Another Shot of Oakeshott

Following up on my first installment a few days ago from Michael Oakeshott’s classic essay “On Being Conservative,” herewith my second-favorite passage from the essay, which I find can be effective in getting students to understand why Aristotle (among others) thinks the young are unsuited to the study—let alone practice—of politics:

Everybody’s young days are a dream, a delightful insanity, a sweet solipsism. Nothing in them has a fixed shape, nothing a fixed price; everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept. Nothing is specified in advance; everything is what can be made of it. The world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires. The allure of violent emotions is irresistible. When we are young we are not disposed to make concessions to the world; we never feel the balance of a thing in our hands—unless it be a cricket bat. We are not apt to distinguish between our liking and our esteem; urgency is our criterion of importance; and we do not easily understand that what is humdrum need not be despicable. We are impatient of restraint; and we readily believe, like Shelley, that to have contracted a habit is to have failed.

These, in my opinion, are among our virtues when we are young: but how remote they are from the disposition appropriate for participating in the style of government I have been describing. Since life is a dream, we argue (with plausible but erroneous logic) that politics must be an encounter of dreams, in which we hope to impose our own. . . [Dreams From My Father perhaps?]

For most there is what Conrad called the “shadow line” which, when we pass it, discloses a solid world of things, each with a fixed shape, each with its own point of balance, each with its fixed price; a world of fact, not poetic image, in which what we have spent on one thing we cannot spend on another; a world inhabited by others besides ourselves who cannot be reduced to mere reflections of our own emotions. And coming to be at home in this commonplace world qualifies us (as no knowledge of “political science” can ever qualify us), if we are so inclined and have nothing better to think about, to engage in what the man of conservative disposition understands to be political activity.

Just a hunch: I’m betting Barack Obama never read a word of Oakeshott.

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