Leo Strauss vs. the Future

THE OCCASION WAS LEO STRAUSS’ [1899-1973] years-long correspondence with the brilliant and mercurial Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève [1902-1968], contained in the volume “On Tyranny.” The Google books preview is HERE.

Kojève is fascinating, one of those major figures in philosophical-political history you never seem to hear of. [Hell, James Madison doesn’t have a memorial, isn’t on a coin or anything anymore since they killed the $5,000 bill. But we digress.]

Alexandre Kojève invaluably got the European Union started, and Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, was his student.

k [Was Kojève cool or what? If you threw Sartre, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in a blender, you’d get Strauss’ “Dear Mr. Kojevnikoff.”

By contrast, Uncle Leo had a visage like a potato.

uncle leo strauss

Although the cigarette holder is a nice touch. But we digress yet again. Dang us!]

The “End of History” is the not-unlikely prediction that human progress will one day yield something resembling today’s Western World, a bourgeois liberal democracy where everyone’s material needs are met and political division is quieted by the rise of a Universal and Homogeneous State. There will be nothing left to fight about.

Philosophy becomes democratized, the parable of Plato’s cave rendered un-egalitarian and therefore obsolete—if not obscene to modern sensibilities.

Strauss, faced with an effective rebuttal by Kojève of Strauss’ original essay about trying to advise tyrants not to be so tyrannical, on Xenophon’s “Hiero,” was obliged to write a “restatement.” The story is here.

Ah, I’ve taken too much of the gentle reader’s time with preface. I did want to convey the gravity and historical importance of the philosophical issues, laid bare in the Strauss-Kojève correspondence—the clash of the classical and modern worlds played out in the EU/UN/and America’s own left-right context. Hope it enhances the below Strauss excerpt, the final paragraphs near the end of his Restatement.

[To the meta: Strauss-Kojève shows how worthy good-faith exchanges between left/right and classical/modern can be, if only to clarify the issues.


NB: Therefore, any comments that go to Leo Strauss as the prophet of the neo-cons or any of that ad hominem stuff are going to get deleted. Word up, and you know who you are. All the anti-Platonism you want, because Strauss is quite the Platonist. But he mocked Wilsonianism, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a field with messianic democracy.]


TO BUSINESS, THEN, as Strauss assays Kojève’s Brave New World:

“There is no longer fight nor work. History has come to its end. There is nothing more to do.” This end of History would be most exhilarating but for the fact that, according to Kojève, it is the participation in bloody political struggles as well as in real work, or generally expressed, the negating action, which raises man above the brutes. The state through which man is said to become reasonably satisfied is, then, the state in which the basis of man’s humanity withers away, or in which man loses his humanity.

It is the state of Nietzsche’s “last man.” Kojève in fact confirms the classical view that unlimited technological progress and its accompaniment, which are the indispensable conditions of the universal and homogeneous state, are destructive of humanity. It is perhaps possible to say that the universal and homogeneous state is fated to come. But it is certainly impossible to say that man can reasonably be satisfied with it. If the universal and homogeneous state is the goal of History, History is absolutely “tragic.” Its completion will reveal that the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation of philosophy and politics, is insoluble. For centuries and centuries men have unconsciously done nothing but work their way through infinite labors and struggles and agonies, yet ever again catching hope, toward the universal and homogeneous state, and as soon as they have arrived at the end of their journey, they realize that through arriving at it they have destroyed their humanity and thus returned, as in a cycle, to the prehuman beginnings of History. Vanitas vanitatum. Recognitio recognitionum.

Yet there is no reason for despair as long as human nature has not been conquered completely, i.e., as long as sun and man still generate man. There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds. They may be forced into a mere negation of the universal and homogeneous state, into a negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation. While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man’s humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become inevitable.

The Chief of the universal and homogeneous state, or the Universal and Final Tyrant will be an unwise man, as Kojève seems to take for granted. To retain his power, he will be forced to suppress every activity which might lead people into doubt of the essential soundness of the universal and homogeneous state: he must suppress philosophy as an attempt to corrupt the young.

The philosophers in their turn will be forced to defend themselves or the cause of philosophy. They will be obliged, therefore, to try to act on the Tyrant. Everything seems to be a re-enactment of the age-old drama.

But this time, the cause of philosophy is lost from the start. For the Final Tyrant presents himself as a philosopher, as the highest philosophic authority, as the supreme exegete of the only true philosophy, as the executor and hangman authorized by the only true philosophy. He claims therefore that he persecutes not philosophy but false philosophies.

The experience is not altogether new for philosophers. If philosophers were confronted with claims of this kind in former ages, philosophy went underground. It accommodated itself in its explicit or exoteric teaching to the unfounded commands of rulers who believed they knew things which they did not know. Yet its very exoteric teaching undermined the commands or dogmas of the rulers in such a way as to guide the potential philosophers toward the eternal and unsolved problems. And since there was no universal state in existence, the philosophers could escape to other countries if life became unbearable in the tyrant’s dominions.

From the Universal Tyrant, however, there is no escape. Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the completely unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought. Kojève would seem to be right although for the wrong reason: the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will be the end of philosophy on earth.”

Tom Van Dyke

Tom Van Dyke, businessman, musician, bon vivant and game-show champ (The Joker's Wild, and Win Ben Stein's Money), knows lots of stuff, although not quite everything yet. A past contributor to The American Spectator Online, the late great Reform Club blog, and currently on religion and the American Founding at American Creation, TVD continues to write on matters of both great and small importance from his ranch type style tract house high on a hill above Los Angeles.


  1. I don’t understand what the point of this post was, but I know that it contains at least three obvious falsehoods.

    Strauss-Kojeve was not a “good-faith exchange between left/right”. Neither Strauss nor Kojeve was on the “right” or “left” in any meaningful contemporary sense. Kojeve was sympathetic to the authoritarian/totalitarian left, and Strauss was sympathetic to the authoritarian/facist right. So this doesn’t really relate to the EU/American context, unless you’re trying to introduce authoritarianism into that context by stealth, as Strauss’s followers have attempted.

    You make it sound as if “comments that go to Leo Strauss as the prophet of the neo-cons” are ipso facto “ad hominem”. This is patently fallacious. You only need to look up the words of, say, the widely-described “godfather of neoconservatism” to see that Strauss is acknowledged by the neo-cons themselves as an inspiration or source or lodestar or precursor or what have you for neo-conservatism. Of course, when asked about this in certain contexts they’ll deny it, but that’s because they’re lying, and they lie, because…well, because, they were inspired by Leo Strauss to believe that the masses need such lies.

    No one who understood the first thing about Strauss’s reading of Plato could seriously represent him as “quite the Platonist”. Strauss’s whole point was detach Plato from “Platonism”.

    • Sir, the point of the post was to give Strauss experts like yourself the opportunity to finally read what he wrote for yourself, rather than rely on the slanders others have written about him.


      • Sir:

        I have read Strauss extensively. So much so that I was bothered by the way in which you selectively quoted the passages that you posted, and so I didn’t see any point in commenting on what you included from the essay, since you cut out the heart of the argument of the section that you selected for quotation.

        • You have the floor, sir, unless you want to use it for dirty slanders. So far, your “First” denied Strauss was “right,” your Second said he was. You’re off to a poor start.

          The quote, BTW, was clipped from elsewhere. I grabbed an existing excerpt rather than trouble to type one out, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

          FTR, I personally favor Strauss for his deadly indictment of modernity as tyranny—leftism—here, not so much when it comes to natural law, as my pal David Gordon and Murray Rothbard explain here.

          Your vituperation towards Strauss signifies you as a gentleperson of that left, which portends that adult discussion is not forthcoming, as Strauss quite had your number. To this point, you have said nothing specific or of value, just bringing the ugly, as is the custom on that side of the aisle.

          • Sir!

            I would hope that a expositor of Leo Strauss would be able to read with minimum care. My first” “denied”, not that Strauss was “right”, but he was “right” “in any meaningful contemporary sense”. Strauss’s own friends (e.g., Hans Jonas) attested to the fact that he was on “right” in the sense of the “fascist” right. But the actual fascism which Strauss was sympathetic to is not a practical option in the contemporary world, just as the Communist totalitarianism to which Kojeve was sympathetic is not a practical option in the contemporary world. So, Strauss was “right” and Kojeve was “left”, but neither was either “in any meaningful contemporary sense”.

            My “Second” did not even assert that Strauss was on the “right”. I just pointed out that the neo-cons were “inspired” by him, because they themselves say they were.

            Nor is anything that I have said about Strauss “vituperative”. His fascist leanings are matter of fact. His anti-Platonism is the same. Strauss himself acknowledged such facts about others (e.g., Heidegger) without any vituperation whatsoever. There is no reason why one should not acknowledge the same of Strauss.

            I would conclude that, if you think that redacted quotations are sufficient for understanding a careful writer such as Strauss, then I am confident that Strauss himself would have disowned you as an interpreter of his work.

            Finally, while you contend that I “have said nothing specific or of value”, in fact I have pointed out that there neither Strauss nor Kojeve can be taken as representative of “right” or “left” “in any meaningful contemporary sense”. If you think this is wrong, then you should show – specifically – how and why.

          • Are you this lazy in bed?

            Kojeve’s statist dream is quite alive, as is Strauss’ devastating critique of modernity. The topic here.

          • Anyone who has taken the time to actually read the words of Strauss and his followers would be able to see for themselves that I’ve stated only matters of fact. That would require actually reading those words, rather than relying on the “comments section” of random websites.

            So, to repeat myself: if you think that redacted quotations are sufficient for understanding a careful writer such as Strauss, then I am confident that Strauss himself would have disowned you as an interpreter of his work – and, for that matter, as an interpreter of anything serious at all.

            Anyone with the most minimal understanding of any of the issues involved could only scoff at your “Strauss is quite the Platonist” drivel. But you may find some comfort in the shades of the “comment section” at the websites of your choosing.

            If you wished to make the most minimal effort to show how Kojeve’s “left” and Strauss’s “right” comport with contemporary politics, then something substantive might be said. Throwing around an empty word like “statist” of course shows nothing at all: Kojeve was a “statist” of a certain sort, just as Mussolini, whom Strauss supported, was a “statist” of a different sort. And of course all pre-modern politics was “statist”, and Strauss’s well-known totalitarian tendencies show that his problem with modernity was never its “statism”. If opposition to “statism” is not modern, then nothing is, as Strauss well knew.

          • You realize that your comments are sophistic, yes? Unsubstantiated negations and not an affirmative statement in sight. That’s what’s so boring about you pseudo-philosophical types, so concerned with error and unconcerned with truth.

            I’ve given our readers [if any] two links to your side of things, and stipulate some or many of the criticisms of Strauss. But his critique of modernity is sterling, and this is what you apparently despise, and fear to engage.

            Such is the religion of the Last Man: Dismissivism.

  2. Indeed. My pseudo-philosophical lack of concern with truth is such that I insist on assessing an author’s statements by means of unedited quotations. I’ll have leave the Cliffs Notes versions to you true philosophers.

    • Were you interested in truth, you would provide the redacted sections and explain why they are “the heart of the argument of the section that you selected for quotation.”

      But you are more interested in alleging “falsehoods” than correcting them, more interested in disputing definitions than discussing concepts.

      The reader knows no more than when you started wasting his time 5 comments ago.

  3. As written, the above claim regarding Strauss and fascism represents a familiar form of calumny, of the same sort that polemicists of the right have in recent years tries to apply to “progressives.”

    There were many people – on the right, and on the left, in public and in private – who found Mussolini and for that matter Hitler or at least the German “national revolution” attractive. If we were interested, for some reason, in doing a survey, and had access to the evidence, we would almost certainly numbers of people whom either or both Kristol Balls and TVD admired, who at one point or another spoke highly of either movement, or sought to explain away and excuse them. At various points, the Italian and German people seemed rather overwhelmingly and enthusiastically to support the movements. Naturally, we all, if in their shoes, would have been much smarter and have benefited from much greater foresight and whatever personal courage required by our circumstances. All of us. Naturally.

    In my own reading of Strauss’s works, I can see why he, especially in his youth, would have sought to think the fascist challenge through, rather than simply oppose it in all dimensions and out of hand, never mind the collateral damage. Today, we prefer to believe we have rejected “it,” when few of us have any idea at all what we’re rejecting other than someone else’s national pathologies, an utterly costless, conformist, self-flattering, by now nearly meaningless gesture.

    • Late to the party, MacLeod, esp since this was posted for you in the first place.

      Mebbe you can track down Mr. Balls and have a love-in.

      In the meantime, Strauss’ “fascism” was a fascination with the Roman Empire and how it might kick the Jew-hater Hitler’s ass, not an affinity for Mussolini.

      • Well, if you posted it for me in the first place, you shoulda tole me, though I appreciate the thought – kiss-kiss. I take it you’re not on twitter? You coulda gone to my blog and dropped a comment or e-mailed me – speaking of which all, here’s a piece I dud on Straussophobia about 1 month ago: http://zombiecontentions.com/2012/06/09/the-mediocracy-vs-leo-strauss/

        Not sure why you suggest a love-in with Comrade Balls, or are you suggesting that intellectual disagreement can be an aphrodisiac, or was my comment unclear?

        I believe that Balls was referring to two “major” incidents of reported statements of fascism-curiousness on the part of Herr Strauss. The first would have occurred during Strauss’s and Europe’s early ’20s, well before Hitler’s ass was significantly in play. The second would have been a set of comments offering in and around and up to 1933, when the Fuehrerposterior was in fact being ensconced at the highest level.

        Strauss was in a position similar to that of numerous secular Jews in Germany and Austria, with the difference that his developing philosophical stance put him at odds with the leftward tendencies much more characteristic of his milieu. His Jewish identity, such as it was, plays a rather minimal role in his work especially at that time: Overriding concern with it was more or less forced upon him.

        Certainly many non-Jewish German intellectuals of his type, sought some level of personal accommodation with the “national revolution” rather than the kind of outright opposition that would have led to detention or required emigration. Famous men like Heidegger and Schmitt, who were known to Strauss but whose closeness to him has sometimes been exaggerated, persuaded themselves, in a dramatic version of a familiar decision, that it was better to join up, and work from the inside – help guide the movement in the right direction. That the decision was also, at least at first, also the path of least resistance and greatest personal advantage raised suspicions about their true motivations, and still makes it difficult to sympathize with them even if one might for other reasons want to. Strauss, being Jewish, had the advantage of his disadvantage: He had no choice but to remain politically-philosophically pure.

        We generally like to imagine that we understand them all well enough to judge them. What I have to say more on that question is too much for an early Sunday morning blog comment.

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