Leo Strauss’s Contempt and Alexandre Kojève’s Movement

Who won this debate (On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève), Leo Strauss or Alexandre Kojève? Upon first glance it would look as though Strauss won (albeit posthumously) by landing philosopher kings in the White House and Presidential Cabinet; philosopher kings who refused to bend to popular will and love, but who instead set their sights on the only prize for which a tyrant can hope: respect by one’s subjects and fear among one’s enemies (On Tyranny). Personal isolation and loneliness is the price the tyrant must be willing to pay for doing not what is good, but what is expedient. Nor did these philosopher kings draw back from the test of lying outright to their subjects; for to tell the truth, to speak openly and frankly could not only suggest that they wanted to be understood and appreciated by their subjects, but even more to the point it could suggest that they naively believed that their subjects were capable of understanding their rationale, which, of course, they could not.

Yet, upon further examination, it could appear as though Kojève was the victor. After all, had not Strauss argued that it was impossible for the philosopher—the lover of wisdom—to become a tyrant because, in tyrannical rule the tyrant would have to abandon his love of wisdom? It was Kojève who had objected to this line of reasoning, asserting that it had been and would continue to be in the contest between master and slave, between tyrant and public, that a history would take shape that would benefit both master and slave; and that it was in the embrace of this dynamic contest for recognition, in the embrace of the wisdom it contained, that the tyrant needed to recognize his own wisdom. Moreover, it had been Kojève who had faulted Strauss for his self-imposed arm-chair isolation from this struggle, a struggle in which all would come eventually to recognize all others in the universal, homogeneous state of humanity. In their fearless promotion of deregulation, privatization and globalization—in their stoic confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), their militant transfer of wealth up the income scale and transfer of the tax burden down the income scale, and their confrontation with the Evil Empire—these Kojèvean revolutionaries set history once again in motion, drawing in their train all those millions of foot soldiers who, in 1989, would take one more step toward the universal, homogeneous state.

Ultimately, however, it was the combination of these two, the boisterous, impetuous, and violent philosopher-revolutionary, and the secretive, contemptuous, and contemplative king that composed the new, militantly anti-republican, regime. For, if the essence of republican institutions and ideals is the embrace as citizens of all those who are healthy, wealthy, and wise under laws that protect the common wealth, then there can be little doubt but that the Kojèvean revolutionaries slammed and locked all of the doors through which the common man might have passed on his way to full citizenship. But it is also certain therefore that the disdainful contempt Strauss’s philosopher kings displayed toward these miscreants who formed their political base were the direct and indirect creations of the very revolution Kojève’s revolutionaries had set in motion. So that when Karl Rove described the evangelical republican base as a bunch of “nuts,” he does not thereby mean to suggest that either he or his sovereign are prepared to abandon these subjects, much less the realm they compose. Far from it. Rather, he means that they are now finally and fully the kinds of subjects worthy of a sovereign who disdains them and who therefore can fully rely upon their support without respect to the merits of the sovereign’s actions. In other words, their respect for their sovereign is now based not on their having wrestled with or understood his policies or actions (which, of course, they are too poorly born and bred to understand). Their respect for their sovereign is now based solely upon a respect for his person.

Ironically, then, both Kojève and Strauss won. Kojève won by helping inspire a universal, global, homogeneous revolution among the slaves against their masters. But Strauss also won. For it was Strauss who showed the philosopher kings how to stoically, if contemptuously, govern these slaves in a manner worthy of their lowly estate.

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