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

The Genesis of the French Edition of On Tyranny

In their postwar letters, Strauss and Kojeve continue to exchange copies of their writings and to report on the progress of their careers. In a letter from 1946, Kojeve thanks Strauss for a copy of the essay “Farabi’s Plato” and repeats that he would enjoy talking with him. He also reports that he is composing the book that will be published as the Introduction a la lecture de Hegel. In a letter from 8 April 1947, Kojeve writes that he wants to talk with Strauss in person because letters will not suffice and because essays and books are even less satisfying.

Strauss sends Kojeve a letter dated 22 August 1948 that highly praises the latter’s new book on Hegel. He says that with the exception of Heidegger, none of their contemporaries has written as comprehensive and intelligent a book. In fact, he says, it is the most brilliant attempt to make the case for modernity. Anticipating that Kojeve’s book will be well-received, Strauss says that he is not the only one whom the book has helped to make intelligible Hegel’s Phenomenology. While bestowing this great praise, Strauss asks him to review the original version of On Tyranny in a French journal on the grounds that no one besides him and Klein would understand what Strauss is driving at in the book. Strauss further explains that he prefers to ask the now more industrious and prominent Kojeve to review the book rather than Klein because the latter is “endlessly lazy.” Strauss follows this request by questioning Kojeve’s analysis of Hegel in the new book. Strauss begins by asking Kojeve how he can maintain that Hegel’s philosophy is absolute wisdom (and thus both comprehensive and consistent) while abandoning Hegel’s philosophy of nature. For if nature is not directed to an intelligible end and ordered with a view to history, then history itself would be radically contingent.[1] Second, Strauss challenges Kojeve’s Hegelian claim that human beings are moved by a desire for “recognition” on the grounds that the desire for admiration seems to entail more than a desire to be known. Finally, he objects to Kojeve’s project on the grounds that it would produce the spiritually empty and self-satisfied Last Man described by Nietzsche (237-239).

In a letter dated 26 May 1949, Kojeve thanks Strauss for his comments and says that he has much to say in response but cannot get it down on paper. Nonetheless, he proposes that they produce

a new, French edition of On Tyranny that would include not only

translations of the Hiero and of Strauss’s commentary but also his own review of Xenophon-Strauss’s account of tyranny and philosophy. Responding a month later, Strauss welcomes Kojeve’s proposal and asks that Kojeve also try to publish the review separately, perhaps on the grounds that such reviews are “publicity for the book” (see 249).

Strauss’s letter dated 4 September 1949 thanks Kojeve profusely for reviewing the Xenophon book in the essay entitled “Tyranny and Wisdom.” Strauss says that the attention that Kojeve devoted to the Xenophon book is the greatest compliment that he has ever received. He says that he wants to reply “in a public setting” and suggests that the Xenophon book be reissued to include not only Kojeve’s

“Tyranny and Wisdom” but also a response to Kojeve from Strauss and a further response to Strauss from Kojeve (243-245).

While completing the book, Strauss and Kojeve continue to express their desires to speak with each other in person. On 10 October 1949 Kojeve responds to an invitation from Strauss to visit Chicago, that it would be “philosophically extremely stimulating.” On 26 December 1949 Kojeve writes to say that he regrets not meeting with Strauss and having had no chance for philosophical discussion. Three weeks later, Strauss writes back that he has no one with whom he can discuss the “greatest and noblest things,” and five months later, he laments that he has no one with whom he can discuss “the first things as well as the first thing” (248, 251). But he does not say that he wants for philosophic stimulation. He reports that he has begun the series of lectures that formed the basis of Natural Right and History and says that he has been making progress in his study of “historicism” or, he explains, with Heidegger. He comments, “I believe that I see some light” (251).

In a letter dated 14 September 1950, Strauss asks Kojeve to reply to his “Restatement” and says that he regards “the question” as “entirely open.” Strauss wants Kojeve to write a rejoinder that would clarify some difficulties present in the Hegel book. He says that his “attack” on Kojeve (in the “Restatement”) is intended to provoke him to elucidate those issues (254). But Kojeve writes on 19 September 1950 to say that he does not wish to reply. Naturally, he says, he would have much to say, but the reader must be left something to think through for himself. As a result, the extended edition of On Tyranny is published with the understanding that its authors will not say everything explicitly that can be said on the subject of tyranny and on the subject of Being.

  • [1] Peter A. Lawler, “History and Nature,” Perspectives on Political Science 25 (no. 3,1996): 136, says that this contingency should not bother Kojeve because “theradical contingency of human nature is a consequence of the radical distinctionbetween nature and history. . . . Although history emerges accidentally againstnature, it can be shown to have become and so to be an ordered or rational andhuman whole.” In their “Introduction” to On Tyranny (xix-xx), Gourevitch andRoth argue that if history depended, to some extent, on a contingent nature,then it would be impossible to produce the “definitive, comprehensive, andcoherent” account that constitutes wisdom and that Kojeve promises at the endof history.
 
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