On tyranny

Reading Leo Strauss’s book On Tyranny was a life-changing experience for me. Originally published in 1948, it is Strauss’s interpretation of Xenophon’s dialogue “Hiero, or the Tyrant.”
The book was subsequently republished by Cornell University Press in the late 1960’s with a faithful translation of the dialogue, a long review/essay responding to Strauss by the French Hegelian/Marxist Alexander Kojeve, and with Strauss’s response to Kojeve and to Eric Voegelin’s review of the original book. In its most recent edition, the book includes the translation of the dialogue and the Strauss/Kojeve/Strauss essays as well as correspondence between Strauss and Kojeve.
Strauss advocated the ancient understanding of the phenomenon of tyranny as a precondition to understanding the political phenomena of the twentieth century. Strauss argued that that the purportedly “scientific” study of politics in modern political science had stripped from modern awareness the knowledge necessary to understand the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.
Kojeve demurred and advocated the coming of the universal homogenous state; he thought Stalin was on the right track. It seemed to me that Strauss’s response to Kojeve allowed one to judge for oneself the relative merits of the classic and modern understandings of politics.
Today’s Boston Globe carries an interesting account of the recent gathering at the University of Chicago to consider the usefulness of the concept of tyranny, indirectly inspired by Strauss’s great book: “Return of the tyrants.” The account of the conference is interesting, but the article is also notable for its treatment of Strauss simply as an influential scholar of political thought rather than as the villainous inspiration of the Bush adminstration foreign policy.


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