Friends and critics of modern liberalism, on the left and the right, have been concerned from the beginning at liberalism's tendency to dissolve the human soul and the human (political) community into mere instrumental calculation in the service of individual self-preservation. Friends and critics of America, on the left and the right, have been concerned from its beginning that America may be reduced or reducible to modern liberalism. In recent decades, this eclectic concern has led many—both in the academy and in the political and cultural domains—to search for or try to recover the seemingly lost ground for "virtue" and "community." Many of these searches, as Susan D. Collins and Carnes Lord note in the recent Claremont Review of Books, have led back to Aristotle—sometimes to his distress.
Modern liberals exploring Aristotle, are exploring "foreign places," explains Collins. Aristotle, she writes
reminds us that individuals will devote themselves to ends other than their own self-interest; that politics involves challenges of such consequences as to call for citizens and leaders imbued with noble purpose, a firm sense of justice, and greatness of soul; and that our own quest for community and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of comrades and country are rooted in longings that cannot be captured adequately by liberal individualism or the idea of the social contract.
But is Aristotle as foreign to America as he may be to modern liberalism? (If you have thought long and fruitfully about this, the Claremont Review of Books would like to know what you think.) Commentary magazine editor Gary Rosen wrote an interesting book a few years back that may shed light on the question (American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding, University Press of Kansas, 1999). As I wrote in a review of the book, "Rosen undertakes to demonstrate that [James] Madison's statesmanship was guided by a profoundly original understanding of...'the social compact.'"
Madison recognized, as great social compact theorists like Hobbes and Locke failed adequately to do, that the consent of the people, though a necessary foundation of legitimate government, is an instrument inadequate to secure the safety and happiness for the sake of which people enter into government in the first place. Possessing the natural right to establish government, the people lack the deliberative capacity, the prudence, to establish good government. The people, in other words, are not founders, and founding is necessary to accomplish the ends for which people naturally and reasonably leave the state of nature. Madison therefore...sought and found a place not yet discovered in social compact thinking for founding and for founders: for a modern, republican, architectonic prudence not altogether unlike the classic understanding of phronesis first articulated by Aristotle.
Scholarly friends at leisure might want to pick up a copy of Rosen's book to consider at greater length why "Madisonian founding" is in the end "best seen in Aristotelian terms." For those busy saving the republic, may I recommend my short review?