Strauss’s Vision of a Great Anti-modern Tyrant and its Bizarre American Consequences
by Alan Gilbert
June 2, 2009
In early April, I gave a lecture at Rob Howse’s seminar at NYU Law School on Strauss’s On Tyranny. Below this introduction, I post the handout from the debate. Howse has written important essays on Strauss, especially one on Strauss and Schmitt, and we had a debate on Strauss’s views, in which I underlined the connection of On Tyranny (1948) with Strauss’s later remarks, in Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958) on the tyranny of philosophical-founders or legislators. I also invoked a prophetic, desperate and frightening passage from Strauss’s “Restatement” in On Tyranny, one that envisions nuclear destruction as a return to a human “spring” as if everything would grow anew and then cycle through again to the “last men” (Strauss’s Nietzschean vision of today’s “decadence”). It is fortunate that many of Strauss’s political followers do not read him that carefully, or take in esoteric meanings often dropped, as here, on the surface of the text. The Wolfowitzes, Shulskys and Bill Kristols among others seem to advocate endless war to achieve parliamentary democracy and capitalism (if they had succeeded in bombing Iran, particularly with nuclear “bunker-busters” at Natanz a mere 50 km. from Teheran, one might wonder if Strauss’s vision would not have been realized in the midterm after-effects). Howse rightly infers that these counselors to power cannot have had the same vision as Strauss – waging endless war to elevate the last men, is a silly, though in practice monstrous contradiction. The On Tyranny passage from 1948 is, however, both dark, and bizarrely consistent.
I also offer two citations from the Strauss archive in Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago (I was the first nonStraussian admitted to it, last fall). See here. One recommends to Illinois Senator and Republican Presidential candidate Charles Percy that the US should conquer Cuba just like the Soviet Union conquered Hungary. Written a year after the Cuban missile crisis, which had nearly brought on nuclear war (that was humanity’s nearest miss, and we were barely saved from it, as Robert McNamara reveals in the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War” by the ability to listen and pursue a decent course of President John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev), this policy both prefigures Cheney-like barbarism and would quite possibly have brought on the nuclear war which humanity had barely escaped.
The second citation suggests that Percy needs to moderate the American affection for technology and progress, the hope that the world could mitigate poverty. As Stephen Holmes saw brilliantly in the discussion following the debate, this stance challenges liberalism and communism in so far as both are based on technological advance. This is Strauss’s typical skepticism, based on Heidegger whom he initially was mesmerized by and always thought the one “great philosopher” of our time, and Nietzsche. Strauss offers a Nietzschean denunciation of the epochs-long revolt of the poor, the triumph of “slave morality” and equality, and following Heidegger, envisions the horrific standing reserve of technology, the coming “night of the world.” This passage does show how Strauss, through his allegiance to European reaction, was outside the sphere of liberalism entirely, barely able to touch it. The reactionary policy recommendation to Percy linked to the passage from On Tyranny on a fanciful return to the “spring” from nuclear winter shows that the modern nihilists, however destructive (the political Straussians led by the non-Straussian though always counselled by Straussians Richard Cheney), can’t touch Strauss in his darkest moments.
Alexandere Kojeve, the brilliant Russian-French scholar of Hegel, Marxian of a kind, and the man who ran De Gaulle’s economic policies and fostered European Union (amusingly, a successful “philosopher-king” or more aptly, philosopher to the king and without so much bloodiness – he was not directly involved in De Gaulle’s colonial war in Algeria, or the French army’s torture of prisoners) was the second participant in On Tyranny. He had learned from Strauss. Both engaged in exoteric or surface writing with a subtle or esoteric meaning. A principal way of revealing such meanings is to seem to comment on a text but suddenly say out-loud or on the surface what you take its hidden meaning to be. Kojeve’s response to Strauss originally entitled “The Political Action of Philosophers” does exactly this. It says, seemingly differently from Strauss, that many modern tyrants are good tyrants, listening to or capable of listening to philosophers, mirroring the advice of Xenophon’s Simonides to Hiero. For Strauss and Kojeve, that advice is the “political action of philosophers.” It is a rather odd point for a former Marxist, with sympathies for Mao, since mass movements seem to be the point of Marxism, not advice to tyrants. But though driven out of Russia, from an aristocratic background, Kojeve admired Stalin and perhaps merged his sympathies with – or just wanted to toy with Strauss – about this.
Strauss’s enmity in the essay is directed against the Soviet Union and its surface meaning is to indict a final tyrant from whom there is no escape; many conservatives, including Timothy Fuller, a wonderful political theorist from Colorado College, take his contribution in On Tyranny to be a use of Xenophon’s dialogue on ancient tyranny to indict the final tyrant. But this is a slight of hand. Xenophon’s Hiero is a defense of tyranny – the classic one by a wise man among the ancients as the citation I give below from Strauss’s writing 10 years later plainly says. Many Straussians think On Tyranny is mainly a debate, and that Strauss defends the ancients, Kojeve, the moderns. But at core, this is not really a debate. Kojeve reveals Strauss.
The final citation, much neglected in Anglo-American academia, is from Plato’s Phaedrus. It shows that he and not Strauss had the idea of “the art of writing”; it is what the dialogues are meant to do. Hence, they are the subtle masterpieces, a labyrinth, in which the student – Plato’s students in the Academy and later adepts - may quest for hidden meanings. Strauss invokes the line numbers in the Phaedrus though he does not cite the passage. As I emphasize, Strauss was on to a kind of writing practiced among ancient and medieval authors – his primary claim to discovery, which should be honored – even though he is often wrong about what the meanings are, and even when right, frequently disguises what he is saying in the same way as those he studies (see my earlier post, “Do Philosophers Council Tyrants,” Constellations 2009). Strauss was a wonderful scholar, with unusual persistence in studying texts, who brings attention to Farabi, Maimonides and Xenophon, for example, into modern scholarship. But he was not good at argument. As I also suggest in that essay, Strauss was a cryptographer, not a philosopher. As the first citations reveal, it would have been much better for the world if he had really kept his hands, and that of the sect he set in motion, out of politics, or if he had ended up in Israel, furthering a much more local brand of philosopher-tyranny (if Strauss had defended Arabs, which given his work on Farabi, he was perfectly capable of doing, rather than a Jewish “national socialism” – unfortunately, the core defect of Zionism and particularly Strauss’s teenage and later Zionism – he might even have been able to mitigate some of the disaster of “the transfer” and subsequent Israeli policy; his politics were, however, not so philosophical or decent as that).
I hope to post the dvd that was made of my lecture and a debate – or at least a sketching of differences - with Rob Howse shortly.
“The Political Action of Philosophers”: advising tyrants and rebelling against the “end of history”
1. The Meaning of On Tyranny
“Xenophon is that writer who for Machiavelli has come closest to preparing his questioning of the imagined prince. Xenophon’s Hiero is the classic defense of tyranny by a wise man.” – Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958), p. 291.
“As soon as we consider the context, we can see that Aristotle treats tyranny as a monstrosity [sic –the Politics also says something different about the rule of “the outstanding man”] whereas Machiavelli rather deals with tyranny as essential to the foundation of society itself. In this point, as well as in others of the same character, Machiavelli is closer to Plato than to Aristotle. Plato does not hesitate to make his founder of a good society, the wise legislator, demand that he be supported by a tyrant.” - Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli , p. 293.
2. Two key passages in On Tyranny:
“The experience of the present generation has taught us to read the great political literature of the past with different eyes and different expectations. The lesson may not be without value for our political orientation. We are now brought fact to face with a tyranny which holds out the threat of becoming, thanks to the ‘conquest of nature’ and in particular human nature, what no earlier tyranny ever became: perpetual and universal. Confronted by the appalling alternative that man, or human, thought must be collectivized wither by one stroke and without mercy or else by slow and gentle processes [note here that the Soviet Union and the United States are equated], we are forced to wonder how we could escape from this dilemma.” – Strauss, On Tyranny (1948), p. 27.
“Xenophon’s Socrates makes it clear that there is only one and sufficient title to rule: only knowledge and not force and fraud or election [note how Strauss rules out democracy here] or , we may add, inheritance makes a man a king or ruler. If this is the case ‘constitutional’ rule, rule derived from elections is not essentially more legitimate than tyrannical rule, rule derived from force or fraud. Tyrannical rule as well as ‘constitutional’ rule will be legitimate to the extent which the tyrant or the ‘constitutional’ rulers will listen to the counsels of him who ‘speaks well’ because he ‘thinks well.’ At any rate, the rule of a tyrant, who comes to power by force or fraud or having committed any number of crimes is essentially more legitimate than the rule of elected magistrates who refuse to listen to such suggestions, i.e. than the rule of elected magistrates as such.” - Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 75.
3. Strauss’s Reply to Kojeve’s Vision of History
“The Philosopher must go to the market to fish for potential philosophers. His attempts to convert young men to the philosophic life will necessarily be regarded by the city as an attempt to corrupt the young. The philosopher is therefore forced to defend the cause of philosophy. He must therefore act upon the city or upon the ruler.” Strauss, “Restatement,” On Tyranny (published, 1961, written 1950), p. 205
“The end of history would be most exhilarating but for the fact, according to Kojeve, that it is the participation in bloody political struggles as well as in real work or, generally expressed, the negating action which raises men 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” – Strauss, “Restatement,” p. 208
“There will always be men [andres] who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer the possibility of noble action or 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. But no one can know whether it will succeed for fail We still know too little about the workings of the universal and homogeneous state to say anything about where and when its corruption will start. What we do know is only that it will perish sooner or later (see Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach). Someone may object that the successful revolt against the universal and homogeneous state could have no other effect than that the identical historical process that has led from the primitive horde to the final state will be repeated. But would such a repetition of the process – a new lease on life for man’s humanity – not be preferable to the indefinite continuation of the inhuman end? Do we not enjoy every spring although we know the cycle of the seasons, although we know that winter will come again? Warriors and workers of all countries, unite, while there is still time to prevent the coming of ‘the realm of freedom’ Defend with might and main, if it needs to be defended, the ‘realm of necessity’ ” - Strauss, “Restatement,” p. 209.
4. Strauss’s Counselling of Senator Charles Percy
Strauss himself attempted to advise Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, a Republican Presidential candidate in 1964. In a memorandum to Percy of October 24, 1961, his language recalls the “Restatement” to On Tyranny and recommends a brutality which he thinks will cow the Soviet Union into submission:
“There cannot be a modus vivendi until Russia abandons Communism, in the sense that it ceases to act on the premises of Communism; for it is utterly uninteresting to us and the rest of the non-Communist world whether the Russians go on paying lip-service to Communism, provided they have become convinced that the Free World is here to stay, and they act on this conviction. To bring about this change of mind, the West must be as tough and, if need be, as brutal as the Communists are to the West. The West must demonstrate to the Communists, by words and deeds which allow no possibility of error, that they must postpone forever the establishment of the Communist world society.
But the modus vivendi demands also a radical change on our part – a change of outlook or expectations which will necessarily issue in a change of policies. I can only speak of the change of outlook. Hitherto the West has believed in the possibility of a perfectly just society (federationist or unitary) comprising all mankind –a society rendered possible in the first place by universal affluence and ultimately by the increase in human power to be brought about by technology or science. Everyone has now become aware of the fact that the great enterprise which was meant to bring about the abolition of misery, has in fact brought about what we may call the absolute misery: namely the possibility that, so to speak, a single tyrant can destroy the human race. We must rethink radically the expectation which has pervaded our thoughts and actions in all domains, that the human condition is thinkable without the accompaniment of misery. By this I do not deny that it is the duty of humanity to relieve misery wherever one can. [an exoteric remark, for Percy] - Strauss papers, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago
After the Cuban missile crisis and the narrowest miss at nuclear war [Cuba had over 100 armed nuclear missiles of which the Kennedy administration was unaware], Strauss wrote to Senator Percy on February 12, 1963:
“Dear Mr. Percy,
I believe that the following points have not been made, or at least have not been made with sufficient audibility: 1) To speak in the only language which Khrushchev understands, Cuba is our Hungary; just as we did not make the slightest move when he solved the problem in his back yard, Hungary, he cannot, and will not make the slightest move if and when we take care of the problem in our back yard, Cuba .”
5. Plato’s Phaedrus on the double nature of dialogues and what Strauss would call “exoteric” writing
“Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence , but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-277a
“I am very anxious to have a review by you [of Strauss’s essay on Xenophon’s Hiero] because you are one of the three people who will have a full understanding of what I was driving at.” – Strauss to Kojeve, December 6, 1948