Adrian Lee: Oakeshott’s philosophy was based on a belief in trying and trusting rather than risky and experimental

Adrian Lee is a barrister and solicitor in London, specializing in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative candidate for Parliament.

Who is the most eminent British conservative philosopher of the second half of the 20th century? Today, most under-forties would probably say that Roger Scruton qualified for the title, but before 1980 and the release of Scruton’s hugely controversial debut album “The Meaning of Conservatism”, few would have denied those laurels to Michael Oakeshott.

Oakeshott’s continued reputation among conservatives rests largely on a volume of essays titled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays – published by Methuen 60 years ago, January 21, 1962. It would be laughable to claim that a book with such a catchy title became a bestseller overnight. But it was widely commented on both in the UK academic press and in the high end of news media. Knowledge of its contents quickly crossed the Atlantic to the editorial offices of the National Review. Oakeshott’s philosophy, based on a belief in the proven rather than the risky and experimental, remains one of the purest distillations of true Burke conservative thought.

Michael Oakeshott was born into a prosperous middle-class family in Chelsfield, Kent on December 11, 1901, the same day Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic radio signals from Cornwall to Newfoundland. Michael’s father worked in the upper echelons of the civil service and was a paying member of the Fabian Society. No wonder her son was ultimately destined to be sent to St. George’s, a radically coeducational “progressive” boarding school in Hertfordshire.

Perhaps surprisingly, this establishment did not spoil the boy’s academic opportunities and he was to continue reading history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Oakeshott earned a premiere in 1923 and became a member of Caius two years later. Graduate studies were then undertaken in theology and German literature at two separate German universities at the end of the Weimar Republic. Oakeshott considered entering the Anglican clergy in his day.

While in Germany, Oakeshott came into direct contact with Marxism and National Socialism, which gave him a hatred of authoritarian political extremism and resulted in his short work “The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe” (1939). It was his second book, the first, the philosophical work “Experience and its Modes”, had been published quietly in 1933 and had taken more than 30 years to sell all copies of the first edition. Oakeshott spent the 1930s teaching history at his alma mater, but soon after the outbreak of war he made every effort to join the Special Operations Executive.

Unfortunately, he was rejected for being “too decidedly English” to conduct covert operations behind enemy lines, but he ended up working for “Phantom”, a wartime intelligence organization examining field signal data. battle who worked with the SAS. During this time, he shares accommodation with fellow Tory Peregrine Worsthorne. Oakeshott ended the war with the rank of acting major and returned to Cambridge in 1945.

In four years, his college career had gone from strength to strength. After two years of teaching at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1951 Oakeshott was appointed professor of political science at LSE. It is certainly ironic that Oakeshott was chosen to replace the recently deceased Harold Laski, Labor stalwart, Communist sympathizer and Stalin apologist. Michael Oakeshott was destined to hold this chair until his official retirement in 1969, but continued to teach at LSE until 1980.

The chapters of “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” collectively challenge the idea that politics can lead to a perfect society. Oakeshott draws a distinction between philosophy, which seeks to understand life, and politics, which deals with the practical management of human affairs.

The government does not need a “theory”. He argues that over the past century, “rationalists”, who seek to harness the power of government in service of their societal plans, have become predominant in political affairs. This led disastrously to social engineering guiding the decisions of political life.

Oakeshott perceives that the world is continually changing and that there can never be a fixed and permanent condition. Humans rely on the knowledge and achievements of past generations. Rationalists, contrary to common sense, put theory first and practice second. It therefore follows that all intellectual constructions based on the imposition of an idealistic model are false and ultimately doomed to failure.

The obvious example of the specific rationalism that Oakeshott refers to in the eponymous opening essay is socialism, with its state planning, regulation, and centralized ownership. However, Oakeshott provides us with other less obvious examples of the same phenomenon citing a long list that includes:

“The project of the so-called re-union of the Christian Churches…the Beveridge Report, the Education Act of 1944, federalism, nationalism, the vote for women…the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the The world state (of HG Wells or anyone else) and the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Ireland, are alike descendants of rationalism.

If nothing else, this passage demonstrates that the author’s prose is both lighthearted and often humorous.

Oakeshott’s 1962 book contains a rich mix of chapter topics ranging from political education to the role of historians and from Thomas Hobbes to the importance of poetry. However, two essays stand out in particular.

In “The Political Economy of Liberty,” Oakeshott provides an obituary for Professor Henry C. Simons, an American free-market economist who identified himself as “an old-fashioned liberal,” and makes pithy remarks:

“If he were a liberal, at least he suffered from none of the present afflictions of liberalism – the ignorance of who his true friends are, and the nervous conscience which gives a senile and blind welcome to all who claim to be on the of ‘progress’.”

Oakeshott laments that “…to be a true libertarian in politics is to belong to a human type now sadly outdated”. A free society depends on the absence of “crushing concentrations of power”. Collectivism and freedom are opposed, “…if we choose one, we cannot have the other.” Collectivists “…reject the whole notion of diffusion of power” and a collectivist society cannot function without “…a lavish use of discretionary authority”. Oakeshott concludes thus:

“Politics is not the science of establishing a permanently impregnable society, it is the art of knowing where to go next in exploring an already existing traditional society.”

The second major essay of note is titled “On Being Conservative” and includes the text of a lecture the author gave at Swansea University in 1956. It is fair to say that it contains one of the most great exhibits on the true meaning of conservatism and contains the following passage:

“To be conservative is therefore to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the proven to the unpublished, the fact to the mystery, the real to the possible, the limited to the unlimited, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, the laughter present in utopian happiness.

Oakeshott supports innovation, but cautions against change for change’s sake:

“…to be conservative is not just to be opposed to change; it is also a way of adapting to the changes and the activity imposed on all men. Because change is a threat to identity, and every change is a symbol of extinction.

Michael Oakeshott died, aged 89, in 1990 in Acton, Dorset, but his 1962 work ‘Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays’ is one of the most important and accessible cornerstones of thought modern conservative.