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

Conclusion: Strauss’s Abiding Interest in Kojeve’s Historical Philosophy

Strauss’s interest in Kojeve’s Hegelian philosophizing could be stated succinctly thus: Strauss saw that the uprooting of the Western philosophical tradition (by Martin Heidegger, most notably) made possible a fresh reexamination of the Greek roots of that tradition, free from the encrustations of a long series of academic teachings and of moral and religious entanglements; in carrying out this reexamination, Strauss became convinced that the philosophic life of Socratic rationalism was defensible, against the modern claim to have superseded it. Strauss sought to make that Socratic-Platonic philosophic alternative available through interpreting its greatest texts and by showing that the greatest modern thinkers did not convincingly refute or transcend that earlier approach. Kojeve—in Strauss’s judgment that rarity, a genuine philosopher—represented the most advanced version of modern rationalism. Accordingly, Strauss sought with eagerness and energy to engage Kojeve in debate on the occasion of his own publishing (in 1948) his first book-length analysis of an ancient Greek classic text, On Tyranny, on Xenophon’s Hiero. The correspondence between Strauss and Kojeve about this project reveals Strauss’s keen desire for a debate between them that would illuminate fundamental issues about philosophy and politics, ancients and moderns. Kojeve’s critical essay on Strauss’s book appeared under the title “L’action politique des philosophes” in the journal Critique in 1950. The eventual publication of the volume De la tyrannie in 1954 included Strauss’s reply to Kojeve’s critical essay. In a letter of 14 September 1950, Strauss wrote that he called his essay “Restatement, because I regard the problem as entirely open— ‘Afterword’ would create the impression of an apparent finality—and, above all, because I would very much like you to answer.” Kojeve replied five days later: “I read your reply immediately, and with great interest. Naturally, I would have much to say, but one also has to leave something for the reader: he should go on to think on his own.”

In some of the later correspondence, when Kojeve sets forth his interpretations of Platonic dialogues, one gets the impression that

Strauss found them relatively unimpressive, and one might even imagine that he had rather lost interest in his friend’s philosophical work. But in a recently discovered last letter of Strauss to Kojeve, dated 5 May 1968,[1] Strauss thanks Kojeve for sending his book, the first volume of Essai d’une histoire raisonnee de la philosophiepaienne, with a “beautiful dedication.” Strauss writes: “I began at once to read the book, to marvel at your dialectical power. . . .” And he ends the letter thus: “I work now on the Euthydemus, an Aristophanic treatment of the primary theme of your book, namely the possibility and necessity of philosophy.” A month or so after writing this letter, Strauss met with some graduate students[2] who had come to Claremont to attend his seminar on Plato’s Euthydemus. He spoke to them with noteworthy animation about the issue of the dialogue: How is philosophy possible? How can one distinguish philosophy from mere sophistry, in the absence of full wisdom? This, he said, was the problem that Kojeve was also dealing with in his own way, by arguing for the availability of complete Hegelian wisdom at the end of history. Having devoted so much of his life to articulating and defending the Socratic philosophic life, Strauss continued to maintain a lively interest in Kojeve’s opposite approach to understanding and defending the possibility and the necessity of philosophy.


  • [1] Published in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 36 (no. 1, Fall 2008):91-92. This entire issue of Interpretation is devoted to Emmanuel Patard’s valuable critical edition of Leo Strauss’s “Restatement.” It has introductory remarksthat give detailed background on how the exchange between Strauss and Kojevedeveloped and eventually was published; the critical edition itself; and supplementary materials (additional notes to the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, thelast hitherto unpublished letter of Strauss to Kojeve, and numerous correctionsto the published correspondence).
  • [2] I was one of those graduate students.
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