In 1956, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott published "On Being Conservative," (1) a statement of "the conservative disposition" as he conceived it. Although largely well received, Oakeshott's conception of conservatism was not without its critics. Among their number was the American intellectual and self-avowed "conservative" Irving Kristol, who, while admitting to "loving every line" of Oakeshott's essay, to admiring it "immensely," claimed that its "irredeemably secular" character repelled him. (2) Oakeshott's vision of conservatism, he charged, is insufficiently religious in two respects.
First, Kristol imputes to it an obsession with the present that can't but be anathema to Jewish and Christian sensibilities by reason of its concomitant neglect of the past and the future. Jews and Christians can't but find "it is impossible. . . to have the kinds of attitudes toward the past and the future that Oakeshott's conservative disposition celebrates," for their traditions "link us to the past and to the future with an intensity lacking in Oakeshott's vision." (3) Second, the centrality of place Oakeshott allegedly assigns to the present not only renders his vision unpalatable to traditional religion but violates as well the spirit of the civic religion of America. Americans, Kristol explains, have an "emphatic and explicit" commitment to their past that is "ideological" (4); theirs is an "ideological patriotism" that is rooted in the United States' identity as "a 'creedal' nation," a nation to which anyone can belong irrespective of "ethnicity, or blood ties of any kind, or lineage, or length of residence even." The uniquely "ideological" character of American patriotism and the foundational "creed" from which it springs, Kristol contends, are both "suffused with a kind of religious sensibility" that constitutes what can legitimately be called a "civic religion." (5) Although there are indeed "tensions" between "American religiosity and the more secular 'civic religion,'" "both are, in general, future-oriented and 'progressive' in their political vision." (6)
Kristol's two-pronged "religious critique" of Oakeshott's characterization of "the conservative disposition" reflects a fundamental misconception of both classical Christianity and the classical conservatism to which Oakeshott gives expression. This misconception is in turn a function of the fact that the "neoconservatism" to which Kristol subscribes is not, in fact, a form of conservatism at all.
The Eternal Present
Oakeshott insists on a distinction between, on the one hand, a "conservative disposition" per se and, on the other, such a disposition in politics. So crucial to his analysis is this distinction that, without it, Oakeshott's understanding of conservatism readily collapses into something else--another variety of conservatism, perhaps, but one of a comprehensive character that he expressly repudiates. Kristol, though, fails (at least explicitly) to address this distinction.
From the outset of his essay, Oakeshott is clear that his concern is not with "a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition." He writes: "To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners," and "to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others." One who is conservative is "disposed to make certain kinds of choices." (7) Oakeshott elaborates: "To be conservative. . . is to prefer the familiar to the unknown ... 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." These "preferences" constitute "a propensity to use and enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else," "to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be." (8) The conservative temperament, then, is indissolubly linked to partiality in favor of the present.
It is this attachment to what is present that Kristol deems incompatible with Judaism and Christianity. But Oakeshott's account of conservatism, with its present-mindedness, is in keeping with an enduring reading of the Christian tradition: it is motivated, first and foremost, by an aversion not just to change as such but to the rapid change characteristic of contemporary Western societies, a phenomenon simultaneously driven by and reflective of greed and the penchant to exploit. Westerners have a "lust for change" that renders all "pieties fleeting" and "loyalties" evanescent, as "the eye is ever on the new model." The problem is that "we are acquisitive to the point of greed," Oakeshott tells us, "ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future." (9)
This incessant restlessness with the present and the exclusive focus on the future …