Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael Oakeshott

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.)

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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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Political Moderation and the Conservative Disposition

Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

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Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

An oddity in our time is that some on the right who very nearly deify the founders and the Constitution fail to understand what Berkowitz calls “the unceasing need in the politics of a free society to adjust and readjust, balance and rebalance, calibrate and recalibrate… The Federalist reinforces the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution it expounds and defends.”

There have always been those in politics who are animated by the auto-da-fe. They thrive on relentless confrontation and want to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) go over the cliff with all flags flying. To be sure, such individuals can be a source of energy in a political party. They can also serve the purpose of stiffening spines when that is needed. And they may even be on the correct side of many public policy issues.

Yet it strikes me that in a deep sense, they do not possess a conservative disposition or even a particularly conservative outlook on the world. Rather, they have reinterpreted conservatism in order to fit their own temperament, which seems to be in a near-constant state of agitation, ever alert to identify and excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates. One day it is Chris Christie; the next day it is Bob McDonnell, or Jeb Bush, or Mitch Daniels, or Eric Cantor, or Lindsay Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or someone somewhere who has gone crosswise of those who view themselves as prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is a different conservative disposition to which we can look, one which was embodied in Michael Oakeshott, one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for British conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1975 essay on Oakeshott (which is reprinted here), the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike the rationalist, who is “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the gifts and blessings we have. Conservatives do not grow angry when the world refuses to conform to their ideals, nor do they see the present only as, in Oakeshott’s phrase, “a residue of inoppportunities.” He did not view the human situation as dark or dreary. 

At the end of her essay, Himmelfarb writes about the Oakeshott she knew, “with whom conversation, even controversy, was a sheer delight.” She continues:

He did not avoid disagreement; there was nothing wimpish about him. But he confronted it with such good nature and good humor that he always won the argument (he would never, of course, have called it that) by default, so to speak. It is not often that the person and the philosopher are so totally congruent. The “conservative disposition” – 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. 

It is still a rarity these days – rarer at least than it should be. Because while passion in politics is a fine, even admirable, thing, so too is winsomeness, a certain generosity of spirit, and even a touch of grace. 

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