Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
When Strauss received a copy of Kojeve’s review, he promised that he would respond to him “with the utmost thoroughness and decisiveness” (OT 243). Our analysis shows that he did just this. We began with the supposition that this debate is one between two giants, but it turns out that Strauss regarded Kojeve more as a student than an equal. For instance, his very praise of Kojeve that precedes his criticism has some elements of irony. Strauss writes: “Kojeve is a philosopher and not an intellectual” (OT 186). But we have seen that Kojeve attributes to the philosopher a motive that according to the strict classical view is characteristic of the sophist. Strauss writes: “Since he is a philosopher, he knows that the philosopher is, in principle, more capable of ruling than other men, and hence will be regarded by a tyrant like Hiero as a most dangerous competitor for tyrannical rule” (OT 186). The second part of Strauss’s sentence contradicts the first, for it implies that one does not have to be a philosopher to believe, as Kojeve does, that a philosopher is more capable of ruling than other men. Strauss writes: “It would not occur to him for a moment to compare the relationship between Hiero and Simonides with the relationship, say, between Stefan George or Thomas Mann and Hitler” (OT 186). But we have seen that Kojeve ultimately misunderstands Simonides whom he describes as “a mere poet” and an “intellectual,” that he does at one moment suggest “that Hitler was a good tyrant in Xenophon’s sense,” and that for much of his life he imagined an alliance between philosophers and a tyrant who had more in common with a Hitler than with a Hiero. In the final paragraph of the French version of the “Restatement,” Strauss compares Kojeve favorably to Heidegger, whom he criticizes for lacking the courage to face the issue of tyranny. This praise too is ironic. Heidegger may not have faced the issue of tyranny because he only spoke about Being, but if Strauss’s criticism of the universal and classless state is correct, Kojeve did not face the consequences of tyranny even while talking about it. Strauss’s ironic praise of Kojeve’s courage was meant to encourage him to continue the fight by con?fronting what Strauss considered the consequences of his tyranny. It did not work. A philosopher sometimes has to invent his friends so that someday he might have real friends (cf Nietzsche, Human, All too Human, Preface).
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the classical position is the philosopher’s detachment from human beings. But this detachment is accompanied by a general benevolence toward humanity and even love toward philosophers and potential philosophers or more generally toward human beings of good character. Moreover, the love of the political man is both confused and mercenary, leading him to use others as merely means to his own satisfaction while being deeply attached to them. The politicization of philosophy runs the danger of infecting the philosopher with the vice of the political man. It seems to me that Kojeve fails to avoid this danger. Originally, he claims that once his ideal state is realized “fight and work will disappear [but] all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc., etc.; in short, everything that makes Man happy.” In a note to the second edition of his lectures, he corrects this view: “if one asserts that ‘Man remains alive as animal,with the specification that ‘what disappears is Man properly so-called, one cannot say that ‘all the rest can be preserved indefinitely: art, love, play, etc.’ If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again.” Remarkably, this correction is not accompanied by any change of assessment of the value of the final state. There is, however, a sign of dissatisfaction when we discover Kojeve grasping at straws. He seems pleased that on a visit to Japan he discovered the possibility that humanity (negation of the ‘natural’ or ‘animal’) can survive in the post-historical era in a formalized snobbery with “values completely empty of all ‘human’ content in the ‘historical’ sense,” a snobbery that no longer needs to be “the exclusive prerogative of the nobles and the rich.” As Kojeve’s eyes turn to the end of History, our eyes are fixed on the “philo-sophist” of the end of History, contemplating the fate of this extraordinary mind.
But not every attempt at political transformation of society by philosophers suffers from the difficulties that afflict Kojeve’s philosophy. The “Restatement” is also a response to Eric Voegelin which “forms an integral part of the whole ‘Restatement’” and which deals with the claim of the superiority of Machiavelli’s understanding of politics to Xenophon’s. In response to Voegelin, Strauss does not even attempt to refute Machiavelli, a thinker who infinitely surpasses Kojeve in political prudence, subtlety of speech, and knowledge of the classical position. He does not attempt to refute Machiavelli because he indicates that he does not have an adequate understanding of him. Indeed, his study of Xenophon’s Hiero was meant to be useful to the eventual understanding of Machiavelli or “to bring to light the deepest roots of modern political thought” (OT 24). Strauss even confesses his debt to Machiavelli by hiding it in the most visible of all places, the title of his study: On Tyranny is Machiavelli’s invented title for Xenophon’s Hiero. This is not to suggest that Strauss did not have profound doubts about the soundness of Machiavelli’s enterprise, but only that he was so impressed with him and so aware of the difficulties facing philosophy that at the time of this exchange the issue between the ancients and moderns remained for him “entirely open” (OT 254).
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