A Shott in the Dark

Paul Monk / 06 January 2021

Recently, a reader wrote to the RSA asking for a critique of the following passage from an essay, by the British historian and philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-90), called ‘On Being Conservative’:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, 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.

Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.

It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition which appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is not itself chosen or specifically cultivated.

This originally appeared in an essay in Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962). My brief response to it is not intended as a refutation either of conservatism or of Oakeshott’s work, so much as a rationalist’s observations regarding why someone might settle for Oakeshott’s stance, how a rationalist stance is likely to differ and why both differ from the ‘radical’ stance.

The simplest response to Oakeshott would be that this might be the disposition of the provincial, the smug and the privileged, who, each in their own way, see little reason to prefer innovation over the conditions in which they live. In the case of the provincial it is likely to be because they are sunk in ignorance or tradition and cannot readily imagine things changing significantly. This has been true, well into modern times, of many peasantries exhorted by urban-based radicals to rise up and ‘join the revolution’.

In the case of the smug, it is likely to be because they believe that having secured for themselves a comfortable existence they can afford to be cynical about calls for changes that they suspect could upset their personal applecarts. In the case of the privileged, conservatism can be rooted in a clear awareness that they have more to lose than to gain from the intrusion of novel or radical new ideas or social changes. Those with inherited wealth, or wealth secured and maintained by questionable means, or simply to an egregious extent, might feel this way.

The conservative disposition is less likely to be oriented towards the educated, the young, the imaginative, or those conscious of the disadvantages of their situation relative to that of the privileged. The modern, more than the ancient or medieval worlds, has exhibited a sustained tension between the conservative and the ameliorative, liberal or radical dispositions. In significant measure this is because of the opening up of the world geographically and commercially, the scientific revolution, mass urbanization, mass education and the critical reflections on the human condition that we associate with the 18th century Enlightenment.

In his doctoral thesis, which became his first book, Henry Kissinger quoted the arch conservative Klemens von Metternich as deploring, at the time of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), the undermining of the clerical and landed aristocratic worlds by the influx of New World treasure and Enlightenment ideas. Metternich would best be described as a reactionary. There are now, and were in the 18th and 19th centuries, many shades of conservatism. There is a wide spectrum of both sentiment and opinion between reactionaries who obstinately, and even brutally, oppose ameliorative or rational reforms and those who seek reform, but recoil from the idea of violent upheaval or reckless change.

This has become ever more important over the past two centuries, as the pressure of economic, scientific, technological and demographic change has grown. Around the world the sheer pressure for change, and the build-up of popular expectations and awareness, gave rise to widespread impatience with the old order. There was a consequent tendency to heroize, and grant moral priority to the ‘radical’ against the ‘conservative’. Reformers and liberals, the cautious and the wise, were all too often denounced by both sides and caught in the crossfire during both revolutions and counter-revolutions.

This famously occurred in the French Revolution and prompted the classic reflections by Alexis de Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856) on both the causes and the consequences of that upheaval, which culminated in the Terror of 1793-94, then the dictatorship and emperorship of Napoleon. Our clichéd terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ derive from the French Revolution. Yet our ideas of ‘progress’ and even of ‘rationalism’ derive, in considerable measure, from the writings of the Enlightenment, not least its French version.

The Jacobins sought to overthrow Catholicism and replace it with the ‘cult of reason’. That ‘cult of reason’, however, was fanatical. It was Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France – first published in November 1790 – who anticipated the observations of Oakeshott in many ways. He deplored the radicalism, violence and fanaticism of the French Revolution, long before the Terror. Burke, however, was less conservative than Oakeshott and notably less open to any claim that he was merely provincial, smug or privileged. He openly championed the American Revolution and worked for reforms in Ireland. He was a Whig, not a Tory. He was temperamentally a figure of the British rather than of the French Enlightenment.

What was the distinction between the British (English and Scottish) and the French Enlightenment? Chiefly the greater conservatism of the former. If we think of key figures in the British Enlightenment, we tend to think of Adam Smith, David Hume, or Edward Gibbon. None of these individuals was a ‘radical’ or espoused sweeping changes to the political order. But their ideas, their arguments had profound implications for that order. To absorb those ideas and their implications demanded a lot of reading and thinking.

Hume’s empiricism and his sceptical approach to religion, for instance, were a far cry from the Jacobin ‘cult of reason’, but hardly reactionary in their implications. He simply didn’t much care for what he called “religious enthusiasm”. Smith’s arguments for free trade and the virtues of open markets had enormous implications – they still do – but he didn’t issue public calls for the overthrow of church or state. Gibbon’s reflections on liberty and empire, on the crimes and follies of mankind and on the triumph of ‘barbarism and religion’ over the Roman world were, and are, more an education in depth of perspective and a sense of irony not in anger, or self-righteous zeal.

All this is of pressing relevance in our time. Oakeshott, were he still alive, would predictably deplore woke zealotry and the cancel culture. He would align himself in almost every respect with, say, the late Roger Scruton or with Douglas Murray and would write for The Spectator. He would certainly not be on the ‘alt-right’ in any grievance-based or racist sense. But he would have little to contribute to our urgent debates about trade and finance, geopolitical order, racial justice or economic and social inequities. He would want to keep living in his Dorset cottage having extramarital affairs, or a fourth marriage late in life and enjoying good food and wine.

Rationalism, as distinct from Oakeshott’s kind of conservatism, is about inquiring and reflecting, rather than assuming and enjoying. It need by no means entail radical commitments. There is ample room for rational conservatism, in the sense of preferring “the tried to the untried, 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”.

The rationalist, however, is less comfortable than Oakeshott affected to be with merely accepting the given or one’s accidental privileges. The rationalist by temperament wants to be surer of, and more able to account for those things, and be more willing to seriously contemplate changes to them for a greater good. As to what would actually constitute a greater good, the rationalist wants to think that through, rather than either take cover in lofty airs of inherited tradition or run with the radical mob.

The rationalist is less likely than the Jacobin to tear down the past or assail public institutions. She will, rather, seek to generate and preserve the freedom to distance herself from practices or institutions that she has difficulty in accepting as having sound warrant. These might be religious rites, sports or laws that have come to seem unjust or irrational to inquire about, to uphold the freedoms vital to inquiry, to tinker, to advise, but not wantonly to destroy, is surely the disposition of the rationalist – at least as I would tend to see it.

We live in a time of sweeping innovations and are confronting the prospect of ecological catastrophe. Conservatism of Oakeshott’s kind might appear irresponsible and doomed in these circumstances but in many ways it is the temperament of the Greens and the Eco Warriors who want to conserve all manner of things against the tide of technology and economic growth. The rationalist, on the other hand, will see many trade-offs and counter-intuitive possibilities.

Wary of the utopian, the fanatical and the reactionary, the rationalist seeks neither sweeping upheaval nor a refuge from change, but a capacity to understand and thoughtfully shape change. She will, therefore, seek to outflank the reactionary, persuade the conservative and temper the enthusiasm of the radical.

– Paul Monk has, during the lockdown, completed Lyrical Epigrams and a new book called All the Bad Things, about catfish, trolls and chatbots. He is now seeking a publisher for each of them.

All the more reason.