Paul Franco, a professor of government at Bowdoin College, describes his book on English political theorist Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) as an “introduction.”  That modest claim is fully justified in light of the many volumes on politics, philosophy, aesthetics, education, and religion that Franco’s subject left behind in his productive life of 89 years.  Franco observes in Chapter One that Oakeshott

lived through virtually every important event of the twentieth century: Both world wars; the rise and fall of fascism and the Cold War; the rise and fall of communism; and of course, the steady decline of Britain from the most powerful country in the world to a struggling middle power.

Noting the darkness of his century, Oakeshott once remarked, with a British sense of understatement, that “it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a somber view of the human situation: they deal in darkness.”

In the late 20’s, Oakeshott was already a Cambridge don, contributing to the prestigious Journal of Theological Studies and hobnobbing with British idealists T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, F.H. Bradley, and J.M.E. McTaggart.  Although he rejected the positive view of the managerial state that these British neo-Hegelians put forth, the young don applied their skepticism to the reality of the material world.  He never believed that knowledge was reducible to collecting and processing observable facts.  There is, Franco points out, a steady emphasis in Oakeshott’s work on “imagination” as a contributing factor to political and aesthetic creations.  It is therefore not at all strange that Oakeshott admired Hobbes and Hegel as thinkers who inventively conceptualized human interactions.  Oakeshott distinguished Hobbes’ leviathan and Hegel’s constitutional state, as products of an historical dialectic, from the totalitarian and collectivist projects of the 20th century.  One of Oakeshott’s contributions as a reader of political texts was to demonstrate the self-limiting political aims of two major European figures identified as state-worshipers.  Although it is difficult to associate either with the very minimal kind of government that Oakeshott favored—what he called a “civil association” rather than an “enterprise association”—Hobbes and Hegel, he correctly explained, belonged to an earlier, less ideological stage in the development of the modern state.

A consideration of Franco’s work suggests that the widespread praise it has drawn is mostly justified.  The author squeezes coherent summaries of Oakeshott’s major works and discussions of how his thought related to that of other thinkers into a slim text of less than 200 pages (plus index and notes).  The prose never seems hurried and is usually worthy of the venerable, Edwardian style of its subject.  Franco is particularly useful in showing that Oakeshott, despite his distaste for muscular, intrusive government, always recognized, as did Hegel, the need for a “judicious lordship for the relief of the destitute.”  Oakeshott dealt at least cursorily with what Franco calls “the contingent, enabling conditions of civil association.”  In order to have a civil society, even if we are speaking about one that is not being molded in accordance with an imposed common enterprise, Oakeshott understood the necessity of government.  There can be no protected freedom without acknowledged authorities that guarantee public order and enforce contracts, as well as provide for the truly indigent.

Oakeshott failed to address the task of governing with any degree of thoroughness, however, and, according to Franco, did not go as far as Tocqueville, the French observer of 19th-century American manners, as a critic of “individualism.”  He assumed that society would generally regulate itself, provided that ideological projects and a state committed to them could be kept out of the way.  Franco counters this assumption by suggesting that not all contemporary moral problems have been state induced.  Perhaps Oakeshott’s well-known distinctions between a “civil association” and an “enterprise association” and between “rationalist” and “nonrationalist” politics come down to one between a traditional state, which upholds bourgeois Christian morals and associations, and a regime that is hostile to tradition.  Franco observes that a “more historical conception of political philosophy” is discernible in Oakeshott’s work after World War II; nonetheless, his subject never spelled out very clearly the time-specific qualities of the late-modern state.  Oakeshott’s distinctions might have been strengthened had he anchored them in the institutional changes he was witnessing.  On the other hand, he may not have wanted to sound too up to date or to be misinterpreted as a partisan advocate.

Two problems with this study warrant mention.  The first, which is less upsetting, concerns the omitted value of a contrast between Carl Schmitt and Oakeshott, who were once compared as “authentic voices of the radical Right.”  While Franco justifiably dismisses this comparison, made in the 1930’s, as leftist agitprop, it may, in any case, be instructive to contrast these two chronologically overlapping political theorists who once bestrode their field.  Both thinkers admired and wrote books on Hobbes, whom they treated as a father of the European state and as someone seeking to restrain violence through statecraft.  Beyond that similarity, the two authors sharply diverged: While Oakeshott tried to minimize the political aspect of civil association, Schmitt argued that such a separation of society from the nation-state typifies a “liberal avoidance of the political.”  It was characteristic of the liberal economic mentality to relegate political relations to a minor compartment of life.  For Schmitt, unlike Oakeshott, this is not workable.  Political life is not only dark but necessarily contentious.  Human life must become “political”—that is, characterized by friend-enemy distinctions often spilling into violence, whether or not the state is around.  Although Oakeshott and Schmitt were steeped in many of the same books and  associated with rightist politics (albeit of differing types), their conclusions are so diametrically opposed as to warrant a comparative study.

The other problem concerns those into whose company Franco tries to stick Oakeshott.  A neoconservative/neoliberal subtext runs through this book, from multiple references to members of the Kristol dynasty to a dispensable mention of the utterly trivial David Brooks.  At least ten pages are given over to Isaiah Berlin, a spatial allotment that cannot be justified in terms of the intellectual, as opposed to the social, importance of this social-democratic essayist and self-proclaimed expert on fascism’s 19th-century lineage.  Is there anything beyond narrow professional considerations that might explain why Franco lavishes far more space on Irving Kristol than on Bertrand de Jouvenel, the celebrated French neoliberal thinker whose conceptions closely resemble those of Oakeshott?  And why is there no mention of Robert Nisbet, who shared Oakeshott’s misgivings about the present age, but lots of puffery about that fan of the welfare state, Gertrude Himmelfarb?

Since two and two still equal four, the answer seems clear to me.  Franco’s flatteries, moreover, have been amply rewarded, to judge by which magazines and notables have extolled him and his monograph.  It is not that I begrudge Franco his success.  What troubles me is where this sycophantic trend in scholarly authorship may be moving.  Will it be necessary in the near future to compare favorably the blogs of Jonah Goldberg to the tracts of Aristotle in order to be plugged as a political theorist in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Daily Telegraph?  Stranger things could happen in today’s political climate.


[Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, by Paul Franco (New Haven: Yale University Press) 209 pp., $30.00]