I didn’t know much about Michael Oakeshott before reading this short piece by Timothy Fuller. The subject is conservatism with a small ‘c’, and its influence on politics, lawmaking, social theory, etc.
He thought that to be of a conservative disposition was to enjoy the possibilities of the present moment without excessive anxiety for what we had been or what we imagined we were going to be. He thought that maturity meant to live in the present, neither in a state of guilt nor of heroic aspiration. Heroic aspiration he thought was proper to the individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune, but was not an attitude for governments to impose on the polity as a whole.
We should, he said, “attend to” the arrangements that had brought us together by chance or choice. Living in the present did not mean to him living self-indulgently, but rather living to the highest possible degree without the distraction of an endlessly regretted past or a wished-for but illusory future liberation from all our problems. He understood that many of our “problems” were recurrent predicaments that we had to manage but from which there would be no permanent liberation.
It can sound complacent. But in this way of thinking, the conservative disposition is to affirm the values and traditions that have guided a concrete society, instead of trying to re-build a society on the foundation of abstract ideals. It doesn’t mean that everything from the past is necessarily good and beyond questioning. Nor does it mean that new ideals are incapable of provoking radical transformations. It just means that the instinct, the default position, is to trust first in that framework of habits and institutions and values that have made a particular way of life possible – however imperfect. And then to wonder how these could be built upon. This might sound dull; it’s certainly pragmatic. But it’s not without ideals – it just requires that these ideals are rooted in contemporary realities. You could say that they have to grow ‘organically’ out of the present.
Oakeshott’s conservatism is a fear that revolution, or even an apparently purifying return to the sources, might do more harm than good. It’s a suspicion of ideology, encapsulated in the adage ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. This connects with contemporary discussions in theology about the importance of preserving a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ whenever you are assessing a doctrinal or liturgical development.
I’ve no idea whether I agree with Oakeshott’s philosophy – I need to read some of his own writings! But I do believe, to put it in a slightly different way, that any worthwhile reform needs to be accompanied by some sense of gratitude for who you are and what you have received from the tradition to which you belong.