A Disposition of Delight: True Conservatism as Michael Oakeshott Understood It, Elizabeth Corey Shows, Requires Recognizing and Enjoying the Beauty the World Has to Offer
Corey, Elizabeth, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
After his death in 1990, Michael Oakeshott's executors found dozens of unpublished but completed essays in the drawers of his desk. It's hard to imagine a modern-day academic, under pressure to produce, leaving such a volume of work unpublished, but Oakeshott never felt compelled to bow to worldly pressures or pursue worldly gains--going so far as to decline, graciously, an offer of a knighthood. He confounded even friendly critics like Gertrude Himmelfarb, who commented that his early brilliance "might have been expected to [issue] in an illustrious and productive career." Instead, he took his time, producing on average about one essay a year.
He was uninterested in being a public intellectual. Although be was a political philosopher of the first rank, he thought that most people greatly exaggerated the importance of politics. Though he had, and continues to have, many disciples, he did not ask for them. Unlike Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and many others of his stature, he cultivated no elite coterie of followers.
In all this Oakeshott typified his own description of a conservative. He eschewed the usual conservative foundations of religion, natural law, private property, family relations, or free markets, gently admonishing Friedrich Hayek for his "plan to resist all planning" and Russell Kirk for his "confusion" in setting out the speculative beliefs that be thought must form the foundation of conservatism. Conservatism, as be described it in his famous 1956 essay "On Being Conservative," is not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a way of orienting oneself in and to the world. This disposition entails, above all, an inclination to enjoy what is there to be enjoyed, rather than to seek for what is not there.
Is this notion of conservatism relevant in a time of moral and social crisis? Writing in The American Scholar in 1975, Himmelfarb wondered what basis there could be, after the social revolution that had taken place over the previous decade, for an authentic, dispositional conservatism of enjoyment that emerged from a stable tradition of conduct. We could ask the same question today, when the world Oakeshott assumed has passed even farther away. "The logic of Oakeshott's position might suggest that the conservative should acquiesce in the new modes of mind and conduct," she observed. "But what if these new modes are essentially anarchical, if they so illegitimize social authority that they constitute, in effect, a 'permanent revolution'? ... What happens, in short, when the 'adversary culture,' to use Trilling's apt phrase, has become the dominant culture?" What, we might ask, is there to enjoy, and how do we recognize it?
Oakeshott would have replied that we can only continue doing what we know to be worthwhile, drawing on and rejuvenating what remains of our tradition of thought and conduct. He would also have maintained that being conservative is not primarily a political disposition and that in focusing excessively on politics we necessarily neglect the very forms of life we aim to protect. Political activity, he wrote in an early essay, "is a highly specialized and abstracted form of communal activity; it is conducted on the surface of the life of a society and except on rare occasions makes a remarkably small impression below that surface." Political activity encourages a "limitation of view, which appears so clear and practical, but which amounts to little more than a mental fog."
Society is sustained and rejuvenated not by those who are engaged in politics but by artists, poets, philosophers, and scholars--people whose distance from "the world" is not merely accidental but essential to their work. "The emotional and intellectual integrity and insight for which they stand is something foreign to the political world." The conservative is not primarily defined by taking the right political positions but by recognizing and preserving the beauty the world has to offer, and by engaging as much as possible in activities that are worthwhile in themselves, especially friendship, love, aesthetic contemplation, conversation, and liberal learning. …