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


Strauss and the Middle Range in Other Works

Now that we have looked at some evidence for my claim that Strauss in On Tyranny (a) tends mainly to argue that only if there is no independent philosophic life could Kojeve be right, that reason would collapse into history and the universal homogeneous state, meaning that the philosophic life is the only sure safeguard against tyranny, and (b) seems also at times to accept that reason means the same thing for ancients and moderns, paralleling Kojeve’s view that the Hiero and other classical works are blueprints for the actualization of the universal homogeneous state (even if the ancients generally disguised this possibility due to its predictable harmful effects), implying again that, were it not for the independence of the philosopher’s reasonable “self-admiration,” reason could indeed collapse into this blueprint, let us see whether some of his other works do not mitigate these arguments.

It is true, I think, of Strauss in general that he tends to consign the realm of the passions and the imagination to the realm of revelation as opposed to that of reason. Hence his identification of the comic poetry of Aristophanes with a recognition of “the gods recognized by the city” (SA 23) and an awareness of the sacred in contrast with Socratic skepticism. The penultimate paragraph of “Jerusalem and Athens,” with its comparison of Socrates’ activity with that of the good man described in Micah 6:8, where the philosopher’s justice is an incidental “by-product” of his pure pursuit of wisdom, whereas God’s servant will (as the Bible reads) “love mercy and walk humbly with God,” is also characteristic. But it is not always the case. Sometimes Strauss does make psychology central to defending classical philosophy. In other words, he does not always present the philosophic life as self-evidently compelling strictly on its own terms. It may need incentivization. For instance, in a simple but telling critique of Heidegger, he asks why Heidegger is justified in making anxiety the fundamental human experience. Why could it not be love? And if love, whether of God or of wisdom, were the fundamental human experience, philosophy itself might lead more readily in a Platonic direction, an eros for knowledge of the whole, than in an existential one (CPR 38). So in this case, rather than begin with a direct philosophical discussion of Heidegger’s notion of Being as his point of departure for a critique, Strauss begins with a suggestion about human psychology in general.

This psychological starting point—an example of the middle range approach with which I began this chapter—is also evident in Strauss’s evocation of philosophy as a reflection on “the fundamental problems” (NRH 35). Prior to systematic philosophical thinking, Strauss implies, are a recurrent set of prephilosophic human concerns—the “problem” of the holy, justice, and other virtues. Exploring these recurrent concerns may issue in fully explicated philosophies that are distinct from and even irreconcilable with one another (e.g., Plato versus Nietzsche), while the underlying “problems” are enduring. Moreover, while only the rare true philosophers may raise those speculations on the fundamental problems to the level of great thought, most men share to some degree an awareness of them. Man, as Strauss puts it in a clear echo of Diotima’s Ladder of Love from the Symposium, is an “in-between being,” always stretched between the subhuman and the transhuman, “between the brutes and the gods” (NRH 152). The knowledge that “we” possess, he writes elsewhere (WPP 39-40), is always strung between the charms of excessive homogeneity (typified by mathematics) and excessive heterogeneity (the realm of statecraft and education). “It seems that knowledge of the whole would have to combine somehow political knowledge in the highest sense with knowledge of homogeneity. And this knowledge is not at our disposal.” Hence the temptation for “men” to veer to one extreme or the other. Only philosophy, “graced by nature’s grace,” can guide us in refusing “to succumb to either charm.”

Strauss’s defense of philosophy in these contexts is generously inclusive—mankind shares in its concerns and needs its aid. Even literary taste ingrained in one’s character—a preference, say, for Jane Austen over Dostoevsky—might incentivize a preference for Xenophon over other thinkers, a nonphilosophic motive for a certain kind of philosophy. Here, too, then, is evidence of Strauss’s appreciation of the middle range approach between the severe dichotomy of tyranny and wisdom more characteristic of On Tyranny. In “Progress or Return?” (CPR 227-270), Strauss argues that reason and revelation share in the problem of justice a common prephilosophic motive for seeking knowledge, diverging in its pursuit over Revelation’s insistence on the God who creates ex nihilo versus classical (and therefore true) philosophy’s belief in the eternity of the visible universe. If justice is one of the fundamental problems, presumably so then is the temptation of tyranny already sewn into human experience, and the response to it may be that tyranny is impious, or unreasonable, or both (although as Kenneth Hart Green has written, Strauss had a profound aversion for a “third way” between revelation and reason: the ongoing tension between them was the spiritual “nerve” of the West).[1] In many places, then, Strauss does treat the psychology of the nonphilosophic, the need of men in general for an ordered soul, as a gateway to or incentivization for philosophy per se.

Now let us turn to the question of whether Strauss equates ancient wisdom with modern wisdom minus moderation, implying that, if not for the irreducible independence of the philosophic life, wisdom might be actualized as the universal homogeneous state, or, in Strauss’s words, “the Final and Universal Tyrant.” If I am warranted in pointing out the predominance of this approach in On Tyranny, several puzzling enigmas emerge. What would become of the validity of classical political science and its ranking of regimes, if, absent the philosophic life, those distinctions between better regimes such as aristocracy and worse regimes like democracy and tyranny collapsed into man’s historical progress toward the universal homogeneous state through the negation of nature?


If the philosophic life alone refutes tyranny, do those distinctions between better and worse nonphilosophic regimes matter? For if the philosophic life alone refutes tyranny, Plato’s hierarchy of regimes in Book 8 of the Republic, rather than approximating a degree of wisdom (albeit in rapidly declining order), would appear to be alike in their arbitrariness, already tyrannical in essence whatever might be their window-dressings of a claim to justice. Moreover, what, indeed, would the philosophic life itself consist in if its basis for “self-admiration” were completely divorced from practical political science in the ancient sense of politike—the architectonic art from whose guidance all regimes and their citizens will benefit? If, aside from the pure untrammeled philosophic life, with no direct concern for politike aside from the “politic” defense of philosophy, there is only the Kojevian project for the actualization of wisdom, then what content could the philosophic life itself possess? Are we not faced with a harsh dichotomy between politics—a tyrannical drive now wholly identified at the end of history with the culminating universal homogeneous state—and its only true foe, philosophy as a mysterious detached and self-sufficient “way of life,” as Pierre Hadot might describe it, pure individual or personal askesis with no sovereign role such as the Platonic Socrates claimed for it over statecraft and revelation (that is, “poetry”)?[2] Could the philosopher as Strauss depicts him in On Tyranny anticipate postmodernism?

Because, as I argue, elsewhere Strauss does not embrace this harsh dichotomy between philosophy as a personally satisfying way of life almost entirely divorced from politike and political action identified with the Kojevian actualization of the universal homogeneous state, we might infer some reasons for its prevalence in On Tyranny. First of all, quite simply, the subtext for the debate between Strauss and Kojeve is the interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero. Among the Socratics, Xenophon himself presents a comparatively sharper divide between the philosophic life and the city than does, for instance, Plato. Xenophon’s Socrates is not a “civic” philosopher, certainly not as markedly so as the Platonic Socrates. His speculations on the Good lead not to a virtuous small republic, as in Plato, but to a universal multinational rational despotism (the Education of Cyrus) where the rule of the philosopher plays no direct role. So the dichotomy between the philosopher and the middle range of civic virtue and civic psychology is sharper in Xenophon than among other ancients. The city’s claim to reasonableness is more attenuated and the unique autonomy of the philosopher more pronounced. That tension, and Xenophon’s comparative neglect of the polls in favor of the cosmopolitan empire, is perhaps appropriately reflected in the debate in On Tyranny itself and the dichotomy between the “self-admiration” of the philosopher and the claims of the universal homogeneous state, with the kolnonla polltlke largely dropping out.

Another reason for the dichotomy, in my view, is the unspoken presence of Heidegger in the debate between Strauss and Kojeve. In On Tyranny, I would argue, in entertaining the plausibility of Kojeve’s universal homogeneous state, Strauss is also entertaining Heidegger’s argument that the unfolding of technological modernity is the “working out” of “metaphysics” going back to Plato—that global technology is the culmination of the tyranny of the Ideas over the rest of existence. Precisely because ancient philosophy, in this line of reasoning, does culminate in the universal homogeneous state if philosophy is not independent from historical action, then Strauss may be especially concerned to establish its autonomy, perhaps rooted in the philosopher’s eros for knowledge of the whole. That erotic longing could never be reduced to political action or the literal application of the rationality of the Ideas to transform the rest of existence. This understanding of the philosophic life is also consonant with Strauss’s view, earlier mentioned, that Heidegger arbitrarily gives anxiety priority over eros. If philosophy is fundamentally a never-to-be-completed need for wisdom, then Socratic or Platonic eros could never, as Heidegger maintains, have been the origin of “metaphysics . . . working itself out as technology” (UM 71, 72-77). It could never have possessed the certainty about wisdom, or been willing to set aside the leisure and pleasure of contemplation, in order to impose reason on the rest of existence. If I am right in attributing this position to Strauss, it is an appealing argument. But one somehow still also longs for a supplementary account based on classical civic psychology (like that of Books 2-5 of the Republic) that would make tyranny less attractive for the citizenry as a whole and not establish that the philosopher’s life is the only genuine alternative to it.

Another dimension to Heidegger’s unspoken presence in the debate in On Tyranny is Kojeve’s synthesis of his Hegelianism with Heidegger’s thought, of which more momentarily. For now let it suffice to say that Kojeve agrees with Heidegger that the history of Being issues in global technology—Heidegger’s famous maxim in 1935 that “metaphysically speaking, America and Russia are the same” was reportedly one of Kojeve’s favorite sayings—but welcomes it as the universal homogeneous state, whereas Heidegger regards it either as the spur for Germany’s return to its destiny in opposition to global technology or as threatening the annihilation of all that is human.[3] Perhaps, then, Strauss tends to equate ancient and modern reason in On Tyranny for the purposes of this specific debate with Kojeve and the quasi-Heideggerian undertow of his thought.

Finally, the tendency in On Tyranny to dichotomize the philosophic life and the project for the historical actualization of wisdom through the universal homogeneous state may echo a warning Strauss issued in his unpublished 1941 lecture on National Socialism.[4] Here he argued that the vulgarity of National Socialism should not lead us to overlook its roots in a much deeper philosophical enterprise, stimulated by an unnamed thinker whose voice Strauss assumes but who is certainly Heidegger, aimed at enlisting the young in the revolutionary project of dismantling modernity back to its roots at least four hundred years in the past. In Strauss’s diagnosis of the appeal of National Socialist revolution, because modernity has virtually equated reason with utilitarianism, instrumental rationality and pedestrian self-interest, these young Germans, in longing for heroism, sacrifice and honor, are driven to define these virtues as irrational or existential, urged on by their elder ontological Pied Piper. Confronted with this crisis, which decouples virtue from a rational account of the soul crowned by the philosophic life in its quest for knowledge of the eternal order that was the essence of the classics, Strauss maintains that only an uncompromising adherence to the Platonic pursuit of the Eternal One, the eternal truth, rather than to historicized truth, might insulate civilization from the siren song of nihilism. Moreover, he argues here, all forms of historicism, not only the openly immoderate and incipiently revolutionary kinds like that of Nietzsche and Heidegger, but even the comparatively benign teleological and politically moderate kind like that of Hegel, are a slippery slope toward Heideggerian existentialism and its correlate in National Socialism. In fact, the residue of the older, more responsible Hegelianism in Germany only alienated the young further, because they identified this doctrine of benign historical progress as the justification for the grip of the old and the conservative over the young and passionate. In sum, if Heidegger’s equation of modernity and global technology with the “working out” of Plato’s metaphysics is to be refuted, classical philosophy must be defended as the only reliable antidote to any form of historicist thinking, as a self-sufficient way of life independent of historical influence, even of its own historical influence. For historicism can culminate only in the gentle and dispiriting relativism of Hegel, or, in violent counterreaction, the call for passionate revolutionary action of Heidegger. (Is this echoed in Strauss’s remark in On Tyranny that the only kind of resistance to the universal homogeneous state might take the form of “a nihilistic revolution . . . not enlightened by any positive goal” but which “may be the . . . only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become possible” [OT 224]?)

  • [1] Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993),
  • [2] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993).
  • [3] See Tom Darby, “On Spiritual Crisis, Globalization, and Planetary Rule,” inFaith, Reason, and Political Life Today, eds. Peter Augustine Lawler and DaleMcConkey (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 43.
  • [4] Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism,” eds. David Janssens and Daniel Tanguay,Interpretation 26 (no. 3, Spring 1990): 353-378.
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