Home Philosophy Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve
The Issue of Being
In the letter of 19 September 1950, Kojeve says that he is in full agreement with the conclusion of Strauss’s “Restatement,” but he adds that it might be even clearer to say that the fundamental difference between them is both “the problem of the criterion of truth” and the problem of “good and evil” (255). Kojeve says that Strauss appeals to “moral conscience” to refute his argument, but he does not specify which part or parts of the “Restatement” make this appeal. He may have in mind how Strauss begins his reply to Kojeve by saying that modern political science is manifestly defective because it cannot speak about tyranny with the same confidence that modern medicine can speak about cancer (177). Strauss adds that the classical philosophers anticipated and rejected in advance the whole modern project: they foresaw the possibility of a science that issues in the conquest of nature as well as in the popularization of philosophy or science, but they “rejected them as ‘unnatural,’ i.e., as destructive of humanity” (178). Shortly after this, Strauss rejects Kojeve’s efforts to explain the argument and the action of the Hiero in terms of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic and Nietzsche’s Master and Slave moralities. Strauss then remarks that Hegel’s synthesis of classical and Christian moralities produces a morality that is “amazingly lax.” After noting that Hegel’s morality would allow someone to lord it over everyone else merely for the sake of recognition, Strauss says that Kojeve himself would never stoop so low as to follow such a morality (191). He refers only once to the conscience in the “Restatement,” where he argues that when Socrates refutes his interlocutors, he
will be reasonably confirmed in his estimate of himself without necessarily finding a single soul who admires him. (Consider Plato, Apology of Socrates 21d1-21d3.) The selfadmiration of the philosopher is in this respect akin to “the good conscience” which as such does not require confirmation by others. (205)
It must be noted that, in this discussion, Strauss does not claim that Socrates is moved by the conscience but rather that his concerns are as independent and as private as are those of the “good conscience.” In order to counter Strauss’s appeal to morality, Kojeve cites Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition and Felix Dzerzhinsky of the Red Terror and asks if such men have “bad consciences,” implying that such examples show that morality is relative to historical conditions. In response to Strauss’s criticism that the Hegelian project will not satisfy anyone but Last Men, Kojeve grants that in the universal and homogeneous state the great majority of people, whom he characterizes as “animals” or “automata,” will become easily satisfied by simple gratifications such as sports, art, and eroticism. He implies that when history comes to an end, so will the spirituality that has constituted that history. Kojeve adds that those who are not satisfied with such purposeless activities will become philosophers, and, if they contemplate enough, they will acquire wisdom and become “gods.” The recognition-hungry tyrants, on the other hand, will be the administrators of the “machine” that is fashioned by the automata for the sake of the automata (255-256).
Regarding the problem of the criterion of truth, Kojeve says that it was this question that led him to Hegel. He says that there are three alternative solutions to the problem of truth: the first is Plato’s or Husserl’s “intuition of essences.” But Kojeve does not “believe” in this intuition and, he says, one must “believe it,” meaning that it is grounded not in any objective insight but in faith. The second alternative is relativism, a position that he says is not livable. The third and preferred alternative is “Hegel and ‘circularity’.” Kojeve explains that if we assume that circularity is the only criterion of truth, including “the moral,” then “everything else follows automatically.” He concludes by saying that Strauss’s “Restatement” is “sensible and useful” and by reasserting that he prefers to leave it to the reader to infer how he would reply to Strauss (255-256).
Strauss responds to Kojeve in a letter dated 28 September 1950. Rather than address Kojeve’s specific arguments, Strauss says that he was aware that some of Kojeve’s remarks were exoteric and that he replied to them exoterically. Having signaled that he did not express everything that was on his mind while writing the “Restatement,”
Strauss says that the question remains whether he and Kojeve have understood each other all along. He ends by saying that he does not believe that Kojeve’s objections in the last letter were sufficient, but he cannot say more because he is busy with beginning the next semester at the University of Chicago.
After Strauss declines to enter into a serious dialogue with Kojeve about their differences, both appear to stop writing letters to each other for two years. In 1953, Kojeve tries to revive the dialogue by writing Strauss a long letter on Plato that Strauss does not read but sends along to Klein (22 April 1957). Unfortunately, this letter appears to have been lost. Wondering whether Strauss received the first letter on 29 October 1953, Kojeve sends Strauss a second one and asks for his comments. In this letter, Kojeve begins by saying that he has read Natural Right and History and that he can only keep repeating that if there is something like “human nature,” then Strauss is right in everything. But, he says, to deduce such a nature from premises is not the same as to prove those premises. We cannot assume that a set of premises is valid on the grounds that we approve of the consequences that follow from those premises because there may be further, more harmful consequences of which we are not currently aware. Kojeve asserts that the “task of philosophy is to resolve the fundamental question regarding ‘human nature’.” He observes that the question arises
whether there is not a contradiction between speaking about “ethics” and “ought” on the one hand, and about conforming to a “given” or “innate” human nature on the other. For animals, which unquestionably have such a nature, are not morally “good” or “evil,” but at most healthy or sick, and wild or trained. (262)
If to have a nature means to be subject to necessities, then to have a human nature would mean to be governed by forces beyond our control, just like other animals who are manifestly not free to alter their thoughts or actions. It might make sense to regard living, natural beings that can follow necessity successfully as healthy. But it is impossible to consider such animals morally responsible or to praise them as morally good or to blame them as evil. Thus, he suggests, the very term “natural right” is an oxymoron, for it seems to obscure the fundamental distinction between what is just and what is necessary that Strauss will later discuss in the chapter on Thucydides in The City and Man .
According to Kojeve, the only way to avoid falling into moral relativism is to turn to Hegel’s insights into the unfolding of History. He says that ethics can be derived from the movement and completion of history:
if one returns, with Hegel, to his beginning (by deducing what he says from the mere fact that he speaks), then there indeed is an “ethics” that prescribes that one do everything that leads to this end (= wisdom), and that condemns everything that impedes it—also in the political realm of progress toward the “universal and homogeneous State.” (262)
In this sense, the fact that we speak, our rationality, in itself points to wisdom as its end, and so whatever we do to attain this end is “right.” Similarly, insofar as all of our political aspirations point to the universal and homogeneous state as their end, whatever brings that state about is just.
In April 1957, Kojeve writes Strauss another substantive letter after reading Strauss’s then unpublished lecture on Plato’s Euthy- phro. He says that his own interpretation of Plato fits with Strauss’s and that he especially agrees that Plato holds that we need to possess a satisfactory account of justice if we are to know the whole:
“Justice without Knowledge” (in the manner of Euthyphro) is just as objectionable or unphilosophical as “Knowledge without Justice” (in the manner of “Thales,” that is to say the “learned” or the “theoreticians” in general, people like Theaetetus and Eudoxus, and even Aristotle; people who do not know who their neighbor is and how he lives can naturally not practice justice; but at the end of the Thales passage Socrates says that everything depends on justice); for, philosophy is “knowing justice” or “just knowing.” [That is to say: only the philosophy that accounts for the “evident” and “immediate” distinction between right and wrong, can be true; now, neither the Sophists (~Heraclitus) nor Aristotle do so because of the middle terms in their diairesis, to which Plato’s diairesis opposes A with a firm non-A and thus excludes the amoral as-well-as or neither-nor]. (266)
Saying that philosophy must account for the evident and immediate distinction between right and wrong, Kojeve outlines the Platonic account of justice and its relation to reasoned speech. According to Kojeve, Plato believes that we know justice intuitively through the conscience, but when we engage in speech, we can be talked out of our intuitions about justice by sophists. Socrates saves justice by using reasoned speech to cure those who fall victim to sophistic reasoning. We might conclude from this that reasoned speech is morally corrosive, but Plato is serious when he writes that misology, the hatred of reasoned speech, is the worst thing. We must therefore speak about justice even if we must thereby risk the danger of falling into sophistic error and disbelief in justice. While sketching the action of Plato’s Alcibiades Major, Kojeve remarks that anamnesis (the Platonic doctrine that all knowledge is a remembering of what was known prior to our birth) is a “mythical” interpretation of the psychological fact of “conscience,” that is to say, of the “immediate,” “innate” knowledge of good and evil (267).
In the last part of the letter, Kojeve discusses Plato’s treatment of the ideas in the Parmenides, Sophist, and Statesman. Evidently alluding to arguments that he made in his earlier, long letter on Plato, he mentions that Plato writes the Parmenides in order to refute Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s theory of the ideas and of Plato’s use of diaeresis (a method of reaching definitions by dividing large classes into smaller classes).
On 22 April 1957, Strauss responds to Kojeve’s second letter on Plato by discussing Plato’s thinking about justice. Strauss does not address Kojeve’s claim in his previous letter that they disagree not only about the issue of Being but also about justice. Strauss does not exclude the possibility that the study of justice, like the study of tyranny, plays an important role in the study of Being.
Strauss begins his letter by saying that he agrees that philosophy is just, but he hesitates “on the basis of Plato” to identify “just” with “moral.” He disagrees with Kojeve’s suggestion that Plato thinks those like Crito who are not inclined to reasoned speech are decent men. Strauss says flatly that Plato does not regard the conscience as natural. Rather than elaborate his thinking in the letter, Strauss refers Kojeve to the character Polemarchus from Plato’s Republic and to the long footnote that he wrote in Natural Right and History (274-275). According to the note, Polemarchus is the proponent of “citizen-morality,” a morality that identifies justice with helping friends and harming enemies. Strauss also cites Plato’s Cleito- phon, where Cleitophon, who appears as a follower of Thrasymachus in the Republic, says that this definition of justice is the only one that Socrates ever suggests to him. In the note, Strauss goes on to refer to citizen-morality as a “stage,” but he does not mean a stage in world-history. Strauss explains that Socrates is as interested in understanding what justice is, that is, with “understanding the whole complexity of the problem of justice,” as he is in preaching it. To understand what justice is, the philosopher must, at one point in his own education, take seriously justice in the form of citizen-morality. Moreover, Strauss emphasizes that one must not “rush through” this stage: the philosopher must strive to understand and think through citizen-morality on its own terms, and he must resist the desire to see through it by reducing its phenomena to hidden, underlying causes. Strauss does not deny Kojeve’s claim that if human beings are subject to natural necessity, then it is impossible to hold us morally responsible for our thoughts and actions. He may believe that it is through studying justice that the philosopher comes to discern the “realm of necessity” on which philosophy depends (213). What he does indicate here is that those who rush through citizen-morality, meaning those who immediately trace the roots of all moral phenomena to nonmoral causes—such as to obscure psychological urges or unrecognized historical forces—will neither understand citizen- morality nor transcend it in their own thinking.
In this footnote, Strauss does not elaborate what Plato learns about citizen-morality that allows him to declare that it is only a “stage” of justice or precisely what the problem of justice “in its full complexity” is. But he does say in the last part of the note that “the conclusion of the argument sketched in this paragraph” can be expressed by saying that there cannot be “true justice” without divine providence. He explains that human beings cannot be expected to be just habitually if they must always struggle with one another for mere survival, and for this reason the gods must guarantee peace and plenty so that “true justice can exist.” In this sketch of Plato’s account of justice, Strauss indicates some of the most important things that emerge from Plato’s inquiry into justice. According to this argument, citizen-morality places great demands on us by requiring us to help friends and to harm enemies. Those who are habitually just expose themselves to danger, especially in times of scarcity or war. At the same time, Strauss suggests that justice does not require that we destroy ourselves for its sake. Justice promises to be good for the city as a whole and for each member of the city. Thus, the difficulty arises that citizen-morality promises to be both supremely demanding and yet also supremely beneficial to those who are just or moral. Because citizen-morality cannot resolve this difficulty on its own, morally serious citizens turn to providential gods to provide them with the security and prosperity that is needed to live well. When the gods provide these goods, the gods seem to solve the problem of justice and to bring “true justice” into being. Strauss does not, however, go so far as to say that Plato believes that such gods have done away with the problem of justice in its full complexity. If Strauss, following Plato’s argument, believed that the gods fully support citizen-morality and thereby establish true justice, then he presumably would not have characterized citizen-morality as a mere stage through which the philosopher must proceed on the way to understanding the problem of justice in its full complexity. In neither the footnote nor the letter does Strauss elaborate how the classical philosopher completes his examination of citizen-morality, but the footnote suggests that his inquiry into citizen-morality inevitably leads him to inquire into what the gods are and thus into the question whether there is an eternal order or realm of necessity or whether there is a ruling intelligence that can alter the prevailing order at will. By indicating one way that the question of justice is bound up with the question of the gods, Strauss’s footnote shows why his concern with the problem of “good and evil” is at the same time a concern with “the question of Being” and the “problem of the criterion of truth” (255).
Having begun this letter with the bold declaration that philosophy is just but not necessarily moral and that Plato denies that the conscience is natural, Strauss does not elaborate how he came to such conclusions but, as we have seen, directs Kojeve to a footnote from Natural Right and History and leaves it to him to think the argument through for himself. We might expect Strauss to be more forthright with a friend whom he calls a philosopher. On the other hand, by giving Kojeve the results of Plato’s argument and pointing to the path that he followed to find that argument, Strauss may be giving Kojeve all the guidance that a philosopher would need and want.
After referring to this footnote in the letter, Strauss says that he agrees with Kojeve that Plato regards misology “as the worst thing.” But instead of agreeing with Kojeve that Plato thinks that the moral man should reason about justice even though such reasoning exposes him to sophistry and risks his morality, Strauss suggests that Plato is not as hostile to the sophists, or their effects, as Kojeve assumes. According to Strauss, Plato thinks that “there is ultimately no superiority of the merely honorable man to the sophist (contrary to Kant) or for that matter to Alcibiades” (275). He directs Kojeve’s attention to what he says on the relation between moral and intellectual virtue in Natural Right and History, where he reasons that if striving for knowledge of eternal truth is the ultimate end of man, then justice and morality are fully legitimated only insofar as they are required for that ultimate end.8 After saying that the nonphilosopher must appear as a mutilated human being compared with the philosopher, he adds that it becomes a question whether the moral or just man who is not a philosopher is simply superior to the “erotic” man. Among other things, the letter confirms that Strauss’s reference to the “erotic” man in Natural Right and History is to the morally questionable, nonphilosophic, and possibly tyrannical Alcib- iades (see Alcibiades Major 124b). Having raised the possibility that morality by itself does not elevate moral men above figures such as Alcibiades, Strauss concludes by saying that morality has two roots and that the first of these is “vulgar” or “political” virtue. The second root, he says, comes to light when the philosopher replaces opinions about morality with knowledge of morality or when knowledge of morality transcends morality in the politically relevant sense. While he declares at the start of this letter that philosophy is just but not moral, in the passage in the book he merely suggests that philosophy completes morality.9
A month later, on 28 May 1957, Strauss sends Kojeve a second letter on Plato, this time focusing on Plato’s treatment of knowledge and the ideas. Strauss begins by objecting that Kojeve interprets Plato by selecting and combining isolated arguments from various dialogues instead of taking his directions from the subtle details of each individual dialogue. He also cautions Kojeve not to assume that Aristotle disagrees with Plato on any serious points, especially regarding the ideas. Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s “idea of the good” is already contained in the Republic and “in doxa itself. The apparent substantive differences between the two philosophers derive from Aristotle’s choice to write treatises rather than dialogues. To write a treatise, says Strauss, is to presuppose that wisdom is possible. Adopting this mode of presentation, Aristotle treats Plato’s dialogical arguments as if they, too, were set forth in a treatise, without regard to setting or speakers. According to Strauss, Aristotle chooses to write treatises
undoubtedly because he believes that wisdom and not merely philosophy is available. This seems to me to be the difference between Plato and Aristotle, a difference which presupposes the acceptance by both of the doctrine of ideas, i.e., of the doctrine that the whole is characterized neither by noetic homogeneity (the exoteric Parmenides, and all “mathematical” philosophy) nor by sensible heterogeneity (four elements, &c.) but by noetic heterogeneity. (277)
Later in the letter, Strauss sheds some light on this noetic heterogeneity when he contrasts Platonic philosophy with Anaxagoras’s account of Nous, which would provide “a perfectly rational account of everything, including everything that is irrational or meaningless.” But because such knowledge is beyond our reach, Anaxagoras’s thinking is not philosophy but “theo-teleology” or “piety.” Philosophy must “escape into Logoi,” which is a reference to Socrates’ description of his endeavor to study all things through common speeches about the ideas (see Phaedo 96-101). Still later in the letter, Strauss says that in the Parmenides, “the ideas are represented as separate from the sensible” and that Socrates accepts the separateness of the “opposites,” and especially the separateness of the “moral opposites,” insofar as moral opposites are “ideal ends” that “necessarily transcend what men achieve” (278). Because citizen-morality makes demands on us that we cannot fully meet, it points to a way of life that we can know in thought but not through experience.
Strauss next says that Plato’s primary correction to Anaxagoras is to say that if philosophy is the quest for knowledge of the whole, and if the whole must be understood in light of the ideas, then there must be ideas of everything (279). He explains that because there must be ideas of everything, one must therefore
turn to the primary meaning of Idea, or Eidos, as class, as a whole, which is a whole by virtue of a specific character, and this character is in the case of living beings at the same time the end for the individual belonging to the class, and in this sense transcends the individuals (the animal’s dominating desire for procreation or for perpetuation of the class.) (279)
Each being is a “class” that we recognize through the shared characteristics of its members. Among the class characteristics of living things are desires that point to goals or ends, and insofar as these ends are found in the class as a whole, they can be said to transcend its individual members. Strauss says that in
the case of man, the end is complex because man is both simply a part of the whole (like the lion or the worm) and that unique part of the whole which is open to the whole. (Only the souls of men have seen the ideas prior to birth.) Therefore, man’s form and end is articulated in such a way that justice can come to sight provisionally as simply transcendent, and in no way “the perfection of man.” (279)
Human beings are subject to the natural necessities to which Kojeve alludes in his letter of 29 October 1953, but we differ from other animals who are likewise subject to those necessities in at least two ways: we seem to have a spontaneous concern with justice or morality as well as a desire to know the whole or, as Strauss says in Natural Right and History, a desire to know the eternal truth. Our concern with justice can appear to be our complete end, but it cannot perfect us, either because it is not necessarily accompanied by wisdom about the whole or because our concern with justice can stand in the way of the desire to know the truth about the whole.
After sketching this account of the ideas, Strauss discusses some of the problems that inevitably attend such an account. He says that because there is a realm of ideas there must also be a hierarchy or organizing principle, which he identifies as the idea of the good. Because it is the highest principle, it must be the ground of both the ideas and also of what is sensible. In this way, the idea of the good is “the Good.” But the relation between the ideas and the Good remains obscure. Strauss says that the
problem of diaeresis is the problem of the organization of the realm of ideas, and in particular [it is] the problem of the knowability of that organization. If wisdom is not available but only philosophy, the diaeresis as descent from One to all ideas is not available. We live and think in the derivative and ascend to some extent, but not to the origin of things. The actual diaeresis reflects this in the arbitrariness of its beginning. (279)
When Strauss says that we can think and live in the derivative and that we can ascend to some extent, he seems to mean that the classical philosopher is able to learn about the character of each of the ideas not only by examining how they appear in common speech (“Logoi”) but also by comparing them and considering how they are related to one another. As Strauss indicates in his previous letter, Plato finds that the morally serious citizen’s understanding of justice is problematic or incomplete. He knows that justice by itself can appear to be our transcendent end, but it is not. While Plato may find the idea of “man” problematic in some respect (278), Plato knows enough about it to suggest that the end or perfection of a human being requires wisdom regarding the whole. And he knows that this wisdom is not available to the merely just or moral man. Moreover, as Strauss says in his footnote in Natural Right and History, Plato recognizes that morally serious citizens expect the gods to support justice as they understand it. If he finds that these citizens’ beliefs about justice are inadequate, he might also discern that their beliefs about the gods are likewise problematic. But whatever Plato might discover about justice or about the providential gods of the city, he cannot know definitively the order and origin of the whole. He does not know completely and conclusively all the causes of all the beings. Lacking such knowledge, he cannot exclude the possibility that, for example, a hitherto unknown god will mysteriously change the order of the whole. As Strauss will write seven years later, “there is no knowledge of the whole but only knowledge of parts, hence only partial knowledge of parts, hence no unqualified transcending, even by the wisest man as such, of this sphere of opinion.”10
Strauss adds that a successful knowledge of the whole would presuppose a “rational biology,” but, he says, without elaboration, that Plato’s Timaeus shows us that this is impossible. What remains for Plato is a dualism of a “hypothetical mathematical physics” that understands living things as being subject to natural necessities and a “non-hypothetical understanding of the human soul” that presumably understands the phenomena of the human soul as they appear to us in ordinary life. Strauss says, however, that this duality is overcome “according to Aristotle,” for Aristotle “believes that biology, as a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man, is available, or Aristotle believes in the availability of universal teleology, if not of the simplistic kind sketched in Phaedo 96” (279). Following Plato’s thinking about the ideas, Aristotle’s biological writings show that we can think about living things being subject to nature and still speak of them having goals or ends, such as nutrition, procreation, and locomotion. This sort of teleology is implicit in the way that living things appear to us, but it does not attempt to make grander claims about the species’ place in the cosmos or about the cosmos itself.
Strauss says that his main point is that Kojeve has not followed his own assumption or admission that Plato holds that wisdom is not available. He says that “if one takes this as seriously as one must, the vision of the One-Good which is mediated by division, and hence the division itself, is not available.” Strauss concludes by saying that he is sure that the “community of ideas” is “absolutely essential,” but he does “not have the time at the moment to develop this” (280).
Kojeve writes on 1 July 1957 that he wants to talk with Strauss and that there is no one near him with whom a discussion would be meaningful. Yet he is disappointed with what Strauss says about the koinonia togenon (the community of kinds). He says that if the “concept” (the idea) is to be eternal or “spacial” rather than temporal, then the community of kinds must be either nonsense or else a reductio ad absurdum. If Plato believes in such a community, then he is not an ancient, and Strauss is wrong about both Plato and the ideas (281). Kojeve reasons that Plato believes that knowledge corresponds to something that is eternal and unchanging and that exists outside of both sense and speech. Consequently, knowledge, in the strict sense, consists in knowledge of eternal beings. Regarding what is temporal, we have only opinion, which can be “right” opinion if it agrees with its object, but right opinion itself remains temporal and changeable. It follows, he says, that there can be no community between what is eternal and what is temporal and that Plato’s attempts to speak of such a community is an indirect way to emphasize the separateness of the ideas (282-283). In any case, he says, the koinonia problem is too fundamental to be settled by correspondence.
Strauss responds on 11 September 1957 by saying that they are “poles apart” (291). The root of the disagreement, Strauss states, is that Kojeve is convinced that Hegel and Marx are correct, while he himself is not convinced of this. He repeats two of the criticisms of Kojeve’s Hegelianism that he raised ten years earlier: he says that Kojeve has never answered the charge that his project would produce the Last Man and that Kojeve has never addressed the consequences of jettisoning Hegel’s philosophy of nature. Strauss repeats his complaint that Kojeve does not read Plato closely enough and points out that Kojeve assumes that ideas are concepts and that Plato is interested only in concepts and not in the soul. Strauss agrees that the thesis that the ideas are separate is inadequate, but the “bond” solution discussed in the Sophist and Statesman is also inadequate. He says that Plato abstracts from something crucial in every dialogue, but he is not sure yet what Plato omits from the discussion or practice of diaeresis in those dialogues. Thus concludes Strauss’s last, surviving letter of philosophic substance to Kojeve. In his earlier letters, Strauss seems to have hoped that Kojeve would follow the suggestions about studying the problem of justice that he places in Natural Right and History and that Kojeve would adopt his model for reading Plato’s dialogues when considering the problem of the ideas and other questions. But after reading several of Kojeve’s letters from 1957, he evidently concludes that Kojeve is too firmly attached to modern philosophy to recognize fully the questions that classical philosophy addresses and the way that it attempts to resolve them. Strauss may regard Kojeve as a philosopher, but he does not seem to think that Kojeve will accept how philosophy in the “strict and classical sense” pursues the question of Being.
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