Classics Revisited: A Shot of Oakeshott

I think it was nearly three years ago that I wrote a series that ought to have been called “Hayek Tuesday” (because I wrote most of these entries on Tuesday mornings following a Monday night class at the Ashbrook Center that semester based mostly on Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty), with excerpts and observations drawn from that great political thinker and Nobel Prize winner. Subsequently there have been brief serials here focused on Kenneth Minogue (author of The Liberal Mind) and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, among others.

Michael Oakeshott

Michael Oakeshott

For some reason—perhaps out of a conversation with some students—my mind wandered today to Michael Oakeshott, the British author of Rationalism in Politics and other trenchant essay collections, and it prompts the thought that perhaps a few visits with Oakeshott are in order.

I think he’s problematic in some important ways—I don’t think he gets the American founding right at all, and fergawdsake one of his supposed protégés is the egregious Andrew Sullivan—but in other respects he writes beautifully about the problems of liberalism and the anchor of what he calls the conservative “disposition.” Perhaps his best one-sentence formula of the problem of modern politics, which describes the Obama outlook perfectly, is “the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.”

That phrase appears in his essay “On Being Conservative” that is collected in Rationalism in Politics. Perhaps the best known passage of all Oakeshott’s writing appears earlier in the same essay:

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. . .

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this 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 a vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.

Responses