The Political Action of the Philosophers

Kojeve and Strauss agree that the philosopher’s educational activity conflicts with that of the political authorities and that this conflict compels the philosopher to take political action. But they disagree as to the extent and the nature of that action. Kojeve maintains that the defense of philosophy requires the philosopher to alter “the total direction of public affairs.” The rationale for this approach is simple. If philosophers want to live well with others, they need to make them more like themselves. Strauss denies that the protection of philosophic pedagogy requires such a radical intervention. All that is needed is to satisfy “the city that the philosophers are not atheists, that they do not desecrate everything sacred to the city, that they reverence what the city reverences, that they are not subversives, in short, that they are not irresponsible adventurers but good citizens and even the best of citizens” (OT 205-206). In other words, the object is to persuade others that philosophers are more like them than they may have realized.

Strauss defends the classical approach by maintaining that there is “no necessary connection between the philosopher’s indispensable philosophic politics and the efforts which he might or might not make to contribute toward the establishment of the best regime” (OT 205). The defense of philosophy does not require the establishment of the best regime because “philosophy and philosophic education are possible in all kinds of more or less imperfect regimes” (OT 205). But the example that Strauss uses to illustrate this thought (Plato’s favoring of Sparta over Athens) also shows that philosophy is not possible in a fully ordered regime such as Sparta. The concern for good order and the concern for the protection of philosophy are not separate and unrelated, but are in some respects at odds with each other. Now, one may think that what Strauss calls “philosophic politics” is very precarious and apt to be dissolved upon a real contact between philosophers and citizens. Experience, however, contradicts this expectation. Strauss refers to the “resounding success” of Plato’s defense of philosophy, resounding because his teaching and actions (including his exemplary life) served as a model for others:

What Plato did in the Greek city and for it was done in and

for Rome by Cicero, whose political action on behalf of

philosophy has nothing in common with his actions against

Cataline and for Pompey, for example. It was done in and for the Islamic world by Farabi and in and for Judaism by Maimonides. Contrary to what Kojeve seems to suggest, the political action of philosophers on behalf of philosophy has achieved full success. One sometimes wonders whether it has not been too successful. (OT 206, emphasis added)

While Strauss distinguishes between philosophic politics and the actions that a philosopher might undertake with a view to establishing the best regime, his repeated use of “in and for” suggests that philosophic politics is inseparable from a concern for the improvement of the actual order: Strauss thus contradicts himself. On the one hand, Cicero’s “action on behalf of philosophy has nothing in common with his actions” for Rome. On the other hand, like those actions this one was also for the benefit of Rome. Strauss confirms this when in repeating himself he adds a new phrase: “Kojeve, I said, fails to distinguish between philosophic politics and that political action which the philosopher might undertake with a view to establishing the best regime or to the improvement of the actual order” (OT 206, emphasis added). We conclude that in Strauss’s judgment philosophic politics is not animated by the desire to improve an actual order but it belongs to the essence of philosophic politics to present itself as if it is animated by this very desire.

Now, Strauss’s phrasing suggests that Farabi and Maimonides succeeded in making philosophy respectable in the eyes of their public. Strauss, however, knew this to be false, though he does argue that “[t]he precarious status of philosophy in Judaism as well as in Islam was not in every respect a misfortune for philosophy.”[1] As to Cicero, Strauss quietly confesses that Cicero’s failure to save the Roman republic did indeed have harmful consequences for intellectual freedom, and this failure is a reason for taking seriously Machi- avelli’s break with the tradition. The full success of philosophic


politics was achieved through the writings of early modern philosophers. These philosophers did not simply reject the tradition of Platonic philosophic politics (see the quotation from “the philosopher Montesquieu” [OT 206]), but they supplemented it with an attempt to transform existing society in ways that premodern philosophers would not have altogether disapproved (see OT 184 for the similarity between Machiavelli and Maimonides and Farabi), and it was this combination that led to philosophy becoming completely respectable in the eyes of the public in the modern times. Strauss, however, discusses this success with some ambivalence. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that he did not appreciate the liberation from religious tyranny and the revival of political freedom in the West. On the other hand, he says that he sometimes wonders whether philosophic politics has been “too successful.” He does not explain this suggestion here, but the quotation from Macaulay that Strauss places at the beginning of On Tyranny speaks to this issue, for the Whig historian admits that the freedom of press in England led to an increase in the social control over the press.

Strauss’s ambivalence toward the accomplishment of early modern thinkers in no way qualifies his criticism of Kojeve whose unabashed atheism departs from their acceptance of Plato’s philosophic politics. Moreover, the success of early modern philosophers means that Kojeve’s universal and classless state is not necessary for the protection of philosophy. Finally, the belief that philosophic politics necessarily requires transformation of political society facilitates in Kojeve and Hegel a misunderstanding of classical thought and of the situation of the philosopher in premodern societies. It suggests that the philosopher is divided by his desire to philosophize all the time and by the necessity of a kind of political action that takes all of one’s time. It thus fosters the view that the life of the philosopher is tragic. But, according to Strauss, “the classics did not regard the conflict between philosophy and the city as tragic.” Xenophon “seemed to have viewed that conflict in the light of Socrates’ relation to Xanthippe,” a marriage that was comical. Strauss explains this allusion to Socrates’ marriage with another allusion: “there appears then something like an agreement between Xenophon and Pascal.” According to Pascal, Plato and Aristotle wrote about politics light-heartedly as “if to provide rules for a madhouse. And if they pretended to treat it as something important, it is because they knew the madmen they were talking to thought they were kings and emperors. They connived with their delusions in order to restrain their madness to as mild a form as possible.”[2] The killing of a sane man by the insane may be sad but it is not tragic. Socrates’ death was also not tragic because it was avoidable and such deaths have been largely avoided by the philosophic politics of Plato and his successors.

  • [1] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1952), 21.
  • [2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1995), 457.
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