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Strauss on Ancient versus Modern Wisdom

If I am right in arguing that in On Tyranny, Strauss entertains the equation of ancient and modern wisdom in order to suggest that the philosophic life is the only reliable buttress against decoupling wisdom from moderation and launching the Kojevian project for the actualization of wisdom as the universal homogeneous state—if I am right, in other words, that Strauss entertains the equation of ancient and modern wisdom for the purposes of this specific dialogue with Kojeve—then it must immediately be added that elsewhere, Strauss points to a very sharp break between the meaning of ancient and modern theory and practice, one that, I believe, is more representative of his entire corpus. Let us take a few notable examples.

This contrast is evident, some might argue, even in the final paragraph of the French version of On Tyranny, omitted (presumably deliberately) from the subsequent English edition, where Strauss does finally unambiguously state the difference between classical philosophy as the “quest for the eternal order” and Kojeve’s view that “Being creates itself in the course of History,” although Strauss also concedes that this difference between Kojeve and himself was “barely mentioned” in the entire preceding debate.[1] Moreover, Strauss does here reiterate his characterization of philosophy as requiring a “radical detachment from human concerns.” It alone thereby bars the way to collapsing wisdom into History and the universal homogeneous state. So if Strauss is, at the end of the French version, finally definitively differentiating between the classical approach and that of Kojeve, he still largely occludes the middle range of classical poli- tike. In other words, the realm of the “in-between” (to use his own term from Natural Right and History [152]) is still largely missing from the stark contrast between historicism and the classical view of the philosophic life as uniquely independent. Strauss’s claim here that he and Kojeve both “turned away from Being to Tyranny” in contrast with “those who lacked the courage to face the issue of tyranny . . . because they did nothing but talk of Being” (clearly a reference to Heidegger), might seem to argue that Strauss and Kojeve shared a concern for the middle range of real-life politics as opposed to an obsession with Being like that of Heidegger that, by sacrificing the study of political life, ultimately had therefore to “evade” Being, too. But all it really establishes is that, while Strauss tried to revive classical politike to refute Heideggerian nihilism, Kojeve’s revamped Hegelianism at bottom accepted Heidegger’s equation of the entire History of Being with “technology,” the tyranny of the Forms launched by Plato, embracing it as the necessary outcome of the universal homogeneous state. Because he had no interest in das Volk, Kojeve was unabashedly accepting of a global process about which Heidegger maintained a deep revulsion. In any case, because the present volume is in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of On

Tyranny’s reappearance in English, because most of us were shaped by that version, and because Strauss chose to omit that final paragraph from the French version, we are justified in not considering it further, having observed that it does not fundamentally depart from the main lines of the debate in On Tyranny as I discuss them in this chapter. (Although it is striking that, having largely omitted a psychological basis extending more widely than the philosophic life for the assessment of tyranny in favor of the untrammeled superiority of the philosophic life, Strauss castigates Heidegger’s failure to address the problem of tyranny as stemming from a lack of courage.)

As already noted, in “Progress or Return?” Strauss argues that philosophy and religion part ways over the eternity of the visible universe versus the creation of the world out of nothing. Clearly when Strauss writes of philosophy here, he means ancient philosophy, for modern philosophy conceives of nature as spontaneous motion. If not identical with the notion of a creator ex nihilo, it is a view of the cosmos as springing from an uncaused cause that is a close cousin of revelation, one that for Aristotle was an absurdity, and whose only antecedents among the ancients were the anti-teleological pre- Socratics and Lucretius. Presumably Strauss would also argue that there is no equivalent in modern thought for that eros for knowledge of the whole that he identifies with classical philosophy. Indeed, Heidegger, for Strauss the twentieth-century’s greatest philosopher, explicitly took his orientation from the roots of the whole (“the true ground of all grounds, the fundamental abyss” [PPP 30]), that is, not from their development toward visible completion guided by the Ideas or the One, perhaps paralleling Strauss’s view that Heidegger’s evocation of prephilosophic human experience gave anxiety priority over eros. Modern thought, according to Strauss, is fundamentally about origins, while ancient thought was fundamentally about ends. In modern thought, “the root or the efficient cause takes the place of the end or purpose” (NRH 7-8). Strauss has numerous other formulations about the sharp divergences between ancients versus moderns, such as how Machiavelli places statecraft on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest in contrast with the ancients’ emphasis on virtue. This contrast speaks to the different intrinsic content of the respective wisdoms, including a contrast between an ordered cosmos and nature as the random happenstance Machiavelli calls

Fortuna, and not merely (as in On Tyranny) to Machiavelli’s shedding of moderation in attempting to spread wisdom to the many.

Finally, in considering how ancient and modern wisdom differ in Strauss’s overall reflections, we must also consider how the relationship of revelation to reason alters between ancient and modern reason. Whereas classical philosophy is ultimately not compatible with revelation because of the contrast between the eternity of the visible universe and God’s creation of the world ex nihilo, his- toricism in some ways blurs this distinction. That is because while the Platonic god is (for example, in the Timaeus) changeless and transtemporal, the God of Abraham unfolds historically in time, changing nature and human nature. In historicism, the world itself expresses itself as temporal change actualized through its human avatars, changing nature and human nature, sometimes (as in Hegel) explicitly assimilating the will of God to the self-origination of the world, “the self-actualization of God in History.” In sum, Hegel’s characterization of existence as a “self-originating wealth of shapes” bears an ontological resemblance to the God who is that/what He is. Moreover, given early modern thought’s reduction of reason to instrumental rationality and self-interest, historicism offered a new basis for the unity of the self with the other, namely the historical community, an organic unity based on the dynamism of the historical origins rather than the eternally given telos. This identification of Being with origination (and, therefore, proximally with revelation), continued through Nietzsche and Heidegger, and is clearly attested to by Strauss, when for instance he remarks about Beyond Good and Evil that for Nietzsche “philosophy and religion, it seems, belong together—belong more closely together than philosophy and the city” (PPP 176). Furthermore, in his letter to Kojeve about Hegel’s philosophy of nature, Strauss makes it abundantly clear that he does not share Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy as atheistic, implying, in my view, that the entire identification of Hegel with Kojeve’s Hegel in On Tyranny was for the purpose of that particular debate—in other words, Strauss was saying, let’s act for the present discussion as if Kojeve’s understanding is that of Hegel.[2] Here, though, in contrast, he criticizes Kojeve for jettisoning Hegel’s voluminous philosophy of nature on the grounds that, if nature does not evolve teleologically (albeit still historically), then nothing prior to man grounds the actions of men in transforming nature, making those actions utterly arbitrary. Moreover, if nature has not evolved teleologically in this one way, culminating in the actualization of wisdom at the end of history, how can we know that there have not been or will not be countless other worlds? Wisdom would not be one. Consequently, “if the philosophy of nature is necessary, it follows that atheism has to be rejected.” For Strauss, then, Hegel’s philosophy is not, as Kojeve asserts, atheistic. The question of its relationship to revelation is at least an open one. Strauss is pointing here, I believe, to the ontological family resemblance between Hegelian and other kinds of historicism with its originary account of Being and revelation’s concern with the God who creates out of nothing. In both cases, the world emerges out of nothing one time only.

And with that, we must turn more explicitly to the issue of Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel and whether Strauss accepts it, based on works other than On Tyranny.

  • [1] See Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, eds. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 212.
  • [2] Strauss, On Tyranny (Gourevitch and Roth edition), 237-238.
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