The Long View: On Tyranny

Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Political philosophy is my favorite after natural philosophy. The question of how we are to order our lives together is perennially interesting, although most people probably prefer a less theoretical approach

Leo Strauss is also fascinating because of his association with the idea of esoteric writing. John pooh-poohs the idea here, but I'm coming around to it.

On Tyranny
By Leo Strauss (with Alexandre Kojève)
Edited by Victor Gourevitch & Michael S. Roth
University of Chicago Press, 2000
335 Pages, US$18.00
ISBN 0-226-77687-5


If Leo Strauss were the Great Cthulhu, this book might be The Necronomicon. In reality, of course, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago for many years, and this book is an anthology. Strauss is considered the font, if not quite the founder, of modern Neoconservatism, which is widely believed to be the secret doctrine that actuates the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. The book does not really support that thesis. Here we see Strauss advising the wise to avoid instigating revolutions, much less the democratic world-revolution that the Bush Administration is keen on. Also, while Strauss concedes that world empire might be inevitable, he also says it would be an unfortunate institution, and not one likely to last. The book is really about the relationship of philosophers to politics, and whether the philosophy of the Greek classics has the resources to define it properly. The treatment of the nature of history is extensive, but incidental.

The centerpiece of the book is a study that Strauss first published in 1948, On Tyranny. It closely analyzes the dialogue Hiero, by Xenophon (430-355 BC), a student of Socrates. (The volume also contains a translation of the dialogue, which is just 18 pages long.) Strauss is answered by a long review from Alexandre Kojève, entitled “Tyranny and Wisdom.” (Kojève, a Russian émigré born Alexander Vladimirovitch Kojevnikoff, knew Strauss in Strauss's native Germany. Later, in Paris, they were both starveling immigrant scholars. Kojève became a French civil servant and played a prominent role in organizing the first GATT treaty (precursor to the World Trade Organization) and the European Community (precursor to the European Union); he also seems to have been a Soviet spy.) Strauss answers Kojève in “Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero.” The rest of the book, about 90 pages, is taken up with the correspondence between Strauss and Kojève from 1932 to 1965.

Xenophon is one of those ancient authors better known for clarity than for depth; his dialogue Hiero would seem to support this characterization. It sets out a supposed discussion between the poet, Simonides of Ceos (circa 556-468 BC), and Hiero I (died 466 BC), tyrant of Syracuse and master of Sicily, on the advantages and drawbacks of being a tyrant. We should remember that “tyranny” is a term of art in classical philosophy. It refers to “monarchy without law,” a situation that often arose when a democracy went sour. Tyranny was generally considered the most defective class of regime. However, it was also recognized that there were good and bad tyrannies. Simonides makes it his business to improve Hiero's.

Simonides asks apparently ingenuous questions, such as whether tyrants ate better than private persons, or had better sex lives. Hiero answers by detailing the miseries of the tyrannical condition, in which wretched excess cohabits with personal insecurity. When they get to the question of public honor, which is basically about Hiero's desire to be loved, Simonides can suggest ways in which tyranny can be modified to Hiero's advantage. Though of course Hiero cannot dispense with the mercenaries on which his government depends, Simonides advises Hiero to use those mercenaries to ensure public safety. As a general matter, he should be seen to spend his own fortune on public amenities, rather than use public money. The public should not seem him inflicting punishments. Rather, he should distribute prizes in competitions designed to promote patriotism. Thus could Hiero's life become happier, and the life of Syracuse greatly improved.

From this tiny acorn of a dialogue Strauss cultivates a mighty oak of interpretation. Starting from the plausible inference that Hiero is afraid of Simonides because the tyrant does not understand the perspective or motivation of the wise, Strauss draws general lessons about how philosophers in general should deal with politics in general. Simonides, in his capacity as a wise man, contemplates eternal things. To the extent that he seeks human approval at all, he seeks it from competent judges, which is to say, from other members of the wise. Hiero, in contrast, seems most worried about whether his catamite really loves him. In order for these mentalities to communicate, the philosopher must sometimes couch principled advice in terms of self-interest. As in this case, it is sometimes possible to advocate reforms as a way to realize a relatively noble desire, that is, Hiero's desire to be loved by his subjects. However, the gap between the philosophical and the political remains.

Kojève, in contrast, says that the gap will close at the eschaton, that is, at the end of history. This final term does not refer to clock time, but to philosophical history. Kojève elsewhere argued that “history properly speaking” ended in 1806, when Napoleon's victory at Jena ensured that the French Revolution would, in some form, spread universally. Since then, it has been all over, bar the shouting.

We may note that, adapting Kojève's thesis, Francis Fukuyama used the opportunity of the collapse of Communism in 1989 to argue in The End of History and the Last Man that even the shouting had ended, and that liberal democracy was the form of the “universal and homogeneous state” in which Kojève said history would eventuate. Kojève himself had been ambiguous. He sometimes suggested that it made no difference which side won the Cold War, since the same sort of final society would result in either case.

For Kojève, the motor of history is Hegel's famous Master-Slave dialectic. Slaves want their basic human dignity recognized. Masters want to be recognized by their peers. Thus, the Masters of the world have an interest in manufacturing peers. They extend the size of states they control to include neighboring states, so that the citizens of those states may also acknowledge them. Within the state, they gradually emancipate slaves, then women, then even children. The logical end of this process is, as we have seen, a state that includes the whole of mankind, and that makes no distinctions of any kind among its citizens. Thus, everyone may not be happy, but they will be “satisfied.”

Philosophy is a work-in-progress until history ends, according to Kojève, when we will understand everything we can understand. Because philosophy is essentially historicist, it is essentially atheist: there is no transcendent repository of final answers to which self-sufficient philosophers can look. Even if there were, it would still be necessary for philosophers to engage the larger society, since to do otherwise is to run the risk of solipsism and madness. The function of philosophers is to create models of ideal societies, and to propose from time to time how they might be implemented. Only in this way can the philosophers hope to emerge as the wise in the post-historical situation:

“One may therefore conclude that while the emergence of a reforming tyrant is not conceivable without the prior existence of a reforming philosopher, the coming of the wise man must necessarily be preceded by the revolutionary action of the tyrant (who will realize the universal and homogeneous state).”

Kojève also notes that there is a special affinity between the philosopher and tyranny. Philosophers can devote only so much of their time to practical matters, so they are necessarily people in a hurry. The same is true of tyrants who, being lawless, are also open to new ideas. Philosophers, however, simply are not competent to judge the method or the pace with which the tyrant implements their ideas. If philosophers could make that kind of practical judgment, they would be politicians rather than philosophers.

Strauss is horrified by this encomium of tyranny and atheism. To begin with, he insists that one sort of regime really can be preferred to another, and that in the circumstances of the modern world, there is no better option than liberal democracy. He also insists that philosophers do not seek this “recognition” of which Kojève speaks, but rather delight to contemplate the well-ordered souls of the wise (who can exist at any point in history), and to educate such souls among the young.

Thus, there is a community of the wise. They preserve themselves by convincing society that, however esoteric their discussions may be, they are not “atheists,” they do not despise what other men revere. The wise are not subversive or revolutionary, but helpful. The modest measures of reform that they may propose do the only sort of good that is possible in a world that will never be perfect.

However pure Strauss may insist the motives of philosophers to be, he seems to concede that something like the hunger for recognition may really govern history for other people. The result might even be the outcome that Kojève anticipates. Strauss, in fact, offers a sketch of the “Universal and Final Tyrant” that might serve as a gloss on the figure of Antichrist (or as a description of that recurring nightmare of Chinese history, the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi). On the other hand, he also says that this “end of history” is not really final. The homogeneity of the “universal and homogeneous state” will be a fraud, since it assumes a sophisticated philosophical understanding of the post-historical world on the part of everybody, everywhere. Moreover, such a world will simply not be satisfying, in Hegel's sense or anybody else's, because it will be purposeless. The empire of the Final Tyrant will be overthrown, perhaps in a nihilistic revolution that will be the only expression of humanism possible in that dark era.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Strauss is his exegetical method, particularly the detection of the “secret writing” that he made famous. This requires placing quite a lot of emphasis on silence, on what a text does not say.

For instance: in addition to his reply to Kojève, Strauss also replies to a review of On Tyranny by Eric Voegelin. Voegelin argues that classical political philosophy is incomplete, because it lacked, among other things, an account of Caesarism. Voegelin defines that as a post-constitutional situation in which a return to republican government is no longer possible. That makes it unlike tyranny, which could and did alternate with various forms of constitutional government. In reply, Strauss says that Caesarism is a kind of legitimate monarchy. It may sometimes be the best that a society can do. Here is Strauss's explanation for why classical philosophy did not address the issue:

“The true distinction between Caesarism and tyranny is too subtle for ordinary practical use. It is better for the people to remain ignorant of that distinction and to regard the potential Caesar as a potential tyrant. No harm can come from this theoretical error, which becomes a practical truth if the people have the mettle to act upon it. No harm can come from the political identification of Caesarism and tyranny: Caesars can take care of themselves.”

To another philosopher, the obvious answer would have been that classical philosophy did not address Caesarism because Caesar lived after the “classic” era of classical culture was past. To Strauss, the answer was that the ancients were omniscient, but tactful.

And then there's Kojève. As he got older, his interpretation of ancient texts became more and more whimsical. To be fair, he was no longer a professional academic after the late 1940s, but he began discovering secret writing in places where Strauss evidently feared to tread. In his letters to Strauss, he characterizes some sixth-century writings, including some by Julian the Apostate, as “Voltaire-like” exercises in disguised skepticism. From this he surmises that the classical philosophical tradition actually survived very late in an underground tradition.

That is a little like saying that the Middle Kingdom Egyptians were familiar with Faraday's equations, but just made sure never to write them down. The Socratics and the other schools of the golden age of Greek philosophy may have had all the esoteric doctrines you please: underground traditions would be plausible, because the aboveground effect of philosophy on Greek life was obviously so great. There was nothing like that effect in the sixth century, and no amount of secret writing will substitute for the lack of the schools and sages and controversies that we know existed 900 years earlier.

Though Strauss never says anything as foolish as Kojève, the chief impression I took from this book was the capacity for both of them to miss the real forest in their hunt for the secret trees. The key to the problem of modern tyranny is really another point that Voegelin raised in his review: ancient tyranny, at least in the West, lacked the millenarian component that we see in modern, ideology-driven tyranny. Voegelin had muddied his case by arguing that Machiavelli was significantly influenced by Joachim of Floris, a thesis that Strauss correctly rejects, but which does not diminish the fact that modern revolutionary tyrants do in fact have a strong apocalyptic streak. Kojève is left similarly clueless by his Hegelian psychobabble about “recognition,” despite the fact his theory is an eschatology.

On Tyranny is well worth reading for several reasons. However, there are far less constricted ways to approach the issues it addresses.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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