A Return to Classical Political Philosophy and the Understanding of the American Founding

Christopher Bruell, "A Return to Classical Political Philosophy and the Understanding of the American Founding," The Review of Politics, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter 1991).


What is the significance for the understanding of the American Founding of Leo Strauss’s efforts toward the recovery of classical political philosophy? That this is a legitimate question to address to Strauss’s work is suggested by the claims which he made in the introductions to a number of his most famous books (among other things). He opened his study on Natural Right and History, for ex- ample, by raising the question whether our nation “in its maturity still cherish[es] the faith in which it was conceived and raised; that is, whether it still holds the fundamental proposition of the Declaration of Independence to be true. In doing so, he gave warrant to the expectation that that study, which may be said to culminate in a treatment of classical natural right and make a case for its superiority to all alternatives, would contribute to the strengthening or restoration of our Founding faith. In similar fashion, the opening of The City and Man presents that work’s turn “toward the political thought of classical antiquity” as dictated by “the crisis of our time, the crisis of the West,” a crisis which it locates “in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose.” The purpose spoken of in The City and Man is not identical to the Founding faith appealed to in Natural Right and History; but it is not hard to see the close kinship between the two. And, again, warrant is given for the expectation that the outcome of a successful return to classical political thought will be a recovery of the West’s certainty as to its purpose. Indeed, the clear and powerful meaning which Strauss thus attached to his efforts toward the recovery of classical political philosophy helps explain both the widespread influence his work has had on students concerned with the health of American politics and also the fact that it has inspired in many of them, as Gordon Wood has pointed out in a recent article,’ a deepened interest in the American Founding. But clear and powerful as the bearing of Strauss’s work may be on our most urgent concerns, that is, clear as it may be that his work has an important bearing on those concerns, the precise character of its bearing is a matter of some ambiguity. These ambiguities, moreover, are bound to affect students who have undergone its influence. That this is the case with those who have turned to the study of the American Founding has also been pointed out by Wood. It is on these ambiguities, then, insofar as they affect the study of the American Founding, that we must concentrate our attention if we are to answer the question with which we began.