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

SEVEN Kojeve’s Hegel, Hegel’s Hegel, and Strauss’s Hegel

A Middle Range Approach to the Debate about Tyranny and Totalitarianism

Waller R. Newell

In this chapter I explore what I have for many years regarded as a perplexing facet of the dialogue between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve on tyranny. It is what strikes me as the comparative


absence in Strauss’s position of what might be termed a middle range basis for understanding the phenomenon—and the undesirability— of tyranny, a middle range between the severe dichotomy of tyranny and wisdom characteristic of On Tyranny. That absence, I argue, goes together with the fact that, at times, Strauss sounds as if he is arguing that only if there is no such thing as the independent activity of the philosophic life could Kojeve’s position be correct—that, in the absence of the philosopher’s justified “self-admiration” (OT 218), reason would indeed collapse into history and the actualization of the universal homogeneous state. In other words, the independence of the philosophic life is the only certain defense against tyranny, particularly the modern version of tyranny, which, as Kojeve would have it, can claim to have actualized the universalistic teaching of ancient thought itself.

Consistent with this stream in his thinking, Strauss also seems at times to accept that reason means the same thing for ancients and moderns, as if in keeping with Kojeve’s view that Xenophon’s Hiero and the utopias of Plato and other ancient thinkers have served as blueprints to be progressively actualized by man’s negation of nature in the pursuit of universal freedom and recognition. Again, then, at these junctures Strauss appears to be arguing that only the independent status of philosophy and the philosopher’s exemption from the need for recognition within the universal homogeneous state bars the project for the full actualization of ancient wisdom that Kojeve claims has manifested itself fully only in the twentieth century.

In exploring these trends in Strauss’s thinking, I pursue several related questions. First of all, does Strauss actually or exclusively embrace the positions I have attributed to him above? I suggest that the full account of his thinking going beyond On Tyranny is more ambiguous and nuanced. This involves our consideration of several other issues. First, does Strauss not, after all, see major, irreconcilable differences between ancient and modern thought? Does he not in other places offer the very middle range approach to the understanding of tyranny that I find relatively absent in his dialogue with Kojeve? And does he not, in fact, find even in Hegel himself evidence of this middle ground, as well as a family resemblance with classical thought that, while not tantamount to an actual agreement with or restoration of the classics, placed Hegel in Strauss’s view head and shoulders above his contemporaries, an appreciation of Hegel that would have to radically distinguish one’s reading of him from the one offered by Kojeve?

Finally, I suggest how the question of a middle range approach to the understanding of tyranny, not only in terms of a conflict between philosophy and political action but as a deformation of human psychology, and as impious, sheds light on the phenomenon of twentieth-century totalitarianism itself and the interpretation of it, whose dark backdrop informed the at times disturbing and harsh encounter between the two thinkers. The differences between their philosophical positions, I conclude, informed the respective stances that Strauss and Kojeve took as citizens toward the tyrannies around them.[1]

  • [1] For a further consideration of the debate between Strauss and Kojeve and itsbearing on the problem of tyranny as a theme in the history of political thought,consider Waller R. Newell, Tyranny: A New Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
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