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


Strauss’s Hegel

In order to see how much for Strauss, Kojeve’s Hegel is not necessarily Hegel’s Hegel, we need only consider his own characterizations of Hegel in places other than On Tyranny. Although in Strauss’s view, historicism’s “return to the origins” ultimately leads to an even greater break with classical rationalism than had the reductive rationalism of the early moderns, Strauss recognizes Hegel’s role within “this great and complex counter-movement:” Hegel “returned from” the early modern rationalism of Descartes “to the ‘higher vitality’ of Plato and Aristotle” (WPP 50), even though ultimately “the delusions of communism are already” those of Hegel (WPP 54). He also credits Hegel with a profound awareness of how ancient thought arose directly from the richness of “natural consciousness,” including an openness to the sacred, while modern thought begins with (he quotes Hegel) “‘the abstract form ready made.’” I am aware of no other place where Strauss attributes to a modern thinker such a deep awareness of the freshness of the ancient thinkers’ encounters with nature (WPP 75). When Strauss describes Hegel as “the outstanding philosopher of the 19th century”( WPP 58), we must remember that Strauss reserves this term for a small handful of world-historical figures. The twentieth century in his view had only one of these greats, Heidegger, who, unlike Hegel, had no one who could plausibly be described as being on his level. Hegel had a few competitors, but only a few.

We have argued throughout this chapter that, in searching for a middle range approach to the problem of tyranny—a psychological approach between pure wisdom and pure power—Strauss regards revelation as the other primal evocation of “the problem of justice” (NRH 150) along with that of classical philosophy—and, therefore, of its opposite, the problem of tyranny. Tyranny may be irrational and psychologically deformed, as the classics thought; it may also be impious, the ultimate violation of an “awareness of sacred restraints.” For Strauss, Hegel is definitely one of modern philosophy’s most important routes into this discussion. We have already examined Strauss’s critique of Kojeve for failing to see the religious implication of Hegel’s philosophy of nature. Other remarks by Strauss are even more explicit: It is “owing to Hegel in particular” that religion “in the modern world” ceased being considered merely “a pursuit for antiquarians” and became “an integral part of philosophy” (WPP 221). Finally, according to Strauss, referring to the concluding section on religion in which the Phenomenology of Spirit culminates, “the pro- foundest student of Aristophanes in modern times is Hegel,” for whom (Strauss continues) Aristophanes’ comedies crystallized the

“art-religion” of ancient Greece, “which (Hegel) regarded as the highest religion possible outside of revealed religion’ (WPP 115-116, emphasis added). In contrast with Kojeve’s Hegel, then, Strauss’s Hegel is profoundly attuned to the question of revelation and its relationship to reason.

It is worth noting, finally, that my interpretation of Strauss’s interpretation of Hegel, and how greatly it differs from Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel, is borne out by Strauss’s Nachlass. In a course on Hegel in 1958, Strauss begins by establishing Hegel’s crucial connection to Spinoza, “regarded by most people—not by Hegel—and with some justice as a pantheist.” According to Strauss, for Spinoza, “the world flows from God . . . nay, God is the world. . . . This took a non-Spinozan form in German Idealism in the following way; God is in the world but especially in man’s actions in history.”[1] This assessment, I believe, perfectly mirrors Hegel’s own account of Spinoza as the culmination of the dimension of “Substance” in the “unity of Subject and Substance” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Into the life-world of Spinoza, emerging continuously out of nature toward the aspects of Godhead, and thus repudiating the dualism of Hobbes and Descartes, Hegel introduces the aggressive dimension of progressive historical transformation, the introduction of “the labour of the negative” into Schelling’s quietistic Spinoza-inspired “Absolute.” Finally, Strauss notes in what constitutes an absolutely massive rejection of Kojeve’s Hegel, for Hegel, history culminates not in the polis, but in das Volk, the historical paths of a variety of modern nation-states. Strauss’s point, I think, is to contrast the classical emphasis on the polis and the politiea with Hegel’s emphasis on the historical paths of peoples. But if Hegel modifies the classical orientation, his view bears not the slightest resemblance to the world state of the universal homogeneous state. The modern nation-state, not the universal homogeneous state, is the end of history. Kojeve’s rejection of Hegel’s teaching about the irreducible plurality of the modern nation-state in favor of the envisioned global society of the universal homogeneous state is another clear indication of his Left- Hegelian reading.

Throughout this chapter, I have argued that Strauss approaches the problems of justice and tyranny from a variety of perspectives— psychological and religious—that mitigates the impression sometimes produced by his dialogue with Kojeve of a harsh dichotomy between reason unleashed as the immoderate project of the universal homogeneous state and the “self-admiration” of the philosopher as the sole bulwark against its claims to have established universal recognition for all. This has involved us in examining some of Strauss’s other routes, including how his own evaluation of Hegel, especially Hegel’s relationship to religion, differs so markedly from Koj eve’s Hegel. For after considering Strauss’s overall assessment of Hegel, it is no longer possible for us to accept his equation of Hegel and Hobbes over the origins of human society as an account in which “man as man is thinkable as a being that lacks awareness of sacred restraints” or is thinkable as a being who “is guided by nothing but a desire for recognition” as anything other than a response to Kojeve’s Hegel. For it is clear from other of his writings that Strauss regarded Hegel’s philosophy as preeminently open among modern thinkers to the consideration of these “sacred restraints.” It is therefore reasonable, I think, to conclude that Strauss’s willingness to engage the very one-sided depiction of Hegel presented by Kojeve was for the purposes of that one specific debate. And it may well be that, in Strauss’s view, however much Hegel may have aimed to give both Platonic thought and religious revelation their lofty due within his philosophy of history, and however much acknowledgment that effort deserved, his system arguably did at the end of the day help generate the “delusions of communism”—and of the universal homogeneous state. But in order to consider that possibility fully and fairly, we must follow Strauss’s lead beyond On Tyranny and engage Hegel’s Hegel, not Kojeve’s.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, the Leo Strauss Center, University of Chicago, transcript of seminar in political theory: Hegel’s Philosophy of History, autumn quarter 1958, firstsession.
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