Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
The Character of the Debate and the Common Ground
Whether one comes to the Strauss-Kojeve debate for the first time or the tenth, it is hard not to be struck by how uncharacteristic a debate it is. After Strauss offers a painstaking, line-by-line (if not word-by-word) textual exegesis of Xenophon’s dialogue (with a thick and detailed set of annotated notes and cross-references that make it read almost like a journal article in a law review), Kojeve seemingly dismisses that interpretation. In a polite but almost cavalier fashion, Kojeve suggests that Strauss is up to something much larger than merely setting before his readers a learned account of a musty text of antiquity.
In a brilliant and impassioned book, but in the guise of a calmly objective work of scholarship, Leo Strauss interprets Xenophon’s dialogue in which a tyrant and a wise man discuss the advantages and disadvantages of exercising tyranny.
He shows us wherein the interpretation of a work differs from a mere commentary or an analysis. Through his interpretation Xenophon appears to us as no longer the somewhat dull and flat author we know, but as a brilliant and subtle writer, an original and profound thinker. What is more, in interpreting this forgotten dialogue, Strauss lays bare great moral and political problems that are still ours. . . . However, it matters only incidentally to know whether the interpretation is irrefutable, for the importance of Strauss’s book goes well beyond Xenophon’s authentic and perhaps unknown thought. It owes its importance to the importance of the problem which it raises and discusses. (OT 135-136)
Although Kojeve obviously engages with Strauss’s textual interpretation, Xenophon’s dialogue recedes into the background as Kojeve progresses, so much so that by the end of “Tyranny and Wisdom” Kojeve is speaking more about Alexander the Great, St. Paul, and the Egyptian Pharaoh Ikhnaton than about Xenophon, Hiero, and Simonides! Kojeve’s review hardly seems like a typical academic engagement at all. And yet, while Strauss might have every right to complain that Kojeve’s review is off-topic, Strauss nowhere does so: in fact, he does just the opposite both in the “Restatement” and in their epistolary exchange (e.g., OT 178, 185-186, 243-244). Indeed, Strauss’s “Restatement” bears a remarkable kinship to Kojeve’s “Tyranny and Wisdom” in that the textual exegesis of Xenophon’s dialogue also seems to fade into the background as Strauss explains his position most fully. In other words, Strauss’s interpretation of the Hiero eventually becomes more of an occasion for a much larger debate between Strauss and Kojeve on whether the classics (as represented by Socrates) or the moderns (as represented by Hegel) have properly understood philosophy and politics, human nature and history.
Should this at all surprise us? In the opening pages of On Tyranny (24-25), Strauss makes the following observation:
The analysis of the Hiero leads to the conclusion that the teaching of that dialogue comes as near to the teaching of the Prince as the teaching of any Socratic could possibly come. By confronting the teaching of the Prince with that transmitted through the Hiero, one can grasp most clearly the subtlest and indeed the decisive difference between Socratic political science and Machiavellian political science. If it is true that all premodern political science rests on the foundations laid by Socrates, whereas all specifically modern political science rests on the foundations laid by Machiavelli, one may also say that the Hiero marks the point of closest contact between premodern and modern political science.
If the Hiero is indeed the closest point of contact between classical and modern political philosophy, then it is little wonder that this dialogue provides the ideal opportunity or forum for the debate between Strauss and Kojeve. But there is a certain difficulty: In their debate, Strauss and Kojeve do not always argue from within the other’s position and demonstrate its flaws, but instead present their respective understandings of the issues, juxtaposed one to the other, as superior. For example, Kojeve claims that “Xenophon’s text is less precise than Hegel’s,” and this causes his characters to “confuse” several key terms; Kojeve therefore breezily abandons Xenophon’s terminology in favor of Hegel’s: “It is therefore preferable to stay with Hegel’s precise formulation, which refers not to ‘affection’ or ‘happiness,’ but to ‘recognition’ and to the ‘satisfaction’ that comes from ‘recognition’” (OT 142-143). From Kojeve’s perspective this change is in no way problematic. As a thoroughgoing Hegelian, he believes that the present understands the past better than the past does itself: Changing Xenophon’s words to match Hegel’s simply makes
Xenophon more comprehensible and thus easier to situate and to understand in the post-Hegelian world. Strauss will have none of this: Before the superiority of the present can be demonstrated (if it can at all), the thought of the past must be understood as its authors themselves understood it. Strauss thus insists on retaining Xenophon’s original language as well as pointing out other nuances in the dialogue that Kojeve either misses, dismisses, or denies are important (OT 189-190, 198-199). But this does not mean that Strauss is not guilty of the same. Strauss, too, makes many categorical (but seemingly unproven) assertions, as when he claims that “as for ambition, as a philosopher, he is free from it,” or again when he maintains that “[w]e do not have to pry into the heart of any one in order to know that, insofar as the philosopher, owing to the weakness of the flesh, becomes concerned with being recognized by others, he ceases to be a philosopher” and becomes a “sophist” (OT 204). Unfortunately for Strauss, Kojeve explicitly denies that his own heart is so constituted (nor anyone else’s, for that matter) (cf. OT 191). All of this is simply to emphasize that the debate is sometimes a confrontation between two mutually exclusive alternatives and not always a debate within one perspective to prove or disprove it. The task for the reader is that much greater, as we must often think through each alternative and compare them internally on our own. This atypical debate is thus a debate of an uncommonly high order.
For a debate that juxtaposes two contending viewpoints of philosophy, history, and tyranny, it is remarkable that there is no detectable sign of rancor between the authors. Of course, as Strauss and Kojeve were close good friends for most of their lives (as revealed in their correspondence especially during the 1930s and 1940s), one would not expect them to exhibit any rancor, even as they were uncompromising in the rigor of their arguments. But another reason for the great civility of the debate might be their mutual acceptance of Xenophon’s (and other classical philosophers’) fundamental teaching regarding the (potential) legitimacy of tyranny (and thus of all regimes, whether based on law, election, or otherwise), and the implications of that acceptance. In a remarkably candid statement in the middle of On Tyranny, Strauss writes:
Xenophon’s Socrates makes it clear that there is only one sufficient title to rule: only knowledge, and not force and fraud or election, or, we may add, inheritance makes a man a king or ruler. If this is the case, “constitutional” rule, rule derived from elections in particular, is not essentially more legitimate than tyrannical rule, rule derived from force or fraud. Tyrannical rule as well as “constitutional” rule will be legitimate to the extent to which the tyrant or the “constitutional” rulers will listen to the counsels of him who “speaks well” because he “thinks well.” At any rate, the rule of a tyrant who, after having come to power by means of force and fraud, or after having committed any number of crimes, listens to the suggestions of reasonable men, is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to such suggestions, i.e., than the rule of elected magistrates as such. Xenophon’s Socrates is so little committed to the cause of “constitutionalism” that he can describe the sensible men who advise the tyrant as the tyrant’s “allies.” That is to say, he conceives of the relation of the wise to the tyrant in almost exactly the same way as does Simonides. (OT 74-75)
The teaching of the ancients supports the view that there is no clear theoretical justification for constitutional democracy and popular rule, and that wisdom is the only legitimate title to rule. To put it bluntly, the unwise tyrant is different in degree but not in kind from the unwise majority (cf. OT 91). But Strauss also maintains that there is a critical and decisive difference between what is true in theory and what is possible or likely in practice. Immediately after the above quoted passage, Strauss adds:
While Xenophon seems to have believed that beneficent tyranny or the rule of a tyrant who listens to the counsels of the wise is, as a matter of principle, preferable to the rule of laws or to the rule of elected magistrates as such, he seems to have thought that tyranny at its best could hardly, if ever, be realized. . . . The “tyrannical” teaching—the teaching which expounds the view that a case can be made for beneficent tyranny, and even for a beneficent tyranny which was originally established by force or fraud—has then a purely theoretical meaning. (OT 75-76)
Although Kojeve forthrightly denies that there is a strict separation between theory and practice (and that they in fact beneficially inform one another), the above remarks by Strauss might help to explain his reaction (or lack thereof) to some of Kojeve’s most outrageous and apparently callous (and for some hideously monstrous) assertions in “Tyranny and Wisdom.” Kojeve baldly claims that “what might have appeared utopian to Xenophon [in regards to the ‘ideal’ tyranny sketched by Simonides] has nowadays become an almost commonplace reality.” Modern tyrants regularly “distribute all kinds of ‘prizes,’ especially honorific ones, in order to establish ‘Stakhanovite’ emulation”; they replace a “mercenary corps of bodyguards” with a “State police” and a “permanent armed force” with “compulsory military service”; and they win their “subjects’ ‘affection’ by making them happier and by considering ‘the fatherland his estate, the citizens his comrades.’” In short, because of Xenophon’s limited vision, he could not imagine tyrannies “exercised in the service of truly revolutionary political, social, or economic ideas (that is to say, in the service of objectives differing radically from anything already in existence) with a national, racial, imperial, or humanitarian basis. . . . Personally, I do not accept Strauss’s position in this matter, because in my opinion the Simonides-Xenophon utopia has been actualized by modern ‘tyrannies’ (by Salazar, for example)” (OT 138-139). It is
clear why Kojeve would aver these things: he never shied away from, and indeed fully embraced, the full implications of his historicism. Although never celebrating violence for its own sake, he argued that it brought about needed and salutary change. Thus, statements like those above are to his mind not scandalous in the least—they simply acknowledge that Being creates itself in Time, and that History judges whether a Truth is efficacious and thus a Truth in the first place. But at no time does Strauss raise the club of moral indignation at these statements. In respect to Salazar, although Strauss had never been to Portugal, “from all that I have heard about that country, I am inclined to believe that Kojeve is right. . . . Yet one swallow does not make a summer, and we never denied that good tyranny is possible under very favorable circumstances”; and in respect to Stalin, Strauss curtly and even rather gingerly remarks that “Stakha- novistic emulation” would measure up to “Simonides’ standards [if it] had been accompanied by a considerable decline in the use of the NKVD or of ‘labor’ camps. . . . Would Kojeve go so far as to say that everyone living behind the Iron Curtain is an ally of Stalin, or that Stalin regards all citizens of Soviet Russia and the other ‘people’s democracies’ as his comrades?” (OT 188-189). It is possible that Strauss’s acceptance of Xenophon’s tyrannical teaching allowed him to judge the worth (both theoretically and practically) of any and all regimes from a much more elevated plateau or vista. Strauss may vastly prefer to live under a liberal democracy in the twentieth century than any other regime, but he is not a simple partisan of that regime and sees it deficiencies: liberal democracies may suffer the same theoretical limitations as tyranny, and indeed as all other regimes not based on wisdom. Although Kojeve will draw vastly different conclusions from these observations, both lack what we might call a spirited (or thymotic) and therefore narrow patriotic attachment to contemporary regimes, even as they might incline to one or another.
If there is one person who does receive a sort of thwacking from the club of moral indignation or disgust, it is surely Martin Heidegger in the not-so-veiled reference to him on the final page of Strauss’s “Restatement.”
In our discussion, the conflict between the two opposed basic presuppositions has barely been mentioned [i.e., whether Being is eternally identical to itself or if Being changes in Time and through History]. But we have always been mindful of it. For we [Strauss and Kojeve] both apparently turned away from Being to Tyranny because we have seen that those who lacked the courage to face the issue of Tyranny, who therefore et humiliter serviebant et superbe dominabantur [themselves obsequiously subservient while arrogantly lording it over others], were forced to evade the issue of Being as well, precisely because they did nothing but talk of Being. (OT 213)
Although much can be said about the (quiet) presence of Heidegger in their debate and in their political thought as a whole, Strauss’s comment reveals a deep kinship between himself and Kojeve as opposed to Heidegger: the turn to “the issue of tyranny” is a turn to politics, and this is an acknowledgment of the primacy of political philosophy. In the words of the editors of On Tyranny, “there is no reason at all to doubt that reflection on Heidegger’s political career only confirmed [Strauss]—as well as Kojeve—in the conviction that the thinking of what is first in itself or of Being has to remain continuous with what is first for us, the political life.” Although Kojeve and Strauss certainly have different reasons for believing why political philosophy is “first philosophy” (for Kojeve because the political arena is where the truth or falsity of an idea is determined [OT 157, 163-164, 167, 173-176] and for Strauss because “political philosophy is the rightful queen of the social sciences, the sciences of man and of human affairs”), this agreement on the status of political philosophy extends to what we might call the external characterization of both the philosopher and the politician. Kojeve highlights three differences between the “tyrant” or the “uninitiate” and the philosopher. First, the philosopher is an expert in “dialectic or discussion’ and can therefore see the deficiencies of the uninitiate’s arguments; second, expertise in dialectics allows the philosopher to free himself from the reigning “prejudices” of a given historical epoch; and finally, third, the philosopher is more “concrete” and less abstract in his thinking and practical proposals than others. “Now these three distinctive traits of the philosopher are so many advantages he in principle enjoys over the ‘uninitiate’ when it comes to governing” (OT 148). Strauss never takes issue with this characterization of the philosopher’s relative ability to rule and forthrightly admits that the philosopher is better able to rule than the statesman or tyrant (OT 186). Indeed, Strauss also seems to admit that in one respect Kojeve’s characterization of the tyrant or statesman, as seeking universal recognition, is correct as well (even if he does not always use the same language as Kojeve): “The political man is characterized by the concern with being loved by all human beings regardless of their quality” (OT 198ff.). But if both of these observations are accurate, then has not Strauss conceded 99 percent of the debate to his opponent? If Strauss and Kojeve agree on what we have termed the external characteristics of the philosopher and the politician, then what separates these two human types, and why is there a Strauss-Kojeve debate at all?
Although it is obviously a cliche, everything appears to depend on that 1 percent—and that 1 percent is the internal motivation of the philosopher: While Kojeve agrees that the philosopher is better able to govern than the tyrant (or any other individual), he more importantly and fundamentally collapses the distinction between the two (and indeed between all human beings). The ends of philosophy and politics are one and the same, and neither enterprise can be fully realized in isolation from the other.
For the desire to be “recognized” in one’s eminent human reality and dignity (by those whom one “recognizes” in return) effectively is, I believe, the ultimate motive of all emulation among men, and hence of all political struggle, including the struggle that leads to tyranny. And the man who has satisfied this desire by his own action is, by that very fact, effectively “satisfied,” regardless of whether or not he is happy or beloved. (OT 143; cf. 156, 158)
If Strauss can demonstrate that this massive claim is misleading, inadequate, or downright false, then Kojeve’s entire philosophic edifice would be in jeopardy—for that would suggest that the desire for recognition is not characteristic of human beings as such, or at least not of the highest human beings; that the philosopher would not need to convince all others of the truth of his ideas in order to avoid the pitfalls of subjective certainty; and that the philosopher’s pedagogical activities are not a motor driving history and that history itself is not necessarily a dynamic, progressive process. Again, it would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly everything in this debate hinges on the proper understanding of philosophy and the philosopher—even the question of Being (or at least our only or primary access to this question) might depend on understanding the proper internal motivation of that individual for whom this question is of foundational concern.
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