral teaching is indeed a synthesis: it is a synthesis of Socratic and Machiavellian or Hobbian politics” (OT 192). In this synthesis the Hobbian elements rule over the Socratic. The synthesis in question is of two political, as opposed to moral, teachings. Hegel combines the rule of the philosophers with an egalitarian political order that emerges through the power of emancipated passions. As to his moral teaching, which is the basis of his political teaching, it is of purely modern origin: “Hegel’s fundamental teaching regarding master and slave is based on Hobbes’ doctrine of the state of nature” (OT 192). Hobbes classifies natural man into two classes: one group seeks glory and the other self-preservation but neither has “any awareness of sacred restraints” on the pursuit of one’s desires. This is a theoretical construction of man and not a description of flesh and blood human beings. Therefore it cannot be an adequate basis for understanding them. Hegel’s teaching that man is “a being that is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition” suffers from the same limitation. Strauss had earlier noted that Kojeve “regards Hegel’s teaching as the genuine synthesis of Socratic and Machiavellian (or Hobbian) politics.” The paragraph that we are interpreting repeats this formulation but this time Strauss omits the adjective “genuine.”[3] He also removes the parenthesis around “or Hobbian.” After thus separating Machiavelli and Hobbes, he focuses on the Hobbian basis of Hegel’s thought. He thus implies that one cannot arrive at the Socratic goal through Hobbian means. One cannot arrive at the supremacy of philosophy (or full self-consciousness) by disregarding man’s natural concern with morality.

Strauss’s moral criticism of Kojeve is preceded by a criticism of tyrants in which Strauss argues that the tyrant does not know what every reasonably well-bred child knows because he is blinded by a passion. This context provokes two related questions: What passion led Kojeve to suppress his better knowledge in order to believe that Hegel’s teaching is the synthesis of the Biblical and classical morality? What passion led to Kojeve’s moral blindness, his encouraging others to become rulers of the world? Despite his teaching, Kojeve does not seem to have been dominated by the desire for honor or prestige. If he were, he, with his great abilities, would not have become “the unknown Superior . . . [of] the progressivist intellectuals.”[4] His was a soul that belonged to the lower rungs of the angelic host, and he craved the comforts of such beings. It seems to me that it was the wish to possess comprehensive wisdom that facilitated these errors. Kojeve would not for a moment be interested in becoming the ruler of the world. Yet, he encourages others to make this their aspiration out of the belief that the actualization of the universal and classless state is the condition of the actualization of wisdom.[5]

Near the beginning of the “Restatement,” Strauss states that the “the chief objection to which my study of Xenophon’s Hiero is exposed” is that the classical orientation has been made obsolete “by the triumph of the biblical orientation” (OT 177-178). While he attributes this criticism to Voegelin and Kojeve, we now see that Koj eve’s criticism is a red herring: Hegel’s teaching is not a synthesis of the classical and Biblical morality. But Strauss does not so easily dispose of Voegelin’s contention that Machiavelli’s concept of the ruler as an armed prophet is partly of biblical origin. In fact, his response to Voegelin ends with the following sentence: “It is impossible 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” (OT 185). The last phrase implies that he does not as yet have an adequate understanding of Machiavelli’s thought. Now, if Hegel’s thought rests on modern philosophy, and if modern philosophy was originated by Machiavelli and not by Hobbes, Strauss’s logic leaves open the possibility of a reading of Hegel that incorporates certain Biblical elements.

  • [1] Strauss’s logical leap (Xenophon = Simonides) forces the reader to reexaminehis statements that suggest the opposite. Though Simonides “is admittedly areal man” (OT 55), he is not really one: Simonides merely wishes Hiero to thinkhe is a real man. “Love of honor may seem to be characteristic of those wisemen who converse with tyrants,” but seeming is not being (OT 124n43). Nolover of honor or real man wishes to be in the company of a tyrant, that is, underhis power.
  • [2] Strauss originally had argued that according to Kojeve “Simonides maintainsthat honor is the supreme or sole goal of the tyrant” (OT 189). But in defendingSimonides in his own name he only refers to honor as “the supreme motive ofmen who aspire to tyranny” (OT 191).
  • [3] Nadon, “Philosophic Politics and Theology,” 94n7.
  • [4] Aime Patri, quoted in Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (New York: London, 1969), vii, emphasis added.
  • [5] Except when quoting from Strauss, I have substituted “classless” for “homogeneous,” because no English speaker outside of the dairy industry could bein favor of the universal and homogeneous state. I am grateful to ChristopherKelly for confirming that “homogeneous” has generally positive connotations inFrench political discussions.
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