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


EIGHT History, Tyranny, and the Presuppositions of Philosophy

Strauss, Kojeve, and Heidegger in Dialogue

Richard L. Velkley

The Idea of Philosophy

A puzzling feature of the publication history of Leo Strauss’s reply (“Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”) to Alexandre Kojeve’s review (“Tyranny and Wisdom”) of On Tyranny, is the omission of the original 1954 French edition’s concluding paragraph from the American editions of the “Restatement” (1959, 1963).[1] (The paragraph was restored by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth in their 1991 and 2000 editions of On Tyranny.[2] [3] [4] [5]) The paragraph intro?duces the weighty theme of the “idea of philosophy,” raises the question of “whether that idea is not itself in need of legitimation,” and outlines two opposed basic presuppositions (one made by “philosophy in the strict and classical sense” and one proposed by Kojeve) as two ways of legitimizing the idea of philosophy. But caution is necessary here. The relation between the “idea of philosophy” and what follows in the paragraph is not wholly clear. “Philosophy in the strict and classical sense” (“quest for the eternal order or the eternal cause or causes of all things”) may not be identical with the idea of philosophy. It may be one possible form of the idea. Also unclear is whether Kojeve’s presupposition supports the idea of philosophy or something else altogether.

After stating that “in our discussion, the conflict between the two opposed presuppositions has been barely mentioned” although “we have always been mindful of it,” Strauss closes with an oblique reference to a third party:

For we both apparently turned away from Being to Tyranny because we have seen that those who lacked the courage to face the issue of Tyranny, who therefore et humiliter servie- bant et superbe dominabantur,[6] [7] were forced to evade the issue of Being as well, precisely because they did nothing but talk of Being. (OT 212)

I do not speculate about why the paragraph as a whole was removed from the American editions, which action Strauss most certainly approved, but I only observe that the final sentence contains a crucial element for reflecting on the puzzle. To an informed French readership of 1954, the reference to “those who lacked the courage to face the issue of Tyranny” and “did nothing but talk of Being” pointed unmistakably to Martin Heidegger and his followers, but to American readers of the era 1959-1963 it would have been largely opaque. That did not, however, prevent Strauss from discussing Heidegger extensively in other American contexts in the same period—at times, it is true, without naming the author of what Strauss termed “radical historicism.”[8] In any case, if Strauss doubted that the final sentence was appropriate for an American audience, he apparently thought that the whole paragraph must be jettisoned as well, because its argument is bound up with the meaning of the final sentence.[9] Only through adequately understanding the reference to Heidegger can one unlock the full meaning of the contrasting presuppositions, and therewith expose at the same time the layers of irony in Strauss’s closing judgment.

I address four aspects of the complex relations between Strauss- Kojёve-Heidegger as they emerge from this paragraph viewed in the context of the whole debate between Strauss and Kojeve. I introduce each of these aspects as an appearance that must be put in question.

  • (a) The appearance that Strauss and Kojeve turn away from reflection on Being. Strauss may appear at first to congratulate himself and Kojeve for turning away from the question of the Being to the “primacy of the political,” as one commentator puts it, and to hold that it was Heidegger’s “concern for Being, rather than beings, that led to his indifference to tyranny.”[10] But to the contrary, Strauss writes that he and Kojeve “both apparently turned away from Being to Tyranny” (emphasis added). The conflict between the opposed basic presuppositions of which both “have always been mindful” concerns the nature of Being as the object of philosophical inquiry. The first irony in the passage is the suggestion that Strauss and Kojeve improve on Heidegger in his own game, as it were, because Heidegger’s neglect of the problem of tyranny (or one could say more generally, the problem of the relation of politics and philosophy) forced Heidegger “to evade the issue of Being as well.”
  • (b) The appearance that Heidegger’s thought is of secondary importance to the present discussion of tyranny, politics, and philosophy. Could not Strauss have referred at the close of the “Restatement” to some other leading example of twentieth-century thought who neglects the problem of tyranny or the relation of philosophy and politics? He begins the “Restatement” with an account of the deficiencies of contemporary political science in this regard. With respect to the “grave subject” of Tyranny and Wisdom Heidegger’s thought seems no more (if also no less) pertinent than the derelictions of political science. The final sentence almost appears like an afterthought, just a chance to make a swipe at a major thinker held in critical esteem by both Strauss and Kojeve. But could Heidegger’s presence here point to a central place his thought occupies in the work of both Strauss and Kojeve, including their inquiries about philosophy and politics? This would be another irony of the passage.
  • (c) The appearance that Kojeve is superior to Heidegger on the issue of tyranny. Strauss in the “Restatement” brings out failings of Kojeve with regard to the latter’s judgments about Stalin and the Soviet system, yet these seem to be forgotten in this final sentence. Strauss notes that Kojeve “contends that all present-day tyrants are good tyrants in Xenophon’s sense. He alludes to Stalin” and Strauss proceeds to say that the use of the NKVD and labor camps argues against regarding Stalin’s rule as living up to Simonides’s standards (OT 188-189).[11] Could Strauss in the final sentence playfully and subversively point to a real kinship between the endorsements of tyranny by Heidegger and Kojeve? And might difficulties in Kojeve’s conceptions of tyranny, politics, and philosophy relate to the powerful influence of Heidegger on his thought? If so, one would find another ironic element in the passage.
  • (d) The appearance that Strauss’s thought on presuppositions is wholly distant from the thought of Kojeve and Heidegger. What Strauss calls the presupposition of classical philosophy, namely, that “that there is an eternal and unchangeable order within which History takes place and which is not in any way affected by History,” or that “Being is essentially immutable in itself and eternally identical with itself,” is rejected by Kojeve in favor of the view that “Being creates itself in the course of History” (Kojeve’s words [cf. OT 152]) or “that the highest being is Society and History” (Strauss’s words). There is a clear connection between Kojeve’s presupposition and Heidegger’s thought (about which more soon). Does Strauss claim that his own account of philosophy is based on what he calls the classical presupposition? He nowhere says “my presupposition” in a phrasing parallel to “Kojeve’s presupposition,” and indeed he states that the classical presupposition “is not self-evident.”[12] He neither provides an argument to support it nor suggests that an argument can be provided. The classical presupposition is left dangling precariously with the troubling air of dogma. When Strauss uses the first person to express his thought it is to mention something he shares with Kojeve: “We have always been mindful” of “the conflict between the two opposed basic presuppositions.”

Elsewhere Strauss gives an account of philosophy that does not presuppose the immutability of Being. “No more is needed to legitimize philosophy in its original, Socratic, sense: philosophy is knowledge that one does not know; that is to say, it is knowledge of what one does not know, or awareness of the fundamental problems and, therewith, of the fundamental alternatives regarding their solution that are coeval with human thought.” Strauss’s being mindful of the conflict between the two opposed basic presuppositions is in accord with this account (NRH 32). Is perhaps Strauss’s thinking on the presuppositions of philosophy not as distant as it may at first seem from that of Kojeve and Heidegger? A further irony of this passage may lie in the possibility that, in spite of some defect in the philosophy of Heidegger evident in his cowardly approach to tyranny, Strauss’s thinking about philosophy’s presuppositions owes something essential to Heidegger.

However we might answer these questions, one thing emerges with great clarity from the final paragraph: Strauss regards

Xenophon’s dialogue as raising the most basic issues about the nature and possibility of philosophy. He writes at the start of the paragraph that Xenophon’s thesis concerning the relation of tyranny and wisdom “is not only compatible with the idea of philosophy but required by it.” Kojeve himself states that Strauss’s book is important not solely because of what it purports to reveal about the thought of Xenophon, but “because of the problem which it raises and discusses” (OT 135-136). Kojeve notes that Strauss presents himself in his book “not as a wise man in possession of knowledge but as a philosopher in quest of it.” It should be recalled that Kojeve regards the philosopher as becoming a wise man and even a god at the end of history.[13]

  • [1] Published separately in What is Political Philosophy ? and Other Studies (Glencoe,IL: Free Press, 1959), hereafter cited as WIPP, and later together with On Tyranny and Kojeve’s review (New York: Free Press, 1963).
  • [2] Lacking Strauss’s original English text in 1991, the editors translated the
  • [3] published French translation. The original English version was later found
  • [4] and appears in Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, eds. Victor Gourevitch and Michael
  • [5] Roth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), hereafter cited as OT.
  • [6] Emmanuel Patard has produced a critical edition of the original English textof the “Restatement” with introductory remarks, supplements, and corrections,in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 36 (no. 1, Fall 2008), hereaftercited as EP.
  • [7] Livy, XXIV.25.viii: “themselves obsequiously subservient while arrogantly lording over others.”
  • [8] This is notably Strauss’s procedure in Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), hereafter cited as NRH, but Heidegger is namedand discussed at length in Strauss’s appreciation of Kurt Riezler, published in1956 and reprinted in WIPP. He lectured publicly on Heidegger’s thought morethan once before 1963. For more accounts of Strauss’s reflection on and discussion of Heidegger’s thought (published and unpublished), see Richard Velkley,Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), hereafter cited as HSPP.
  • [9] Patard cites a remark of George P. Grant, the Canadian philosopher: “Perhaps itis not too rash to imply that Strauss did not include it [the final sentence in theAmerican version] because of the general lack of interest in metaphysical questions among English-speaking intellectuals” (EP 24).
  • [10] Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2006), 130.
  • [11] Kojeve explicitly speaks of Salazar (OT 139).
  • [12] In the original English version Strauss, referring to “philosophy in the strict andclassical sense,” writes “it presupposes. . . .” The French version translates thisand related occurrences of “it presupposes” as “je presuppose.” Gourevitch andRoth accordingly in their 1991 edition (as they had only the French version ofthe final paragraph at the time) render these as “I assume.” This has been corrected in the 2000 edition.
  • [13] Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. Allan Bloom, trans.James H. Nichols, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 167, hereafter cited asIRH, and the letter to Strauss of 19 September 1950 (OT255-256).
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