The Neocons vs Oakeshott

It’s long been a simmering intelllectual rift within the philosophy of conservatism – between the rigid disciples of Leo Strauss and the wayward offspring of Michael Oakeshott. My own choice of Oakeshott for my dissertation was one of the first moments when my “conservatism” was greeted with intense skepticism by the neocons I knew. The chill was palpable. He wasn’t interested in fostering the morals of others, which was, to many neocons, the only real purpose of religion at all. So it’s no surprise that in introducing a collection of essays, On Jews and Judaism, written by her late husband Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb connects his attachment to religion to his brand of neoconservatism – and not to the bohemian Englishman’s conservatism:

Religion, he held, is not just for the good of society; it is good for the individual, and not just for the sake of leading an ethical life but for the sake of a meaningful and soulful life. … His neo-orthodoxy is firmly Jewish, rooted in history and community, in an oakeshottid.jpgancient faith and an enduring people. And so, too, his neoconservatism is firmly rooted in Judaism. In an essay on Michael Oakeshott written many years later, Kristol recalled the day in 1956 when, as an editor of Encounter in London, he found on his desk an unsolicited manuscript by Oakeshott entitled “On Being Conservative.” It was a great coup for the magazine to receive, over the transom, an essay by that eminent philosopher. Kristol read it “with great pleasure and appreciation”—and then politely rejected it. It was, he later explained (although not to Oakeshott at the time), “irredeemably secular, as I—being a Jewish conservative—am not.” Oakeshott’s “conservative disposition,” to enjoy and esteem the present rather than what was in the past or might be in the future, left little room for any religion, still less for Judaism:

Judaism especially, being a more this-worldly religion than Christianity, moves us to sanctify the present in our daily lives—but always reminding us that we are capable of doing so only through God’s grace to our distant forefathers. Similarly, it is incumbent upon us to link our children and grandchildren to this “great chain of being,” however suitable or unsuitable their present might be to our conservative disposition. And, of course, the whole purpose of sanctifying the present is to prepare humanity for a redemptive future.

Kristol’s inability to appreciate the deeper religious teaching of Oakeshott was not surprising. Few did for most of his life  – my own dissertation was the first to insist upon it, and has been supplanted by Elizabeth Corey’s elegant work on Oakeshott’s understanding of religion and aesthetics, and even more by the recently published Notebooks, where religion is an obsessive interest. The idea that Oakeshott is “irredeemably secular” is almost laughable once one has read these.

If I were to point to one core difference between Oakeshott’s understanding of faith and the neocons’, it would not simply be the difference between Judaism and Christianity, but more that the neocons see religion primarily as a political and social tool, rather than as an insight into a present eternity. And it is neoconservatism’s use of religion that makes them in fact, the irredeemably secular ones. And, to the extent that some, like Allan Bloom, were actually atheists, cynics.