FEBRUARY 4, 2016
BORN AT THE OUTSET of a century that will be remembered as one of the bloodiest in history, Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) must have had few reasons to feel at home in a world dominated by prophets of extremism, heralds of salvation and doom, and self-righteous philistines. A bohemian and romantic spirit, he could have easily found refuge in philosophy, theology, literature, or the arts in order to escape the terror of history. Instead, he chose a different route: he proceeded to rethink the nature and ends of politics in the hope that by entering into a conversation with others on these topics, he might moderate the propensity to radicalism displayed by many of his contemporaries. A self-proclaimed political conservative, Oakeshott was a moderate thinker, aware of what was afoot in his own age, yet one who looked more patrician than he really was; he preferred to keep some distance from real politics and refused to identify himself with a political party. Oakeshott made a point of writing with the independence of someone who seeks to read into the nature of things without taking on the role of a maître à penser. He was skeptical toward academic fashions and did not see himself as an “intellectual” in the usual sense of the word.
Central to Oakeshott’s political thought, starting with the influential essays included in Rationalism in Politics (1961) and culminating with his masterpiece On Human Conduct (1975), were his defense of moderation and his opposition to ideological politics. He entertained a rather chastened view of politics, different from the romanticized version advocated by, among others, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and their disciples. True to his commitment to moderation, Oakeshott sought to put politics and political participation in their right place, neither too high nor too low. Our first business, he argued, is to live, the second is to understand life properly, and only after that comes changing the world, to the extent to which that might be possible. Often times, he believed, “It is the failure to think out & have clearly before us a view of life & a view of how such a life is to be achieved which stands in our way.” Hence the primary importance he ascribed to achieving self-knowledge.
Oakeshott’s romantic longings and bohemian sensibility were known mostly from secondhand sources and formed the object of speculation and gossip among his admirers and detractors alike. Robert Grant has been at work for some time writing a biography of Oakeshott, which promises to give the full measure of his complex personality. Before Grant completes his work, however, we have the rare opportunity to contemplate Oakeshott’s temperament by reading his recently published Notebooks, consisting of all his diary entries from 1922 to 1986, four years prior to his death. Superbly edited by Luke O’Sullivan, who is in charge of bringing to light all of Oakeshott’s unpublished or uncollected writings, Notebooks is a revelation that sheds fresh light on Oakeshott’s entire oeuvre. It shows that he had a unique penchant for introspection, irony, self-doubt, hyperbole, and indeed a certain degree of narcissism.
The proper role of politics
The complex personality of the English thinker is on full display in his diaries, which show that Oakeshott was interested in topics as diverse as politics, love, religion, poetry, and … horse betting (on the latter he co-authored a book in this youth). A grain of self-doubt complements this fascinating concoction as revealed by this superb self-portrait worthy of Montaigne: “If only I knew what I wanted! […] My mind is a picture without a design; a chaos of warring desires. I know what I want. I want freedom. But since I can only grope for freedom blindly […] I cannot be said to know what I want.”
Notebooks not only offers a unique window into Oakeshott’s soul, but also allows us to contemplate his impressive and unassuming erudition and the extent to which what he wrote was a genuine effort to know himself and, more generally, a justification of his unorthodox conservative-romantic temperament. “If I wrote it to persuade others,” he admitted, “I should be guilty of self-contradiction: I write it to persuade myself, & because no man can be said to be master of himself until he has made himself clear to himself.” Oakeshott was not just an academic who reads only in order to write for a small audience. He read first and foremost to educate himself and to find the meaning of the good life. “It is not my ambition to dictate to the future the way of life it shall follow,” he wrote in September 1928, when he was 27 years old. “All I have wished is to think out for myself a way of life, to make it clear to myself, so that I must follow it.”
For anyone reading these notebooks it is evident that much of what Oakeshott read and took interest in had to do with his restless romantic temperament and represented an effort to discover himself. To discover oneself, he believed, is to find “true” freedom, and “until this discovery is made all freedom is frivolity.”
Yet this is far from being an easy task in modern society. Oakeshott disliked the prevailing utilitarianism and bureaucratization of the latter and criticized the conventional understanding of politics as who gets what, when, and how. Politics, he maintained, is not so much about the distribution of resources as about making constant adjustments to a reality in permanent flux. As such, politics is a second-rate human activity, one that involves a certain degree of mental vulgarity and a simplification of life. “A general interest & preoccupation with politics,” Oakeshott argued, “is the surest sign of a general decay in a society. A universal preoccupation with rights, interests, affairs of government, political questions in general is fatal to the public peace & individual happiness.”
Nevertheless, politics can create the necessary conditions for peace and security and protects us against abuses and oppression. He wrote:
In political activity, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep [the ship] afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behavior in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.
Moreover, politics and political argument depend upon persuasion — unlike hard sciences where the key issue is discovering and demonstrating a truth that needs no rhetoric or persuasion. In times of crisis, when societies are in danger of destruction, politics tends to become prominent, but then it is important to remember that its main task is not to endow life with splendor and greatness like literature, philosophy, and the arts, but more modestly, to provide the framework for the gradual readjustment of human relationships by fallible men. In normal times, it is literature, philosophy, and the arts rather than politics that should be the outlets of superior intellects called to create the values of their communities.
As Notebooks suggests, Oakeshott rejected the all-consuming obsession with productivity, and deemed shallow that conception of the good life that claims that there is nothing worth pursuing beyond the enjoyment of material goods. He admitted with sadness that almost all forms of politics today have become rationalist, or near-rationalist, and lamented that the rationalist disposition has pervaded our political thought and practice. At the heart of rationalism he identified the belief that all human activity should be guided by unhindered reason, taken to be a sovereign, authoritative, and infallible guide in political activity. Greatness, Oakeshott believed, cannot be derived from the philistinism, intellectual mediocrity, conformity, and complacency that characterize, in his opinion, the rationalist spirit.
An unconventional mind
This was a position that Oakeshott shared with others, who were equally opposed to the technocratic outlook imbued with the belief in the superiority of expert knowledge. And he viewed ideologies as radical expressions of the rationalism he criticized. The proponents of ideological politics think they possess an infallible measuring-rod, and tend to evaluate all proposals for social and political change “against a single, unambiguous, universally valid measure,” which is given the status of axiom. In so doing, they seek to emancipate politics from opinion and conjecture, conducting themselves as they do according to the “iron laws” of history.
Oakeshott’s political vision had important affinities with the outlook of other authors, such as Raymond Aron. Yet what the notebooks show is how peculiar Oakeshott’s conservative disposition was. They help us understand better the originality of his conservatism in an age in which liberals and conservatives were engaged in a relentless war against socialists and communists. In a well-known essay, “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott argued that to be conservative is first and foremost to display “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” It means to be grateful for what one has and to acknowledge it as a precious gift. As such,
To be conservative […] 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.
In Notebooks, Oakeshott endorses a form of conservatism that has little place for tradition and draws inspiration not from Burke, but from the skepticism of Montaigne and Hume and the faith of Pascal. He celebrates the ability to live in the present and notes that a genuine attachment to what is eternal “belongs neither to the past nor to the future but to a permanent present.” In another note, he points out that “each present has its politics; all true politics are politics of the present.” He contemplates the spectacle of the modern world without nostalgia, with a mixture of delight and anxiety; he is critical of some of its key features, especially the quick pace of life, which makes deep attachments difficult, if not impossible. The crime of our civilization, Oakeshott claims, is that it renders us incapable of appreciating “the sweetness of the present day, the light of today.” We come to love only “what is gone or is to come” and “we do not understand what is simply for itself.” As a remedy of sorts, he recommends the cultivation of those habits of thought and heart that allow us to enjoy not only fleeting pieties and evanescent loyalties, but also the pluralism of interests and options, as well as the diversity of the modern world.
Several passages in the Notebooks give voice to Oakeshott’s skepticism toward a “mediocre” type of moderation, which he sought to eschew. “Is not excess involved in all greatness?” he asks in a note from 1944, before wondering whether a certain frigidity and incapacity for enthusiasm are involved in the conventional understanding of the Aristotelian mean. A decade and a half later, he questions whether men “handicap themselves with all kinds of ‘virtues,’ like honour, decency, moderation, honesty, consistency,” which they could very well forgo. The ideal encouraged by modern civilization, Oakeshott muses, is a superficial and lame individual, a “shallow, pseudo-sympathetic mind,” easily satisfied with comfort and ready-made solutions to life’s complex questions. In reality, solving the latter requires an adventurous and sometimes even immoderate mind, a wandering spirit that prefers quality to quantity, and thirsts for discovering “the sort of immortality that belongs to us,” that is, “the ability to find joy in the flying moment.”
Notebooks also displays Oakeshott’s voracious appetite for reading. He read a wide array of books, especially of a philosophical and religious nature, in several languages. There are numerous reflections here on books as diverse as Goethe’s Faust, A. N. Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and Leo Strauss’s The Political Philosophy of Hobbes. It is a rare pleasure to see a political philosopher quoting comfortably from Montaigne’s Essays, Pascal’s Pensées, the works of a lesser-known German Orientalist such as Max Müller, Joseph Conrad’s novels, or Paul Valéry’s reflections on the contemporary world.
One can identify a few existential topics to which Oakeshott returned, again and again, over the years. For example, he was often terrified by the routine of life and what he called (in an entry from 1958) “the feeling of trudging through life incognito and in shoes of lead.” He was interested in finding what it takes to live fully in the present for the sake of life, authenticity, and freedom. “Most of the people we see here are dead,” Oakeshott believed, because they lack enthusiasm and the sense of adventure; victims of relentless activity and slaves to the notion of infinite progress; they also lack the capacity to admire, renew themselves, and experience wonder. He admired children precisely for their ability to live fully in the present, like the birds, undisturbed by the prospect of their mortality. Theirs is a mysterious world, one full of poetry, which opens its doors to the wanderer who knows how “to make love with life in every moment.”
Religion, human finitude, and love
Religion, death, and human finitude are surprisingly often invoked in Notebooks, with an intensity that readers of Oakeshott’s previous works may not expect. Throughout his life, religion remained for him an object of constant reflection, and there is no doubt that he deemed himself a Christian (sui generis) committed to a modern form of Anglicanism. Oakeshott’s professed ideal was to combine the skeptical temperament of Montaigne with the religious outlook of Pascal. He was uneasy toward those forms of religion to which we feel attracted only when in danger; in Pascal’s footsteps, he thought that the best and simplest definition of religion is “an experience of God.”
What kind of religious experience Oakeshott might have had is not clear, though. “I don’t know whether I believe in God,” he wrote in 1958. “But I believe in the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, St Michael & the devil.” The notebooks contain detailed reflections on topics such as sin, mortality, the Trinity, and the presence of evil in the world. They show a thinker struggling with the tension between spiritual, religious, and worldly values, and above all with human finitude and death. “We must moralize death,” Oakeshott wrote in 1928. “And that cannot be done except by giving it a place in the life of the individual. A philosophy of life must be a philosophy of death also.” Contemplating our own death is a way to begin mastering it, which is, of course, an endless task. Anyone touched with a sense of mortality, Oakeshott opines, realizes that it is not death that is the crucial predicament of life, but transience and human fallibility. Although religion might help alleviate our existential anxieties to some extent, the real solutions to life’s puzzles and contradictions are likely to come from literature and the arts, never from politics.
Friendship is another constant theme in Notebooks. Oakeshott is known for having actively sought the company of friends, some of them women with whom he engaged in romantic relationships, especially in his youth. “Happiness,” he writes, “is to be found only in the society of a few indispensable friends” with whom we take delight in conversing and exchanging ideas. It is no coincidence, then, that the most fascinating entries in these diaries are devoted to love.
Of special interest are Oakeshott’s reflections on the mysterious “Belle Dame” (there are no less than eight “Belle Dame Notebooks,” covering the period 1928–1931). “Men are always strangers,” he writes, “seeking La Belle Dame, finding her nowhere, they leave behind them a trail of suffering.” Another entry from 1931 identifies love and loneliness as the two necessities in life. Oakeshott’s romantic longings come into plain sight in an entry from the same year, in which he expresses his desire for something profound, dangerous, and risky: “I want something which has no name, is ruled by no convention. Something experimental. Something in which there is no routine. This is what I mean by love.”
Two decades later he would nuance this view by adding (in Machiavelli’s footsteps) that true love resembles a “sweet harmony” without calculation or constraint. It “is a delight & enjoyment of another’s vision of the world; and love is required when this delight is reciprocal. To make love is to celebrate this delight, to speak of it in the language of the body.” Such an elevated vision of love is not without risks and implies an endless search for an ever-elusive target. As he confesses:
I have often, continually sought this lover & never found her. My life has been spent in seeking her; indeed I believe the purpose of life is to seek her, & the satisfaction of life to find her. […] For to be without her is not to be born, & to lose her is to die. For not until I have found her shall I have found myself.
Seeking solace from the hopelessness of life, Oakeshott is also open to the more mundane pleasures of the flesh. He remarks, resigned, that the choice we have is often between being tortured in love and being bored while not in love; to him, the latter seems the least desirable option.
The author of these fascinating notes was, in many ways, an unconventional thinker and is poised to remain a lonely bird. In some American conservative circles, Oakeshott’s bohemian character and peculiar use of tradition tend to arouse skepticism, in spite of his staunch opposition to big government and planning. Among contemporary political philosophers, he is unlikely to gain many adherents because of his extra-political interests, his idiosyncratic preferences, and elitist proclivities. Raised in the tradition of British Idealism, Oakeshott was a “hedgehog” who dreamt of writing a few great books that could stand the test of time. Such an ambition might seem quixotic in the age of Twitter and Facebook when books like On Human Conduct take days, if not weeks, to read.
If Oakeshott were alive today, he would welcome the fact that “the politics of faith” against which he wrote memorable pages seem to have lost some of its appeal. He would probably advise us to resist the temptation to put “too high a value on political action, too high a hope on political achievement.” And he would encourage us to cultivate a sense of relativity of our values, just as he would dissuade us from trying “to achieve great ends quickly when the cost is disproportionate to the ends achieved.”
In this regard, as in many others, Oakeshott remains an essential voice and the publication of these superb Notebooks confirms why he must be considered one of the greatest political thinkers of the 20th century.