On Human Conduct


It’s been 40 years since one of Oakeshott’s masterpieces, On Human Conduct, was published. Despite being an “old man’s” book, dense and highly qualified, it contains some of the most melliflous writing Oakeshott ever did.

Religious faith is the evocation of a sentiment (the love, the glory, or the honour of God, for example, or even a humble caritas), to be added to all others as the motive of all motives in terms of which the fugitive adventures of human conduct, without being released from their mortal and their moral conditions, are graced with an intimation of immortality: the sharpness of death and the deadliness of doing overcome, and the transitory sweetness of the mortal affection, the tumult of grief and the passing of beauty of a May morning recognized neither as merely evanescent adventures or emblems of better things to come, but as adventures, themselves encounters with eternity.

Here is the very excellent David Lloyd Thomas’ review in MIND New Series, Vol. 86, No. 343 (Jul., 1977), pp. 453-456

It would be understandable if a reader’s first impression were that this is a book from another age, largely irrelevant to contemporary philosophical discussions of politics. One will find no reference to Barry, Nozick, Rawls or Sen: only the great dead philosophers are both discussed and named. The lack of ‘engagement’ (to use one of the author’s favourite words) with current discussion may suggest a certain aloofness from, and disdain for, recent work. Such an impression, then, would be understandable, but it would also be wrong. Professor Oakeshott’s book is a major contribution to recent attempts to emancipate political thought from the neo-egalitarianism to which it has been largely confined during the past decade. The ideas, if not the packaging, are very contemporary indeed. Where, for example, has one recently encountered a view of justice like this? ‘(T)he term so frelationship are exclusively the rules of a practice which may concern any and every transaction between agents and is indifferen to the outcome of any such transaction:the practice of being “just” to one another’ (p. I28).

The first essay is principally concerned to defend the thesis that the ‘theoretical understanding of a substantive action or utterance is . . . in principle, a “historical” understanding’ (pp. I06-I07). It is not clear that discussion of the issues raised by this main thesis is much advanced, in part, perhaps, because recent debate on this matter is ignored. The part of this essay of most intrinsic interest and aloof most relevance to what is to follow, is a brief account of morality based upon the analogue of language. ‘A morality, then, is neither a system of general principles nor a code of rules, but a vernacular language. General principles and even rules may be elicited from it, but (like other languages) it is not the creation of grammarians; it is made by speakers’ (p. 78). Besides containing the germ of the idea of ‘the civil condition’, to be developed in the second essay, this account of morality reveals a tension which, in different forms and with respect to several matters, is to persist: are we being given a normatively neutral account of morality or not? On the one hand we are told ‘(that) there should be many such languages in the world . . . is intrinsic to their character. This plurality cannot be resolved by being understood as so many contingent and regrettable divergencies from a fancied perfect and universal language of moral intercourse’ (p. 80). But it also appears that for anything to count as a morality it must be ‘a practice without any extrinsic purpose’ (p. 62), and one may wonder whether some of the ‘vernacular languages’ would in fact satisfy that condition.

The ‘civil condition’, which is the subject of these essays, is an ideal ‘mode of association’.It is referred to as civitas, and is described in terms of its relationship to other idealized notions. The civil condition holds between cives who are subject to a system of rules, lex, which authorizes a procedure of adjudication in which ‘uncertainties and disputes are resolved and the conditions of association in contingent situations ascertained’ (p. I3). The account of civitas is not intended to represent civil society as it actually is, but to be a model to which political communities have approximated in varying degrees. Similarly, lex is not intended to be an account of law as it actually is in any particular state. The principal theme of the essay is to contrast the civil condition with an ‘enterprise association’, which is specified by ‘a common substantive purpose and the choice of each of the agents concerned to be related in terms of it’ (p.  114). But the civil condition is not to be understood in terms of a substantive purpose by which cives are related, nor is lex a system of common rules adopted to further some purpose,nor are the ruler sofa civitas the managers of a collective enterprise.

This essay, the core of the book, presents a lucid model of a conception of political life which many (though not Oakeshott himself, apparently) would call ‘liberal’. Elegant though it is as an intellectual construction, it is not without some obscurities, one being the relationship of civitas to morality. It resembles morality in that both are practices without a goal or purpose. Civil association is also said to be a ‘moral condition’ (p. 174). Nevertheless civitas is not co-extensive with a moral community: moral duties need not be civil obligations. Possibly the answer is that in the civil condition’s system of lex and a procedure of adjudication . . . are necessarily partnered by a procedure of legislation’ (p. I38), whereas there is no such requirement in the case of morality. This could be the starting point for developing an account of ‘the political’. The extent to which civitas is a formally defined relationship is also unclear. Presumably there are many possible variants of civitas all satisfying the formal requirements. ‘The terms of a practice of civility, then, are not conclusions inferred from the postulates of civil association’ (p. 176). On the other hand it appears that the formal requirements of the civil condition can sometimes have impressively strong implications. For example, of a proposal to prescribe that a certain opinion be believed it is said that such a proposal ‘is excluded from politics because such a rule is incompatible with the character of respublica as a system of rules to be subscribed to in conduct’ (p. I7I).

Near the end of this essay Oakeshott says of the civil condition that (one is not astonished to find this mode of human relationship to be as rare as it is excellent’ (p. 180). How is its excellence to be shown? Not, of course, by reference to the purpose it serves, for it has none, nor is it to be justified by contractor consent. Does Oakeshott believe that current orthodoxy simply ignores the distinction between the civil condition and an enterprise association? No doubt it often does, but this is hardly a sufficient argument for the former. Those who conceive of the state as an enterprise association, having become conscious of the alternative, could say ‘Civitas is no doubt an interesting political conception, but we happen to see the state, as an enterprise association devoted to such and such purposes’. It is conceded, apparently, that both models are internally consistent, and Oakeshott cannot say that those who see the state as an enterprise association misunderstand terms such as ‘state’ and ‘law’, for the terms appearing in the model of civitas do not necessarily have the same meaning as ‘state’, ‘law’, etc.

This issue arises again at the end of the third essay. The main task of this essay (entered upon after a delicious debunking of the pretensions of modern European states to either permanence, or national homogeneity, or authority) is to trace the development of two conceptions, societas and universitas in terms of which attempts have been made to understand the state in the course of modern European history. These two conceptions, corresponding to the civil condition and the enterprise association of the preceding essay, are used as poles between which the characters of actual states can be located. There is some brief discussion of particular political theories; for example, of Bodin and Hegel as representatives of the state conceived of as societas, and of Bacon as a representative of the alternative conception. There is also speculation as to the causes of subscription to universitas (though not, significantly, as to the causes of subscription to societas). The causes are said to include familiarity with the exercise of ‘lordly’ power in the administration of colonies, the frequency with which European states go to war, and the prevalence of a certain type of character, those who have an ‘incapacity to sustain an individual life’ (p. 276). In its modern form the state as universitas is seen as the organizer of an economic corporation, managed by the government and directed to exploiting its resources,both human and natural,to provide as many benefits as possible for distribution on some supposed criterion of equality.

Even by the end of the book there is still uncertainty as to whether Oakeshott thinks it proper to argue for the civil condition. Any request for something more than ‘a historical account of how the character of a modern European state . . . came to be understood in terms of the diverse analogies of societas and universitas would be made ‘somewhat improperly’ (p. 326), and yet only a few pages before we have this not altogether uncommitted passage: ‘no European alive to his inheritance of moral understanding has ever found it possible to deny the superior desirability of civil association without a profound feeling of guilt’ (p. 32I). Is it really intended that there should be no argument? Perhaps the outlines of one is to be found in the implausibility of the claims of a state as enterprise association to have authority. ‘(W)hen a state is understood as a purposive association the analogy has been fatally corrupted: association in terms of a common substantive purpose must spring from the choice of each associate to be thus joined with others,a choice which he must be able to revoke,and no modern European state has ever been of this character’ (p. 3I9). By contrast, the authority of the state as a civil association is thought to be (for somewhat mysterious reasons) above reproach. Thus modern anarchism could only apply to the state as an enterprise association, for it has ‘no meaning or relevance whatever in relation to civil association’ (p. 3I9).

This book could be seen as the complement of Professor Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The coyness Oakeshott displays when it comes to revealing arguments for civil association is not a striking characteristic of Nozick’s work: on the other hand, if it is true that Nozick’s book could have more sense of tradition in political thought, that lack is certainly not to be found in Qakeshott’s work. Despite the difficulty one may have in finding specific conclusive arguments, Oakeshott’s defence of the civil condition is both eloquent and persuasive.