In the autumn of 1933, Alexandre Kojève announced to his class that history was over. He did not mean that the apocalypse was at hand, that wars and violence had ceased, that human beings would no longer love, mate, and play. Kojève called himself a god and made a radical reading of Christianity, but he claimed to be a philosopher, not a prophet. History was over because the final truth about human life had at last been discovered—in the thought of Hegel, the subject of Kojève’s seminar. It followed that there could be no serious debate, and no real conflict, over the proper organization of political life. Kojève’s announcement, in the face of a looming disaster, was that the ideological conflicts of his age were a mirage. The future belonged not to socialism, liberalism, or fascism, but to a philosophy, known to him alone, which would succeed them all.
Kojève never held an academic appointment, and his six-year seminar, which ended in 1939, was to be his first and only university class. He had been asked to serve as a replacement lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a Paris university founded in 1868 to support research by less-traditional scholars. French philosophy is often said to begin with Descartes, the first philosopher to publish in French, but in the early 1930s it was seeking inspiration beyond its linguistic borders. The cataclysm of the Great War, the rise of extreme political parties, and the growing prestige of Marx’s writings, now widely available in translation, pressed French philosophers to address existential questions about history, violence, and alienation.