After his death in 1990, Michael Oakeshott’s executors found dozens of unpublished but completed essays in the drawers of his desk. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day academic, under pressure to produce, leaving such a volume of work unpublished, but Oakeshott never felt compelled to bow to worldly pressures or pursue worldly gains—going so far as to decline, graciously, an offer of a knighthood. He confounded even friendly critics like Gertrude Himmelfarb, who commented that his early brilliance “might have been expected to [issue] in an illustrious and productive career.” Instead, he took his time, producing on average about one essay a year.
He was uninterested in being a public intellectual. Although he was a political philosopher of the first rank, he thought that most people greatly exaggerated the importance of politics. Though he had, and continues to have, many disciples, he did not ask for them. Unlike Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and many others of his stature, he cultivated no elite coterie of followers.
In all this Oakeshott typified his own description of a conservative. He eschewed the usual conservative foundations of religion, natural law, private property, family relations, or free markets, gently admonishing Friedrich Hayek for his “plan to resist all planning” and Russell Kirk for his “confusion” in setting out the speculative beliefs that he thought must form the foundation of conservatism. Conservatism, as he described it in his famous 1956 essay “On Being Conservative,” is not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a way of orienting oneself in and to the world. This disposition entails, above all, an inclination to enjoy what is there to be enjoyed, rather than to seek for what is not there.
Is this notion of conservatism relevant in a time of moral and social crisis? Writing in The American Scholar in 1975, Himmelfarb wondered what basis there could be, after the social revolution that had taken place over the previous decade, for an authentic, dispositional conservatism of enjoyment that emerged from a stable tradition of conduct. We could ask the same question today, when the world Oakeshott assumed has passed even farther away. “The logic of Oakeshott’s position might suggest that the conservative should acquiesce in the new modes of mind and conduct,” she observed. “But what if these new modes are essentially anarchical, if they so illegitimize social authority that they constitute, in effect, a ‘permanent revolution’? . . . What happens, in short, when the ‘adversary culture,’ to use Trilling’s apt phrase, has become the dominant culture?” What, we might ask, is there to enjoy, and how do we recognize it?
Oakeshott would have replied that we can only continue doing what we know to be worthwhile, drawing on and rejuvenating what remains of our tradition of thought and conduct. He would also have maintained that being conservative is not primarily a political disposition and that in focusing excessively on politics we necessarily neglect the very forms of life we aim to protect. Political activity, he wrote in an early essay, “is a highly specialized and abstracted form of communal activity; it is conducted on the surface of the life of a society and except on rare occasions makes a remarkably small impression below that surface.” Political activity encourages a “limitation of view, which appears so clear and practical, but which amounts to little more than a mental fog.”
Society is sustained and rejuvenated not by those who are engaged in politics but by artists, poets, philosophers, and scholars—people whose distance from “the world” is not merely accidental but essential to their work. “The emotional and intellectual integrity and insight for which they stand is something foreign to the political world.” The conservative is not primarily defined by taking the right political positions but by recognizing and preserving the beauty the world has to offer, and by engaging as much as possible in activities that are worthwhile in themselves, especially friendship, love, aesthetic contemplation, conversation, and liberal learning.
The beauty the world has to offer is what is lost by the “Rationalist,” the type of modern man whose character Oakeshott sketched in his most famous essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” first published in 1947 and republished fifty years ago in his essay collection of the same name. The Rationalist (the initial capital is Oakeshott’s, who as Himmelfarb observed suggestively spelled “conservative” with a lowercase c) is both skeptical and optimistic: skeptical that there is anything he cannot master and optimistic about the possibilities for human progress. He often appears as the earnest reformer, someone who perceives the world as a never-ending series of problems and crises to be solved by the application of his reason and native ability.
The Rationalist is constitutionally incapable of contentment with any present state of affairs, because everything always falls short of his ideal and therefore is constantly in need of improvement. He is the enemy of “authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual.” Compromise of any sort is a violation of principles; one must always maintain ideological purity. He seeks to “pursue perfection as the crow flies,” in one of Oakeshott’s most famous expressions. His is “the politics of faith”—not traditional religious faith, but faith, in Timothy Fuller’s summary, “in the capacity of human beings to perfect themselves through their own efforts, made possible by the discovery of ways continually to increase the power of government as the essential instrumentality to control, design, and perfect individuals and groups.”
We might immediately assume that Rationalist is only another term for liberal, but Oakeshott would not say that. Rationalism is a disposition of mind that infects those on the right as well as, and perhaps as much as, those on the left. In putting such faith in political creeds, mission statements, and manifestos—in what he called “the ideological style of politics”—Oakeshott thought that modern conservatives had become nearly as “rationalistic” as modern progressives. Believing that reality is something we can fully understand and control, they have failed to see that the source and strength of any particular platform of ideas lies not in abstract thought but in the lived experience out of which those ideas emerge. Creeds and mission statements are, he insisted, at best only abridgments or pointers.
Rationalism, however, is not averse to reason or hostile to a life of the mind. It rather misunderstands, or only partially understands, the knowledge required for engaging in any valuable activity. The only knowledge the Rationalist will admit as certain is “technical knowledge,” that which can be formulated into rules, principles, directions, maxims, and propositions. It is the grammar of a language, the handbook that comes with a new appliance, the technique book that accompanies a piano method. When we write about an art or skill we often write only about its technique, because this has an appearance of certainty. Everything else—the aesthetic element, the artistry, the style—is observable only in the practice of it, and may therefore seem less real.
Of course anyone who has apprenticed himself to a practitioner of a great art or science knows that technical knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a laudable performance. Why else would we choose to listen to Horowitz rather than Liberace? Both, after all, were masters of piano technique. But Oakeshott saw that not to detect a man’s style “is to have missed three quarters of the meaning of his actions and utterances; and not to have acquired a style is to have shut oneself off from the ability to convey any but the crudest meanings.” The inexpressible stylistic, even aesthetic, component is the crucial element in any performance. Such “practical knowledge” is thus the essential counterpart of technical knowledge.
Rationalism in politics often has dire consequences, because the Rationalist tends to have inordinate faith in policy solutions, slogans, and political machinery to guide citizens toward a good the Rationalist has chosen, while neglecting to understand how people actually live and think, what they actually do and need. The Rationalist pursues “the politics of perfection” when perfection is unattainable. One cannot govern by simply following a civil society users’ manual. Even if we can separate “the ore of the ideal from the dross of habit of behavior,” the ideals cannot be lived outside the cultural, religious, and social life in which they developed.
Moral ideals, and by extension other ideals, Oakeshott wrote in a striking passage in “Rationalism in Politics,” are a kind of sediment and have significance “only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition, so long as they belong to a religious or a social life.” When this religious and social tradition withers, we are left with nothing but the dry and gritty residue “which chokes us as we try to take it down.” Thus we have the spectacle “of a set of sanctimonious, rationalist politicians, preaching an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they and their predecessors have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behavior.”
The conservative is the photographic negative of the Rationalist. While Rationalism accepts only the certainty of principles, maxims, and rules, Oakeshott’s conservatism needs no foundational principles to anchor it. A conservative attitude requires that one be equal to one’s own fortune, live at the level of one’s own means, and “be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances.” He is aware of what he has, and finds it valuable despite its unavoidable imperfection. Its value derives from its familiarity. A conservative neither longs for a utopian future nor has an excessive reverence for a past golden age. He accepts the “disturbed vision of the weakness and wickedness of mankind and the transitoriness of human achievement” and rejects “the allure of the gilded future foreseen in the vision of faith.” Instead, “what is esteemed is the present,” and happiness consists in cultivating and delighting in what one has been given.
This disposition of delight can be detected throughout Oakeshott’s corpus—in his notion of the poetic character of experience, his love of conversation, his fondness for all activities that might be pursued as ends in themselves: friendship, liberal learning, poetry, and fishing, among many others. Walter Bagehot expressed a similar idea when he wrote, in an 1854 study of Macaulay, the following lines:
Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout this country: give painful lectures, distribute weary tracts (and perhaps this is as well—you may be able to give an argumentative answer to a few objections, you may diffuse a distinct notion of the dignified dullness of politics); but as far as communicating and establishing your creed are concerned—try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is, to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is, to enjoy that state of things.
To enjoy old customs is emphatically not a political response, though it is thoroughly conservative.
What does the cultivation of this conservative disposition mean for politics? Above all, it means that politics can never be a true source of human fulfillment. Following both Augustine and Hobbes, Oakeshott saw that there was no hope of transforming the human condition, and thus insuperable obstacles stand in the way of progressive aims. The best political activity can do is to enforce a rule of law that allows men to live peacefully with one another as they pursue “the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness.”
Thus political conservatism must be predicated on “dispositional” conservatism. This assumes that we know what to do with our freedom, that we have the ability to see the limits of politics and of all worldly aspiration, and that we can enjoy the enormous riches of both the created world and of our own intellectual tradition. It is a disposition at once skeptical and joyful.
Some readers will doubtless complain that this conservatism is too Romantic, too English, one that cannot be sustained over the course of a life, and certainly not in times of crisis or moral and social decay. It is Himmelfarb’s question come back to haunt us: Where, once the adversary culture has become the dominant culture, once the old habits are no longer habits, can one look for guidance?
Two examples of the dominance of this adversary culture may help us both to imagine and to formulate an Oakeshottian response to Himmelfarb’s question. The first is the crisis in contemporary liberal education; the second is the decline of traditional marriage. Fewer students every year seek a liberal arts degree, and their teachers offer a politicized and corrupted version of the liberal arts. Any “tradition” that college students encounter nowadays very often tends toward either the vacuous or the politicized. The academy has largely been overtaken by revolutionaries.
In a similar vein, ought we simply to acquiesce to rapidly changing sexual mores and a deteriorating marriage culture because they have become the norm? More than half of all first marriages in the United States are now preceded by a period of cohabitation. The probability of divorce for first marriages is between forty and fifty percent. The gay-rights movement is successfully working to make same-sex marriage ubiquitous.
In responding to these developments (which had begun, of course, in Oakeshott’s lifetime), Oakeshott would have begun by observing the crucial distinction between engaging in an activity itself and fighting in defense of that activity. In working to sustain the tradition of the “great books,” for instance, we may find that we are so busy protecting an idea that we ourselves have no time for reading. As C. S. Lewis wrote in “Learning in War-Time,” the person who surrenders himself to any cause—conservative or not—“is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”
Oakeshott consistently focused both on the essence of the activity (poetry, philosophy, liberal learning) and on the character of the individual who engages in it. He insisted, for instance, that those who wished to preserve the tradition of liberal learning actually teach and learn, serving as models for students and “initiating” them into their intellectual inheritance, and that doing this was more important than fighting battles. Of course he recognized that important battles were there to be fought, but they should be fought by those who were primarily engaged in the activity itself.
Similarly, those concerned about the decaying marriage culture can and should strengthen the institution by living the married life faithfully and joyfully. By the example of their own lives, they demonstrate to their children, friends, and the rest of their community the beauty of marriage. This, indeed, is the most important work there is, especially as it is the only way to pass on the “practical knowledge” necessary for successful marriages. And it accomplishes something that no Rationalist presidential candidate’s platform on social policy ever can: It is “lived experience” that rejuvenates the tradition at its source.
Such a response would probably not have satisfied Himmelfarb, for she sought foundations that Oakeshott was unwilling, and temperamentally unable, to provide. She desired secure religious or creedal underpinnings for fighting what she saw as the adversary culture. But for Oakeshott conservatism was not a philosophical position, much less an ideological perspective, but only a disposition. It was not primarily battle but enjoyment. This appears as a limitation of his thought, for doesn’t a time of crisis demand an authoritative, certain response grounded in something more than the contingencies of a constantly changing tradition? It may be that most of us do require something more. We may be, as one student of Oakeshott’s has put it, skeptical in politics but not in religion. We may go far down the path of enjoyment with Oakeshott but nevertheless ultimately require at least some of the foundation, some reason to evaluate and justify that enjoyment, that he rejected.
Still, Oakeshott’s fundamental insight about Rationalism is of great importance for all of us who wish to cultivate, or resuscitate, as the case may be, an intellectual or moral tradition. His insight is that there are no shortcuts to success in politics or anything else and that the Rationalist approach to life is as fundamentally flawed as it is widespread in the modern world. The Rationalist has “a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.”
This attitude represents a kind of gnosticism, as Oakeshott explicitly observed, and he traced the rise of Rationalism to a concurrent falling away from faith. Rationalism, he maintained, is closely allied “with a decline in the belief in Providence: a beneficent and infallible technique replaced a beneficent and infallible God; and where Providence was not available to correct the mistakes of men it was all the more necessary to prevent such mistakes.”
Rationalism is no doubt a permanent tendency in human nature. In several places Oakeshott described it as Pelagian, insofar as it assumes the possibility of worldly perfection achievable through human action. He saw clearly that human beings are continually inclined to be prideful and, at the same time (to use a patently modern word) “insecure.” To assuage our anxiety we undertake massive political projects to remake the world, hoping that we might hide from, or ignore, the fact that each of us must die.
We place our hope not in God, but in human effort, and in an improvement we will obtain in an amorphous and constantly receding future. On the left, we put our faith in progress; on the right, in reform or a return to a past golden age. The left believes in collectivist programs, the right in the unrestrained market. Both responses are Rationalistic: faithless to the present arrangements, intolerant of settled arrangements and the culture that supports them, overestimating human potential, and fundamentally misunderstanding the capacity of politics to make significant changes in human life.
Oakeshott’s insight into the conservative disposition is actually quite simple. It is that in responding to the excesses of contemporary liberalism and progressivism, as well as to Rationalism when it appears among conservatives, we ought not to compete on Rationalist terms, as if yet another mission statement or manifesto or policy could save us. The work of conservatives is above all to identify, preserve, and enjoy, and in doing so rejuvenate, those good traditions and institutions that remain, especially those activities that may appear pointless and wasteful from the perspective of those who want only to maximize utility: the life-giving activities and pleasures of poetry, liberal learning, conversation, friendship, and love.
Elizabeth Corey is assistant professor of political science in the Honors College at Baylor University.