"What there is, [English philosopher Michael] Oakeshott believed, is conversation—unending conversation about the complexities of life and life’s proper ends. This conversation, he held, ought never to lapse into argument. Nor is it hierarchical. Every thoughtful person can participate. In “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” he wrote that “conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Life, for Oakeshott, as he put it in “A Place of Learning,” is “a predicament, not a journey.” The predicament is how to make the best of it and get the best out of it.
The answer for Oakeshott, as he set out most emphatically in “On Being Conservative,” is to cultivate
a propensity to use and to enjoy what is present rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. . . . To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Oakeshott found more reinforcement for these views in Montaigne and Pascal and Hume than in Burke or Bentham.
Politics did not hold out much promise for Oakeshott. He believed that government
is a specific and limited activity, namely, the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about.
Oakeshott had his own religious sentiments and complex morality, but he felt that neither religion nor morals had to do with politics, and politics had nothing whatsoever to do “with making men good or even better.” Dreams of perfect justice or perfect freedom ought to be excluded from politics, for “the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.”
The role of government should be much simpler: “to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness.”
The problem, Oakeshott felt, was not only that “politics is an uninteresting form of activity to anyone who has no desire to rule others” but that those it attracts are, too often, unimpressive human beings. At one point he calls them “scoundrels.” What isn’t required, but is too often evident, in politics is “manufacturing curable grievances.” What is needed is the assurance of “the little things: to go where we like & when; having paid my taxes to spend my money on what I wish.” His final word is this: “Politics is the art of living together & of being ‘just’ to one another—not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life.”
So much of Oakeshott’s political thought is propelled by his unshakeable belief in the imperfectibility of human beings. Montaigne is his intellectual hero here, the Montaigne who understood that all human judgment and wisdom is fallible. In “A Place of Learning,” Oakeshott disavows a belief in human nature, asserting that “there are only men, women and children responding gaily or reluctantly, reflectively or not so reflectively, to the ordeal of consciousness, who exist only in terms of their self-understandings.” Self-understanding, though, is a rarity. “The intellectual life of the majority of men and women,” he writes in the Notebooks, “is cankered by a passion for indiscriminate knowledge.”
He underscored the wretched condition of “people who have no selves other than those created by ‘experts’ who tell them what they are.” Others walk about with heads “so full of ideas that there is no room for sense.” In a world of boundless distractions, serious education—not “education [that] is merely instruction in the current vulgarities”—is the only (if somewhat dim) hope: “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond that limit.” Genuine culture, he held, teaches that “there is much that one does not want to know.”
For Oakeshott the trick was somehow to be above the humdrum world and yet also be in it. “One is under an obligation to be happy with the here & now,” he writes, a sentiment he expresses more than once. Yet he also notes that “it is certain that most who concentrate upon achievement miss life.” On his gravestone, he wanted this bit of verse from the Scottish poet William Dunbar:
Man, please thy Maker, and be merry,And give not for this world a cherry."