Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
The Best Social Order
According to Kojeve, the transformation of society rescues philosophy from tragedy not only because it frees the philosopher from being torn between political action and philosophizing but also because it facilitates the realization of the goal of philosophy: wisdom. As long as the philosopher lives in a world that contains conflict there is room for doubt that his ideas correspond to reality. But the universal and classless state will put an end to man’s conflict against man and against nature, making possible the complete reconciliation between human thought and reality. The actualization of the universal and classless state coincides with the transformation of philosophy into wisdom.
Accordingly, the final dispute concerns the soundness of Kojeve’s notion of the best social order. Strauss denies that the universal and classless state is either the best or the final social order. Even if it is the rational order, there is no guarantee that passionate man will not rebel against a state of affairs that came to be through the power of passions. Besides, there are good reasons for being dissatisfied with this state. Kojeve admits that only the Chief of State is “really satisfied.” Others are only “potentially satisfied” because they have the right to try to become the Chief of State. Since “there is no guarantee that the incumbent Chief of State deserves his position to a higher degree than others” (OT 208), the potential satisfaction of some of the ruled can turn into an actual dissatisfaction that overturns the universal monarchy into an aristocracy. In a letter to Strauss, Kojeve responds that his ideal state “is ‘good’ only because it is the last (because neither war nor revolution are conceivable in it:—mere ‘dissatisfaction’ is not enough, it also takes weapons!)” (OT 255). But it makes a difference whether this state is lasting because it has resolved all fundamental conflicts or because, as he sometimes suggests, it has suppressed them. And if it is the latter, how can Kojeve be confident that this state will be permanent? He allows for the overthrow of the Chief of State through violent means, but what prevents such palace revolutions from altering the form of the government?
There is an even deeper source of dissatisfaction than that which fuels ordinary struggle for rule. According to Kojeve, what distinguishes human beings from animals is that they do not simply accept the world. They correct or negate it. Work and struggle constitute the essence of human life. But in the universal and classless state there is no work and struggle. Kojeve admits that at the end of history there will be biological human beings but no one whose life is truly human. But if one concedes this, Strauss argues, one must understand the lesson of history differently than Kojeve does. History does not solve the human problem but proves the tragic character of human life, because it shows that man’s attempt to conquer nature for the service of man has led to the withering of his humanity. Yet the end of history is not necessary as long as human nature is not completely conquered. History may make work and struggle unnecessary but it does not destroy the human concern for noble action and great deeds which, Strauss implies, belong to human nature: “There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state . . . in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds” (OT 209, underline emphasis added). Even if these men do not have an alternative to the universal and classless state, a merely nihilistic revolt would be reasonable because it would be the only possible action on behalf of humanity, and because it is possible that it will work, giving man a new lease on life at least for some time (OT 209). Kojeve’s description of the end of history reminds Strauss of Nietzsche’s “last man” and he joins Nietzsche’s active protest. He even writes a few lines of an Anti-communist Manifesto:
“Warriors and workers of all countries, unite, while there is still time, to prevent the coming of ‘the realm of freedom’” (OT 209).
Now, one may defend Kojeve’s ideal state by denying his explicit understanding of the essence of humanity, that is, by maintaining that “not war nor work but thinking” constitutes man’s humanity. The disappearance of noble actions and great deeds is no loss to philosophers who have more solid sources of happiness. By conquering nature, the universal and classless state frees mankind from drudgery, allowing them to contemplate the unchangeable truth. But if the classics are right and most human beings are incapable of becoming philosophers, Kojeve’s philosophic utopia is achieved at the cost of the humanity of all nonphilosophers. Thus, the possibility of the conflict between philosophers and nonphilosophers, especially the “real men” (andres) emerges. Strauss observes that Kojeve’s passionate opposition to the classical view that only few are capable of philosophy is made under the pressure of avoiding this possibility, which pressure explains the muddling of his thought on this issue. Even Strauss’s criticism could not set Kojeve straight on this issue. In a letter to Strauss, Kojeve explains that at the end of history there will be two classes of biological human beings: gods (philosophers or wise men who choose to contemplate the truth) and automata (who spend their time in sports, arts, eroticism devoid of human meaning, or in prisons or insane asylums if they do not find their happiness in such activities) (OT 255). He implies that most people do not actualize their potentials to become philosophers. But if some do not actualize their potential to become like gods when there are no external impediments, is this not tantamount to denying that they have this potential?
The modern solution to the problem of politics and philosophy involves the construction of society on the basis of philosophic principles. This Strauss maintains is impossible. Because not everyone has the potential to be a philosopher, not everyone will be happy in a society ruled by philosophic principles. Moreover, Strauss argues that in Kojeve’s scheme the philosophers hold the losing hand. The Chief of State of the universal and classless state will not be a wise man, for no philosopher would want such a job. This chief presides over a political order that rests on an ideology that Strauss has shown to be questionable. The chief will, in particular, “forbid every teaching, every suggestion, that there are politically relevant natural differences among men which cannot be abolished or neutralized by progressing scientific technology” (OT 211). We add he would not tolerate Kojeve’s descriptions of nonphilosophers in his society as automata, to say nothing of his description of the Chief of State as “a cog in the ‘machine’ fashioned by automata for automata” (OT 255). The philosophers are forced to go underground, employing exoteric speech that explicitly accommodates itself to the ruler’s commands while indirectly questioning those commands. At the end of the “Enlightenment,” we return to the situation of philosophy prior to the Enlightenment. But this time the philosophers have given the nonphilosophers the rope with which philosophers will be hung. Philosophy has made possible the universal state from which there is no escape to a neighboring state. Philosophy has made the conquest of nature possible, and this conquest is productive of technologies that invade privacy, giving the universal tyrant practically unlimited means of ferreting out thoughts unacceptable to his order. Finally, philosophy has turned the new tyrant into a perfect hangman. Philosophy’s criticism of law and morality has removed from the tyrant any shame in the use of suspicion and terror. The coming of Kojeve’s regime will be the end of philosophy on earth, not because the quest for wisdom will be replaced by wisdom but because the quest for wisdom will be successfully suppressed.
While Strauss’s criticism of the universal and classless state is devastating, it seems to me that it does not undermine all modern attempts to reconstruct society on the basis of philosophic principles. It is telling that Strauss divides his discussion of the best social order, placing his criticism of Kojeve’s ideal in one of the most conspicuous places and his defense of the classical aristocracy from the charge of being a disguised tyranny at the precise center of the “Restatement.” This defense culminates in the claim “that liberal or constitutional democracy comes closer to what the classics demanded than any alternative that is viable in our age” (OT 194). But we are forced to ask whether liberal democracy is not superior (from the perspective of the interests of philosophers and nonphilosophers) to the classical aristocracy (marked by slavery). This is a complicated question that Strauss does not answer here. He merely gives a tentative defense of the classical notion of the best regime: the classical position “cannot be disposed of as easily as is now generally thought” (OT 194).
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