Michael Oakeshott passed away on this day in 1990, a year and one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three decades later, the British political philosopher’s influence has spread worldwide. But while he is significantly more well-known now than at the time of his death, Oakeshott’s profound insights are still too often overlooked in the classroom, as is often true for philosophers who defy prevailing campus orthodoxies. Thus, on the 30th anniversary of his passing, it is worth reasserting his enduring relevance.
Although Oakeshott is generally known as a “conservative” — and thus routinely excluded from the academic mainstream — his idiosyncratic political philosophy resists partisan categorization. He had little interest in the stern traditionalism of many of his right-wing peers, and always maintained his distance from day-to-day politics. Rather than reveling in the prestige of being an influential conservative philosopher in Margaret Thatcher’s England, he spent the last two decades of his life in a small, woodfire-heated home on the coast of Dorset. There, he maintained such an unassuming profile that his rural neighbors were entirely unaware of who he was until a flurry of prominent remembrances was published after he passed away. As Paul Franco writes in the opening pages of Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction:
The impressive obituaries took the villagers quite by surprise. They had known Oakeshott only as a cheerful, if slightly reclusive, man, remarkably youthful for his years, who lived with his artist wife on the outskirts of town in a rustic quarryman’s cottage. No one knew that he was a famous philosopher. To the few dozen people who attended his funeral, a somewhat perplexed village pastor announced, “it appears that we have had a very great man living amongst us.” It was a fitting epitaph to Oakeshott’s legendary self-effacement. Almost all the memoirs following on his death speak of Oakeshott’s modesty and unpretentiousness. He skewed public honors and even declined the Companion of Honor when offered it by Margaret Thatcher. When the Beatles received an MBE, Oakeshott is said to have remarked sardonically, “Perfectly appropriate. Honors go to those who want them.”
It was an unsurprisingly humble end for the great 20th-century thinker. The adventurous playfulness that characterized Oakeshott’s disposition proceeded from his view that “a human life is . . . an adventure in which an individual consciousness confronts the world he inhabits, responds to what Henry James called ‘the ordeal of consciousness,’ and thus enacts and discloses himself.” This also explained Oakeshott’s affinity for individual liberty, which was based not on abstract principles of limited government or natural rights, but on his profound respect for the individual’s capacity to make his own way in pursuit of “a self-chosen but largely unforeseen course.”
This poetic view of human experience set Oakeshott apart from many of his contemporaries on the right. Whereas influential conservative theorists such as Leo Strauss or Russell Kirk often lamented the defects of modernity and pined for the past, Oakeshott’s conservatism maintained an abiding affection for the existing state of things: “To be conservative,” he wrote, “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.”
But Oakeshott’s philosophy possesses none of the naïve utopianism in many of the more radical romantic traditions. Rather, it is an effort to enjoy the adventure of being human despite the fundamental limits of our condition. Life, for Oakeshott, is “a predicament.” All of us must contend with the pain of loss, the impermanence of our most treasured attachments, and the uncertainties of our contingent existence. Oakeshottian conservatism involves not so much a stubborn resistance to change as a sort of resolutely stoic disposition in the face of change’s inevitability. In this way, his romanticism always had a hint of melancholy.
It is often difficult to translate this “conservative disposition,” as Oakeshott described it, into a political program. For this reason, American conservatives were initially skeptical of the heterodox British philosopher. Irving Kristol, for example, described Oakeshott’s conservatism as “too abstract and too specifically British” — and “irredeemably secular” to boot. (William F. Buckley Jr., on the other hand, took an early interest in Oakeshott, inviting him to be a featured speaker alongside Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater at National Review’s 20th-anniversary celebration in 1975.) But while Oakeshott rarely outlined any sort of concrete policy agenda, his thought nonetheless presents a serious, coherent view of political life.
Oakeshott’s political philosophy is perhaps most famous for its opposition to the rise of “rationalism,” a corrupted outgrowth of the Enlightenment project defined by the pervasive belief in the unilaterality of human reason and scientific methodology in the conduct of human affairs. Modern rationalism appears as a sort of utopian confidence in man’s ability to cast off the irrational superstitions of his inheritance, driven by the idea that “each generation, indeed, each administration, should see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility.” The rationalist, Oakeshott wrote, “strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail”; he is possessed by “a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.”
We encounter this ideology everywhere in our politics today. Specifically, the invocation of Science as a sort of omniscient deity — most recently visible in political justifications for the coronavirus lockdowns — is a manifestation of the rationalist propensity to reduce the vast natural diversity of human experience and conduct to a series of numerical measurements, accessible through “objective” scientific inquiry. Ultimately, the rationalist desire to centrally plan an ever-larger sphere of human life in accordance with the methodologies of an “expert” class is motivated by the technocratic administration’s supposed ability to perfect the human condition. Among many other things, this impulse has driven the growth of the administrative state, which has had increasingly disturbing consequences for the Anglo-American constitutional tradition Oakeshott defended.
But Oakeshott’s most vehement critique of rationalism was its abridgment of the poetic aspect of the human condition. The rationalist politician, often justified by appeals to shallow notions of “equality” or “solidarity,” is “intolerant not only of superiority but of difference, disposed to allow in all others only a replica of himself, and united with his fellows in a revulsion from distinctness,” he wrote. This is one of the great ironies of modern progressivism: It proudly proclaims a commitment to “diversity” while simultaneously imposing an ever-proliferating number of one-size-fits-all bureaucratic rules, regulations, and diktats.
This sort of managerial uniformity is antithetical to the adventurous character of human experience. Oakeshott believes this experience stems from the participation of unique and distinctly self-determined individuals in what he described as “a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries.” This conversation, which “goes on both in public and within each of ourselves,” is the essence of Western civilization. Our inheritance comprises what Oakeshott saw as different voices — that of “the contemplative, the poet, the philosopher, the scientist who seeks to understand nature’s structure, the historian who is in love with the past for its own sake” — all collectively “appreciating what it means to be human.”
Oakeshott’s attachment to the liberal tradition stemmed from his own appreciation for this conversation. As a longtime friend of Oakeshott’s told me in a recent interview, “the conversational idea is a way to show profound respect for the capacity of human beings to think for themselves, and to respond intelligently to the world in which they find themselves.” Consequently, Oakeshott saw the classically liberal order as an enormous achievement, one characterized by “the disposition to cultivate the ‘freedom’ inherent in agency, to recognize its exercise as the chief ingredient of human dignity, to enjoy it at almost any cost, and to concede virtue to personal autonomy acquired in self-understanding.”
In the midst of our contemporary political chaos, many on the right seem newly skeptical of the classically liberal roots of our political system. But Oakeshott’s powerful defense of individual liberty was not derived from the abstract universalist claims of John Locke or the cold economic libertarianism of Friedrich Hayek, both of whom the new “post-liberals” regard with derision. Rather, it was born from a persistently skeptical humility about the limits of political possibility — and a poetic, albeit sometimes bittersweet, affection for the intellectual experience of human freedom. Michael Oakeshott’s was a timeless philosophy, above all else, but it is uniquely valuable in the impatient ethos of our current moment.