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

The Letters and the Idea of Philosophy

Neither Strauss nor Kojeve is able to persuade the other of the soundness of his thesis nor of that thesis’s underlying hypothesis. Yet the letters may offer some evidence for at least one of Strauss’s claims in the “Restatement” about the existence of a “realm of necessity.”

At the end of the “Restatement,” Strauss says that he has “barely” mentioned the question whether there is an eternal order (or an eternal cause or causes) that would make it possible for the classical philosopher to acquire knowledge of the whole. Much of what he says earlier in the essay suggests that the evidence for such an order is scanty at best. He does not challenge Kojeve’s claim that the classical philosopher’s knowledge is subjective. He grants that the classics knew the “essential weakness of the mind of the individual” (194). On page 196, Strauss reminds us that “philosophy in the original meaning of the term is nothing but knowledge of ignorance.” But when he refers again to Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance, he adds that this ignorance is ignorance of “the most important things” and that such ignorance is necessarily accompanied by knowledge of the most important things (201). He says that the most important thing “for us” is the quest for knowledge of the most important things. Borrowing a phrase from the King

James Bible (and also from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, 486), Strauss calls this quest “the one thing needful.” Strauss begins his argument for this by saying that we all recognize the ugliness of the soul of the boaster or that we recognize that those who turn out to be less than they claim appear deformed or unhealthy. At the same time, the philosopher, who is not a boaster, knows that he has a well- ordered soul. But Strauss says that these observations do not prove the assumption that the well-ordered soul is more akin to the eternal order, or to the eternal cause or causes, than is the chaotic soul (201). The philosopher may know that his soul is orderly without knowing what sort of soul, if any, is able to know the character of the eternal order or cause or causes. Because the philosopher does not know what kind of soul, if any, helps one acquire knowledge of what is, he cannot know what sort of soul leads to wisdom about the eternal order or to the fulfillment or perfection of human nature. He would not know with certainty whether there is an eternal order or a human nature. According to this argument, the philosopher relies on an unsupported supposition about his capacity to know the eternal order not only when he asserts that the modern project is unnatural but also when he seeks to know the eternal truth.

Having made a concession that seems to render his attachment to philosophy arbitrary, Strauss again refers to philosophy two pages later. Here, he says that if a philosopher speaks to a “small minority” composed of those who are competent to judge philosophic arguments, he is following the “constant experience of all times and countries and, no doubt, the experience of Kojeve himself.” Employing a line from Horace, Strauss observes that, “For try as one might to expel nature with a hayfork, it will always come back” (203).[1] In “Tyranny and Wisdom,” Kojeve says that philosophers tend to speak to those who are like-minded, and so they tend to dwell in isolated and narrowly self-satisfied sects and they also tend to be “left behind by events” (155, 158). When philosophers attempt to argue with those who are outside their sects, their disputes are never resolved and their truths, never verified. According to Kojeve, the only way that a philosopher can find an “objective” criterion for the truth of his “doctrine” is to become a pedagogue and to gather disciples. And the philosopher who does not want to “artificially or unduly restrict the scope of his pedagogical activity” will want to participate in government so that his philosophic pedagogy will be both “possible and effective” (163). In the end, philosophic truth is vindicated only through the success of certain doctrines in the unfolding of political history (152-155, 163, 176). But Kojeve’s letters reveal that he is moved by a persistent desire to converse with Strauss in particular, not because Strauss seems to him to be a promising student but because Strauss tests his arguments with philosophic rigor and insight (234, 235, 245, 247, 265, 308). Recognizing that philosophers from many different centuries, cultures, and sects have desired to converse with one another and that their conversations are distinct from the lessons that they convey to the multitude of nonphilosophers, Strauss concludes that their desire for philosophic communication reflects a need or necessity that animates all philosophers. In keeping with his previous remarks (201), Strauss does not claim that this discovery constitutes an insight into the eternal order. But he is able to say that this desire to converse with other philosophers is natural, in that it comes to sight as a spontaneous, recurring, and lasting feature of philosophic life. By reading Xenophon’s dialogues, reflecting on his many exchanges with Kojeve, and thinking through his own experience, Strauss discerns the trans-historical “idea of philosophy” (212). Although this insight into the nature of philosophy, or into the nature of the philosopher, does not provide Strauss with complete knowledge of the eternal whole, it does supply him with evidence against Kojeve’s claim that philosophy, like every form of spirituality, seeks the widest form of recognition. Moreover, it shows that the classical philosopher is able to recognize some things that are lasting and evidently natural, contrary to Kojeve’s thesis that Being is nothing but the totality of history.

  • [1] This line is also quoted in Strauss, Natural Right and History, 201, and in “ANote on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,’'' in Studies in PlatonicPolitical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 183; see alsoHorace, Epistles, I.X.24, and Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 264.
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