Commentary Magazine


On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss

Xenophon Versus Hegel

On Tyranny.
by Leo Strauss.
Free Press. 228 pp., $5.50.

The reappearance in print of Professor Strauss’s study On Tyranny derives its special interest from circumstances only indirectly connected with the original publication. In 1954 M. Alexandre Kojève, France’s leading Hegel scholar (in private life a high official in the French administration), published a critical essay entitled Tyrannie et Sagesse in which he dealt in the grand Hegelian manner with Strauss’s work. Translated as Tyranny and Wisdom for the volume under review, this essay of forty-five printed pages was sufficiently important to draw a lengthy rejoinder from Strauss (originally published in French and later included in the collection of essays issued by the Free Press in 1959 under the title What Is Philosophy?) . In the volume now before the public all these writings have been brought together in a very attractive format, not omitting thirty-three pages of Notes to Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero, which makes up the bulk of Part One.

It has been necessary to dwell on these externals because they are in fact tightly linked with the core of the dispute. Strauss is so completely under the spell of the Greeks in general, and Xenophon in particular, that he presents his argument in the form of an eighty-page analysis of Xenophon’s text (a new translation of which was commissioned by Agora Editions, the editors responsible for the book, to enable the reader to follow the finer points of Strauss’s analysis). For such perfectionism no praise can be too high. If Xenophon is a school classic, and if Strauss is on his way to becoming a modern university classic, then the least one can say is that both authors have been fortunate in their publishers. As for Kojève, it was high time he was introduced to the English-language public. His Introduction à la Lecture de Hegel (Paris, 1947) is caviar for the general, and moreover shows no sign of being translated. Apart from this one major work, he has written, or at any rate published, very little, and even in France is known mainly to a small circle of initiates. His influence has, however, been very considerable, not least in starting the postwar Hegel renaissance.

After these lengthy preliminaries, can we at last get down to the real topic? Unfortunately, the answer is no, and for this Strauss must take the responsibility. What is really of importance comes out in his controversy with Kojève, but before he arrives at this point the reader has to make his way through Xenophon’s Hiero and Strauss’s detailed exegesis of this rather slight and inconsequential piece of writing. I am of course aware that in saying this I am offending against the accepted canons of literary decency and good taste. I am also offending against Strauss’s basic assumption, which is that Wisdom is encapsulated in the classical texts he has chosen to interpret. Being in this matter on Kojève’s side, I shall compound the original felony by suggesting that the full meaning of Xenophon can be grasped by an intelligent schoolboy at the first reading. This is such an outrageous statement that I shall make no effort to defend it. I merely observe, in passing as it were, that Xenophon has always been a favorite with schoolmasters (though less so with their pupils).

The Hiero (in case some of my readers have been unjustly deprived of a classical education) takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between the tyrant Hiero and Simon-ides, a “wise man come from afar” (like Strauss) to instruct the wretched tyrant in the arts of government. Hiero is wretched because, as he explains to Simonides at somewhat excessive length, a tyrant is necessarily unloved and in constant fear of his life. Simonides, who is not a tyrant, merely a poet and wandering scholar with no public responsibilities, thereupon explains to Hiero that, though remaining a tyrant—i.e., not a legitimate ruler, but one governing by fear—he can nonetheless make himself more popular by various devices whose nature has not greatly changed since those days. The argument prefigures the wisdom of Machiavelli. In fact—not to put too fine a point on it—it is the wisdom of Machiavelli. Strauss, who dislikes Machiavelli, makes light of this and credits Machiavelli with a specifically modern, i.e., non-Socratic, viewpoint, though he also says that “the Hiero marks the point of closest contact between pre-modern and modern political science.” A writer less enamored of the Greeks might have put it somewhat differently, perhaps even to the point of hinting that the politics of Athens were not really all that remote from those of Florence: especially after democracy had collapsed in both places, and cynical young aristocrats (Xenophon, though less amusing than Alcibiades, clearly is a horse from the same stable) had discovered the secret of imposing upon their fellow-citizens.

However that may be historically (Strauss is not greatly interested in history), the reader is treated to a subtle distinction between “good” and “bad” tyrants. Xenophon’s Simonides sets out to show Hiero how he can “rule as a virtuous tyrant” (p. 96), and his learned exegete by implication subscribes to this noble enterprise. The reader must decide for himself whether it is feasible. There have, of course, been enlightened despots, though even at their peak, in the 18th century, they frequently disappointed their tutors. In his reply to Kojève, which makes up the concluding part of this fascinating volume, Strauss concedes (pp. 199—201) that, on the evidence presented by Xenophon, Hiero does not sound like a very promising pupil; yet on an almost despairing note he inquires whether this may not have been due to an accidental failure to ask for the proper advice on how to become a “good tyrant.” This is followed by a passage in which Strauss observes: “The general lesson is to the effect that the wise man who happens to have a chance to influence a tyrant should use his influence for benefiting his fellow men. One may say that the lesson is trivial. It would be more accurate to say that it was trivial in former ages, for today such little actions like that of Simonides are not taken seriously because we are in the habit of expecting too much” (p. 201). What we are in the habit of expecting is not having to bother about tyrants. Strauss may not realize it, but his pessimism could become infectious. So far as political understanding goes, there is not much to be got out of Xenophon or any other minor Socratic. The Hiero in fact is trite.

This point leads to a consideration of Kojève’s essay, which is by far the most brilliant part of the book, and the element that raises it above the level of mere exegesis. Although Strauss is an Aristotelian, it takes the challenge of the Hegelian Kojève to bring out his full commitment to Aristotle, which is why his rejoinder to Kojève is a more interesting and incisive piece of writing than his original study of Xenophon. Kojève fortunately wastes no time on Xenophon’s inanities, but comes straight to the point. Strauss had demanded to know how a wise man can live under a tyranny. Kojève replies that it is his own fault if he has no influence over the tyrant, since the latter is in fact dependent on his advice. Contrary to the vulgar prejudice against philosophy as useless, the philosopher is quite competent to tender such advice, for he sees the whole picture (in Hegelian terms, “the truth in its concreteness”), while the statesman—who need not be a tyrant—never sees more than what is immediately relevant to his purpose. No regime, moreover, can get on without general ideas and beliefs, which are ultimately supplied by philosophy. A reign of “pure terror” is unthinkable, since no one can personally terrorize more than a handful of people. Loyalties are essential to every form of government, and the concept of loyalty leads back to philosophy, which is the vision of the historical process as a whole. Thinkers rather than poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Kojève cites Alexander’s relationship to Aristotle, which was basic to the conqueror’s revolutionary aim of transcending the polis in the direction of a universal empire.

He also drops a tantalizing hint about Hegel, who admired Napoleon, and whose implied defense of revolutionary despotism has had practical consequences in our own day. At this point Kojève runs into the difficulty of having to make room for the kind of tyrant who places himself consciously in the service of a revolutionary idea. Strauss promptly picks up the challenge by reminding him of Stalin. In the context of this particular debate the rejoinder is legitimate, but Strauss goes on to suggest that on Hegelian principles—which he traces back to Machiavelli and Hobbes—there are no moral bounds to tyranny. This is inexact, for Hegel would have recognized that—to cite a topical example—the destruction of Germany as a nation was the price paid by the Germans for allowing Hitler to obtain power.

Kojève and Strauss enter into a fascinating dispute over the philosopher’s role in the “city.” The burden of Strauss’s original argument had been that, under a constitutional government or even under a “virtuous tyrant,” the proper role of the philosopher is to attend to the eternal verities which are perceived in contemplation. Kojève points out that this attitude renders the philosopher not merely politically impotent, but even useless as a thinker, since as an isolated individual shut up within his four walls he cannot get beyond subjective certainty, which is no guarantee of truth. Left alone with his untested notions he is not distinguishable from “the lunatic who believes that he is made out of glass, or who identifies himself with God the Father or Napoleon.” In order to test the validity of his thoughts he must leave his study—or his Epicurean “garden”—and venture out into the market place, where he encounters other men, not all of them professional philosophers. He will then have joined the “Republic of Letters,” whose constant sociability is at least a cure for solipsism, and “a sufficient guarantee against the danger of lunacy.” The Academy, or “Republic of Letters,” however, has the drawback that it shuts the thinker off from the political sphere, where ideas are clothed with flesh. If he decides to break through this barrier, he will naturally be drawn to tyrants, because they are more likely than ordinary statesmen to cut the Gordian knot of public sloth with some energetic stroke. Kojève presents a sophisticated apology of this situation, on the grounds that “the conflict of the philosopher faced with the tyrant is nothing else than the conflict of the intellectual faced with action . . . the tragedy of Hamlet and of Faust.” This is a very Hegelian view which Strauss, not unreasonably, finds alarming. It is in fact the outcome of a situation similar to the post-Napoleonic age, and as such quite possibly less permanent than either Strauss or Kojève supposes. The present moment is not perhaps a very good one for recalling that successful action can be democratic, and that even Hegelian philosophers can be democrats; but the reservation has nonetheless to be made.

While Kojève and Strauss clash at practically every point, their deepest differences relate to what Strauss calls “historicism,” and what Kojève describes as the understanding of history. For Kojève the very existence of philosophy, and of philosophers, is a historical factum which may be brought to an end by the practical realization of those ultimate aims that make their appearance in all the great Utopias of literature. Strauss, who thinks in terms of archetypal situations which the classics have described once and for all, denounces the very notion of such an outcome. For him, the human problem—so far as politics is concerned—is fixed eternally in the classical (biblical and Socratic) texts, and the modern attempt to disregard these verities represents a monumental aberration, for which the world will have to pay (unless Reason reasserts itself) by sliding into universal tyranny. His disagreement with Kojève is particularly acute at this point because it ties in with the Hegelian depreciation of classical wisdom. Although Hegel was himself in the classical tradition—the “German Aristotle” quite deliberately went back to Plato for some of his basic concepts—he tended in his historical writings (e.g., in his lectures on the history of philosophy) to treat the ancient world in a somewhat condescending manner, as a preparatory stage to later and more ample (theological and other) revelations. From the Hegelian viewpoint—which in this matter was simply the Christian viewpoint—the classical world was a kind of intellectual nursery which Christendom had outgrown. This attitude became fixed among his followers who substituted “Europe” for “Christendom.” To Strauss this attitude is intolerable because it undercuts his profound conviction that eternal truth is to be found in the classics with their Natural Law doctrine, and nowhere else. The movement of thought since Machiavelli (he does not mention Vico) is to him a movement away from the Truth.

The sharpest reproach Strauss can urge against Kojève (and Hegel) is that of atheism. At least since Hobbes and Spinoza, every major modern thinker has been an open or concealed atheist. Yet Strauss—while well aware of this fact and deeply alarmed by it—refers to atheism with horror, as though it were some kind of obscene disease caught by infection, instead of being the characteristic attitude of modern man. Doubtless the fact of something being the typical modern attitude does not render it immune to criticism; yet Strauss meets the challenge not at its deepest level, but at the level of alarmist forecasts concerning the terrible consequences to be apprehended from the complete and world-wide triumph of a totally secularized outlook. Even if the consequences are in fact going to be as disagreeable as he thinks, his opponents are not likely to heed his call for a return to the past. It is a necessary consequence of the modern commitment to intellectual honesty that such appeals must be dismissed. A philosophy which flinched away from its own insights as being too bleak and comfortless, would hardly be worth having.

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