A paper presented to the biennial meeting of the Michael Oakeshott Association, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado, September 28, 2013.

by Wilfred M. McClay

My title refers, of course, to Oakeshott’s celebrated essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” to which frequent reference has been made these past two days. It was probably the first writing of his that I ever read. It is also the one that has stayed with me most to date, especially in the concept of “voice” and in the concept of “conversation,” both of which I will want to draw upon here.

The two concepts together provide a very rich way of thinking about conservatism, a tradition, or a disposition (as Oakeshott would say), that is multifarious and fluid in character; an intellectual tradition with some elements of unity, but whose sources of unity defy simple definition or creedal enumeration. Which was the very sort of simple propositionalism to which Oakeshott tended to be allergic.

The question I want to pose is the following: What might a clearer apprehension of Oakeshott’s voice, his distinctive approach to the understanding of political life, contribute to the theory and practice of American conservatism? (I’ll be concentrating mainly on American conservatism, although not exclusively so; and it will presently become clear that many of the things I say, if not all of them, are equally applicable to liberalism.)

By the way, just for the record, I don’t assume that all Oakeshottians are, or necessarily ought to be, conservatives in their political orientation. If anything, one of the benefits of Oakeshott’s perspective, with its suspicion of all things ideological and instrumental, is its tendency to soften such imperatives, and even set them aside altogether, in the name of a more capacious and contingent understanding of political life.

Still, I think the relationship between Oakeshott’s self-proclaimed conservatism, and what passes as conservatism in the present day, is a logical and important subject for us to pursue; and particularly so at a time when conservatism in the larger culture is very much in a state of flux and uncertainty, even inner turmoil. In my remarks tonight, I want to give some thought to the question of what role Oakeshott plays, or could play, in making this period of flux into the prelude to something far more fruitful.

First, let me make a few broad-brush observations about the particulars of American conservatism.

“Conservatism” in early America started out as a rag-tag affair, not easily identified as such, or easily identified with the actual partisan political alignments that emerged, starting in the 1790s. It may have been an exaggeration to argue, as Louis Hartz famously did, that there was only one political tradition in America, and that tradition was liberalism. But one has to look very hard and with a very fine and intentional filter in place, to find evidence of a coherent alternative tradition; and even its elements are not always ones that present-day conservatives would want to claim for themselves. The Federalist party perhaps counts as a conservative patrician elite class, although their Jeffersonian antagonists were in some respects just as conservative, if one understands conservatism as stressing the primacy of small-scale governance and states’ rights over the growth of the national state. Despite their suspicion of executive power, the American Whigs were too evangelical and reform-oriented, and too nationalist, to count as conservative, especially in any Oakeshottian sense. One could perhaps argue that pro-slavery antebellum Southerners were conservatives, since, as the late Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argued, their defense of slavery rested upon a larger view of the social and cosmic order, which stressed the necessity for steep and entrenched social hierarchies. But that is hardly an element that conservatives in later years were likely to want to embrace.

Oninto the twentieth century, there were hints of conservative thought emerging here and there, but in scattered forms: someone like Albert Jay Nock, with his anti-statist libertarianism, or the Nashville Agrarians, with their Southern anti-industrialism; and certainly there were features that we might now call “conservative” in the ideas and policies of political figures like Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Mellon. The advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency further stimulated conservative opposition, both to the growth of the domestic administrative state and the growth of American political and military involvement abroad. But the most notable feature of this rather short list is how wildly diverse it is, and indeed how likely it is that its various elements would be doomed to work at cross purposes, absent something unifying them from outside.

It was really not until the aftermath of the Second World War and the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that a robust and recognizable conservative intellectual movement emerged in American life. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) was an effort to create a usable past for American conservatism, beginning with Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution; and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (also 1953) sought to place the calling of conservatism in a larger context: the discontents created by the great unsettlement of traditional society and of intermediate forms of association, which had been wrought by the growth of the industrial economy and the rise of the ever more powerful nation-state as the principal locus of political and economic power. Also notable was the growing popularity and influence of anti-collectivist economic theory, as in the works of Austrian economists Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. And of course one would have to include the founding of the journal National Review in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr., as a signal moment in the coalescing of this postwar American conservatism.

Most of the above writers, or others like them, appeared in the pages of National Review; and although conservative sentiments and perspectives remained scattered and diverse, and oriented around several different foci, there was now something holding all of these disparate things together: a fear of the all-embracing state, of totalitarianism hard or soft, of Communism and all such comprehensive isms, and of the ways that rule from Washington could come to resemble such comprehensive control, built around the centralized direction of a “planned” economy. The militant atheism of Soviet communism helped bring religious conservatives to the conservative fold—an alliance that was by no means a forgone conclusion, if one remembers the social reformism that had always been characteristic of evangelical Protestantism in the nineteenth century. Even many liberals followed along in step with this pattern. Liberal anti-communists like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., or the intellectuals gathered around journals such as Commentary and Partisan Review, were bitterly opposed to the Soviet Union, and to the slavish Stalinist orthodoxy of so many American Communists. The liberal American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw in Progressive thought a dangerous preference for the group over the individual, and other contemporaries, such as Isaiah Berlin, distrustful of all such efforts to produce social and political unity, embraced the idea of pluralism in political and social thought, and chose to emphasize negative liberty over positive liberty. Oakeshott’s own drift to pluralism reflects these larger currents of thought.

The fact is, then, that from the beginning conservatism as a political disposition took the form of a coalition, one that was largely held together, as all political coalitions are, by externals, by shared points of negative reference. (Recall Henry Adams’scynical adage that “politics is the systematic organization of hatreds,” which may not be a good guide to all aspects of politics, but is a very useful guide to the dynamics of coalition building.) But with the end of the Cold War, a little over two decades ago, that condition changed dramatically. The coalition making up political conservatism in America has not fallen apart completely, but it is far more fractious and splintered, and faces an uncertain future. It is harder than before to see what libertarians and social conservatives have in common with one another; what elite businessmen deeply committed to the fluidity of the global economy, and to a borderless global labor force, have in common with economic nationalists who are outraged by the replacement of the American workforce with cheap foreign and immigrant labor; or what proponents of elite classical education have in common with the populist digital revolutionaries who want to bring down the current edifice of higher education altogether.

Hence it is an ideal moment, it seems to me, to be asking the questions I am asking. What is it that conservatism in America exists to conserve? If the answer is “liberty,” what does that mean? Surely not only the liberty of the unmoored, self-made, autonomous, unencumbered self of liberal myth? And must conservatism be reducible to its own kind of ideology, a set of propositions and prescriptions and goals, to sustain itself? Is that what Burke pointed toward in inaugurating modern conservatism? Or the opposite?

Oakeshott would surely have insisted upon the latter, and he could find support for that view from many other quarters. 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.

Let me here add a qualifier. It’s been said during these past two days, more than once, that Oakeshott’s work will always be a minority taste and enjoy a marginal influence. There is probably something to that assertion, but I would prefer to put it a little differently. I believe Oakeshott is best understood (at least within American conservatism) as a corrective thinker rather than a foundational one. If he were a boxer, he would be a counterpuncher. One evidence of that is the fact that one would have trouble giving an account of his thought without first explaining the rationalist teachings and institutions against which his writing has been deployed, not only presupposing their existence but granting their (unfortunate and often malign) influence. The corrective will always be needed.

This not a derogation of him, since it was never his intention to offer us a new and improved monism. On the contrary, there is instead in Oakeshott always a very powerful sense of the writer himself as but one voice in a world of various other voices, whose conformity with one another is neither possible nor desirable.

This is where the concept of conversation, so central to Oakeshott, comes into play, and is very illuminating and useful. The “conversation of mankind” is not merely a transitional state to which we have to accommodate ourselves temporarily; it is the human condition, at least the condition of civilized men and women. Our participation in that conversation is to be regarded as an end in itself, not the means to some other end, and not an activity incidental to our human nature, let alone as a reluctant accommodation to an imperfect world. And it is by its nature something that requires a certain freedom and spontaneity to thrive. It is, as Oakeshott says in the “Voice” essay, and in other places as well, “not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit,” but rather is “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.”

All that said, though, it would be a mistake to argue that we can or should expunge the teleocratic impulse altogether. That too is part of our striving human nature, and to strive too earnestly to eliminate striving would be very nearly a self-contradictory act, as absurd as it is impossible. It is one thing to warn against the dangers of high-order utopianism; it is another to become too programmatic, too—dare I say too rationalist—in rooting out rationalism in all its manifestations. This is to commit the kind of act that Oakeshott warns about, in his famous barb directed at Hayek, whose plan for an unplanned society he deemed to be itself guilty of embodying a kind of planning.

But the concept of “conversation” and its central place in the life of civilized human beings does suggest to me a practical consideration that can be drawn from Oakeshott for the betterment of American conservative, and for that matter liberal, thought. And that is the way that conversation implies the central importance of proper scale in healthy human associations. A fully reciprocal conversation implies a certain propinquity and stability, and it fits well with Oakeshott’s emphasis on the local, and on those kinds of communities whose scale is one in which conversation is possible, and whose stability with reference to “place” makes those conversations distinctive. (The very etymology of the word, conversation, goes back to the Latin conversari, “to live with, and keep company with.”) In other words, the voice of Oakeshott ought to pull conservatism back toward a renewed emphasis upon Burkean themes of local patriotism, as opposed to national and universalistic sources of identity, and toward the preservation of smaller-scale and local forms of association.

So that is one possible gift of Oakeshott’s emphasis upon the centrality of conversation. Let me mention another, which follows logically, and is I think absolutely central to Oakeshott. And that is a release from the burden of purposefulness, from “the rage to reform,” as Oakeshott calls it, the burden that the predominance of the rationalist disposition, and of the enterprise associations through which it is expressed, including the regulatory state, imposes upon us. This release would be akin to the idea of the “usefulness of uselessness” to which Kenneth McIntyre alluded yesterday, and to the interesting parallel that has been drawn between Oakeshott’s insights and Johan Huizinga’s portrait of homo ludens.

I would put it even more strongly, that there is something barbarous and inhuman about a mode of existence in which one is never permitted to repose in satisfaction and gratitude for what one has, or for the things one has been given by and in and through the conditions of one’s mere existence, but must ceaselessly seek to innovate, to grade it, evaluate it, improve it, reform it, remake it, perfect it. A conservatism that fails to resist that relentlessly instrumentalizing tendency is all too likely to succumb to it in one way or another, perhaps by emphasizing the degree to which the person is or can be self-made, thereby allowing the supposed primacy of the will to tyrannize over all other aspects of existence. Think of Henley’s poetic proclamation: “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.” The greatest of Rationalism’s illusions is precisely this illusion of mastery, an illusion whose rabid and single-minded pursuit is unable to produce either success or happiness.

Something of what I am trying to credit to Oakeshott here was also memorably stated by another unassimilated figure in the American conservative tradition, George Santayana. His lecture, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” not only exemplifies a sense of what Oakeshott called “the voice of poetry,” but also speaks eloquently of the kind of release from the moral tyranny of mastery’s illusion that Oakeshott’s conservatism was able to provide. Santayana gave this lecture in Berkeley in 1911, and it seems somehow appropriate to invoke it here in Colorado Springs, with its even more spectacular landscape:

A Californian whom I had recently the pleasure of meeting observed that, if the philosophers had lived among your mountains, their systems would have been different from what they are. Certainly, I should say, very different from what those systems are which the European genteel tradition has handed down since Socrates; for these systems are egotistical; directly or indirectly they are anthropocentric, and inspired by the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the centre and pivot of the universe. That is what the mountains and the woods should make you at last ashamed to assert. From what, indeed, does the society of nature liberate you, that you find it so sweet? It is hardly (is it?) that you wish to forget your past, or your friends, or that you have any secret contempt for your present ambitions. You respect these, you respect them perhaps too much; you are not suffered by the genteel tradition to criticise or to reform them at all radically. No; it is the yoke of this genteel tradition itself that these primeval solitudes lift from your shoulders. They suspend your forced sense of your own importance not merely as individuals, but even as men. They allow you, in one happy moment, at once to play and to worship, to take yourselves simply, humbly, for what you are, and to salute the wild, indifferent, non-censorious infinity of nature. You are admonished that what you can do avails little materially, and in the end nothing. At the same time, through wonder and pleasure, you are taught speculation. You learn what you are really fitted to do, and where lie your natural dignity and joy, namely, in representing many things, without being them, and in letting your imagination, through sympathy, celebrate and echo their life….[T]he interest and beauty of this inward landscape, rather than any fortunes that may await his body in the outer world, constitute his proper happiness.

Like Santayana, Oakeshott sought a release from the weight of human self-importance, and a release from the crippling and pleasure-destroying illusion that we can or should be the masters of our fates and captains of our souls.

Finally, I think the voice of Oakeshott can enrich conservatism by restoring its sense of the true meaning of liberal education, as an initiation into a conversation. One of the things that the current crisis ineducation has shown is that liberal education’s defenders are tongue-tied. They lack the ability to stand strongly for liberal education, so accustomed are they to being deferred to. That is starting to change. They are no longer deferred to, and rude questions are increasingly being asked, questions about expense, about “relevance,” and about usefulness. There is a growing mood of panic in the air, as these same leaders or their minions scramble to show how “useful” liberal education can be, and scramble to prop up their enrollments, while wondering if they will be able to survive the next five years.

Manyconservatives have reacted to this situation with undisguised glee. They have railed for so long against the ideological monoculture of academic life that they are now happy to see it get its comeuppance. This is understandable but mistaken, and just the kind of sentiment that the voice of Oakeshott can be drawn upon to counter effectively. He was able, repeatedly and with the utmost eloquence, to define what was at stake in the maintenance of a high and traditional standard for liberal education. Consider this passage from near the end of his essay “A Place of Learning,” which serves among other things to remind us of the nobility of our undertaking as teachers, which we often forget, for all kinds of reasons—including the inadequate understanding and rhetoric of our own leaders.

Oakeshott begins by speaking of the various distinct components of a liberal education, each with its own purpose, and then asks, how are we to understand their relationship to one another?

Perhaps we may think of these components of a culture as voices, each the expression of a distinct and conditional understanding of the world and a distinct idiom of human self-understanding, and of the culture itself as these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation—an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our début dans la vie humaine.

Liberal learning is a difficult engagement….It is a somewhat unexpected invitation to disentangle oneself from the here and now of current happenings and engagements, to detach oneself from the urgencies of the local and the contemporary, to explore and enjoy a release from having to consider things in terms of their contingent features, beliefs in terms of their applications to contingent situations and persons in terms of their contingent usefulness; an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood.

The key to it all, then, is the restoration of the idea that, yes, education is preparation for life—but for a particular kind of life. The kind of life that is lived freely and fully in community, in the fullest possible conversation with those things with which human beings have always been preoccupied, when we are at our best—with pondering and puzzling over the mystery of just who and what sort of beings we are. And life in community means sharing our ponderings and puzzlements with one another, too, for mystery loves company.

This is a different kind of conversation, the conversation of liberal learning, since it speaks across thousands of years and thousands of miles. This is not local knowledge. But it must have a local dimension. It must touch down in a real community of human beings living in propinquity to one another, a community into which and through which the larger conversation must flow, if it is to flow at all. The larger conversation must be made flesh and dwell among us. That is what colleges are for, to be those kinds of communities. Places where la vie humaine is embodied, where it is carried by the human presence.

It would be a very good thing if conservatives could champion this. If they would read Michael Oakeshott, they would at least find the words that would enable them to do so.

So it is time to sum up. What might the voice of Michael Oakeshott impart to the deepening and enriching of conservatism? I’ve offered four related possibilities.

First, the idea of conversation as the model for civilized life.

Second, the need to create and preserve appropriate scale in our communities, for the sake of fostering just such conversation.

Third, the profound human need for release from the burden of purposefulness, which is perhaps another way of expressing the enduring need for transcendence, an avenue that Rationalism tends to foreclose to us.

And fourth, the irreplaceable mission of liberal learning.

I am confident that conservatives can learn about all these things by attending to the voice of Michael Oakeshott. I am not predicting that they will do so. But stranger things have happened. And in the meantime, the best way to communicate these possibilities and prepare the way for them is to embody them ourselves as fully as we can, in the settings in which we find ourselves.  

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma