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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Philosopher of Contentment

(Reprinted from the issue of May 22, 2003)

Capitol BldgIf I could force every literate person to read one essay, it would be Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative.” Oakeshott (1901–1990) was an English don who attracted little publicity and wanted none; he thought of himself as a philosopher, not a “political” philosopher. He wrote few books, and many of his essays are hard to find. Yet he built a reputation as one of the deepest conservative thinkers of his age, in quiet opposition to what he called, in another superb essay, “Rationalism in Politics.”

Professor Robert Grant, a dear friend of mine who teaches English literature at Glasgow University, is now writing an authorized biography of Oakeshott. The news elates me, because Bob Grant is the ideal man for the job. He admires Oakeshott, knew him personally, and has already written a fine little book summarizing his thought. It helps that he also writes keen and witty prose. He tells me he has already made startling discoveries in researching Oakeshott’s seemingly reclusive life; the great man was far more colorful than his readers would suspect.

Oakeshott took little interest in the daily events of politics; he used to say that he voted for the Tories because “they are likely to do less harm” than Labour. Labour represented the “rationalism” he deplored — the attempt to impose abstract ideals on society through the medium of politics. The actual content of those ideals offended him less than their style. For Oakeshott, politics could never be a science; it was a sort of “conversation,” to use one of his pet words, in which there was no final victory or conclusion. It was always a response to changing and unpredictable “circumstance.” He used the image of navigation to capture its spirit.

Oakeshott writes like no other conservative; I’m not altogether sure I agree with him, but his way of thinking is endlessly challenging. He doesn’t speak in terms of great truths or natural law, and even his concept of “tradition” is very different from most people’s. His writing can be obscure, especially in his magnum opus, On Human Conduct. If he was a Christian (as I think Bob says he was, of sorts), I can hardly tell, though there are scattered signs of his respect for Christianity and religious experience. He has a surprising affinity for Thomas Hobbes, which I have yet to fathom. Yet the effort of grasping his thought, even with only partial success, is always rewarding.

In an oft-quoted passage in “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott describes the attitude he regards as opposite to conservatism: “To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favorite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion: the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire.”

By contrast, “the man of [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation, to restrain, to deflate, to pacify, and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.”

Oakeshott sees government as performing the role of referee or umpire, a role that is corrupted or destroyed when rulers impose their own purposes on the ruled: “An ‘umpire’ who at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; ‘rules’ about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements of disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.” Ruling, he insists, is “a specific and limited activity”; but because modern politics has been infected by “rationalism” the state itself has become a source and cause of disorder.

Oakeshott’s emphasis on the element of sheer attachment to the familiar, merely because it is familiar (and not because it is ideal), in the conservative disposition also reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s words on affection in The Four Loves. Both men recoil from the modern exaltation of “change” for its own sake.

Elsewhere Oakeshott distinguishes between two types of government, which he calls “nomocracy” and “teleocracy” (terms F.A. Hayek also adopts). Nomocracy is simply government according to fixed laws, the government having no ultimate purpose of its own; it respects, and doesn’t compete with, the purposes of its subjects. Teleocracy, on the other hand, is government for some ultimate purpose, to which laws are merely instrumental and may be changed arbitrarily to suit that purpose: a “war” on hunger or poverty, or even war itself. Teleocracy is potentially totalitarian (a term Oakeshott avoids, but it is apt), because it subordinates all the resources of a society to its “favorite projects.”

He makes a similar distinction between “enterprise association” and “civil association.” The former is cooperation for specific goals, like those of a church or a business; the latter is more general — agreement on laws or rules of conduct. Rival corporations observing the same rules may have clashing goals while being civilly related to each other. Government is properly concerned with maintaining the rules of civil association, within which people pursue their own private ends.

A stickler for accuracy, Oakeshott insists that laws are “observed,” not “obeyed.” This is what distinguishes laws from commands. A sound law is impersonal; only corrupt laws express personal desire, forcing some men to submit to the will of others. We all understand this when it comes to, say, the rules of sports; a rule designed to ensure a certain outcome (the victory of a particular team, for example) would be a bad rule. But bad laws have become routine in politics. Lobbyists are disreputable because they seek the passage of such laws, yet the principle of favoritism in legislation is generally accepted.
A Profound Confidence

Oakeshott avoids the customary vocabulary of modern politics, even conservative politics; if you read him expecting the familiar language of political discourse, you’ll be disappointed, baffled, frustrated. He has a style of thought and expression that is all his own. You may not find his total philosophy congenial or even comprehensible, but you will find many fine insights.

Reading Oakeshott always leaves the impression of having encountered a supremely civilized mind, austere yet genial, deeply critical of his environment yet fundamentally contented with his own resources for coping with it. He still finds much within his tradition that is worth conserving and even developing, despite the prevalence of “the Servile State” (a phrase he borrows, of course, from Hilaire Belloc).

He writes with a profound confidence in that tradition that I always find encouraging. He is not the sort of conservative who wails that all is lost.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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