Home Philosophy 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). (The paragraph was restored by Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth in their 1991 and 2000 editions of On Tyranny.   ) 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,  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.” 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. 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.
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.
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