The Right Stuff
Michael Oakeshott and the 'disposition' to conservatism.
Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By BARTON SWAIM
Lectures in the History of Political Thought
Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics
"To be conservative," wrote Michael Oakeshott in 1956, "is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."
These words first appeared in "On Being Conservative," later collected in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Thus did Oakeshott reject the notion that conservatism could be defined by reference to a coherent set of ideas or precepts; conservatism was, for him, a "disposition" to prefer and enjoy what one has rather than risk it for the possibility of something better.
Oakeshott's conservatism stands against what he took to be the principal fallacy of modern political thinking, Rationalism. What defines the Rationalist is his un-shakeable belief that social and political ills require only the application of human reason for their elimination. The Rationalist believes political governance must be based entirely on theoretical or technical knowledge--arguments, facts and figures, ideas--and he has no regard for practical knowledge, the kind of knowledge one acquires over time by being constantly engaged in an activity.
Practical knowledge can't be taught or written down, and so the Rationalist disregards it. If he applied his view of politics to cookery, says Oakeshott, the Rationalist would have to believe that great cooks are those who know and understand cookbooks. But trenchant though Oakeshott's analysis is, it leaves sympathetic readers wondering uncomfortably whether it's pointless after all to resist the encroachments of modern ideologies. Modern liberalism can't be fought with appeals to practical knowledge.
Thus, in 1975, Gertrude Himmelfarb published a mostly admiring essay on Oakeshott in which she objected to his conviction that conservatism has little to do with ideas and principles: However appealing his notion of a "conservative disposition" may be, a "disposition" is no match for the radical creeds seeking to remake society from top to bottom. What is disturbing about Oakeshott's critique of Rationalism, said Himmelfarb, "is his tendency to equate ideology with ideas, to be equally suspicious of both, to be impatient with the rigorous exercise of the mind." Oakeshott, she concluded,
It's hard to disagree with that criticism. Yet somehow I feel it fails to do justice to Oakeshott's enduringly relevant appraisal of modern politics.
So in a reprinted version of the essay in Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent collection The Moral Imagination (2006), the final, critical section has been completely rewritten. "Oakeshott's conservatism," she says after 30 years, "still speaks to us today not as a practical philosophy . . . but as a disposition that reminds us of more tranquil times, and which may still serve as a corrective to the more rigorous and strenuous modes of thought and conduct called for in a world that is anything but tranquil."
This revision comes nearer the truth, I think. Oakeshott was under no illusion that Rationalism could be resisted by means of a disposition to conserve; he was always amused when people wanted to know what could be "done" about Rationalism. Its roots stretch far too deeply into the history of Western civilization to "do" anything about it. His writings shouldn't be thought of primarily as a set of arguments and ideas, though they contain plenty of both. What Oakeshott offers is the dissection of a mindset--ours.
Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) began his career at Cambridge. Though his field was history, his first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), was a dense work of philosophy in which he distinguished between different forms of human experience. Though it fetched high praise from R.G. Collingwood, then a well-regarded Cambridge philosopher, the book took 30 years to sell out. His next work sold far better: an analysis of horse-racing with the wonderful title A Guide to the Classics; or, How to Pick the Derby Winner. Oakeshott was never a man to take himself too seriously.
After World War II--he had been a captain in a reconnaissance unit--Oakeshott quickly established his scholarly reputation with an introduction to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, and in 1947 became editor of the Cambridge Journal, where the essays reprinted in Rationalism in Politics first appeared. By the time of his appointment as professor of political science at the London School of Economics in 1951, he was widely known in Britain as one of the few intellectuals willing to defy the postwar consensus on statist intervention.
Retiring from LSE in 1969, he moved into a small cottage in Dorset with his third wife. He was a gentle and unpretentious man; when he died the local townsfolk were surprised to learn that he was a famous writer.
He still is. Over the last 20 years Oakeshott has been the subject of scores of articles and monographic studies. Several books have appeared by the man himself during this period. Yale has published two collections of essays, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989) and Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), as well as one previously unpublished monograph, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism (1996). And Liberty Fund in Indianapolis keeps in print its beautiful 1991 edition of Rationalism in Politics containing a few additional essays from the Cambridge Journal which the author (according to his friend Kenneth Minogue) simply "forgot" to include in the original.
Now the British publisher Imprint Academic has put out the second volume of a projected four-volume set of Selected Writings. The first--What Is History? and Other Essays--came out in 2004 and contains 30 essays almost all of which were previously unpublished. I was prepared to acknowledge that Oakeshott had left these writings in some drawer because he knew they were not so good, but in fact they are uniformly superb. One of them, a sprightly and intelligent discussion of different ways of writing history--Oakeshott imagines Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay in conversation--compares favorably with Charles Lamb or Walter Bagehot. It was handwritten in 1928 on the back of a pile of student exam papers.
Oakeshott wrote a great deal on the nature and meaning of history, and it has always been an oddity of his career that he never published a work of history. Now he has. Volume II of the Selected Writings consists of his lectures on the history of political thought at the London School of Economics.
The book takes its place among the author's major works. Oakeshott's method in describing political "thought" is to examine each political utterance he treats, from the Republic to the Wealth of Nations, as a response to specific historical situations. His approach resembles that of the "contextualist" school of political history exemplified by the historian J.G.A. Pocock, whose major works began appearing when these lectures were already written.
The lectures are worth reading in their own right, but Oakeshott's admirers will appreciate them primarily for the elaboration they afford to some of the points he made in his anti-Rationalist essays. In two of those, he distinguished between the word "ruler," the medieval term for a sovereign or head of state, and the word "leader," which we now use to describe political officials of whose strength or charisma we approve.
The former, says Oakeshott, carries the idea of adjudicating disputes and otherwise maintaining order; the latter suggests the teleological impositions of the modern state. "Rulers" want enough money to fight wars and as few internal disputes as possible; "leaders" want to take the state in a certain direction and must persuade majorities to let them. The transformation began, says Oakeshott, when, in the early modern era, the medieval distinction between adjudication and policymaking began to fall away.
For medieval rulers, policymaking had been confined almost exclusively to foreign policy: the making of treaties, declarations of war, and so on--powers, by their nature, unlimited. But in time, governments began to pursue policy with respect to their own population.
Oakeshott has been blessed by sympathetic and capable interpreters; he must be one of the only major thinkers consistently to be the subject of readable and enlightening academic monographs. Elizabeth Campbell Corey's Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics is among these. She argues that Oakeshott's thought, including his thought on politics, is animated as much by aesthetic and religious interests as by any purely philosophical ideas.
That Oakeshott's thought is, in any way, religious will surprise some, since he was not himself notably religious and since, in his writings on politics, he was deeply averse to any grand claims about the providential origin and development of the nation. (He thought of Edmund Burke, whom he admired in later years, as a "cosmic Tory.") But Oakeshott's skepticism toward religion had to do with religious and metaphysical claims in politics, not with Christianity in its own right. And in any case, Oakeshott himself was profoundly influenced by Augustine--a fact made abundantly clear by the LSE lectures.
Indeed his suspicion of the "politics of faith," as he referred to political thinking based on metaphysical certainties, is rooted in the Augustinian belief that the pursuit of human perfection is both futile and dangerous. Oakeshott's distrust of any scheme proposing to achieve (as he often put it) "perfection as the crow flies" derives more or less directly from Augustine's campaign against the Pelagians.
The "poetic" aspect of Oakeshott's writings is more apparent but, as Corey acknowledges, more difficult to pin down. In "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind," one of his most original and gracefully written essays, he likens the interaction among three different "idioms" of human activity (science, practical affairs, and poetry) to the interaction among friends in a conversation.
Oakeshott's concern here is to restore one of those idioms--poetry, or the enjoyment of beauty for its own sake--to its proper status of equality with other idioms.
The poetic is, for Oakeshott, the mode of activity most essential to being human: The governing principle of all his writings is that human life, if it's to be enjoyed, must be taken on its own terms and enjoyed for what it is. The most objectionable thing about modern liberalism was, for Oakeshott, that it cannot accept human affairs as they are but must always be striving to make them into something else. The long and beautiful passage from "On Being Conservative" in which he explains why young people are so disinclined to be conservative is a good instance of this:
Though sharply critical of certain trends and tendencies in modern society, he was not outraged at the world because it had taken a course other than the one he would have chosen. He did not make the mistake--frequently made by conservatives--of supposing that some period in the past had been a great mistake after which everything had gone awry.
Oakeshott was not what Americans would call a libertarian. His conservatism had nothing to do with the use of abstract principles in determining what to do in specific circumstances. It's true that his political philosophy was preeminently concerned with the value of personal freedom: His masterpiece On Human Conduct is an attempt to find the ideal state in which political and individual freedom could exist. But what lies at the heart of Oakeshott's worldview isn't so much the idea of freedom as the individual who stands to enjoy it.
The starting place of his philosophy wasn't "in the empyrean," he said--that is, in the world of abstractions--"but with ourselves as we have come to be."
After his death it was said that Oakeshott had been the intellectual force behind Thatcherism: a preposterous claim, whatever one thinks about Margaret Thatcher. He said he voted for the Tories because he thought they were likely to do the least harm. Oakeshott's analysis of Rationalism and its attendant ideologies couldn't give rise to a political movement, especially one so momentous as Thatcherism.
At his best, however, he reminds us that folly and frustration await those who put their faith in the human intellect, and who equate "reason" with their own opinions. And that's hardly useless.
Barton Swaim is author of the forthcoming Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere.