book cover imageOakeshott on Rome and America
by Gene Callahan

Charlottesville: Imprint Academic, 2012
Hardcover, 250 pages $50. Paperback, 200 pages, $40.

Gene Callahan’s Oakeshott on Rome and America brings Oakeshott’s famous critique of Rationalism to bear upon the concrete historical cases cited in the title. The book’s main thrust is to engage American political self-understanding. Nonetheless, the contrast with Rome is important in several ways: first, the American founders explicitly compared their founding with Rome’s and tried to avoid the pitfalls of classical republican polities; second, in the twentieth century as America became a global hegemon, comparisons have frequently been made between America and the Roman empire; and third, Oakeshott mentions Rome as an exemplar of pragmatic politics and the rule of law, and he points to Rome’s steady legal traditions as a key element of its political character and a reason for the republic’s long success.

Rationalism is the name Oakeshott gives to a modern and deformed understanding of knowledge and its relation to action. He is not opposed to reason, and is in fact a staunch—one might even hazard the adjective Aristotelian—defender of practical wisdom. The Rationalist inverts the order of practical thought and action: he thinks abstract principles, which Oakeshott argues can only arise out of reflection on practice, stand at the beginning and give guidance and clarity to practical affairs. The typical Rationalist move, then, is down-market Cartesianism: couple a zealous skepticism against what is old with a credulous devotion to what is “unprejudiced” and new. The typical quality of Rationalist politics is that political discourse turns more and more to the articulation of principles, also called “ideals,” which will be said to lead deductively to certain policies. These deductive schema relating principles to political conclusions are ideologies. Opponents do not merely hold different opinions, they are, demonstrably, wrong. Would that it were hard to find examples of this political style in America today.

Oakeshott’s refusal to embrace deductive politics is rooted not only in epistemology, but in a concern for the quality of our political discourse. He writes:

This craving for demonstrative political argument may make us discontented with ordinary political discourse, which, because it is not demonstrative, we may be tempted to regard as a species of unreason. This would be a disastrous error. It is an error, because discourse which deals in conjecture and possibilities and the weighing of circumstantial pros and cons is reasoning, and it is the only sort of reasoning appropriate to practical affairs. In this matter, Aristotle and Isocrates are better guides than Plato and Marx. And it would be disastrous, because it would tend to bring political discourse into such disrepute that we would become inclined to do without it altogether—to give up reflection and argument because they could not be demonstrative. Or it might discourage the only sort of intellectual effort capable of improving the quality of our political discourse. (Oakeshott, 1991, RIP, 95)

Even a fervent admirer of America has to admit she is a Rationalist. Examples of Rationalistic utterance leap off every page of America’s Founding documents and resonate through her history. Contemporaries are more likely to debate the content of our creed than the character of our country.

It should not be thought that all Rationalisms are equal. Even good political practices, like those connected with the preservation of liberty, have been rendered in abstract ideological language. A classically liberal ideology, such as we find in Locke, is surely preferable to the utopian Rationalisms that ravaged Europe in the twentieth century. The problem is that Rationalism may short-change political discourse and corrode our political culture; or, it may be the symptom of a culture already losing its vitality.

Practical knowledge, the alternative to Rationalism, disconcerts anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of principles and infallible ideologies. Without principles are we not unmoored, adrift? The temptation to confound the faint-hearted with existentialist verve is almost irresistible, and one might fly fancy with images of sailing boundless and bottomless seas. But a better response is to direct attention to any sort of truly artful and habitual conduct. Look at what experienced practitioners actually do—from cobblers to diplomats. They make decisions, resolve difficulties, negotiate novel and changing situations (no two worn shoe rands are identical), largely in terms of well-tried and proven methods. But also they improvise when necessary. Their improvisations come from their habits, not from having traded their habits for a set of the latest ideals.

In accord with Oakeshott, Callahan sees the Roman republic as exhibiting the pragmatic political style. Its liberties were safeguarded not by a written constitution but through reverence, “from having been sanctioned by the accumulated wisdom of generations of practice.” Having no creed or written code, Rome had a clear enough sense of its own character to absorb changes, to innovate, and to endure external challenges. Explaining that this flexibility is different from a potentially hazardous drift, Callahan draws upon Voegelin’s concept of existential representation, noting some connections to Oakeshott and Charles Taylor’s similar conceptions: “Only when a society’s political institutions are an organic product of a widely shared and existentially satisfying conception of mankind’s place in the universe will they successfully and stably order social life.” And so, faced with the counterexample of the “Roman revolution” Callahan says that the Republic’s fall did not occur because of a lack of theoretical principles to guide it, but due to changing social conditions, and the increasingly radical departures from tradition by the Gracchi and their supporters, which eventually could not be contained.

Could a rational system of governance have been devised that would have prevented this? First, Callahan points out that in an atmosphere of disintegrating trust, recourse to abstract principles, even when these attempt to resurrect the past, was not effective. From the time of Gaius Marius to Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, defenders of the republic relied on more dogmatic and explicit formulations of principle. Nevertheless, the process of disintegration proved unstoppable. Callahan also points out that in America, where such a rational system was attempted it took less that twenty years for major crises to break out that showed the inadequacy of the Constitution to settle problems cleanly and clearly, without recourse to interpretative maneuver. Several of Jefferson’s actions and the election of 1800 are examined to show that, just as a pragmatic polity in Rome failed, a rationally constructed polity across the Atlantic could not avoid resort to pragmatic and “contingency-driven” politics.

The Roman republic endured over half a millennium. That is significant prima facie evidence that a written constitution and a rationally derived creed based upon a “modern science of politics” is not actually necessary for the survival of a republic or for its enjoying a free character. Considering that Rationalism is a mistaken account of what happens in human practices, it is not actually possible. Still, it is possible to attempt to be Rationalistic. And this is a curious point in the American tradition. The American founders had greater practical experience and deeper historical knowledge than they usually admitted. They possessed intimate knowledge of a rich and complex past of political practice and thought. Their success arose out of this practical knowledge rather than the adoption of rational principles. Yet, true to the spirit of their anti-traditional age, they spoke as Rationalists, and abstracted their traditions into a creed. Their preference for a Rationalistic idiom is unfortunate, because it means that instead of (for example) being encouraged by Hamilton to study the past, he gives us license to despise “old parchments and musty records.”

Callahan’s study, by applying Oakeshott’s analysis of an epistemological error to actual political histories, raises challenging and important questions. Among these is whether a nation can long subsist which believes its meaning is comprehended in its devotion to a principle. In placing our sacred trust in abstract ideals, do we risk forgetting that freedom is the freedom of actual individuals living in actual communities? It remains an open question whether being more steadfastly ideological will help America or conservatives who care passionately about liberty. Have our crises, including ideological crises, cut so deeply as to lead to our disintegration, or will a Rationalistic nation prove capable of surviving through a millennium of contingencies? The appeal of principles is that they are pure. If there be any disharmony between what we hold and what we do or suffer, we can always seek refuge in the ideal. We are always arriving. We can parlay the problem of induction into a defense: the sunrise poses no puzzle; we are certain it will be morning in America. 

Corey Abel is an independent scholar living in Denver, Colorado. He has taught political theory and humanities at Colorado College, University of Colorado, and elsewhere. He is the author of articles on Michael Oakeshott’s relationship to Aristotle and his ideas on religion and art, as well as the editor of two collections of essays on Oakeshott.