Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mark Lilla On Alexander Kojeve And Leo Strauss

Okay, who's heard of Alexander Kojeve?

Not me until just yesterday when I read a chapter about him by Mark Lilla in his book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals In Politics. (After getting past a a not completely satisfying first chapter on Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, I've been liking this book more with every page I read.)

So I just finished the chapter on Kojeve, who was Russian by birth at the end of the 19th century, left after the October Revolution, studied philosophy in Germany and eventually made his way to Paris where he lived two main lives:

first, apparently, as one the most important French political theorists of the twentieth century;

and, then, secondly, as an essentially post world war political advisor to French governments and who, apparently, was instrumental in formulating French international policy through those years.

The most scintillating part of this chapter, and of the whole book so far, is Lilla's account of the exchange between Kojeve and his intellectual soul mate, though they disagreed fundamentally, Leo Strauss. Also, this chapter seems the most relevant, so far, to what I'm struggle to understand is Liila's unifying theme, something like, as his sub title indicates, "intellectuals in politics."

The exchange emanated from Kojeve's review of Strauss's book On Tyranny, in which he translates, and comments on, an Xenophon dialogue--Hiero.

For Strauss, it is not cardinal that tyrannies occur, tyranny being simultaneous with political life. Rather, for him, it is cardinal that philosophers and intellectuals fail to see them for what they are, that philosophy must always be aware of the dangers of tyranny as threatening to political decency and philosophical life. Philosophy needs to understand politics sufficiently to protect its own autonomy without thinking it can shape actual life. There will always be tension between philosophy and politics; that tension can be managed but never obviated.

So philosophers must always be concerned about dangers to their autonomy. For philosophers, neither withdrawing into their own private gardens nor serving political authority are possible without risking the end of philosophy.

Kojeve, a communist his whole intellectual life, objects to this formulation. Tyranny can actually advance the work of history, preparing the way for a better future. Strauss is replicating the false idyll of philosophy as disinterested reflection seeking the eternally true, beautiful and good. In truth, argues Kojeve, there are no such eternal ideas; ideas, rather, emerge out of historical struggle. Philosophy must take part in that struggle to help eventuate future truths latent in the present. Seen this way, philosophers and tyrants need each other to finish the work of history. The former elucidate these truths for the latter. The latter are bold enough to actualize them.

Strauss's answer is to question why, for an instance, Stalin's tyranny (which Kojeve had in mind) is any less horrible than the ancient tyrannies, and is to question Kojeve's faith in the truth of his own Hegelian view of history as moving inexorably progressively forward. (Lilla notes that even as a communist, Kojeve thought Hegel had identified what leads to the end of history and that Marxism is one Hegelian project that must be seen to do its work within the confines of Hegel's thought.)

Here Strauss asserts his competing view of philosophy: it is the awareness of the fundamental and abiding questions and problems and the always imperfect quest for enlightenment given them. Kojeve, therefore, positing end of history (Fukuyama mentions Kojeve) is unphilosophical, committed to ending philosophy's quest for enlightenment in his vision of the end of human strife and striving. For Strauss, when striving and strife end, humanity ends--this being a version of Nietzsche's last man standing last when all human excellence is leveled and human striving is forgone in the name of equality and peace.

Kojeve saw in Hegel and then Napoleon the idea and then the actuality of the end of history, equality manifest in the due recognition by all of all bringing welcome surcease to all strife. So Kojeve argues back that what the end of history brings is infinitely preferable to present day, 1950, "automata" being " satisfied by sports, art, eroticism, with the sick ones getting locked up and the tyrant being the administrator, "a cog in the 'machine' fashioned by automata for automata."

For Strauss what Kojeve envisions is horrifying: the prospect of people becoming less human by abandoning their quest for enlightenment and moral improvement being neither a utopian wish nor a dystopian fear. It is rather, for Kojeve, a possibility that history makes probable.

aAs a proof, Strauss adduces Kojeve's studied neutrality during the cold war. For Kojeve, says Strauss, the cold war is history working itself out, whether through tyrannical state socialism or liberal democratic capitalism. Kojeve is indifferent to those suffering under the heel of the tyrant. Suffering only matters to the extent it helps give rise to history reaching its inevitable end. History's "losers" have no interest in virtue of their suffering for Kojeve.

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