Oakeshott on Rome and America

Oakeshott on Rome and America

by Gene Callahan


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The political systems of the Roman Republic were based almost entirely on tradition, "the way of the ancestors", rather than on a written constitution. While the founders of the American Republic looked to ancient Rome as a primary model for their enterprise, nevertheless, in line with the rationalist spirit of their age, the American founders attempted to create a rational set of rules that would guide the conduct of American politics, namely, the US Constitution. These two examples offer a striking case of the ideal types, famously delineated by Michael Oakeshott in “Rationalism in Politics” and elsewhere, between politics as a practice grounded in tradition and politics as a system based on principles flowing from abstract reasoning. This book explores how the histories of the two republics can help us to understand Oakeshott's claims about rational versus traditional politics. Through examining such issues we may come to understand better not only Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism, but also modern constitutional theory, issues in the design of the European Union, and aspects of the revival of republicanism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845406677
Publisher: Imprint Academic
Publication date: 03/28/2013
Series: British Idealism Studies: Oakeshott Series
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Introduction 1

What is rationalism in politics? 2

Comparing the theory with some evidence 3

An outline of this work 4

The manner of enquiry 6

1 Politics as the Crow Flies 10

Was Oakeshott's critique merely an apology for conservatism? 10

The rationalist 'founders' 12

A further examination of the rationalist character 16

An example of rationalism in a modern, liberal democracy 22

What is the character of 'anti-rationalist' politics? 25

Conclusion 28

2 The Development of Oakeshotf's Critique of Rationalism 29

Experience and Its Modes 29

The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism 31

Morality and Politics in Modern Europe 37

On Human Conduct 39

Aristotle on practice versus theory 43

O'Neill on abstraction versus idealization 45

Conclusion 47

3 Misunderstanding Oakeshott 48

Some typical criticisms 48

Traditionalism as an apology for the status quo 48

Traditionalism as denigrating the role of rational reflection 51

Is pragmatic politics sufficient when serious reform is called for? 55

'Non-ideological politics' as covertly ideological 56

F. A. Hayek: 'Why I am not a conservative' 63

Conclusion 70

4 Constitutionalism and Oakeshott 71

Constitutionalism 72

The varieties of constitutions 77

The case for constitutionalism 80

Constitutions as embodying a priori natural rights: Rothbard 82

Constitutions as contracts I: Rawls 85

Constitutions as contracts II: Buchanan and Tullock 89

Constitutions as coordinating devices: Hardin 94

5 The Roman Republic as Pragmatic Polity 100

Did the Roman republic have the pragmatic character Oakeshott attributed to it? 101

Does a pragmatic polity have the resources to respond to changing conditions? 106

The Roman government as representative 110

6 The Roman Revolution: Could the Embrace of Rationalist Principles Have Saved the Republic? 113

What was the 'Roman revolution'? 114

Does the failure of the reforms of the Gracchi brothers exhibit a shortcoming of pragmatic politics? 118

Gaius Marius and Sulla: planning to halt the revolution proves fruitless 123

The ascendancy of ideological politics 127

Oakeshott's understanding of the Roman revolution 133

The importance of the Roman revolution for the American republic 136

Would the employment of rationalist designing have been an effective treatment for the ills of the Roman republic? 137

Conclusion 142

7 Rationalism in the American Founding 143

From Rome to America through Florence and England 144

Machiavelli and Florence 145

The English transit and Locke 147

Did the American founders exhibit Oakeshottian rationalism? 151

American political thought and the founding 152

Slaves and women 156

It's not rationalism all the way down 157

It was all planned 159

Does Burke's understanding of the 'American situation' contradict Oakeshott's? 159

Conclusion 161

8 Were the American Founders Able to Realize Their Design? 162

The case of Jefferson 162

The rationalist Jefferson 163

The practical Jefferson 165

Slavery 165

Freedom of the press 167

The Louisiana purchase 168

The Burr conspiracy 170

The embargo 172

Is hypocrisy a reasonable explanation for the Jeffersonian paradox? 173

The crisis of the election of 1800 174

The continuing failure of the constitution to realize its authors' designs 181

The modern obsession with constitutional design and instrumental republicanism 186

Conclusion 191

Conclusion 193

Summing up 195

Bibliography 198

Index 211

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