FIVE Who Won the Strauss-Kojeve Debate?

The Case for Alexandre Kojeve in His Dispute with Leo Strauss

Bryan-Paul Frost

In the “Preface” to his interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy, Arthur M. Melzer makes the following confession: [1]

has no disciples continues to have so many and such ardent readers.[2]

Very similar remarks could be made about Alexandre Kojeve: although there may still be a Hegelian or two out there on academic campuses today, one would be hard pressed to find an avowed Kojevean. [3] Those on the Right will likely claim that genuine human flourishing can take place only within an independent, particular political community, one in which differences between human beings (economic, religious, or familial) are accepted and acknowledged; by contrast, those on the Left would argue that Kojeve’s struggle for recognition (or the fight for pure prestige) yields a “terrorist” or even “fascistic” conception of history that is alien to the notion of progress and emancipation. But whether one is on the Right or the Left, so


many of Kojeve’s major pronouncements—that history has ended with Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Jena; that the universal and homogeneous state is the final, and therefore best and only fully just, political order; that the desire for recognition (as described in the Master-Slave dialectic), is the fundamental and thus foundational motivation of all individuals, and especially of tyrants and philosophers; and that Hegel (or Hegel as modified and updated by Kojeve) has articulated the final teaching concerning human beings—strike one as too preposterous (if not too dangerous) to be taken as the whole of wisdom. Although Kojeve is rightly considered to be one of the most influential (if relatively unrecognized) thinkers of the twentieth century, he will generally be studied for his erudition, acumen, and historical import. In other words, he has no disciples.

The same cannot be said of Leo Strauss. Whether for good or ill, intended or not, his “name itself has become an ‘ism’: Straussianism.”[4] Devotees of Strauss unabashedly proclaim their Straussian roots and heritage, and passionately defend his life, legacy, and learning; other admirers come to his thought in a spirit of genuine deference and engagement, even if they would not describe themselves as Strauss- ians or agree with all that he wrote; and, of course, there are those detractors who hurl the term “Straussian” at their opponents as a mark of opprobrium, either to indicate the silly or malicious character of their thought, or simply to close off debate and move the conversation to a more respectable plane. Not surprisingly, therefore, Strauss is likely to have more people sympathetic to his position in On Tyranny than will Kojeve—or at least that is the impression one tends to receive when reviewing the majority of the most thoughtful scholarly reviews of the debate itself over the past half-century.

This is in no way to suggest that such studies are prejudiced against Kojeve or biased toward Strauss: At the end of the day, Strauss may simply have a more compelling and coherent position than Kojeve. Nevertheless, such a verdict should not be wholly unexpected. On one hand, it is reasonable to assume that most students come to the Strauss-Kojeve debate more familiar with Strauss than with Kojeve, and that they wish to gain greater clarity about Strauss’s own position by seeing how it measures up against his great dialogic interlocutor. On the other, most of Kojeve’s major works were published late in his life or posthumously: La notion de l’autorite was not published until 2004, and his three volume opus, Essai d’une histoire raisonnee de laphilosophiepaienne, remains untranslated to date.[5] Thus, the full richness and complexity of Kojeve’s position has not always been apparent, let alone available.

The purpose of this essay is to flesh out what the strengths of Kojeve’s arguments are as well as to see the precise character of Strauss’s refutation and the extent to which (or whether) he meets Kojeve’s objections. It should go without saying that there can be no question of doing justice here to the entirety of the debate given its exceptional depth and uncompromising rigor, or of determining who in fact “won” the debate: to claim to do either of these tasks would be to claim a breadth of knowledge superior to Strauss and Kojeve combined. Nonetheless, by focusing on what we might call a more neglected aspect or angle of the debate, we will certainly be in a better position to see why it is rightly considered by many to be one of the most important such debates in the twentieth century. But there is at least one other significant reason why such an exercise is worthwhile. Both Strauss and Kojeve strongly imply that theirs are the only two tenable philosophic understandings available, the rest being either contradictory or subsumed by their own. In their epistolary exchange, for example, Kojeve concedes that if “there is something like ‘human nature,’ then you [Strauss] are surely right in everything”; Strauss, similarly, states (in reference to Kojeve’s Introduction) that “no one had made the case for modern thought in our time as brilliantly as you” (OT261, 236; cf. 243-244, 256; ILH

290). Consequently, by focusing on the strength of Kojeve’s overall philosophical understanding, we may be able to begin to wash away the accumulated historical sediment from our own political principles and see them with an unrivaled and original clarity. Indeed, we might go even further in this regard. If it is true, in the words of one contemporary scholar, that Kojeve’s political philosophy is perhaps the “fullest and purest expression” of some of the central themes of modernity, then his apparently preposterous and dangerous pronouncements might be just the opposite, and he may have accurately, if yet dimly to most other eyes, discerned and unveiled the inevitable trajectory of modern politics and philosophy.[6] And if this assessment is correct, then perhaps Kojeve deserves to have a range of disciples and even his own “ism”—if indeed modernity is unquestionably superior to classical antiquity in the most decisive respects.

  • [1] am not a Rousseauian, nor do I know anyone who is. Todayone finds believing Kantians, Utilitarians, Marxists, variouskinds of Nietzscheans, maybe a Thomist or two, but virtuallyno one calls himself a “Rousseauian.” Rousseau’s thoughtis too full of complexities and paradoxes, too extreme anddangerous (in the view of both Right and Left) and, in theend, just too strange to be embraced and inscribed as thefinal truth regarding human affairs. Yet if his thought doesnot inspire belief, it is uniquely well-suited to inspire reflection, and that would seem to be why this philosopher who
  • [2] 2 Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of RousseausThought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), ix.
  • [3] The following system of abbreviations will be used: EPD = Alexandre Kojeve,Esquisse d’une phenomenologie du droit (Paris: Gallimard, 1981); HMC = Alexandre Kojeve, “Hegel, Marx et le christianisme,” Critique 3-4 (1946): 339-366;ILH = Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction a la lecture de Hegel, 2nd ed., ed. RaymondQueneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1968); and OT = Leo Strauss, On Tyranny, corrected and expanded edition, including the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence, eds.and trans. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Unless otherwise noted, all emphasized words are containedin the original.
  • [4] Steven B. Smith, “Introduction: Leo Strauss Today,” in The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, ed. Steven B. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2009), 1.
  • [5] Alexandre Kojeve, Essai d’une histoire raisonnee de la philosophie paienne, 3 vols.(Paris: Gallimard, 1968-1973), and La notion de l’autorite (Paris: Gallimard,2004), recently translated by Hager Weslati, The Notion of Authority (London:Verso, 2014).
  • [6] Thomas L. Pangle, The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the PostmodernAge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 20.
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