Pondering the endless glut of books on the virtues of nationalism and the failures of political liberalism, I sat up late the other night, reading around (yet again) in Augustine’s City of God before dozing off in my chair. Waking suddenly—or, at least, half-awake—my mind was a jumble of names like Deneen, Reno, and Hazony. I rushed to get down on paper those late-night musings. They did not add up to a theory but were more like a series of reflections about the point and limits of politics and the destiny of nations. Aware though I was that no editor was likely to look kindly upon these musings, I still could not resist jotting them down before nodding off again.
There was a period in my life when I read widely, and with considerable profit, in the writings of the political theorist Michael Oakeshott. Whatever one thinks of his thought in general—and there are aspects of it that I would not endorse—he is often instructive and thought-provoking. Especially so in a passage I have often quoted, which sprang irresistibly to my half-awake mind. “Politics,” Oakeshott wrote, “is a second-rate form of activity . . . at once corrupting to the soul and fatiguing to the mind, the activity either of those who cannot live without the illusion of affairs or those so fearful of being ruled by others that they will pay away their lives to prevent it.” That has always seemed right to me. What we want from politics is freedom for private life: freedom to read, to play with children, to watch ball games, to walk in the morning or the early evening with one we love, to work in the yard, to pray or to sing. None of this, although it is private rather than public, is necessarily self-serving or individualistic. And that sort of freedom is what a liberal politics, at least at its best, offers. It does not ask for our devotion, as if the nation or our participation in public affairs could be a worthy object of anything one might call devotion. It offers not a home but a place in which real homes can be secure and satisfying. It never asks of us what is often (though mistakenly) called “the ultimate sacrifice.” The most it may ask, or even demand, is a “penultimate sacrifice.”