"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Monday, June 25, 2018

Leo Strauss vs the Modern Future

THE OCCASION WAS LEO STRAUSS’ [1899-1973] years-long correspondence with the brilliant and mercurial Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève [1902-1968], contained in the volume “On Tyranny.” The Google books preview is HERE.
Kojève is fascinating, one of those major figures in philosophical-political history you never seem to hear of. [Hell, James Madison doesn’t have a memorial, isn’t on a coin or anything anymore since they killed the $5,000 bill. But we digress.]
Alexandre Kojève invaluably got the European Union started, and Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, was his student.
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Was Kojève cool or what? If you threw Sartre, Michael Caine and Woody Allen in a blender, you’d get Strauss’ “Dear Mr. Kojevnikoff.”
By contrast, Uncle Leo had a visage like a potato.
uncle leo strauss
Although the cigarette holder is a nice touch. But we digress yet again. Dang us!

The “End of History” is the not-unlikely prediction that human progress will one day yield something resembling today’s Western World, a bourgeois liberal democracy where everyone’s material needs are met and political division is quieted by the rise of a Universal and Homogeneous State. There will be nothing left to fight about.
Philosophy becomes democratized, the parable of Plato’s cave rendered un-egalitarian and therefore obsolete—if not obscene to modern sensibilities.
Strauss, faced with an effective rebuttal by Kojève of Strauss’ original essay about trying to advise tyrants not to be so tyrannical, on Xenophon’s “Hiero,” was obliged to write a “restatement.” The story is here.
Ah, I’ve taken too much of the gentle reader’s time with preface. I did want to convey the gravity and historical importance of the philosophical issues, laid bare in the Strauss-Kojève correspondence—the clash of the classical and modern worlds played out in the EU/UN/and America’s own left-right context. Hope it enhances the below Strauss excerpt, the final paragraphs near the end of his Restatement.
NB: Although he was an "admirer" of the American liberal system, Strauss is quite the Platonist. He mocked Wilsonianism, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a field with messianic democracy.
_________________
TO BUSINESS, THEN, as Strauss assays Kojève’s Brave New World:
“There is no longer fight nor work. History has come to its end. There is nothing more to do.” This end of History would be most exhilarating but for the fact that, according to Kojève, it is the participation in bloody political struggles as well as in real work, or generally expressed, the negating action, which raises man above the brutes. The state through which man is said to become reasonably satisfied is, then, the state in which the basis of man’s humanity withers away, or in which man loses his humanity.
It is the state of Nietzsche’s “last man.” Kojève in fact confirms the classical view that unlimited technological progress and its accompaniment, which are the indispensable conditions of the universal and homogeneous state, are destructive of humanity. It is perhaps possible to say that the universal and homogeneous state is fated to come. But it is certainly impossible to say that man can reasonably be satisfied with it. If the universal and homogeneous state is the goal of History, History is absolutely “tragic.” Its completion will reveal that the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation of philosophy and politics, is insoluble. For centuries and centuries men have unconsciously done nothing but work their way through infinite labors and struggles and agonies, yet ever again catching hope, toward the universal and homogeneous state, and as soon as they have arrived at the end of their journey, they realize that through arriving at it they have destroyed their humanity and thus returned, as in a cycle, to the prehuman beginnings of History. Vanitas vanitatum. Recognitio recognitionum.
Yet there is no reason for despair as long as human nature has not been conquered completely, i.e., as long as sun and man still generate man. There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds. They may be forced into a mere negation of the universal and homogeneous state, into a negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation. While perhaps doomed to failure, that nihilistic revolution may be the only action on behalf of man’s humanity, the only great and noble deed that is possible once the universal and homogeneous state has become inevitable.
The Chief of the universal and homogeneous state, or the Universal and Final Tyrant will be an unwise man, as Kojève seems to take for granted. To retain his power, he will be forced to suppress every activity which might lead people into doubt of the essential soundness of the universal and homogeneous state: he must suppress philosophy as an attempt to corrupt the young.
The philosophers in their turn will be forced to defend themselves or the cause of philosophy. They will be obliged, therefore, to try to act on the Tyrant. Everything seems to be a re-enactment of the age-old drama.
But this time, the cause of philosophy is lost from the start. For the Final Tyrant presents himself as a philosopher, as the highest philosophic authority, as the supreme exegete of the only true philosophy, as the executor and hangman authorized by the only true philosophy. He claims therefore that he persecutes not philosophy but false philosophies.
The experience is not altogether new for philosophers. If philosophers were confronted with claims of this kind in former ages, philosophy went underground. It accommodated itself in its explicit or exoteric teaching to the unfounded commands of rulers who believed they knew things which they did not know. Yet its very exoteric teaching undermined the commands or dogmas of the rulers in such a way as to guide the potential philosophers toward the eternal and unsolved problems. And since there was no universal state in existence, the philosophers could escape to other countries if life became unbearable in the tyrant’s dominions.
From the Universal Tyrant, however, there is no escape. Thanks to the conquest of nature and to the completely unabashed substitution of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought. Kojève would seem to be right although for the wrong reason: the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will be the end of philosophy on earth.”

4 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Reading this brings to mind a silly little dispute you and I have had over the years and it reinforces my position. You have claimed that Fukuyama isn't a Straussian. Well, he is regarded as one and in fact, I would argue, he is properly categorized as such.

You in this piece call him a student of Kojève's. Kojève died in 1968; Fuyuyama was born in 1952. I don't think Fukuyama ever studied directly with Kojève (or Strauss, but I could be wrong on that point).

Fukuyama was in fact a direct student of Allan Bloom's who introduced him to the Strauss-Kojève dialog.

True, Kojève was responsible for "The End of History" thesis. But most people forget the second half of the title to his book: "And The Last Man."

ATLM is the Straussian part of Fukuyama's thesis. I can't say I am an expert in Kojève's original argument; but I get the sense from reading what you have posted that he didn't "get" the negative implications of The End of History that Strauss was trying to drive home here. Fukuyama's book does indeed address and largely concedes those implications. It basically argues "the end of history is probably going to happen"* and here are the implications good and bad.

*Today Fukuyama would stress the probably part because whether History will end as such doesn't seem so certain at this point.

Anonymous said...

Bloom left Cornell in 1970 when Francis would have been 18. As far as I can recall he was not there in 1968 when I studied with Bloom. If Francis "studied" with Bloom at Cornell it at most would have been in his Freshman year, and I doubt had much depth. Nor did he, as far as I know, join me in Claremont to study with Strauss. As to calling people a Straussian, I believe that title largely derived from anti-Strauss people or from Jaffa who tried to distinguish the good Straussians from the bad Straussians. There is no Staussianism in the sense of Marxism, unless being a Straussian is an attempt to clarify the universal problems of nature and human nature.

Anonymous said...

Fukuyama, Bloom and other Straussians such as Dannhauser were affiliated with Telluride House at Cornell, where the tradition and discussions about it almost certainly continued at length and with intensity.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Strauss:

Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero


It seems reasonable to assume that only a few, if any, citizens
of the universal and homogeneous state will be wise. But neither
the wise men nor the philosophers will desire to rule. For this
reason alone, to say nothing of others, the Chief of the universal
and homogeneous state, or the Universal and Final Tyrant will be
an unwise man, as Kojeve seems to take for granted. To retain his
power, he will be forced to suppress every activity which might
lead people into doubt of the essential soundness of the universal
and homogeneous state: he must suppress philosophy as an attempt
to corrupt the young. In particular he must in the interest of the
homogeneity of his universal state forbid every teaching, every
suggestion, that there are politically relevant natural differences
among men which cannot be abolished or neutralized by progress-
ing scientific technology. He must command his biologists to prove
that every human being has, or will acquire, the capacity of becom-
ing a philosopher or a tyrant. The philosophers in their turn will be
forced to defend themselves or the cause of philosophy. They will
be obliged, therefore, to try to act on the Tyrant. Everything
seems to be a re-enactment of the age-old drama. But this time, the
cause of philosophy is lost from the start. For the Final Tyrant
presents himself as a philosopher, as the highest philosophic author-
ity, as the supreme exegete of the only true philosophy, as the
executor and hangman authorized by the only true philosophy. He
claims therefore that he persecutes not philosophy but false philoso-
phies. The experience is not altogether new for philosophers. If
philosophers were confronted with claims of this kind in former
ages, philosophy went underground. It accommodated itself in its
explicit or exoteric teaching to the unfounded commands of rulers
who believed they knew things which they did not know. Yet its
very exoteric teaching undermined the commands or dogmas of
the rulers in such a way as to guide the potential philosophers
toward the eternal und unsolved problems. And since there was
no universal state in existence, the philosophers could escape to
other countries if life became unbearable in the tyrant's dominions.
From the Universal Tyrant, however, there is no escape. Thanks
to the conquest of nature and to the completely unabashed substitu-
tion of suspicion and terror for law, the Universal and Final Tyrant
has at his disposal practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and
for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of
thought. Kojeve would seem to be right although for the wrong
reason: the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will
be the end of philosophy on earth.