Oakeshott on Civil Association

In “Oakeshott on Civil Association,” Noël O’Sullivan offers a magisterial account of Oakeshott’s ideal of civil association, showing that it is addressed above all to the moral problem of reconciling authority with freedom in the highly pluralistic circumstances of modern Europe. Hobbes made significant progress in this normative endeavor to find a shared sense of public order, according to Oakeshott, but even he failed to provide a completely moral conception of civil association. O’Sullivan identifies several confusions about civil association in contemporary political thought: the belief that it is a mechanism for promoting spiritual renewal (Havel); the identification of it with the minimal state (Nozick), capitalism (Friedman and Hayek), democracy, liberalism, or the impossible ideal of neutrality. But he also considers some well-founded criticisms of Oakeshott’s model of civil association, chief among which is the charge that it is too narrowly procedural or legalistic to have any motivating power for citizens. He concludes by examining Oakeshott’s pessimism about the prospects of civil association in modern mass democracies, and in this regard he paints a very different picture of Oake- shott’s later attitude toward history from the optimistic Burkean one found in Devigne’s essay.

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