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Contentions

Michael Oakeshott and Modern Conservatism

In a speech he presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association in September, the intellectual historian Wilfred McClay pointed out that conservatism is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil.

In the course of his remarks, McClay reflected on what Oakeshott’s understanding of conservatism might have to contribute to what passes as conservatism in the present day. Here, in part, is what Bill McClay said: 

Russell Kirk liked to cite a phrase of H. Stuart Hughes—an apt phrase from a most unlikely source—to the effect that conservatism is “the negation of ideology.” That may sound more like an admonition than a definition, but if so, such a warning would be fully in order. The lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism, as for any other modern political or social disposition, and there is even a danger that it can harden into a form of rationalism. Here is one place where the voice of Oakeshott can be of great help to us, in reminding those who associate themselves with conservatism that they betray their calling if they allow this hardening to occur unchallenged, and wed themselves to the application of abstract propositions without a consideration of the context and contingencies that affect their application. And his voice can remind them that prudential nimbleness and openness are things very different from unprincipled opportunism.

This is a very important point beautifully stated. And Professor McClay is quite right; the lapse into ideology is a perennial danger for conservatism (and for any political and religious movement, for that matter). The temptations of those of us who are committed to a political and religious philosophy/cause, always, is confirmation bias; that we go in search of facts to support pre-existing views; and that we self-segregate and inhabit a closed mental world in which we simply don’t allow counter-arguments and contrary empirical data to penetrate the walls we erect. We simply refuse to hold up our views to refinement and revision. (The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has spoken about this phenomenon with real insight.)

This in turn can set off a mental and epistemological chain reaction, one in which we find ourselves eschewing, in principle, compromise (which would have one directly at odds with the framers of the American Constitution, which was itself a product of extraordinary compromises); celebrate pugilism above prudence; and find a kind of psychic satisfaction in attacking and excommunicating the impure within one’s ranks. This drift toward unconservative habits of thought is precisely why conservatism needs the influence of Oakeshott, whom McClay says is best understood as a corrective thinker rather than a foundational one.

Of course most discussions of Oakeshott are bound to touch on the importance of disposition, the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Which leads me to another scholar who has written wonderfully on Oakeshott.

In her 1975 essay (which is reprinted in this collection) on Oakeshott–one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for 20th century British conservatism–the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.”

“The ‘conservative disposition,’” Himmelfarb wrote, “the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days.”

That is perhaps truer now than it has been in the past.

My impression is that among some on the right there is an increasing sense of around-the-clock agitation and desperation, which translates into shrillness and brittleness. One can sense, at least here and there, a spirit of ressentiment, or a “narrative of injury.” It’s the feeling that conservatives are a persecuted minority, combined with a growing rage and weariness with what they perceive to be the multiplying failures all around us.

What is missing, I think, is the sense of enjoyment, of gratitude, of what one writer of Oakeshott, Elizabeth Corey, has called the “disposition of delight.” (In describing the attitude of what Oakeshott called the Rationalist, who is the antithesis of the conservative, Corey writes, “The Rationalist is constitutionally incapable of contentment with any present state of affairs, because everything always falls short of his ideal and therefore is constantly in need of improvement.”)

In saying all this I don’t mean to underestimate the challenges our country faces (though it needs to be said that we have certainly faced graver situations than we find ourselves in right now). My point is simply that the disposition and temperament we bring to the task matters quite a lot.

Conservatives would be wise to unlearn the art of discontent and replace it with an undercurrent of hope. This is, after all, America.



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