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The Right Stuff

Michael Oakeshott and the 'disposition' to conservatism.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By BARTON SWAIM
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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The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989) and Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), as well as one previously unpublished monograph, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism (1996).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 and Other Essays--came out in 2004 and contains 30 essays almost all of which were previously unpublished.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.