ONE The Place of the Strauss-Kojeve Debate in the Work of Leo Strauss

Timothy W. Burns

The debate between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve that took place in the late 1940s is now being examined by a new generation of students. I attempt in this chapter to sketch for those students the place that this debate had in the body of Strauss’s life’s work. Because Kojeve understood modernity in all of its ramifications for life and did not flinch from but embraced those ramifications, he was one of the few thinkers with whom Strauss shared sufficient common ground to be able fruitfully to disagree. Strauss had even promised in a footnote in his second published book, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, to co-author with Kojeve a future study of Hegel’s work, in its indebtedness to and final full articulation of Hobbesian thought.[1] The co-authored book never materialized, but the remarkable debate that Strauss subsequently orchestrated over On Tyranny affords an opportunity to hear the case for and against the classical and modern understandings of the human spirit, of healthy political life, and the philosophic life as these two thinkers grasped them. Most importantly, it permits us to understand better both Strauss’s admiration for modernity and his reasons for returning to classical political philosophy.

What became the exchange begins with the publication of On Tyranny, Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero. Letters from the late 1930s written to Jacob Klein, who had provided Strauss with initial help in the rediscovery of esotericism, express Strauss’s thrill in rediscovering esotericism in the works of many classical authors, but he twice singles out Xenophon as his favorite practitioner of this ancient art of writing. “Xenophon is my special favorite,” he tells Klein in 1939, “because he had the courage to disguise himself as a fool and so to go through the millennia—he is the biggest rascal that I know—I believe he does in his writings exactly what Socrates did in his life.”[2] Some months later Strauss added, “About Xenophon, I did not exaggerate, by Hera: he is quite a great man, not inferior to Thucydides and Herodotus himself. The so-called failures of his stories are exclusively the consequences of his supreme contempt for the ridiculous erga of the kaloikagathoi. . . . In short, he is quite marvelous and from now on my uncontested favorite.”[3] It is not surprising, then, that with the exception of an important chapter on Plato and Hobbes, in The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Strauss’s published writings on the ancients begin with studies of Xenophon, first of the


Constitution of the Lacedaemonians[4] and then On Tyranny, written in 1944-1945, which he called in a letter to Julius Guttmann a “preliminary study,” explaining that “at some point I should like to finish the interpretation of Xenophon’s four Socratic writings,”[5] a statement that echoes the concluding paragraph of On Tyranny. It is likewise not surprising, in light of Strauss’s stated reasons for his preference for Xenophon, that Strauss himself practiced a similar pretense, posing as a mere “scholar” while attributing to others the more exalted labels of “philosopher” or “great thinker.”[6]

While these epistolary statements are thus both revealing of some important insights that Strauss was drawing from Xenophon’s writings and suggestive of his own manner of writing, they don’t tell us why Strauss had turned to the ancients at all, nor why, having completed On Tyranny, he actively sought to engage the Hegelian Kojeve in a debate on his findings.[7] For this we need to grasp both what Kojeve represented and offered to thoughtful readers, and the reasons for Strauss’s turn to the alternative, classical understanding.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy ofHobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, trans. ElsaM. Sinclair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1936] 1984), 58n1.
  • [2] Strauss, letter to Klein, 16 February 1939, in Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften,Band 3, ed. Heinrich Meier (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2001), 537-538, hereaftercited as GS. The English translation is from Leo Strauss at the New School forSocial Research (1938-1948): Essays, Lectures, and Courses on Ancient and ModernPolitical Philosophy, ed. and intro. Emmanuel Patard, 28. This work, hereaftercited as “Patard,” is an unpublished English translation of a doctoral dissertation completed at the Universite Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne), 2013. It hasbeen for me an invaluable source of meticulously edited writings and lecturesof Strauss composed around the time of his debate with Kojeve. Since the workis unpublished, however, I have provided in all references to Strauss’s texts theBox, Folder, and page numbers of the original documents as they appear in theLeo Strauss Papers (Special Collections Research Center of the University ofChicago Library), as supplied by Patard.
  • [3] Strauss, letter to Klein, 25 July 1939 (GS 3:574; Patard 29). See also the letter toKlein of 18 August 1939 (GS 3:579-580).
  • [4] Leo Strauss, “The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon,” Social Research 6(no. 4, November 1939): 502-536. Strauss taught a course on the Oeconomicus atthe New School in fall 1940, and completed an essay on it by August 1942. SeePatard, “Introduction,” 30-31, and Leo Strauss, “The Origins of Economic Science: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus” (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6,Folder 11, Patard 151-188).
  • [5] Letter from Strauss to Julius Guttmann dated 20 May 1949 (Leo StraussPapers, Box 4, Folder 8), cited in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, trans. Marcus Brainard (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2006), 24n32.
  • [6] See, for example, Leo Strauss, “Existentialism” [1956], eds. David Bolotin,Christopher Bruell, and Thomas L. Pangle, in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 22 (no. 3, Spring 1995): 305.
  • [7] On Tyranny was published in its original French version in 1948, and in a letterdated 22 August 1948, Strauss asked Kojeve to review this work “in France,”stating that he “knows of no one besides you and [Jacob] Klein who will understand what I am after.” Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, revised and expanded edition,eds. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (New York: Free Press, 1991), 236,hereafter cited as OT.
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