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

Tyranny, Wisdom, and the Missing Middle Range in On Tyranny

Let us begin with some passages from On Tyranny that are illustrative of what I argue is Strauss’s tendency there to equate ancient and modern wisdom and to view the independence of the philosophic life as the chief if not the only bar to the actualization of the universal homogeneous state.

In his response to Eric Voegelin in On Tyranny, Strauss entertains the notion that present-day tyranny differs from classical tyranny because of the modern assumption of “unlimited progress in the ‘conquest of nature’ made possible by modern science and the popularization of philosophy or science.” But he goes on to assert that “both possibilities . . . were known to the classics,” who deliberately did not unleash the conquest of nature because they knew it would be “preposterous” and “destructive of humanity” (OT 190). In other words, Strauss appears to be implying here that the content of wisdom was identical in both the ancient and modern cases, differing only in the ancients’ prudent avoidance of the modern project.

In a similar vein, Strauss remarks that Machiavelli’s The Prince is “so close” to Xenophon’s Hiero because the latter, unlike the other classics, “comes relatively close to a wisdom divorced from moderation” (OT 197). Again, the content of wisdom is apparently the same for ancients and moderns—what distinguishes the moderns, joined part way by Xenophon, is to unleash wisdom from the restraint of moderation. But one might ask here: If wisdom, as an enduring quality, can be divorced from moderation, does that mean that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom does not itself entail what is outwardly perceived as the moral virtue of moderation, as Plato argues and as elsewhere does Strauss himself? Could ancient wisdom “divorced from” moderation really be ancient wisdom at all, since ancient wisdom entails moderation indivisibly? Must not “a wisdom” such as modern wisdom that dispenses with moderation also be a new kind of wisdom, based on the conquest of nature (rather than, as the ancients always recommend, our guidance by nature)?

According to Strauss’s presentation of Kojeve’s argument about Xenophon’s Hiero, Simonides understood only the classical Master morality, not the “Biblical morality of Slaves or Workers” (OT 202). Does Strauss himself accept this characterization of the classical position as being synonymous with the “Master morality”? It does not seem likely. It surely collapses the “Master” whose authority stems merely from convention into what the classics would have maintained was the Master or “Gentleman” by nature (think of Aristotle), a position certainly attributable to Marx and perhaps to Hegel but surely not to Strauss. More significantly, Strauss asserts in On Tyranny that both Hobbes’ and Hegel’s doctrines begin with a warlike state of nature. Both “construct a human society by starting from the untrue assumption that man as man is thinkable as a being that lacks awareness of sacred restraints or is a being that is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition” (OT 205). As we discuss later, this is not strictly speaking Hegel’s view, nor does Strauss believe it to be strictly speaking Hegel’s view. But here and elsewhere in On Tyranny, in rehearsing what is supposedly Hegel’s view, Strauss qualifies it as “Kojeve’s or Hegel’s” or that of “Kojeve-Hegel.” In other words, Kojeve-Hegel is not necessarily simply Hegel. This passage also alludes very briefly to what I have termed a middle range approach to unfolding the undesirability of tyranny. That is, in criticizing the view that man by nature lacks an awareness of sacred restraints, Strauss is implying that an awareness of pious objections to self-interest—a self-interest culminating in the extreme instance in the desire for mastery over and recognition from others—could be a nonphilosophic route to the critique of tyranny. Because, as we will see, Hegel himself accounts for an awareness of these sacred restraints, and because Strauss acknowledges this feature of Hegel’s thought, that is another reason for contrasting Hegel’s Hegel and Strauss’s Hegel with Kojeve’s Hegel. But in On Tyranny overall, Strauss’s critique of tyranny continues to skew toward the unique independence of the philosopher as the sole reliable impediment to the claim that wisdom has been actualized in the universal homogeneous state, for Strauss tantamount to “the Universal and Final Tyrant.”

In discussing the “relation of wisdom to rule or to tyranny,” Strauss states the classical position that “since the philosopher is the man who devotes his whole life to the open quest for wisdom, he has no time for political activity of any kind: the philosopher cannot possibly desire to rule” (OT207). This means that, while political philosophy is possible, the actualization of wisdom in the universal homogeneous state is, from a classical perspective, impossible because it would mean the end of philosophy as the search for wisdom: “Philosophy as such is nothing but genuine awareness of the problems. . . . It is impossible to think about these problems without becoming inclined toward a solution. . . . Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problems” (OT 210). Moreover, the philosopher’s desire for truth, “i.e., for knowledge of the eternal order,” is a “dominating passion,” in comparison with which “all human things and all human concerns reveal themselves . . . as paltry” (OT 211). The philosophic eros for wisdom about the whole makes all mere political satisfaction unappealing by comparison. This appears to be a clear confirmation of Strauss’s position that only the philosophic life as conceived by the ancients bars the way to the putative actualization of wisdom in the universal homogeneous state: the philosopher will never join in. Moreover, Strauss here, in contrast with other parts of On Tyranny, appears definitely to distinguish classical philosophy as the uncompletable desire for knowledge of the eternal order—fundamentally a contemplative activity—from the modern claim beginning with Machiavelli that man can master nature and impose rational control over it, an antecedent of Hegel’s dialectic of negation. The unique role of ancient philosophy in blocking the putative actualization of wisdom is amplified by Strauss’s remark that “only by philosophizing can man’s soul become well- ordered” (OT 216), directly echoing Socrates’ claim in Books 6 and 7 of the Republic that studying the Idea of the Good is the source of all prudence ([484a-484e; 533b—533d] although Socrates backs away subsequently from the radicalism of this claim and restores the argument that, through its “participation” in what truly is, the “correct opinion” constituting the civic education of Books 3, 4, and 5 offers an account of a well-ordered soul that is at best indirectly connected to philosophizing and should function as an independent source of psychological immunity in the citizenry, or among the “gentlemen,” to the temptation to tyrannize). This remark of Strauss qualifies what appeared to be his earlier view that the content of ancient wisdom differed from the content of modern wisdom only through the ancients’ prudential addition of moderation. Here it is clear that the classical understanding of the philosophic pursuit of wisdom directly entails moderation. Yet the ambiguity persists. For instance, in summarizing Kojeve’s view, Strauss writes: “For what else is the whole political history of the world except a movement toward the universal homogeneous state? . . . Classical philosophy created the idea of the universal state” (OT 221). Strauss almost seems to merge with Kojeve in this long summary of his position. It is possible, of course, that Strauss could agree that ancient philosophy made a decisive, even the decisive historical contribution, to the idea of a universal state (Alexandrine, Roman, Napoleonic) without thereby collapsing, as Kojeve does, philosophy into historicism.

The philosopher’s “self-admiration,” Strauss continues in a strong formulation of the ancient account of philosophy as a uniquely autonomous way of life, “does not have to be confirmed by the admiration of others in order to be reasonable” (OT 218). In other words, the philosopher uniquely does not require universal recognition, and therefore blocks the claim to universality of the universal homogeneous state. Contra Kojeve, as long as the classical account of the philosophic life cannot be disproved, wisdom cannot be said to have been actualized through political action. Strauss sees himself and Kojeve as being in agreement that the philosopher must be politically active to the extent that the cause of philosophy must be defended: “He must therefore act upon the city or upon the ruler.” But for Strauss it does not follow that the philosopher must desire actually to rule: “Contrary to what Kojeve apparently implies, it seems to us that there is no necessary connection between the philosopher’s indispensable philosophic politics and the efforts which he might or might not make to contribute to the establishment of the best regime.” In other words, the politic defense of philosophy, yes. The actualization of wisdom, no (OT 219-220).

Shortly thereafter (OT 222), Strauss briefly challenges the view that even the nonphilosophic will be satisfied by the recognition proffered within the universal homogeneous state: “Does [Kojeve] not understand the power of the passions?” This is brief evidence of the middle range critique of tyranny that I have suggested is, generally speaking, absent from Strauss’s arguments in On Tyranny: even ordinary people will have desires, passions, and ambitions that disrupt the proclaimed actualization of wisdom in a final world order. Not everyone will always be satisfied. In general, though, throughout On Tyranny, Strauss appears to grant Kojeve’s reduction of all political ambition to the desire for recognition—as opposed to, say, an eros for what is immortally good, as in Plato’s Symposium. Instead of taking direct issue with Kojeve’s reductionist account of political ambition, Strauss’s main riposte is that it cannot lead to universal satisfaction because only the philosopher is truly satisfied—that he alone can live with “self-admiration” rather than requiring recognition by the others. By far the most prominent theme of Strauss in On Tyranny is that the universal homogeneous state cannot be actualized if the independent satisfaction of philosophy remains unassimilated: “We understand now why Kojeve is so anxious to refute the classical view according to which only a minority of men are capable of the quest for wisdom. If the classics are right, only a few men will be truly happy in the universal and homogeneous state and hence only a few them will find their satisfaction in and through it” (OT 225). If only the philosophers are truly happy, the putative universality of the universal homogeneous state is nothing but another coercive ideology, not to say brainwashing.

“If the classics are right,” the only alternative for proponents of the universal homogeneous state is the final eradication of philosophy (“the quest for wisdom”) itself. Whereas in the past, philosophers could flee from tyrannies to more free cities, “from the Universal

Tyrant, however, there is no escape.” The classical view would have been that, “as long as human nature has not been completely conquered, i.e. as long as sun and man still generate man,” the longing for nobility will always arise to combat tyranny (OT 223). But “this time,” with the emergence of the Universal Tyrant, “the cause of philosophy is lost from the start,” and therewith (by implication) the capacity for noble natures to resist tyranny. “Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the completely unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means” to bring about “the end of philosophy on earth” (OT 226). Far from being the truest regime, the universal and homogeneous state will be the enemy of the search for truth.

Is Strauss here thinking through what must be the final outcome of Kojeve’s own theory, not thought through by Kojeve himself? Or is it Strauss’s own prognostication about the continued unfolding of the universal and homogeneous state, visible in emerging outline in the totalitarian regimes of the world in which Strauss is writing? In that case, it leaves several puzzles unanswered. If the classical understanding of philosophy as the search for the eternal truth embraced by Strauss is true, could nature ever actually be conquered? If the cosmos is characterized by an “eternal order” (OT 211), then by definition its subjugation by man is impossible and inconceivable. The attempt to do so must await the twin projects of the conquest of Fortuna and the new anti-teleological physics of matter in motion that renders nature as purposeless fodder for human reshaping, projects that from a classical perspective remain nothing but the imposition of a pseudo-rational rhetoric driven by tyrannical vice and immoderation on natural reality, doomed therefore to failure and to endless new attempts at the subjugation of nature and human nature, the origins of totalitarianism itself as “the engineer of human souls,” to use a Stalinist and Maoist term for the role of literature and education in a Marxist society. Moreover, surely the desire for wisdom in the classical sense as an eros (“dominating passion” [OT 211]) for knowledge of the eternal order of the whole, as the highest fulfilment of human nature within the natural order, must be, if the classics are correct, inextinguishable, no matter how widespread and strong is the Universal Tyrant’s grip. If a tyrant could ever literally bring about “the end of philosophy on earth,” could it ever have existed in the first place in the classical sense? Finally, from the classical perspective, there is the highly unlikely but still real and permanent possibility that the Universal Tyrant himself might, through a “coincidence” between the ruler’s nature and that of one who “genuinely and adequately philosophizes” (as Plato contends in Book 5 of the Republic), bring about an end to “the ills of the cities.” Strauss’s ominous final paragraph seems to conceal an odd concession to the power of the universal homogeneous state as Kojeve conceives of it and its inevitability, and in entertaining the notion that philosophy could literally be ended “on earth,” shares something of its millenarian quality.

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