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


SIX The Epistolary Exchange between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve

Mark J. Lutz

Even though little can substitute for a philosopher’s published remarks and works, we attempt to see what can be gleaned from Leo Strauss’s and Alexandre Kojeve’s rich, private correspondence. Several questions animate this chapter. What issues inform the correspondence that were also included in the debate, and to what degree are those issues further illuminated in the correspondence? What may be more interesting, what issues are included in the correspondence that are not included in the debate, and why would those issues be excluded and remain private? Finally, how does one interpret the correspondence as a whole, and especially the exchange that occurs in the mid- and late 1950s?

Leo Strauss begins the final paragraph of his “Restatement” by saying that his exchange with Alexandre Kojeve leaves unresolved a question of fundamental importance (212-213).[1] He says that he has defended Xenophon’s thesis “regarding the relation between tyranny and wisdom” by showing that this thesis is “required by the idea of philosophy,” but his argument “amounts to very little” because it assumes the legitimacy of philosophy. He says that philosophy, in the “strict and classical sense,” is the “quest for the eternal order or for the eternal cause or causes of all things.” After indicating that a full defense of classical philosophy would supply evidence that there is such an order or cause, Strauss describes the supposition on which classical philosophy rests in several ways. At first, he says that philosophy presupposes “an eternal and unchangeable order within which History takes place and which is not in any way affected by History.” He next says that philosophy presupposes that the “realm of freedom” operates within and depends on the “realm of necessity.” Finally, he says that philosophy rests on the hypothesis that Being is “immutable and eternally identical with itself” rather than on Kojeve’s alternate hypothesis that history affects Being or rather that Being is nothing but “the totality of history.” Strauss’s thinking seems to be that such a hypothesis is needed insofar as philosophy is the quest for knowledge of the causes of all the beings (see Pha- edo 96a). If wisdom requires that we know why everything that is must be as it is and why it cannot be otherwise, then to be wise we would need to know that the causes of the beings are unchanging and unchangeable (e.g., Republic 479a, 484b, 500c). The whole would have to be subject to eternal and intelligible necessities that cannot be altered by accident or even by divine will. If the causes of the beings were changeable or if there were no underlying realm of necessity, then philosophy could not achieve its ultimate goal and we could not fully affirm that it is the greatest good for a human being (Apology 38a).

Strauss concludes the final paragraph by saying that even though the “conflict between the two opposed, basic presuppositions has barely been mentioned” both he and Kojeve “have always been mindful of it.” As we begin to wonder how their constant awareness of this issue shapes what they have written, Strauss suggests that it was their desire to address the issue of Being that led them to take up the subject of tyranny in the first place:

For we 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 servie-

bant et superbe dominabantur, were forced to evade the issue of Being as well, precisely because they did nothing but talk

of Being. (213)

When Strauss criticizes Heidegger in this passage for lacking the courage to face the issue of tyranny, he does not elaborate how Heidegger’s failure to address the issue of tyranny forced him to evade the issue of Being. Nor does he explain how his own study of tyranny might shed light on the issue of Being. He does not spell out

how On Tyranny contributes to the defense of philosophy in the

classical or strict sense.

In order to take a closer look at what Strauss and Kojeve did mention, albeit barely, about the issue of Being in On Tyranny, attentive readers will reread the book paying extra attention to this question. In order to supplement what Strauss and Kojeve say there, readers might also be inclined to consult the letters that Strauss exchanges with Kojeve during the course of their long friendship. After all, Strauss and Kojeve seem to hold each other in unusually high regard: Kojeve treats Strauss as a nearly flawless interpreter and proponent of the ancient philosophic tradition, and Strauss calls Kojeve a “philosopher” (186). If they knew and respected each other so deeply, perhaps they discussed important issues, including the issues of tyranny and Being, more candidly in their private correspondence than in their public writings.

Their published letters span four decades. Those that were written prior to the war tend to contain brief but hearty expressions of the writers’ mutual respect and good will. Even though the letters do not delve very deeply into their author’s theoretical reflections, they do express each writer’s uncertainties about securing a place to live and work: they are letters between good friends. Among the most substantive of Strauss’s letters is one written in June 1934, in which he recounts his work on Hobbes and in which he outlines his discoveries regarding the development of Hobbes’s thought. In a letter from May 1935, Strauss says that he is delighted to hear from Kojeve, especially since he received a letter expressing the latter’s low opinion of the “philosophes” of Paris. While praising Kojeve for being the brightest among the intellectuals in Paris, Strauss adds the friendly warning that Kojeve is not sufficiently hardworking. Strauss holds up their mutual friend Jacob Klein as a model of diligence and praises him for completing a first-rate book on the philosophy of mathematics in Plato and Aristotle. Strauss laments that Kojeve has “naturally” not read Klein’s book because of his inclination toward “erotic adventures” that are more comfortable than the intellectual risks that he should be running. Strauss encourages Kojeve to adopt the “experimental shift in perspective to which you will have to resolve yourself if you don’t want to sink into Parisian life.” In a letter dated 2 November 1936, Kojeve thanks Strauss for a copy of The Political Philosophy of Hobbes and says that he fully concurs with its interpretation of Hobbes. Kojeve then offers his own Hegelian account of Hobbes’s place in the unfolding of history and concludes by saying that he regrets not being able to talk with Strauss. He blames their separation on his own slovenliness, but he writes that he cherishes Strauss both “Humanly” and “Philosophically.”

  • [1] Leo Strauss, On Tyranny: Corrected and Expanded Edition, eds. and trans. VictorGourevitch and Michael S. Roth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).Unless otherwise indicated, all in-text citations are to this volume and edition.
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