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


The Possibility and Desirability of the Universal and Homogeneous State

The final section of Strauss’s “Restatement” is a blistering attack on Kojeve’s understanding of the end state (based largely on Kojeve’s description of it in his Introduction). Beginning with the specter of Oriental despotism and ending with the annihilation of philosophy, Strauss savages Kojeve’s claim that the universal and homogeneous state is the “only one which is essentially just” (OT 192). Indeed, Strauss goes so far in his critical analysis that he envisions, endorses, and even encourages real men (andres) to rise up in revolt against this state: even if this “nihilistic negation” is “perhaps doomed to failure” (for if Kojeve is right, this revolution, if successful, would do nothing more than begin a repetition of the historical process and lead us to the same place where the revolution began), such a revolution seems preferable to what Strauss argues is the “inhuman end” of the end state (OT 210). What is so striking about these passages is that Strauss is here calling on those very war-like individuals whom he had criticized in his interpretation of the Hiero (OT90-91)! In order to see Strauss’s objections and Kojeve’s response in their proper light, let us once again (as in the previous section) sketch out their opposing views.

Kojeve argues that history is the dialectical (and therefore rational and purposive) process whereby contradictions in human self-consciousness are progressively revealed and then resolved, culminating in a final political order. He knows that this process has come to an end because he can give an account of the past that demonstrates that all possible “existential attitudes” have been exhausted, i.e., that the possibility and the necessity of man actively negating his surrounding natural and social environment through work and struggle no longer exists (OT 140ff.). In order to make this contention “plausible,” Kojeve here interestingly shifts his focus away from interpreting Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic directly (as he does, for example, in the Introduction and the Esquisse) and instead concentrates primarily on interpreting the actions and ideals of Alexander the Great and St. Paul. The pagan Master Alexander sought to create a truly universal empire, one that would do away with preestablished or otherwise fixed ethnic, racial, and geographic boundaries; the Christian Slave St. Paul, by contrast, introduced the idea of the “fundamental equality ’ of all believers before God, thus doing away with class and other socioeconomic distinctions. Together, these “two great political themes of History” are synthesized into a fully coherent and satisfying historical reality: from Alexander, we retain the idea of a universal state here on earth, and not in some transcendent beyond as St. Paul had imagined; and from St. Paul, we preserve the idea of the fundamental equality of all individuals, discarding the pagan understanding that individuals had different natures or essences. As these two previous forms of self-consciousness have been tried and found wanting, the desire or hope to remain in or to return to them—or to any other historical epoch—would be nothing but a yearning to return to a historical condition that was flawed or irrational. Kojeve sees history as the progressive reconciliation or mutual interpenetration of what “is” with what “ought” to be, and this means that what is successful historically is more meaningful or rational than what was defeated. Through his own efforts, then, man has been steadily moving toward, and now stands poised to enter, the universal and homogeneous state, a state that cannot be (and no longer needs to be) overcome or negated precisely because it is the final (and therefore completely rational) political order (OT 167-176). As Kojeve writes:

Admittedly, Truth emerges from this active “dialogue” [between man, nature, and the social and historical milieu], this historical dialectic, only once it is completed, that is to say once history reaches its final stage in and through the universal and homogeneous State which, since it implies the citizens’ “satisfaction,” excludes any possibility of negating action, hence of all negation in general, and, hence, of any new “discussion” of what has already been established. (OT 168)

By contrast, Strauss questions whether history is a meaningful process that terminates in a final and fully rational political order. Strauss begins by claiming that Kojeve begs the question: How can he prove that history is at an end or that it is progressively moving toward the realization of the end state without tacitly assuming what he is trying to prove (namely that history is already over and that the realization of the end state is at hand) (OT 208)? More substantively, Strauss denies that Kojeve or Kojeve’s Hegel have adequately or accurately understood either pagan or Christian thought. Kojeve distorts Xenophon’s meaning by claiming that the highest human type desires honor or recognition and that Hegelian “satisfaction” is a more precise way of rendering the classical understanding of “happiness”: certainly neither “Biblical nor classical morality encourages all statesmen to try to extend their authority over all men in order to achieve universal recognition.” Kojeve’s purported synthesis of pagan and Christian morality is therefore both misleading and miraculous in its results, “producing an amazingly lax morality out of two moralities both of which made very strict demands on selfrestraint” (OT 189-191, 197-199, 211-212). Strauss continues by arguing that the finality or rationality of history and the end state will ultimately depend on the absolute rule of the wise: “the universal state requires universal agreement regarding the fundamentals, and such agreement is possible only on the basis of genuine knowledge or of wisdom.” But as the wise presumably do not want to rule and as the unwise will probably not force them to rule, the end state will in all likelihood be ruled by the unwise (OT 194, 211-212, 238). For Strauss, neither the general diffusion of knowledge nor unlimited technological development will be enough to turn these unwise rulers into wise ones. When genuine knowledge is diffused it invariably “transforms itself into opinion, prejudice, or mere belief”; and because the unwise do not know how to use technology wisely, to advocate its unlimited development (if only to secure the material conditions whereby the unwise could educate themselves properly) is fraught with too many dangers (OT 194-195, 208-209). What Strauss suggests is that politics is always irrational to some degree (since the unwise rule) and that it inevitably contains elements of chance or injustice (because very few persons are fortunate enough to have the natural talents and material conditions to be properly educated). The “is” and the “ought” will never coincide politically, and this means that history cannot be the purposive process Kojeve claims it is.

But even if we take for granted that the end state is at hand, Kojeve and Strauss disagree whether it would be desirable. Kojeve begins by arguing that the desire for recognition is the motive for all political struggles: only when this desire has been fully satisfied will war and revolution be forever eradicated. Kojeve claims that the desire for recognition can be fully satisfied only when everyone recognizes and is recognized by everyone else as an autonomous individual, that is, when all are recognized in their “eminent human reality and dignity.” In order to be recognized by an ever wider range of people, politicians will necessarily seek to expand their authority both inside and outside their state. In other words, politicians will seek to enlarge the number of individuals who are “capable and hence worthy” (OT 145) of offering and receiving this recognition, the resulting dynamic of which is the general improvement of all human beings.

In order to make it possible for [a political leader] to be “satisfied” by their authentic “recognition,” he will tend to “enfranchise” the slaves, “emancipate” the women, and reduce the authority of families over children by granting them their “majority” as soon as possible, to reduce the number of criminals and of the “unbalanced” of every variety, and to raise the “cultural” level (which clearly depends on the economic level) of all social classes to the highest degree possible. (OT 146)

The political order that will ultimately result from this dynamic is a universal and homogeneous state, for only here will virtually all persons recognize and be recognized by everyone else as fundamentally free and equal. Inasmuch as the source of bloody wars and revolutionary struggles will be eliminated in the end state, this classless society—“the supreme political ideal of mankind”—will no longer be ruled tyrannically but justly. According to Kojeve, tyranny occurs whenever one group of citizens uses its authority, force, and/or terror to rule over another group, there being no difference whether the ruling group in question is a majority, a minority, or a single individual: the so-called “best regimes” of the classics turn out to be essentially unjust and oppressive (OT 143-147, 172, 192). In order to generate the necessary wealth needed for the end state, modern science and technology will be unleashed and turned to the conquest and exploitation of nature. Instead of being used as a tool of oppression, science and technology can eventually help us to overcome natural scarcity, thereby allowing all persons the opportunity to possess the means to lead productive and dignified lives. This judicious use of technology is further guaranteed by the fact that wisdom—“that is to say full self-consciousness”—is at last available now that history has ended with the advent (in principle or in theory) of the universal and homogeneous state. Not only will philosophers (and all others) have the opportunity of becoming perfectly wise, but philosophy and philosophers will never again be threatened by nonphilosophers. Because the end state is perfectly rational, there will be no tension between the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and what society cherishes or holds true: there will simply be no need in the end state for noble lies, legitimating myths, religious dogmas, or untruths of any kind, those very things which were once thought to be the necessary glue or foundation of any healthy society and which philosophers necessarily challenged in their quest for the truth. In short, the end state is good both politically and philosophically (OT 146-147, 168-169, 174-175).

Strauss, however, claims that there are many reasons to believe that the end state would be anything but a fully satisfying political order. In the first place, even if Kojeve is correct in thinking that everyone should be satisfied in the end state, this does not mean that they would be satisfied. For Strauss, human beings cannot create their own satisfaction through historical action because human beings do not always act reasonably (OT 201, 208, 211-221, 237). In the second place, as Kojeve concedes that there will be nothing to do at the end of history—that there will be neither real work nor bloody struggles—the end state will coincide with the very end of humanity, and the citizen of such a state will be nothing other than Nietzsche’s last man. As great and noble deeds will no longer be possible, virtuous “men (andres)” will certainly remain dissatisfied, and many of them may be led to revolt against such a state of affairs, even if such a revolt is “nihilistic” and “not enlightened by any positive goal.” “While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man’s humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become inevitable” (OT 209-210). And in the third place, even the status of wisdom in the end state is ambiguous: it is not at all clear that philosophers will become wise (and nothing else would satisfy them) nor is it apparent that everyone else will have the capacity to become wise (meaning that they would not be able to satisfy their deepest longings) (OT 208-212, 238-239, 291). At all events, if it is true that only a few persons will become wise, and if the wise do not want to rule, then the universal and homogeneous state will in all likelihood be ruled by an unwise tyrant. Not only will the rule of an unwise tyrant perpetuate the tyrannical and unjust opposition between ruler and ruled, but such a tyrant might very well eradicate the conditions for genuine philosophizing. According to Strauss, the horrendous consequences of the universal and homogeneous state actually support and confirm the truth of the classical political philosophers, who anticipated that unlimited technological development and the popularization of philosophy would ultimately be “destructive of humanity” (OT 178, 192-195, 211-212; cf. 27).

Now it is important to see in the aforementioned summary of Strauss’s critique of the end state that he never denies, strictly speaking, its eventual or even inevitable manifestation on earth—or to be more precise, while Strauss does not deny the possibility of a universal state coming into existence, he severely doubts the possibility of it ever being homogeneous. From his opening remarks about Oriental despotism (OT 208), Strauss’s emphasis is on the dangers of universality without wisdom and therefore without sound, or complete and reasonable, homogeneity: this is made especially clear in the penultimate paragraph of the “Restatement,” where Strauss speaks primarily about the “Universal and Final Tyrant” and not so much about the universal and homogeneous state. Homogeneity in Kojeve’s sense has simply dropped out of the picture. Strauss thinks that because of the different inherent or natural capacities between individuals, and because of his understanding of the character or nature of the philosopher, the homogeneity that Kojeve envisions simply will never occur. There will always be differences between rulers and the ruled, between the wise and the unwise, and between real men and others, and thus the classless state is foreclosed as an historical possibility by the realm of necessity or human nature itself. And it is precisely this necessary absence of homogeneity that magnifies Strauss’s fears of universality, which is not in any way foreclosed by nature or necessity. While Strauss would admit that all regimes are susceptible to declining into malevolent tyranny, even the best (“for what has come into being must perish again” [OT 201]), at least all malevolent tyrannies known thus far have been localized and particular, and thus allowed the possibility (often difficult, to be sure) of escape to another regime. That avenue is henceforth eliminated in Kojeve’s utopian scheme. While most contemporary readers of On Tyranny probably imagined George Orwell’s 1984 when reading these remarks, Strauss may be thinking of Edward Gibbon’s at once searing and chilling indictment of imperial Rome:

The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other, by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance either in his own breast or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and, when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. Beyond the frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean, inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarians, of fierce manners and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase the emperor’s protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive. “Wherever you are,” said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, “remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 3, end)

Strauss shudders at the prospect of such despotism; Kojeve embraces it.

To see why Kojeve embraces both universality and homogeneity, we must turn to his own definition of tyranny.

In fact, there is tyranny (in the morally neutral sense of the term), when a fraction of the citizens (it matters little whether it be a majority or a minority) imposes on all the other citizens its own ideas and actions, ideas and actions that are guided by an authority which this fraction recognizes spontaneously, but which it has not succeeded in getting the others to recognize; and where this fraction imposes it on those others without “coming to terms” with them, without trying to reach some “compromise” with them, and without taking account of their ideas and desires (determined by another authority, which those others recognize spontaneously). Clearly this fraction can do so only by “force” or “terror,” ultimately by manipulating the others’ fear of the violent death it can inflict upon them. In this situation the others may therefore be said to be “enslaved,” since they in fact behave like slaves ready to do anything to save their lives. And it is this situation that some of our contemporaries label tyranny in the pejorative sense of the term. (OT145)

This definition of tyranny can be read in many ways as merely the obverse (or in fact the full implication) of Xenophon’s tyrannical teaching: if wisdom is the only legitimate title to rule, then all nonwise regimes are unjust and thus tyrannical to a greater or lesser degree. For Kojeve, no present day regime is legitimate because all regimes suffer from tyranny: present day regimes are different in degree but not in kind. While all politics are susceptible to tyranny and thus entail risk, Kojeve would argue that the universal and homogeneous state is worth the risk because it satisfies our deepest and most rational yearnings for justice: universality without homogeneity (or vice versa) would simply be half a loaf, and over time people would never tolerate having one without the other. Heterogeneity leaves open the possibility of arbitrary distinctions based on family, class, race, and gender (similar to the aristocratic prejudices of old), and particularity leaves open the possibility not only of war between states but disparities of resource allocation, wealth, equality of opportunity, and the like. Thus, when Strauss focuses on certain passages in Kojeve’s Introduction (see OT 208-209) to demonstrate that Kojeve himself admits that the end state will be a tyranny, we must be cautious and wonder whether Strauss has overstated his case. To say nothing of the unique character of that book (a series of lecture notes in many places, and not a coherent and unified treatise [OT 234]), Strauss’s citations must be taken in the context of Kojeve’s overall position here and in his numerous other writings: There can be no such tyrannical distinctions at the end of history. Anything short of a universal and homogeneous state perpetuates oppression both within and without. Only a universal and homogeneous state can achieve a true, and truly just and rational, cosmopolitanism, where all individuals can be full members of the only whole that matters, as citizens of the whole earth. Strauss may decry this outcome but humanity will endorse it—and how could it not? If it is true (as George Grant argues) that the universal and homogeneous state “remains the dominant ethical ‘ideal’ to which our contemporary society appeals for meaning in its activity”—the way in which “our society legitimises itself to itself”—and if it is also true (according to Strauss) that “liberal or constitutional democracy comes closer to what the classics demanded than any alternative that is viable in our age” (OT 194-195), what will prevent the progressive realization of Kojeve’s (and humanity’s) ideal political order?[1]

Two final issues should be mentioned, both of which have to do with Strauss’s critique of the desirability of the end state and not its possible realization. Strauss speaks on several occasions about the “terrible hazards” associated with “unlimited technological progress” (e.g., OT 194). In the 1940s and 1950s, no one could ignore Strauss’s concerns. But does Strauss offer a reasonable alternative or solution to this problem, or is he simply being unrealistically nostalgic? How is one to put this “genie back in the bottle” such that only the benefits of science are harvested and not their drawbacks? Is there some hitherto unforeseen middle ground whereby science can be regulated and yet still be progressive? Indeed, for someone living in an impoverished state and suffering under the weight of soul-crushing poverty, do Strauss’s dire warnings not seem rather disingenuous, especially since he was the recipient of many of the benefits of the technology he decries? According to Kojeve, the improper and horrific misuse of technology in wars and revolutions is simply the result of the fact that there are separate states and because individuals within those states are excluded from full participation in the political and juridical life of that state (EPD 586). The universal and homogeneous state will eliminate the root cause of war and in the process reveal to one and all the common humanity that all peoples share.

Similar remarks could be made about Strauss’s claim that the end state will be nothing other than Nietzsche’s “last man” (OT 209). One does not need to be a student of Alexis de Tocqueville to recognize the often vapid, vulgar, and small souls of many modern demo- crats—but does that mean Strauss wants to turn back the clock to another day and age? What is so wrong with a world where war continually recedes into the background, so much so that courage on the battlefield is no longer a necessary or recognized virtue? What is so problematic about the life style of the bourgeoisie, where all people have an equal opportunity to pursue their goals according to their merits? Why would one want to start history all over again when the universal and homogeneous state offers the prospect of peace, prosperity, and security? Are these such terrible things to enjoy, and might they not be worth the purchase price, even on Strauss’s own terms? Again, Strauss’s remarks here seem to ring hollow, especially as so many people apparently wish to be part of that very liberal democratic ideal envisioned by Kojeve. Unless Strauss has a viable alternative, one suspects that Kojeve would consider these objections ultimately as “boogeymen”—important to take into consideration for sure, but not at all decisive. To put it baldly, you can criticize science and the last man only once you have enjoyed their real and therefore tangible benefits.


At the end of the day, who won the Strauss-Kojeve debate? The above discussion should hopefully suggest that Strauss did not at all win that debate and that Kojeve did not at all lose it. As for whether one might argue that Kojeve himself won the debate outright, would it be too brash to say that only Time (= History = Being = Truth)

will tell?[2]

  • [1] George Grant, Technology and Empire, 88-89.
  • [2] The author would like to thank Murray S. Y. Bessette, Timothy W. Burns, RalphHancock, Robert Howse, and Mark J. Lutz for commenting on earlier versionsof this chapter.
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