Michael Oakeshott’s philosophy fits no ideological or party label – but there is no better case for conservatism
I met him only once. He lived at the end of his days in a tiny slate cottage near Langton Matravers on the Dorset coast. On a damp November day, he came to greet me at the gate to his small garden, made me a small lunch of cold meat, and then sat me down in front of a coal fire to talk. I was in awe; he seemed thrilled to have a Harvard doctoral student examining every word he had ever published. And at the time, in November 1989, his delight was understandable. Mine was only the second doctoral dissertation written about him, after he had spent six decades producing some of the finest philosophical writing of the 20th century. His writing had been marginalised by the academic establishment, relentlessly pummelled by the left, and ignored by most of those in the middle because he was always described as a ‘conservative political philosopher’, about as repellent a soubriquet as one could come up with in the upper regions of Anglo-American political science. John Rawls? A demigod. Michael Oakeshott? Who?
Two decades later, after the publication of whole swathes of previously private work, Oakeshott, who died 20 years ago this month, is widely considered an intellectual force. Dozens of dissertations, collected essays, posthumous publications and even a regular conference on his work have made Oakeshott studies the kind of hot topic Oakeshott would have been utterly immune to. He was and is sui generis. Many have tried to place him in the canon of 20th-century thought, and many have failed. Each label attached fell away, to reveal the mischievous, deeply learned, funny, profound, impenetrable and elegant genius beneath.
He had no teaching, although he was an intoxicating teacher, according to those lucky enough to have studied alongside him. His voice was of an arch English type — and yet he wrote as a continental European, as intoxicated by the work of Hegel and Montaigne as by that of Hobbes and Halifax. Although in many ways he was the most potent ‘conservative’ voice in a liberal era, he couldn’t and shouldn’t be reduced to this. He was a philosopher, full stop. And as a philosopher, there were no conservative constraints on what he would try to decipher. In his philosophical work, he was actually quite radical. He gave us one of the most complete and original accounts of history as a discipline — pushing against all those who wanted to reduce the pattern of human events to an ideology or even something as basic as ‘causality’. For Oakeshott, history was merely one utterly contingent event after another, compiling a narrative so devoid of system, so saturated with pure circumstance, that he compared it to a stone wall in the countryside — no fixed shapes of stone, no mortar, no straight lines, and no particular direction.
He crafted an equally pure theory of aesthetics in one of the most perfectly titled essays I’ve ever read, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’. Everything is true, he seemed to say, as long as nothing is ever taken to be more than it is. What mattered to his mind’s penetrating eye was understanding something, whatever it was, without preconceptions, judging it on its own terms rather than seeking to conform it to some other standard (such as ‘nature’ or ‘divine truth’). In this, he followed the tradition of English Idealism — which he maintained, with ever-growing scepticism about philosophy’s ambitions, throughout his life.
He was a conservative in one simple sense. He did not believe that the practical world could be understood by the rational mind alone. He was thus a fierce critic of central planning, of the ability of a government to solve the problems people could not solve themselves. He saw the hideous, self-defeating paradox of trying to change the everyday world from a distance based on a theory. In his time — the high noon of liberal managerialism, when social scientists believed that poverty and crime and even war could be mastered by the right architecture or welfare policies or educational programmes or the UN — this was more radical than it sounds today. He even applied this conservatism to ideological conservatism itself, criticising Hayek for seeking an ideology of the market.
When you think of Oakeshott in this way, you realise why co-opting him for a political party — the way some tried to turn him into a patron saint of Thatcherism — was a profound misreading. Such passing allegiances seemed alien and trivial to him. So too did the incessant chatter we now call politics. I remember telling him I thought I would become a journalist after my PhD. His face fell. ‘I’ve always thought the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder,’ he said, with a slight grin.
What fascinated him was someone who had mastered something practical — the experienced cook, the skilled gardener, the calm midwife. Probably his most profound influence in this respect was Taoist thought, which sees in steady, accumulated practical skill more wisdom and peace than a thousand books. There was, in this, a democratic spirit to the man. He seemed immune to respectability and rank. He turned down a knighthood offered by Margaret Thatcher. He was more entranced by children at play than any assemblage of the powerful or distinguished. When he died, his fellow villagers were gobsmacked to find that this eminence lived so quietly and politely among them.
Oakeshott knew social change was inevitable. But he thought it better to let civil society evolve in its own way — pursuing its own intimations, in his resonant phrase. One of his most famous anecdotes was about a rationalist and a non-rationalist seeing Helen of Troy. The non-rationalist would marvel at her beauty, at the elegance of the necklace of pearls strewn carelessly around her neck. The rationalist would want to arrange the necklace properly before he could admire it. Taking the world as it is is what Oakeshott recommended: present laughter over utopian bliss.
This was the opposite of doctrine. He represented what is best described as the conservatism of doubt. For him, ideology and certainty were as vulgar as they were untrue. He preferred the tradition of individual liberty and limited government, but he also accepted that there would be times when a society would have to act collectively towards a communal project — war, for example, or public education. What mattered was not right over left, but pragmatism over ideology. It is for this reason that American neoconservatives have so rejected him. For them, conservatism is about timeless truths — God-given liberty to everyone on earth, the need to promote good and punish evil, and to instil in the populace a respect for the universal truths America and the West represented. For them, conservatism is a political identity, not a human disposition. I remember once discussing Oakeshott with the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol. For him, Oakeshott was anathema, a dangerous relativist, an irresponsible bohemian, indifferent to the need to fight and win in political combat. In this diagnosis, Kristol was indeed correct.
But Oakeshott would have insisted that combat is less human than conversation; and that all we really know is in the unspoken traditions and sentiments that a coherent society musters for itself. He would have insisted that Western freedom was indeed a singular civilisational achievement — but also that it could not be separated from its unique historical and cultural emergence in the nation states of Western Europe since the Reformation. It did not exist as an abstraction, an idea or a truth, but as a cultural construct in a moment in time. And so the notion that Western liberty could suddenly be transplanted to, say, Iraq, would be a mistake. The idea wasn’t necessarily evil or ill-in tentioned; it was simply wrong, and would end in tears. And Oakeshott’s insistence on this political and epistemological modesty in the end made American pragmatists and liberals more interested in him than in the neocons or the religious right.
The neocons also, of course, disapproved. I’m not sure what people mean by a conservative temperament. But the odds are that Oakeshott would have failed the test most would apply. His three wives do not begin to account for his lifelong commitment to romantic love. Love affair after love affair did not seem able to quench his thirst for the perfect woman. His religious faith, if one can determine it (and many have tried), was modernist, hostile to doctrine, but deeply Christian in a mystical, sometimes eastern way. He was an adventurer who once wandered through Europe, sleeping under hedgerows. He loved the individual character, the risk-taker, the voyager, the man or woman who knew who he or she was and lived it fearlessly. He saw the play of children as in some ways the apex of human civilisation — where the rules are understood yet unwritten, where the point is never winning but playing, and where change takes place very slowly and always with regret.
And he was in love with the individualism within himself. Maybe that was the real source of his political conservatism. He wanted a sober and calm and limited political order so that individuals like him could pursue the extreme and the risky and the quixotic. His ideal country was Andorra — a strange accident of a place with almost no government at all. He analogised the evolution of a polity to the MCC’s slow attempt to correct and refine the rules of cricket. He thought of Hegel as a liberal, Burke as irrelevant, and salvation as something that had nothing whatsoever to do with the future. And yet this oddly radical person put forward the most powerful case for political conservatism ever made.