book cover imageMichael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics
by Elizabeth Campbell Corey.
University of Missouri Press (Columbia, Missouri) xi + 253 pp., $39.95, cloth, 2006.

Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin are arguably the three most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, at least for American conservatives. Each is difficult to read for a variety of reasons, some superficial and some deep and crucial to their approach to and understanding of the nature of political man. Each is, in his own way, opaque. Eric Voegelin creates a vocabulary of Greek-based neologisms to describe the “common sense” political science he engages in, but at times his language seems impenetrable. Leo Strauss distinguishes between exoteric and esoteric teachings of philosophers, thus inviting us into a house of mirrors in which it becomes difficult to determine his intention and therefore to identify his “true” teaching. Michael Oakeshott is perhaps the most deceptive of the three, because he adopts the strategy portrayed in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”—he hides his meaning in plain sight.

Oakeshott does his hiding by using common and apparently simple English words in very uncommon ways. For example, unless one happens to be a professional teacher of literature and therefore automatically on alert whenever a philosopher uses a word such as “poetry,” the reader of Oakeshott’s elegant prose may be lulled into a happy acceptance of what he writes in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind”—until the realization suddenly hits that whatever Oakeshott means by “poetry” it is not what anyone else the reader has ever talked with meant by the term, nor does it appear to be what the reader understands poetry to be.

Elizabeth Corey provides an excellent overview and introduction to Oakeshott’s thought that is especially helpful in sorting out the meaning Oakeshott attaches to key but deceptively simple terms. Among these are “poetry,” “practice” and “practices,” “religion,” “rationalism,” “skepticism” and “faith” (which for Oakeshott seems to hold exactly the opposite meaning than a contemporary reader would assume), “the past” and “history.”

Many (conservatives especially) focus only on the essays included in the collection Rationalism in Politics. This is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, these late essays build on the intellectual foundation that Oakeshott had developed in earlier works, and they assume but don’t establish this foundation on their own. Second, these essays tend to focus more narrowly on politics and thus give a distorted view of the breadth of Oakeshott’s interests. One of the strengths of Corey’s analysis it that it seeks to explain Oakeshott’s concerns by an examination of writings from throughout his career. Thus she makes equal use both of his first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933), and On Human Conduct (1975), one of the last books thatOakeshott saw into print. She also discusses many early essays, some dating to Oakeshott’s days as a student. Especially important in this regard are a series of essays published in the 1920s–1930s dealing with questions of religion. In his later work the explicit discussion of religion does not totally disappear, but it fades into the background. One of the core arguments that Corey makes is that the insights presented in these early essays on religion provide the backbone of his moral vision, even when the religious dimension is no longer obvious.

The continuing importance of Oakeshott’s understanding of religion throughout his career is one of two fundamental points Corey emphasizes in this book. Her argument for the religious dimension of Oakeshott’s thought is also a crucial part of the evidence for her second fundamental point: Oakeshott is best understood by seeing his work as “a coherent whole” rather than viewing his writings as falling into rather disconnected stages.

Corey connects Oakeshott’s religious thought to that of St. Augustine both because Oakeshott himself frequently refers to Augustine and because their arguments seem to run on parallel courses. In comparing Oakeshott and Augustine, Corey argues for a number of similarities: both emphasized human fallibility and were skeptical of human perfectibility; Oakeshott’s critique of “rationalism” parallels Augustine’s battle against Pelagianism, and points to a common opposition to man’s intel-lectual hubris; each sees an important but limited role for government in human life.

Augustine famously distinguished between citizens of the “City of God” and of the “city of man,” and Oakeshott provides a counterpart in his early (written in 1927 but unpublished until 1993) essay entitled “Religion and the World.” “What really distinguishes the worldly man,” writes Oakeshott, “is his belief in the reality and permanence of the present order of things.” From the perspective of the worldly man, “the permanence of the present order of things” is shown in contrast to the instability and evanescence of individual selves, and individual action is seen as significant only in terms of social and cultural evolution that will continue interminably. Interestingly, this worldly perspective focuses attention away from the present and towards either the past or the future. For some, “History and tradition . . . acquire an exaggerated importance, and the legacy of the past is often appropriated mechanically, as one might inherit an incipient disease . . .” For others, however, “The future is the Moloch to which the present is sacrificed, and the life which leaves behind its actual accomplishments is valued more highly than that which strove to be its own achievement.” In either case—whether toward worship of the past or toward worship of the future—attention is directed away from living in the present for the present.

For Oakeshott, it is living in the present that is the distinguishing characteristic of the religious man. “Religion, then, is not . . . an interest attached to life, a subsidiary activity; nor is it a power which governs life from the outside with a, no doubt, divine, but certainly incomprehensible, sanction for its authority.” Religion, rather, “is simply life itself, life dominated by the belief that its value is in the present, not merely in the past or the future, that if we lose ourselves we lose all.”

As Corey puts it, “Oakeshott’s religious man . . . does not postpone fulfillment to the future but is fully engaged in each moment. He finds meaning in present activity and lives life as its own end rather than as a means to some future satisfaction.” In linking the early Oakeshott to the late, Corey examines On Human Conduct’s brief discussion of religion. For Oakeshott, religion falls into the “practical” realm (as does morality), and one of its uses is that it “provides consolation for the futility of human life and reconciliation to nothingness.”Corey then identifies “Oakeshott’s central religious insight: that human life and its satisfactions are unavoidably transient.” This in turn is tied back to the Augustinian dimension of Oakeshott’s thought. Oakeshott himself points to Augustine: “Where conduct is the choice and pursuit of substantive conditions of things every achievement is evanescent, and (as Augustine says) he who thinks otherwise ‘understands neither what he seeks nor what he is who seeks it’.”

For Corey the key element from Oakeshott’s early religious writing that remains important throughout his career is the emphasis on living in the present. In his moral and aesthetic understanding, this “presentness” is related to human activities that can be seen as ends in themselves, such as “love, friendship, and liberal learning.”

While Oakeshott’s religious perspective certainly could not be identified as “orthodox,” it does strike me that it is very much in tune with the Book of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth’s refrain—“Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 12.8, NIV)—is not a call to despair. It is, rather, a call to recognize the reality of human existence and to order one’s life properly. Wisdom is meaningless, as are pleasures, toil, and success. The end of all men—the wise and the foolish, the wealthy and the poor, the industrious and the slothful—is the grave. What then, does man have to live for? Man has only the present, because all efforts to make himself immortal through his own actions fail. “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun. . . . Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do . . . . Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8.15, 9.7, 9.9 NIV). To my knowledge, neither Oakeshott himself nor any of his commentators have made this connection with Ecclesiastes, but the common theme of “presentness” is worth further consideration.

While Corey’s book is an excellent introduction to Oakeshott, it is not simplistic. It is rather a thoughtful and sophisticated study of a thinker easily misread. Aside from discussions of religion, Corey’s discussion of Oakeshott’s two essays entitled “The Tower of Babel,” her analysis of Oakeshott’s aesthetics and his understanding of poetry, the comparison of Oakeshott’s understanding of “rationalism” with Voegelin’s understanding of “Gnosticism,” and the explicitly political discussion of the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism, are all worth attending to. This book is recommended for the novice as a good introduction to Oakeshott as well as to the student of Oakeshott as a thoughtful and challenging interpretation of his work.
Steven D. Ealy is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., in Indianapolis, Indiana.