THREE The Place of the Bible in the Strauss-Kojeve Debate

Daniel E. Burns

In 1949-1950, Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve traded critical essays that were published, along with Strauss’s original monograph on Xenophon’s Hiero that had sparked the exchange, in a single volume entitled On Tyranny} This debate between two major figures of twentieth-century political thought has received new attention since the controversy over Francis Fukuyama’s revival of [1]

Kojeve’s “end of history” thesis: Fukuyama himself said that the best way to “begin” evaluating the truth of that thesis would be “revisiting the debate between Strauss and Kojeve,” which he called “one of the most important of twentieth-century discussions.”[2] Other scholars have studied this debate for the light it sheds on issues of central importance to the thought of both Kojeve and Strauss, including historicism, the “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns,” the possibility of philosophical progress, the desirability of the “universal and homogeneous state,” the justifiability of tyranny, and the relation between philosophy and politics.


In his response to Kojeve’s review of his monograph, Strauss asserted that at the heart of their disagreement about tyranny, modernity, and hence ultimately all the other matters just mentioned, was a certain claim about the Bible:

Must one not . . . conclude that the classical concept of tyranny is too narrow and hence that the classical frame of reference must be radically modified, i.e., abandoned? In other words, is the attempt to restore classical social science not utopian since it necessarily implies that the classical, or “pagan,” orientation has not been made obsolete by the triumph of the Biblical orientation? This seems to be the chief objection to which my study of Xenophon’s Hiero is exposed. At any rate, this is the gist of the two most serious criticisms of the study, . . . [namely those by] Professor Eric Voegelin and M. Alexandre Kojeve. (177-178*)

On Strauss’s reading, the “gist” of Kojeve’s criticism is that Strauss’s “attempt to restore classical[3] social science,” or to recover “the classical solution of the basic problems” (186), has been rendered “utopian” or impossible by the “triumph of the Biblical orientation.” Yet remarkably, of the many commentators who have written on the debate between Strauss and Kojeve, only one has devoted even a brief discussion to the role that the Bible plays in that debate. In


fairness to the others it must be granted that Kojeve never clearly makes the claim that Strauss attributes to him: both Kojeve and Voegelin do certainly think that political philosophy has progressed since the time of the classics, but neither of them directly asserts anything to the effect that “the Biblical orientation” has “triumphed” over the “classical, or ‘pagan,’ orientation.”[4] This article argues, however, that Strauss’s surprising assertion about the “gist” of Kojeve’s thought is in fact borne out by the text of Kojeve’s review. Strauss’s suggestion even brings to light an important element of Kojeve’s thought that other scholarship on Kojeve has neglected,[5] for the few references to Biblical themes scattered throughout Kojeve’s review of Strauss turn out to play a major role in his argument against the classical philosophy that he sees Strauss as championing. By showing the role that the Bible plays, first in Kojeve’s criticism of Strauss, and then in Strauss’s response to that criticism, this article uncovers several underappreciated aspects of these thinkers’ debate over fundamental questions of political philosophy, questions that have hardly become less politically relevant in the years since that debate was first published.

  • [1] Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth, eds., On Tyranny: Including the Strauss-Kojeve Correspondence, rev. and expanded ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago,2000). All parenthetical citations in the text refer to this volume, which includesan editors’ introduction as well as most of the correspondence between Straussand Kojeve. An asterisk will indicate where I have altered quotations fromStrauss’s “Restatement” to bring them in line with the recently published criticaledition: see Emmanuel Patard, ed., “‘Restatement,’ by Leo Strauss (Critical Edition),” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 36 (no. 1, 2008): 29-78. Iam grateful to the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Institute and the Williams College Stephen H. Tyng Fund for generously supporting me during the summerof 2011, when I began work on this essay; to Heinrich Meier for allowing me toattend his seminar on Strauss that summer, from which I learned a great deal;and to Christopher Bruell, Kimberley Burns, Mark Lutz, Susan Shell, and theeditors of this volume for their helpful comments.
  • [2] Francis Fukuyama, “Reflections on the End of History, Five Years Later,” inAfter History: Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, ed. Timothy Burns (Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), 250, 256.
  • [3] Throughout the “Restatement,” Strauss uses terms such as “classics” and “classical” to refer to a set of opinions held in common by (at least) Plato, Xenophon,and Aristotle, however much these thinkers may have disagreed in other respects(see Gourevitch, “Philosophy and Politics,” 59). Since this essay is an interpretation of Strauss and Kojeve rather than of those “classics,” I follow Strauss’s usageof the term without trying to determine the accuracy of the interpretation thatit presupposes. I similarly follow Strauss’s and Kojeve’s use of the term “man” inits older and nongender-specific meaning.
  • [4] See Nadon, “Philosophic Politics,” 80. For Voegelin, see his review of Strauss’sOn Tyranny: Review of Politics 11 (no. 2, 1949): 241-242. For Kojeve, see forexample, Gourevitch and Roth, On Tyranny, 139, 144-145, and Bluhm, DieOrdnung der Ordnung, 162-163.
  • [5] Of the numerous studies of Kojeve’s work, none discusses the role of the Biblein his review of Strauss or in his thought more generally: cf. Cooper, End ofHistory; Nichols, Alexandre Kojeve; Drury, Alexandre Kojeve; Patrick Riley,“Introduction to the Reading of Alexandre Kojeve,” Political Theory 9 (no. 1,1981): 5-48; Bryan-Paul Frost, “A Critical Introduction to Alexandre Kojeve’sEsquisse d’une Phenomenologie du Droit,” Review of Metaphysics 52 (no. 3, 1999):595-640; Denis J. Goldford, “Kojeve’s Reading of Hegel,” International Philosophic Quarterly 22 (1982): 275-293; Michael S. Roth, Knowing and History:Appropriations of Hegel in Twentieth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 84-146; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the LastMan (New York: Free Press, 1992); Meyer, Ende der Geschichte, 63-127; Rosen,Hermeneutics and Politics, 87-123; Ernst Breisach, On the Future of History: ThePostmodernist Challenge and its Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago,2003), 38-43; Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (New York: Columbia University, 1987), 63-79. Not one evenrefers to Strauss’s summary of the “gist” of Kojeve’s review, which is surprisingsince several identify Strauss as an unusually perceptive interpreter of Kojeve:cf. Roth, Knowing and History, 126; Cooper, End of History, 332-335; Meyer,Ende der Geschichte, 13; Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 107-108; Frost, “Kojeve’sEsquisse,” 595; Drury, Alexandre Kojeve, 144, 156-157.
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