Search Results For oakeshott

The Neocons vs Oakeshott

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 5 2014 @ 8:15pm

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.

An Oakeshottian In Politics

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 23 2012 @ 3:22pm

My friend and fellow Oakeshott scholar, Jesse Norman, is now a member of parliament and did a very Oakeshottian thing in almost single-handedly torpedoing reform of the House of Lords. The idea that an institution that has survived so long in the British constitutional tradition should be drastically overhauled to become a democratic body to rival the Commons struck David Cameron as a jolly good thing. Jesse channeled Burke to give Cameron his biggest Commons revolt since he became prime minister. Which led to Cameron collaring Jesse in the Commons and giving him an old-fashioned bollocking. (Don't believe everything in that post.) Then this lovely quote in the Guardian:

As one of the most erudite MPs at Westminster, Jesse Norman naturally turned to Charles James Fox to describe his own predicament yesterday. Hours after David Cameron remonstrated with him outside the commons division lobies, after Norman led the biggest Tory rebellion of the parliament, the backbencher quoted the 18th-century Whig statesman.

There had been "no loss of friendship", Norman told a reporter in his Hereford and South Herefordshire constituency before a visit by the Queen. Norman might have added that Edmund Burke replied to Fox: "I regret to say there is."

I have sometimes been asked what an Oakeshottian would actually do if he had to wield, you know, power. The answer is: as little as possible and only as much as absolutely needed.

Gotta question?

Oakeshott, Buddhist?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 6 2009 @ 6:01pm

A reader writes:

You wrote:

"My doctoral thesis focused on Oakeshott's understanding of religion not as part of the world of philosophy, or of poetry – but of practice. Religion, in one profound sense, is simply what we do every day, the practice of daily compassion and spiritual discipline that brings us closer to God and to our highest nature as humans. The obsession with doctrine is rather modern, let alone the imposition of doctrine through politics or, worse, violence. Religion, properly understood, is less the assertion of facts we cannot prove than the living of a love that transcends fact into mindful compassion."

This IS the heart of Buddhism, especially the Zen tradition. What we believe and what we do 41EK7KG5XPL._SL500_AA240_ are totally separate entities. While our beliefs, our faith, can motivate the action we take, the emphasis has to be on the action, or else the belief is worthless. In Zen, we express this with daily Zazen practice. Make no mistake, Zazen IS Buddhism. You can memorize the Shobogenzo, you can learn Sanskrit, you can recite the timeline of the Gautama Buddha's life and agree fully and completely with the philosophy, but unless you sit Zazen, unless you DO the practice, you are in no way Buddhist. You cannot separate the belief from the action, because they inform one another. Also worth noting is the idea that Buddhism lacks a moral code. Rather, many of the teachings are simply an outline of the morality that practitioners have in common. This common denominator exists in most religions, but as Karen Armstrong points out, its something we often lose sight of.

One of the wonderful things about Oakeshott's Toryism was its openness to all human experience. Montaigne was one of his idols, as he remains mine. And Oakeshott often used Eastern texts and Chinese Zen masters to inform English conservatism's respect for practice as a mode of experience within which he placed religion. If you want to explore this further, my book on Oakeshott's religious teaching – deeply buried in his work – can be bought here. It was the first treatment that focused on his Christianity (which was very close, in some respects, to Buddhism). A much more comprehensive treatment – partly because she was able to use all of Oakeshott's posthumously revealed notes and unpublished work – is in Elizabeth Corey's brilliant book which can buy here. Glenn Worthington's treatment of Oakeshott on faith is also a must-read.

I think a conversation between Christians and Buddhists – the project Merton was intent on before he died – is one of the more important conversations of our time.

A reader writes:

In preparing for the impending showdown in Washington over the future of healthcare in America, I’m reminded of a passage from Michael Oakeshott’s essay "On Being Conservative," from Rationalism in Politics.  I quote the relevant passage in full:

"There are, of course, numerous human relationships in which a disposition to be conservative … is not particularly appropriate: master and servant, owner and bailiff, buyer and seller, principal and agent.  In these, each participant seeks some service or some recompense for service.  A customer who finds a shopkeeper unable to supply his wants either persuades him to enlarge his stock or goes elsewhere; and a shopkeeper unable to meet the desires of a customer tries to impose upon him others which he can satisfy."

It seems to me that in applying this analogy to the healthcare crisis, the American people are the customer, and the private insurance industry the shopkeeper.  It thus follows from Oakeshott’s argument that having exhausted an attempt to make the private industry work for the ultimate benefit of the customer–the American people–the people must thus look for a shopkeeper–the federal government perhaps–which can better fulfill the need.

As Oakeshott goes on to say, "[i]f what is sought is lacking, it is expected that the relationship will lapse or be terminated."

It would seem the time has come for us to sever our relationship with private health insurance and give a government solution a go.  I trust Obama, a man who is known to have a remarkably conservative temperament given his liberal policy goals, to attempt this in a prudent way; perhaps even in a way which Oakeshott would approve of.


It’s important to note that Oakeshott’s definition of "conservative" here would fly a few miles over the balding, jowly pate of Rush Limbaugh (read the essay to understand this better). And as someone recovering from socialized medicine in the land of my birth, I will find it hard to accept the consequences of collectivizing healthcare provision without some trepidation – even via the private sector.

But I’m equally aware that our culture simply cannot tolerate, for good or ill, a vast discrepancy between healthcare for rich and poor. If that’s the case, and the private sector is unable to bear the costs of caring for the poor, and if the entire system then operates in a deeply inefficient and overly-costly fashion, some prudential adjustment might be in order.I’ve made my peace with this, even as I fear it.

A reader writes:

While you have always celebrated your attachment to conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott, your views often strike me being most closely aligned with John Rawls.  Your discussion today about modernity smashing the social good into little bits could have been a passage out of Political Liberalism.  You captured the essence of the book in this sentence

"That way is to agree that our civil order will mean less; that it will be a weaker set of more procedural agreements that try to avoid as much as possible deep statements about human nature."

Rawls found that in the modern world we’ve come to accept that the differences between comprehensive theories of the good embodied in various religions, cultures, and individual belief systems (i.e. the "deep statements about human nature") will never be conclusively resolved.  They are too much contingent upon traditions, inherited cultural values, superstitions.  The questions these theories purport to answer are fundamentally irresolvable–no one comprehensive theory is going to ultimately triumph over all the others.  Consequently, all must recognize that their own comprehensive theories have no special claims any other people.

The necessary result is a pluralistic society in which the government must not embrace any comprehensive theory of the good, but instead works to establish some procedural fairness and promote the overlapping consensus of the various theories while leaving each individual free to pursue his or her own comprehensive theory of the good. Given your general background in political philosophy it would be unsurprising if you have read Rawls and are familiar with his arguments (in fact, I would be a bit surprised if you’re not). But I find it curious that his name never comes up in this discussion, and I wonder if you’re aware of the parallels. To be honest, I’m surprised Rawls has not gotten a bit more attention of late given the deep influence he appears to have had on one Barack Obama. When Obama gave his first major address on religion, he said the following:

"But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason." This is a deeply Rawlsian view. Obama further argues, again tracking closely with Rawls, that in a pluralistic democracy, when advocating in the public sphere, "the religiously motivated [must] translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values."

I think this philosophy undergirds much of what you have found appealing about Obama. The Rawlsian approach requires one to acknowledge at the outset that regardless how deeply attached we are to our own comprehensive theory, it is but one of many, and none of us know for certain which is right (or even whether any of them are "right" in a meaningful sense). Obama radiates a sense of humility with respect to the limits of his own knowledge, and openly acknowledges of the validity of the differing views of others. It’s one of his best features, and, frankly, Andrew, one of yours as well.

I’m grateful for the email. And, of course, I did study Rawls, and when I was in graduate school, his late work – where his epistemology became much more explicit and much more modest – was all the rage. Habermas made the same broad argument. And I do not disagree with it, so far as it goes. Where Oakeshott comes in is providing a Burkean, historical context for political liberalism as a tradition in England and America. The key essay is the final one in "On Human Conduct." Oakeshott threaded the needle for me because he explained how Rawlsian liberalism could be undergirded by conservative epistemology and by a resort to the tradition of Anglo-American freedom. Oakeshott’s is a conservative defense of liberalism – which is why, to my mind, he is such a crucial intellectual figure. He escapes the categories.

If you’re interested, all of this is thrashed out in my dissertation on Oakeshott, which includes several references to Rawls. It is now in print, and can be bought here.

Listening To Oakeshott

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 30 2007 @ 12:46pm

Here’s something made possible by the web: a transcript of one of Oakeshott’s BBC lectures – on the philosophy of history, with an audio of the great man reading it on the radio. Leslie Marsh, who posted it, writes:

Not having met MO, I find reconciling the voice with the image of the man difficult. I am told that the voice remained pretty much the same in his later years.

It lost a little of its post-war twang, I think.

The Damon Linker-Matt Yglesias conversation about the scope of "political liberalism" is worth a few moments. Start with Matt’s latest post on the subject and read on back. I think Matt is right, by the way, although it’s been a while since I read either Rawls or Rorty. Both agree on this fundamental piece of non-fundamentalism, as expressed by Matt:

The goal is to hive off an autonomous political domain in which we bracket our views on broader, deeper questions and engage one another on the basis of a much-shallower but more widely held set of views about the conception of a citizen.

When I was studying political theory at Harvard, this was the big debate. For my part, I do not see why one cannot strive both to maintain the possibility of Truth or Meaning (or even one’s own private mastery of such), while treating political interaction in a liberal democracy as a necessarily shallower enterprise. But then, I think seeing politics as a lesser form of human activity is more conducive to traditional conservatives than to left-liberals. Oakeshott tackled all of this, more elegantly and more brilliantly, long before Rawls or Rorty (as Rorty belatedly saw). But Oakeshott was a "conservative" (boo! hiss!) and so ignored by most academics until the last few years.

Ross responds by arguing that Richard John Neuhaus and his theocon friends are only interested in persuasion and changing the culture, not using the levers of politics and the law to insist on their religious convictions. Please.

If Neuhaus et al were merely content, say, to voice their view that gay people are "intrisincally disordered" or that all abortions are morally evil, no one would be that exercized. But Neuhaus actually wanted to amend the constitution to make gay inferiority part of the meaning of America in its foundational document. And the theocons want to use the full power of the state to enforce their views on abortion – regardless of anyone else’s views. Ross’ apparent unawareness of the obvious distinction between Neuhaus’s position and pluralist, political liberalism/conservatism is – how to out this nicely? – unconvincing.

It is, moreover, remarkable to me that in America, it has been conservatism that has recently been captive to dogma, fundamentalism, moral absolutism, and the belief that politics can and must change the world. Just as Rawls was finally conceding the deepest conservative point about the limits of politics and human thought, the "conservatives" were abandoning it for utopianism, theological politics, and "ending tyranny on earth." Yes, that is the core argument of my book. It’s an argument that others seem more receptive to than they were last fall. Pity Ross appears to be stuck with the meddling certainty of the theocons.

Oakeshottian America

Andrew Sullivan —  Mar 15 2007 @ 2:48pm

Susan Sontag understood the connection:

"It is the genius of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have elaborated a form of conservative thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old."

Discussing Oakeshott

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 10 2007 @ 6:08pm


He’s the main influence behind my new book, "The Conservative Soul," and I’m delighted that my 1989 doctoral dissertation on him, "Intimations Pursued," is going to be published later this year, as part of a series of books devoted to analyzing his thought. If Anglo-American conservatism is going to be revived in the twenty-first century, it will, I think, have to draw deeply on Oakeshott’s reconciliation of conservatism with modernity. One of the sharper younger Oakeshott scholars is Ian Tregenza, whom I met at the Oakeshott Society conference earlier this year. If you’re interested, here’s a podcast from an Australian radio show called "The Philosopher’s Zone," where Ian discusses Oakeshott with Peter Coleman. Here’s how the podcast is introduced:

The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who was born in 1901 and died in 1990, is a difficult man to pin down. He’s frequently described as a conservative, but there isn’t much in his thought that would have been of help to a political party, and his work is often seen as poetic and evasive. This week, we look at the work of a great – and strange – philosopher.

Listen here.