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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Roman Revolution: Tradition Fails to Save the Republic

Interested in what the history of Rome says about constitutionalism and about ideological politics? From my recent work on my doctoral thesis:

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Here, we will examine how the Roman reliance on tradition fared during the period commonly known as the ‘Roman Revolution’, typically conceived as covering the years between the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE and the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The term ‘revolution’ must be understood as being used here in a idiosyncratic way. As Garrett Fagan notes, the Roman Revolution was not a planned event, like the Russian Revolution. Nor did it take place in a brief, dramatic coup. What’s more, many of the ‘revolutionary’ actions making it up were not even, strictly speaking, illegal—due to the traditional character of the Roman constitution they consisted, instead, of technically legal but unprecedented acts that flouted that tradition.

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On ideological politics:

The actions of the Optimates in this period and the gulf between the intended and the actual effects of those actions provide examples of a defect that Oakeshott argued was inherently present in any instance of ideological politics. The ideologue has pledged his full allegiance to an abstract conception of the ideal polity, and as a consequence regards any acceptation of deviations from that ideal, other than as a stepping stone along the shortest path to his utopia, as an unprincipled compromise between virtue and vice. Thus, the ideologue is contemptuous of attempts by more practical and modest political actors to comprehend the actual political circumstances of their particular place and time so as to pursue those improvements to present conditions that are realistically achievable. In the words of Oakeshott, the ideologue finds ‘the intricacy of the world of time and contingency so unmanageable that he is bewitched by the offer of a quick escape into the bogus eternity of an ideology’ (1991 [1962]: 34). Although the ideological purist flaunts his ‘unwillingness to compromise his principles’ as evidence of his moral superiority over the political pragmatist, in fact it is evidence that he has failed to grasp the ethical truth that an action, however laudable the intentions behind it, is lacking in virtue to whatever extent the agent undertaking it has neglected to give prudent consideration to its probable outcome in the real world, rather than merely his own fanciful wishes for what his action will bring about.

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