Remembering Michael Oakeshott

Against Rationalistic Politics

Irving Kristol knew his enemies. In 1956, when the godfather of neoconservatism was an editor at Encounter magazine, he recognized Michael Oakeshott as one of those enemies: a man whose ideas were antithetical to his own.

Oakeshott, then a 55-year-old professor of political science at the London School of Economics, had sent to Kristol for Encounter’s consideration a manuscript entitled “On Being Conservative.” “It was beautifully written, subtle in its argument, delicate in its perceptions, and full of sentences and paragraphs that merit the attention of anthologists, perhaps even centuries, to come,” Kristol recalled in 1996. “But,” he continued, “the truth is that, while I admired the essay immensely, I did not really like it. Which is another way of saying that I disagreed with it.” He rejected Oakeshott’s submission and offered—in his own later words—“disingenuous circumlocutions” as his rationale for doing so.

Forty years later, Kristol was half-disingenuous in providing a new set of reasons. Writing in the liberal magazine Prospect, nearly six years after Oakeshott’s death, Kristol first claimed that as a Jewish conservative, he felt he had to reject Oakeshott’s “irredeemably secular” conservatism. It was not a fair characterization of Oakeshott’s philosophy, nor was it a plausible scruple on the part of a neoconservative whose own view of religion often seemed to be utilitarian, if not downright Machiavellian.

Yet the second reason Kristol offered for his blackballing of Oakeshott put the first reason in a new light. Americans, Kristol claimed, subscribed to an “ideological patriotism” that was incompatible with Oakeshott’s strongly anti-ideological conservatism. America was “a nation of immigrants,” and “assimilation in the United States is like a conversion experience, in which a new creed replaces the old.” Oakeshott’s problem was not really that he was irreligious; it was that he did not evangelize the civil religion that Kristol prescribed.

Michael Oakeshott lecturing at
the London School of Economics
(LSE Library)

Oakeshott took little interest in political sectarianism even in his own country. He was admired by many figures within the Conservative Party, and Margaret Thatcher’s government would have liked to have him knighted. He declined that honor, as he declined almost all involvement in party politics. Oakeshott’s biographer, Paul Franco, quotes him as saying, “I am a member of no political party. I vote—if I have to vote—for the party which is likely to do the least harm. To that extent, I am a Tory.”

Nevertheless, friends and foes alike understood Oakeshott to be the most formidable conservative intellect of his era, a man whose ideas were equally dangerous to neoconservatives and Marxists. Russell Kirk valued Oakeshott’s work and included his 1956 essay (the one rejected by Kristol) “On Being Conservative” in the Portable Conservative Reader, which Kirk edited for Viking. M. E. Bradford and James Burnham adopted Oakeshott’s contrast between “nomocratic” and “teleocratic” politics in their own writing. And Oakeshott was brought to America to deliver the keynote address at National Review’s 20th anniversary celebration, in 1975.

Oakeshott was born in 1901 and educated at Cambridge, where he was influenced by the British Idealist school of philosophical thought, then in its dying days. He published his first book, Experience and Its Modes, in 1933. During World War II, he volunteered for service in covert operations but was instead assigned to the elite frontline intelligence unit, Phantom. Oakeshott’s father, a civil servant, had been a Fabian socialist involved in the creation of the London School of Economics, and in 1951, Oakeshott joined the LSE faculty as chair in political science. It was a noteworthy and controversial appointment—Oakeshott was already known as a conservative, and in his inaugural lecture he made clear just how different he would be from the chair’s previous occupant, the left-wing political theorist Harold Laski.

A few years prior to the appointment, in 1947, Oakeshott had published one of his most important essays, “Rationalism in Politics,” which appeared in the Cambridge Journal and offered a hint of what was to come in later works. Oakeshott argued that politics involved messy problems in human associations that didn’t have clear-cut solutions but nonetheless required making unique choices in contingent situations. Politics was often misunderstood, however, as a rational activity that used technical knowledge to solve permanent problems. The rationalistic view reduced politics to something like the rules in a technical manual—or in a cookbook. Rationalism in political activity, argued Oakeshott, was the attempt to impose “a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.”

He believed that in politics, Marxism and democratic socialism were both species of rationalism. But so too was the philosophy of John Locke and of the American Revolution. Oakeshott went so far as to contend that even before the Revolution, the experience of colonizing a new world had led Americans to believe that they were self-made men involved not in extending a tradition but in forging something original, and this orientation primed them to cast the Revolution in Lockean terms.

They were disposed to believe, and they believed more fully than was possible for an inhabitant of the Old World, that the proper organization of society and the conduct of its affairs were based upon abstract principles, and not upon a tradition which, as Hamilton said, had “to be rummaged for among old parchments and musty records.”

Oakeshott warned of two dire consequences arising from rationalism in politics. The first was that “it leads not only to specific mistakes, but it also dries up the mind itself: living by precept in the end generates intellectual dishonesty.” Real-world politics cannot follow a rule book but must always be guided by unstated traditions (and their implications or “intimations”) and prudent statesmanship. Relying on a cookbook causes the tacit knowledge of tradition to be undervalued and ultimately forgotten and can produce underskilled cooks or statesmen.

The other great evil of rationalism in politics is that it corrupts education. “The morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals, and the appropriate form of moral education is by precept, by the presentation and explanation of moral principles.” But such an approach, said Oakeshott, leaves “morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behavior. … the morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-made man and of the self-made society: it is what other peoples have recognized as ‘idolatry.’”

One may disagree with Oakeshott’s interpretation of the American Revolution and its colonial antecedents, which did involve a great deal of acknowledged tradition as well as novel rationalistic arguments. And while Oakeshott would always see written constitutions as a Rationalist conceit, he did recognize that they could also serve as an emblem of a traditional civic order. Nevertheless, conservatives on either side of the Atlantic can recognize the truth in Oakeshott’s criticisms of intellectualized, ideological politics, and his fears for education and moral upbringing under a Rationalist style of politics have been confirmed all too clearly by our educational establishment under liberalism.

Michael Oakeshott
(Levan Ramishvili / via Flikr)

Oakeshott was an Anglican of idiosyncratic beliefs and rather diffident practice. The formative and enduring influence of Christianity on his thought, however, is quite clear from “Rationalism in Politics,” in which there is an obvious parallel between those in religion who follow the letter of the law but not the spirit, and those in politics who believe that abstract rules and principles are the means for success. Oakeshott considered Saint Paul as well as Saint Augustine to be among history’s most profound political thinkers.

“On Being Conservative” illustrates the alternative to Rationalism in politics—at least in one of its moods. As might be expected, the essay is not a checklist of conservative policies or an ideological manifesto. Instead, Oakeshott considered conservatism “a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for: a man in some degree rich in opportunities for enjoyment, but not so rich that he can afford to be indifferent to loss.” Conservatism in this light is not a yearning for the past but an awareness of what is valuable in the present. “To be conservative,” wrote Oakeshott,

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. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.

Change is an unavoidable feature of life, but so too is the harm that comes with change. “Change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction,” Oakeshott wrote, and not just for the conservative but for every human being. Perhaps only a nihilist could be lacking in all conservative sensibility. And the fact that change is unavoidable does not mean that it cannot be controlled: the conservative prefers gradual change to the sudden variety, change that resembles growth rather than abrupt transformation.

The ideologies that stand in contrast to the conservative disposition are future-oriented (or sometimes backward-oriented) and aim to change the world for the better according to some plan. The conservative disposition, on the other hand, is not a drive to a destination. Oakeshott employed recreational fishing as an image of the conservative disposition: although one can fish for sport or for food, it is also possible to enjoy fishing without any goal in mind, “not for the profit of a catch, but for its own sake.” Ritual activity of any kind is inherently conservative in this sense.

Oakeshott saw no necessary contradiction, however, between having a conservative disposition toward politics and having a more radical disposition in other fields. Because politics arising from the conservative disposition is not aimed at transformation or attaining a goal but rather at preserving a way of life that one already enjoys, it limits the scope of government ambitions and leaves most of life open for personal pursuits.

The conceptual logic on which Oakeshott relied in deriving his understanding of the conservative disposition does not depend on “natural law or a providential order” and has “nothing to do with morals or religion.” Oakeshott took care to note this not because he was indifferent to religion or morals but because his philosophical method is austere, and he wished it to be self-sufficient.

Nevertheless, some on the American right today will blanch at Oakeshott’s affinity for skeptical and individualist thinkers. “There is more to be learnt about this disposition from Montaigne, Pascal, Hobbes and Hume than from Burke or Bentham,” he wrote.

“Rationalism in Politics” and “On Being Conservative” showcase a concern that runs throughout Oakeshott’s work, a duality for which Oakeshott employed several pairs of terms: “teleocracy” in contrast to “nomocracy,” “enterprise association” vs. “civil association,” universitas as opposed to societas, and others. The fundamental distinction in each case is between goal-oriented activity, especially in the context of political community, and a political community in which there is no overarching goal but only a legal relationship under a recognized authority. Oakeshott was a brilliant interpreter of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and he found in Leviathan a prototype for his thinking about these two different modes of politics.

Oakeshott’s own philosophical masterpiece, his 1975 book On Human Conduct, is an attempt to specify the essential conditions of these modes. The book concludes with a sketch of their historical development as well. On Human Conduct has a plausible claim to being the most rigorous philosophical work produced by any conservative in the 20th century, and it is one of very few philosophical works from that century deserving of recognition as a classic. Its reputation has been hampered, however, by the difficulty it poses to lay readers and by the opprobrium from the academic left that predictably greeted its publication. Readers who are familiar with Oakeshott at all often know him only from Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays and shorter collections of his essays on Hobbes, education, and history.

The caricature of Oakeshott, arising among those who are only casually familiar with his thought, is that of an eclectic scholar for whom conservatism is merely a matter of taste. Scholars who have taken a closer interest in Oakeshott’s work have often come from liberal or Straussian backgrounds and have interpreted him through those lenses. Oakeshott’s emphasis on human conduct as grounded in moral choice, his rejection of the language of “common good,” and the limitations on state power required by his understanding of “civil association” have even led some liberals to claim Oakeshott as one of their own.

Yet Oakeshott consistently criticized liberalism as a species of political rationalism. “The main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom,” he wrote in “Rationalism in Politics,” is “not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” The autonomy that characterizes human agency in On Human Conduct is a feature of agency itself, not a political or cultural goal, as it is for liberals. And the restraints on state power entailed by civil association are also part of the logical definition of the concept of civil association itself. Oakeshott acknowledged that existing states did not and could not adhere to the ideal form of civil association, though they cannot adhere to the ideal form of enterprise association either.

Michael Oakeshott portrait, side view
(London School of Economics Library)

Sketched in the simplest terms, Oakeshott’s political philosophy might be stated as follows: human beings pursue a variety of enterprises—meaning, aims in general, not simply business enterprises—and when people unite with others in a joint pursuit of a shared goal, the result is an enterprise association. These associations, of necessity, are concerned with contingencies, so they have a managerial character: some executive, whether one man or a committee, must decide how to respond to every choice that confronts the association. An enterprise association also necessarily subordinates its members to the goal that it pursues, and if members impede advancement toward the goal, they will be removed if they do not leave willingly.

Enterprise associations are appropriate for many human purposes. A state, however, does not possess the unity of purpose that characterizes a true enterprise association. The attempt to create such a unity only exacerbates divisions between those who support the proposed goal and those who do not. Although Oakeshott does not state the problem in quite these terms, the upshot of an attempt to turn a modern state into an enterprise association is to reduce the state to a party: the state loses civil authority in pursuit of a partisan goal.

Civil association is not in pursuit of a shared goal but an association of obedience to recognized law and authority, under which individuals may pursue different enterprises, alone or together. The demands made on human beings in a state that resembles a civil association may still be higher than the demands liberals think are desirable. What matters for Oakeshott is not the size of the state but the nature of the association—considerations that are logically distinct, though they may be empirically related.

States do need to function temporarily as enterprise associations during wartime, when they pursue a goal of victory, and all real states during all times deviate in varying degrees from the ideal of civil association. But they do so at their peril, and at the peril of their citizens. Totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are examples of states as enterprise associations. But so too are states that follow an impulse from Francis Bacon to exploit nature maximally to the “benefit” of mankind, or states that aim to provide a therapeutic solution to a citizenry that is understood as sick or victimized.

The agony of modern European states—and the United States, too—is that they cannot overcome their mixed character, and while there are some men and women who are well-suited to life in a (mostly) civil association, there are others who are not content to find purpose in anything less than an enterprise association on the scale of the whole state (if not the whole world). Rationalism in politics drives the state toward enterprise, a “teleocracy” that fulfills the commands of rule-book reason. The conservative disposition, on the other hand, is a temperamental analogue to civil association itself. Oakeshott was no ideological partisan, but he was most certainly a conservative.

What’s more, his philosophy is instructive for the American right. Our national tradition, memorialized if not created by the Constitution, is civil association par excellence. And our opponents have ever been those who wish to sacrifice this tradition in the name of some enterprise promising secular salvation.

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