The Magazine

The Right Stuff

Michael Oakeshott and the 'disposition' to conservatism.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By BARTON SWAIM
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A modern state is a 'policy' state; and this, in its extreme, is a 'police' state. For what constitutes a 'police' state is not the 'knock at the door' (that is a minor detail), but the pursuit of policy by a government in relation to its own subjects.

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.

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. .  .  . Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument.

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:

To rein in one's own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one's hand, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin, to respect formality even when it appears to be leading to error, these are difficult achievements; and they are achievements not to be looked for in the young.

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.