Michael Joseph OakeshottFBA (11 December 1901 – 19 December 1990) was an English philosopher and political theorist who wrote about philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, philosophy of education, and philosophy of law.
Oakeshott was the son of Frances Maude (Hellicar) and Joseph Francis Oakeshott, a civil servant and a member of the Fabian Society.George Bernard Shaw was a friend. Michael Oakeshott attended St George's School, Harpenden, from 1912 to 1920. He enjoyed his schooldays, and the Headmaster, Cecil Grant, later became a friend.
In 1920 Oakeshott became an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read history. He obtained an MA and subsequently became a Fellow. While he was at Cambridge he admired the British idealist philosophers J. M. E. McTaggart and John Grote, and the medieval historian Zachary Nugent Brooke. The historian Herbert Butterfield was a contemporary and fellow member of the Junior Historians society.
Oakeshott was dismayed by the political extremism that occurred in Europe during the 1930s, and his surviving lectures from this period reveal a dislike of National Socialism and Marxism.
Second World War
Although Oakeshott, in his essay "The Claim of Politics" (1939), defended the right of individuals not to become directly involved, in 1941 he joined the British Army. He reportedly wished to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), but the military decided that his appearance was "too unmistakably English" for him to conduct covert operations on the Continent. He was on active service in Europe with the intelligence unit Phantom, which had connections with the Special Air Service (SAS), but he was never in the front line.
In 1945 Oakeshott was demobilized and returned to Cambridge. In 1947 he left Cambridge for Nuffield College, Oxford, but after only a year there he secured an appointment as Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), succeeding the leftist Harold Laski. He was deeply unsympathetic to the student activism at LSE during the late 1960s, on the grounds that it disrupted the work of the university. Oakeshott retired from the LSE in 1969.
In his retirement he retreated to live quietly in a country cottage in Langton Matravers in Dorset. He lived long enough to experience increasing recognition, although he has become much more widely written about since his death.
Oakeshott refused an offer of being made a Companion of Honour, for which he was proposed by Margaret Thatcher.
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Oakeshott's early work, some of which has been published posthumously as What is History? And Other Essays (2004) and The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence (2007), shows that he was more interested in the philosophical problems that derived from his historical studies than he was in the history, even though he was employed as a historian.
Philosophy and modes of experience
Oakeshott published his first book, Experience and its Modes, in 1933. He noted that the book owed much to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and F. H. Bradley; commentators also noticed resemblances between this work and the ideas of thinkers such as R. G. Collingwood and Georg Simmel.
The book argued that our experience is usually modal, in the sense that we always have a governing perspective on the world, be it practical or theoretical. There are various theoretical approaches one may take to understanding the world: natural science and history for example are separate modes of experience. It was a mistake, he declared, to treat history as if it ought to be practised on the model of the natural sciences.
Philosophy, however, is not a modal interest. At this stage of his career, he saw philosophy as the world seen sub specie aeternitatis, literally, 'under the aspect of eternity', free from presuppositions, whereas science and history and the practical mode relied on certain assumptions. Later (there is some disagreement about exactly when), Oakeshott adopted a pluralistic view of the various modes of experience, with philosophy just one 'voice' amongst others, though it retained its self-scrutinizing character.
The dominating principles of scientific and historical thought were quantity (the world sub specie quantitatis) and being in the past (the world sub specie praeteritorum), respectively. Oakeshott distinguished the academic perspective on the past from the practical, in which the past is seen in terms of its relevance to our present and future. His insistence on the autonomy of history places him close to Collingwood, who also argued for the autonomy of historical knowledge.
The practical world view (the world sub specie voluntatis) presupposed the ideas of will and of value in terms of which practical action in the arenas of politics, economics, and ethics made sense. Because all action is conditioned by presuppositions, Oakeshott was inclined to see any attempt to change the world as reliant upon a scale of values, which themselves presuppose a context of experience. Even the conservative disposition to maintain the status quo relies upon managing inevitable change, he would later elaborate in his essay 'On Being Conservative'.
During this period Oakeshott published what became his best known work during his lifetime, the collection entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). Some of the polemics against the direction post-World War II Britain was taking, in particular the acceptance of socialism, gained Oakeshott a reputation as a conservative, seeking to uphold the importance of tradition, and sceptical about rationalism and fixed ideologies. Bernard Crick described him as a 'lonely nihilist'.
Oakeshott's opposition to what he considered Utopian political projects is summed by his use of the analogy (possibly borrowed from the Marquess of Halifax, a 17th-century English author whom he admired) of a ship of state which has "neither starting-place nor appointed destination...[and where] the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel". He was a critic of the Cambridge historian E. H. Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, claiming that Carr had an uncritical attitude towards the Bolshevik regime, taking some of its propaganda at face value.
On Human Conduct and Oakeshott's political theory
In his essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) Oakeshott explained what he regarded as the conservative disposition: "To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."
Oakeshott's political philosophy, as advanced in On Human Conduct (1975), is free of any form of party politics. The book's first part ("On the Theoretical Understanding of Human Conduct") develops a theory of human action as the exercise of intelligent agency in activities such as wanting and choosing, the second ("On the Civil Condition") discusses the formal conditions of association appropriate to such intelligent agents, described as "civil" or legal association, and the third ("On the Character of a Modern European State") examines how far this understanding of human association has affected politics and political ideas in post-Renaissance European history.
Oakeshott suggests that there had been two major modes or understandings of human social organization. In the first, which he calls "enterprise association" (or universitas), the state is understood as imposing some universal purpose (profit, salvation, progress, racial domination) on its subjects. By contrast, "civil association" (or societas) is primarily a legal relationship in which laws impose obligatory conditions of action but do not require choosing one action rather than another.
The complex, often technical style of On Human Conduct found few readers, and its initial reception was mostly one of bafflement. Oakeshott, who rarely responded to critics, used an article in the journal Political Theory to reply sardonically to some of the contributions made at a symposium on the book.
In his posthumously-published The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, Oakeshott describes enterprise and civil association in different terms. Here, an enterprise association is seen as based in a fundamental faith in human ability to ascertain and grasp some universal "good" (i.e. the Politics of Faith), and civil association is seen as based in a fundamental scepticism about human ability to either ascertain or achieve this good (i.e. the Politics of Scepticism). Oakeshott considers power (especially technological power) as a necessary prerequisite for the Politics of Faith, because a) it allows people to believe they can achieve something great (e.g. something universally good), and b) it allows them to implement the policies necessary to achieve their goal. The Politics of Scepticism, on the other hand, rests on the idea that government should concern itself with preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling ambiguously good events.
Oakeshott employs the analogy of the adverb to describe the kind of restraint law involves. To him, laws prescribe "adverbial conditions" - they condition our actions, but do not determine the substantive ends of our choices. For example, the law against murder is not a law against killing as such, but only a law against killing "murderously". Or, to choose a more trivial example, the law does not dictate that I have a car, but if I do, I must drive it on the same side of the road as everybody else. This contrasts with the rules of enterprise association in which those actions required by the governing are made compulsory for all.
Philosophy of history
The final work Oakeshott published in his own lifetime, On History (1983) returned to the idea that history is a distinct mode of experience, but built on the theory of action developed for On Human Conduct. Much of On History had in fact been written at the same time, in the early 1970s.
During the mid-1960s, Oakeshott declared an admiration for Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the pioneers of hermeneutics. On History can be interpreted as an essentially neo-Kantian enterprise of working out the conditions of the possibility of historical knowledge, work that Dilthey had begun.
The first three essays set out the distinction between the present of historical experience and the present of practical experience, as well as the concepts of historical situation, historical event, and what is meant by change in history. On History includes an essay on jurisprudence ('The Rule of Law') and a pessimistic re-telling in the modern setting of the story of 'The Tower of Babel', in which modern Western societies fall victim to their own materialism and greed.
Oakeshott's other works included a reader on The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe consisting of selected texts illustrating the main doctrines of liberalism, national socialism, fascism, communism, and Roman Catholicism (1939). He was editor of an edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1946), for which he provided an introduction recognized as a significant contribution to the literature by later scholars such as Quentin Skinner. Several of his essays on Hobbes were published during 1975 as Hobbes on Civil Association. He wrote, with his Cambridge colleague Guy Griffith, A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick The Derby Winner (1936), a guide to the principles of successful betting on horse-racing; this was his only non-academic work. He was the author of well over 150 essays and reviews, most of which have yet to be republished.
Just before he died, Oakeshott approved two edited collections of his works, The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989), a collection of his essays on education, and a second, revised and expanded edition of Rationalism in Politics itself (1991). Posthumous collections of his writings include Morality and Politics in Modern Europe (1993), a lecture series he gave at Harvard in 1958, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life (1993), essays mostly from his early and middle periods, The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1996), a manuscript from the 1950s contemporary with much of the material in Rationalism in Politics but written in a more considered tone.
The bulk of his papers are now in the Oakeshott archive at the London School of Economics. Further volumes of posthumous writings are in preparation, as is a biography, and during the first decade of the 21st century a series of monographs devoted to his work were published.
- 1933. Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge University Press
- 1936. A Guide to the Classics, or, How to Pick the Derby. With G.T. Griffith. London: Faber and Faber
- 1939. The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- 1941. The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- 1942. The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe with five additional prefaces by F.A. Ogg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- 1947. A New Guide to the Derby: How to Pick the Winner. With G.T. Griffith. London: Faber and Faber
- 1955. La Idea de Gobierno en la Europa Moderna. Madrid: Ateneo
- 1962. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen (Expanded edition – 1991, by Liberty Fund)
- 1966. Rationalismus in der Politik. (trans. K. Streifthau) Neuwied und Berlin: Luchterhard
- 1975. On Human Conduct. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- 1975. Hobbes on Civil Association. Oxford: Basil Blackwell
- 1983. On History and Other Essays. Basil Blackwell
- 1985. La Condotta Umana. Bologna: Società Editrice il Mulino
- 1989. The Voice of Liberal Learning. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
- 1991. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Press
- 1993. Morality and Politics in Modern Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press
- 1993. Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life. New Haven: Yale University Press
- 1996. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism. New Haven: Yale University Press
- 2000. Zuversicht und Skepsis: Zwei Prinzipien neuzeitlicher Politik. (trans. C. Goldmann). Berlin: Fest
- 2004. What Is History? And Other Essays. Thorverton: Imprint Academic
- 2006. Lectures in the History of Political Thought. Thorverton: Imprint Academic
- 2007. The Concept of a Philosophical Jurisprudence: Essays and Reviews 1926–51. Thorverton: Imprint Academic
- 2008. The Vocabulary of a Modern European State: Essays and Reviews 1952–88. Thorverton: Imprint Academic
- 2010. Early Political Writings 1925–30. Thorverton: Imprint Academic
- Robert Grant, Oakeshott (The Claridge Press, 1990)
- Terry Nardin, The Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott (Penn State, 2001, ISBN 0-271-02156-X)
- Efraim Podoksik, In Defence of Modernity: Vision and Philosophy in Michael Oakeshott (Imprint Academic, 2003, ISBN 0-907845-66-5)
- Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction (Yale, 2004, ISBN 0-300-10404-9)
- Corey Abel & Timothy Fuller, eds. The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott (Imprint Academic, 2005, ISBN 1-84540-009-7)
- Elizabeth Campbell Corey, Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics (University of Missouri Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0826216403)
- Till Kinzel, Michael Oakeshott. Philosoph der Politik (Perspektiven, 9) (Antaios, 2007, ISBN 978-3935063098)
- Andrew Sullivan, Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott (Imprint Academic, 2007)
- Corey Abel, ed, The meanings of Michael Oakeshott's Conservatism (Imprint Academic, 2010, ISBN 978-1845402181)
- Efraim Podoksik, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Oakeshott (Cambridge University Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0521764674. OCLC 770694299
- Paul Franco & Leslie Marsh, eds, A Companion to Michael Oakeshott (Penn State University Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0271054070. OCLC 793497138
- Gene Callahan (2012). Oakeshott on Rome and America. Charlottesville, VA: Exeter: Imprint Academic. p. 227. ISBN 978-1845403133. OCLC 800863300.
- ^Fuller, T. (1991) 'The Work of Michael Oakeshott', Political Theory, Vol. 19 No. 3.
- ^See M. Oakeshott, Review of H. Levy and others, Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, in Cambridge Review, 56 (1934–5), pp. 108–9
- ^Gray, John. "Last of the Idealists". Literary Review. Archived from the original on 17 July 2014. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
- ^"A Letter from Margaret Thatcher". www.michael-oakeshott-association.org. Archived from the original on 26 May 2008. Retrieved 2016-12-04.
- ^Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 6
- ^Paul Franco, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, pp. 45–46
- ^Efraim Podoksik, ‘Ethics and the Conduct of Life in the old Georg Simmel and the young Michael Oakeshott’, Simmel Studies 17(2), 2007, pp. 197–221
- ^Bernard Crick, ‘The World of Michael Oakeshott: Or the Lonely Nihilist’, Encounter, 20 (June 1963), pp. 65–74
- ^Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics. London: Methuen, 1962: p. 127; 
- ^M. Oakeshott, Review of E. H. Carr, The New Society, in Times Literary Supplement (12 October 1951)
- ^Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen,1962), pp. 168–96
- ^M. Oakeshott, "On Misunderstanding Human Conduct: A Reply to My Critics," Political Theory, 4 (1976), pp. 353–67.
A few months alter the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the most original thinker of post-war Conservatism died. Perhaps partly because of the commotion caused by the change of national leadership, the passing of Michael Oakeshott did not attract much public notice. Even the Spectator, which might have been expected to mark the event with a full salute, ignored it for half a year, before carrying a curiously distracted piece by its editor, reporting strange losses in the philosopher’s papers, without so much as mentioning his political ideas. Perhaps another element in the muted reaction was the remoteness of Oakeshott’s intellectual origins from the contemporary landscape. Anglo-Scottish Idealism of the early years of this century, its other lights long since extinguished, has become one of the least recollected episodes of the native past. Oakeshott was always held difficult to place. Although he was an exemplary patriot of British institutions, a superficial glance might lead one to think he was latterly more regarded in the United States. His last book, The Voice of Liberal Learning, was edited from Colorado. The first posthumous collection, an enlarged version of Rationalism in Politics, now appears from Indianopolis. The only extended survey of his work is a monograph from Chicago. But his profile, on either side of the Atlantic, continues to be elusive.
Oakeshott has most frequently been taken as the wayward voice of an archetypical English conservatism: empirical, habitual, traditional, the adversary of all systematic politics, of reaction no less than reform; a thinker who preferred writing about the Derby to expounding the Constitution, and found even Burke too doctrinaire. The amiably careless, comfortable image is misleading. To set Oakeshott in his real context, a comparative angle of vision is needed. For he was, in fact, one of the quartet of outstanding European theorists of the intransigent Right whose ideas now shape – however much, or little, leading practitioners are aware of it – a large pail of the mental world of end-of-the-century Western politics. It is alongside Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Friedrich von Hayek that Michael Oakeshott is most appropriately seen. The relations between these four figures await documentation from future biographers. But whatever the circumstantial contacts or conflicts – some more visible than others – the lattice of intellectual connections between them forms a striking pattern. By generation, three were virtually exact contemporaries – Strauss (1899-1973), Hayek (1899-1991), Oakeshott (1901-1900). Older by a decade, Schmitt (1888-1985) overlapped with them, living like Hayek into his nineties, a longevity approached by Oakeshott too. They came from different disciplines – economics (Hayek), law (Schmitt), philosophy (Strauss) and history (Oakeshott) – but politics drew their concerns into a common field. There, they were divided by marked contrasts of character and outlook, and by the respective situations they confronted. The interweaving of themes and outcomes, across such differences, is all the more arresting.
The formative experience of all these thinkers was the crisis of European society in the inter-war years, as the established order came under increasing pressure from economic dislocation, labour revolt and middle-class back-lash, and then proceeded to buckle at its weakest points. In the Weimar Republic, the Westphalian Schmitt began his career as the most original Catholic adversary of socialism and of liberalism. In polemics of electric intensity, whose charge was increasingly aimed at the precarious parliamentarism of post-Versailles Germany, he treated their ideas as dilute theologies, which were bound to prove weaker than the force of national myth. His own positive doctrine became a neo-Hobbesian theory of politics. Its critical edge was to protect the state of nature depicted in Leviathan, the war of all against all in which individual agents are pitted against each other, onto the plane of modern collective conflicts: thereby transforming civil society itself into a second state of nature. For Schmitt, the act of sovereign power then becomes not so much the institution of ‘mutual peace’ as the decision fixing the nature and frontier of any community, by dividing friend from foe – the opposition that defines the nature of the political as such. This stark ‘decisionist’ vision came out of a regional background in which the choices seemed, to many others as well as Schmitt, to reduce themselves to two: revolution or counter-revolution. ‘We in Central Europe live sous l’oeil des Russes,’ he wrote. His own option for the second term – he was an admirer of De Maistre and Donoso Cortes – was never in doubt.
In England, where Schmitt’s incandescent early manifesto for the Roman Church was edited in a Catholic series of Essays in Order, polarities were not so acute. The Cambridge of the Twenties was a sheltered place, and Oakeshott’s concerns were not initially so political. His first publication was a tract on Religion and the Moral Life whose theme was the necessary completion of ethical choice by religious wisdom, and thus the substantive unity between civilisation and Christianity. Oakeshott’s personal piety seems to have declined over the years, yet the contrary accents of religious tradition and of radical choice remained: a combination recalling the early Schmitt, with the difference that Oakeshott’s background was Anglican rather than Catholic and his decisionism moral rather than political in register. But he had studied theology at Marburg and Tübingen, and was familiar with Political Theology, Schmitt’s famous application of religious categories to secular doctrines. When he turned to politics, Oakeshott’s intellectual allegiance proved to be the same. It was on Hobbes that he set out to build a theory of the state. For both men, Leviathan – ‘the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language’, as Oakeshott termed it – was to be the touchstone for any modern account of civil authority.
Nor was this was the only parallel in their outlook. When he ventured political opinions in these years, Oakeshott’s scorn for liberalism and democracy was scarcely less incendiary than Schmitt’s. Giving his verdict on the other English philosopher usually held for a classic, he spoke with the authentic voice of the radical Right: ‘Locke was the apostle of the liberalism which is more conservative than conservatism itself, the liberalism characterised, not by insensitiveness, but by a sinister and destructive sensitiveness to the influx of the new, the liberalism which is sure of its limits, which has a horror of extremes, which lays its paralysing hand of respectability upon whatever is dangerous and revolutionary ... He was meek, and until recently he inherited the earth.’ Fortunately, that legacy was now passing into other hands. ‘Democracy, parliamentary government, progress, discussion’ and “the plausible ethics of productivity” are notions – all of them inseparable from the Lockian liberalism – which fail now to arouse even opposition,’ Oakeshot scoffed: ‘they are not merely absurd and exploded, they are uninteresting.’ These lines were written in the autumn of 1932, on the eve of the Nazi victory in Germany. A fewmonths later, Schmitt – who had been adviser to Brüning and then to Schleicher – went over to Hitler. Looking at the new regime from England, Oakeshott had decided by the end of the decade that, compared with available alternatives, representative democracy, however incoherent as a doctrine, had something to be said for it after all. Catholicism, however, was the repository of another tradition of profound importance, authoritarian without caprice, ‘an inheritance we have neglected’. ‘So far as this country is concerned,’ he went on, ‘I venture to suggest that many of the principles which belong to the historic doctrine of Conservatism are to be found in this Catholic doctrine’ – which had been given constitutional shape in the Austria of Dollfuss and Portugal of Salazar. In April 1940, on the eve of the fall of France, he was still dismissing ‘clap-trap about government by consent’.
Leo Strauss, meanwhile, from an Orthodox background in Hessen, had made his debut in the Zionist movement with texts on Jewish religion and politics – his first significant piece was on Das Heilige – before moving to the study of Spinoza’s Biblical criticism, and thence to research on Hobbes. This brought him into contact with Schmitt, with whom he enjoyed friendly relations in Berlin. Before leaving Germany in 1932 he devoted his last publication – in the same months as Oakeshott was pronouncing his sentence on Locke – to the most arresting of Schmitt’s works, The Concept of the Political. In a critique that was both admiring and admonitory, Strauss argued that Schmitt’s laudable rejection of liberalism had mistaken its philosophical bearings for Hobbes’s theory of the state was not an antidote to modern liberalism, but its very foundation. In radicalising Hobbes’s matter-of-fact view of the human passions and their resolution in civil society into a tacit exaltation of enmity as the necessary signature of any political life, Schmitt had only produced a ‘liberalism with a minus sign’. What was needed was a ‘horizon beyond liberalism’. Intimations of this could nevertheless be found in Schmitt’s text, when he spoke of an ‘order of human things’ that lay in the return to an undefiled nature. It was this natural order, Strauss remarked, which the liberal conception of culture had forgotten. Schmitt took these objections in his stride, making a few quiet adjustments in subsequent editions of his work to accentuate the hints of a religious background that Strauss had noted. He also helped Strauss get to France before Hitler came to power. Six months after the installation of the Third Reich – on the day Goering elevated Schmitt to the Prussian State Council – Strauss was writing to him from Paris, asking for an introduction to Maurras. In 1934 Strauss moved to London, where he complained that Schmitt’s latest publication, his first development in legal theory under the new order, had incorporated Strauss’s proposals for an advance beyond decisionism without acknowledgment.
It was in England that Strauss now under-took the demonstration that Hobbes was the theoretical fount of a levelling modern individualism. Appearing in 1936, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes argued that the revolution wrought by Hobbes was to replace the classical vision of a political order founded on philosophical reason and shaped by aristocratic honour with a doctrine of sovereign power motivated by fear and fabricated from will: a construction built on the marshlands of ‘his denial of any gradation in mankind’, because he could conceive of ‘no order – that is, no gradation in nature’. Commended to the English reader by the impeccably liberal Ernest Barker (who performed the same service for Oakeshott’s survey of contemporary political doctrines soon afterwards, forming an incongruous trait d’ union between the two men), Strauss’s book was on the whole well received by Oakeshott, as the most original study on Hobbes to have appeared in many years. But whereas for Strauss the remedy to Hobbes’s defiled naturalism lay intact in the ancient wisdom set forth by Plato, for Oakeshott the incoherence of Hobbes’s naturalistic doctrine of will was only to be overcome in the modern reunion of reason and volition in Hegel and Bosanquet – even if their synthesis remained to be completed.
In 1938 Strauss moved to the United States, where after the war he occupied a chair at Chicago in the same period that Oakeshott was at the LSE. There he produced the remarkable series of works – in form, an oracular retrospect of the history of philosophy from Socrates to Nietzsche, in effect, a systematic political doctrine – which has since nurtured the most distinctive and strong-minded school of American conservatism. There were two principal themes in this oeuvre. A just political order must be grounded in immutable demands of natural right. Nature, however, is inherently unequal. The capacity to discover truth is restricted to a few, and to endure it exhibited by scarcely more. The best regime will therefore reflect differences in human excellence, and be led by an appropriate élite. But although the highest virtue is philosophical contemplation of the truth, this does not mean – contrary to a superficial reading of the Republic – that the just city will be ruled by philosophers. For philosophy gazes without faltering, not only at the necessary conditions of political order, discomfiting as these may be to demotic prejudice, but at the far more terrible realities of cosmic disorder: the absence of any divine authority, the delusion of any common morality, the transience of the earth and its species – every insight that religion must deny and society cannot survive. Unfolded at large, these truths would destroy the protective atmosphere of any civilisation and with it the conditions for the pursuit of philosophy itself.
Esoteric wisdom and exoteric opinion must therefore remain distinct, on pain of mutual destruction. Leisured gentlemen instructed in rule – but not raised to truth – by philosophers should uphold a rational order of political stability against levelling temptations. Under their rule, theoretical knowledge could find institutional shelter, without dangerous side-effects on civic practice. In keeping with his teaching, which now enjoined such prudence on the philosopher, Strauss made, during the Cold War, the concession – earlier unthinkable – of describing these views as a contribution to liberalism: albeit ‘in the original sense’, understood by the ancients, of a ‘liberality’ that was another name for ‘excellence’. In the campus emergency of 1968 he even publicly endorsed Richard Nixon. In general, however, Strauss eschewed official bromide or partisan pronouncement; that was the role not of the teacher but of the taught.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 20 · 22 October 1992
‘The impeccably liberal Ernest Barker’ (Perry Anderson: LRB, 24 September)? Would ‘peccably’ be better? In 1937 he made a favourable comparison between Hitler and Cromwell in a swastika-draped hall in Hamburg: see his Oliver Cromwell and the English People (Cambridge, 1937).
University of Sussex
Vol. 14 No. 21 · 5 November 1992
William Lamont points to Ernest Barker’s Oliver Cromwell and the English People as a peccant moment of his liberalism (Letters, 22 October). Touché. Still, if Lamont’s own work on William Prynne and Richard Baxter teaches us to distinguish between different kinds of 17th-century Puritan, not to smooth out their paradoxes, and to set each in the collective context of the time, the lesson is valid for 20th-century liberals too. Barker’s 1936 lecture to the Sthamer Society in Hamburg, coloured – as he explains – by memories of friendship with the Weimar Ambassador to London after whom it was named, contains a culpable mixture of diplomatic and ingenuous elements. But although he did compare Cromwell and Hitler as national leaders, in an epilogue written after his return to England, the comparison was not simply favourable, since Barker stressed the difference between religious and racial conceptions of the nation, contrasting the Protector’s tolerance of Jews with the Führer’s anti-semitism, and the antagonism between the principles of freedom of conscience and of political uniformity. If any English ruler was ‘the precedent and example of the totalitarian leader’, it was Hentry VIII rather than Cromwell – whose portrait Barker draws with creditable balance. Significantly, he took issue with Carl Schmitt in doing so. In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt had cited Crowell’s virulent speech against Spain in September 1656 as a supreme expression of the demarcation of friend from foe that constitutes the essence of political life. Barker replied that Cromwell’s declaration of enmity was conceived neither in strictly political nor exclusively national terms. ‘It is a speech in terms of “the religious”, and it is couched in the interest of a common European Protestantism’ – a martial but confessional internationalism, whose limits no Puritan could transcend.