The Religious Sensibility of Michael Oakeshott

Snippets from Elizabeth Corey’s essay:

Perhaps what is most notable about the Tower of Babel myth, in both of Oakeshott’s essays, is the perfectionism inherent in the story. Whether one wants to contribute to a great and noble cause or to change the world through human action, pride and overestimation lie at the center of this myth. The idea that humankind can eliminate poverty, that women and men can achieve absolute equality (whatever that might mean), that any such “perfect” outcomes could occur in the world is a misunderstanding of the character of human experience. Like Augustine, Oakeshott was inclined to see such perfectionism as the epitome of worldliness—dangerous enough in an individual but impossible to sustain in political life. At every moment an orientation of this kind “calls upon those who practise it to determine their behaviour by reference to a vision of perfection. . . . We are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies” (RP, 475). The desire for excellence and achievement had to be balanced, Oakeshott thought, with the imperfections of real human beings. Nevertheless, as wrongheaded as this kind of Pelagian striving might be, there is a still worse alternative, which Oakeshott designated as the pursuit of “barbaric affluence” (VLL, 99). The residents of Oakeshott’s Babel are consumed with acquisition rather than moral or intellectual perfection, “ready to drop the bone [they] have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future” (RP, 414). In this critique of acquisitiveness Oakeshott followed Augustine quite explicitly, since both thought that it was the most fruitless way to live a life. Such “barbarism” promises only various versions of midlife crises.

This is indeed an unusual approach to religion. There is no theology, no church, and no mention of belief. And so we cannot say it is particularly Christian. But in one sense it is perhaps not incompatible with Christianity. Viewed in a certain way, Christian faith means precisely the putting aside of one’s anxieties for the future and engaging, with mindfulness, in the living of one’s life. Something like this would seem to be the primary challenge of practical experience. In this sense, Oakeshott’s idea of sublimating concerns about the future seems compatible with Christianity. Yet it is not clear that his view is coherent in the absence of religious faith or, more particularly, of a certain kind of hope. Oakeshott once designated mortality as “the central fact of life,” and as such it makes it extraordinarily difficult to live in the present. The prudent person must always prepare for the future by investing, planning, and protecting what is already owned. But Christian faith, by contrast, promises more than merely worldly rewards, and in this respect it might assist in the attempt to relieve our anxieties. It might, indeed, be essential to living in the present, although Oakeshott himself did not say this.

Throughout this essay I have argued that Oakeshott diagnosed the central problems of modernity as originating in a fundamentally religious mistake. Having lost the original experience of Christian faith, those who would be religious tend either toward moral ideologies and perfectionism or toward a kind of hyperintellectualism. They are less inclined to accept the limitations of the human condition, enjoying the ordinary and looking for the poetic, than to seek some kind of permanent release from contingency. This diagnosis may begin to sound quite familiar to readers of Oakeshott’s more explicitly political essays, such as “Rationalism in Politics,” where he made a similar criticism of modern politics.