Notes from Michael Oakeshott’s “Political Education”

One of the most thoughtful and engaging conservative philosophers of the 20th century is Michael Oakeshott. I’m re-reading some of the essays from his famous work Rationalism in Politics. Here are my quote notes on the first essay I’ve read:

Oakeshott, Michael. “Political Education,” Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Expanded Edition (Liberty Press, Indianapolis), 1991.


[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript. And its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. (p. 53)

Freedom, like a recipe for game pie, is not a bright idea; it is not a ‘human right’ to be deduced from some speculative concept of human nature. The freedom which we enjoy is nothing more than arrangements, procedures of a certain kind: the freedom of an Englishman is not something exemplified in the procedure of habeas corpus, it is, at that point, the availability of that procedure. And the freedom which we wish to enjoy is not an ‘ideal’ which we premeditate independently of our political experience, it is what is already intimated in that experience. (p. 54)

[A]n ideology is an abbreviation of some manner of concrete activity. (p. 54)

On ideological politics: The complexities of the tradition which have been squeezed out in the process of abridgment are taken to be unimportant: the ‘rights of man’ are understood to exist insulated from a manner of attending to arrangements. And because, in practice, the abridgment is never by itself a sufficient guide, we are encouraged to fill it out, not with our suspect political experience, but with experience drawn from other (often irrelevant) concretely understood activities, such as war, the conduct of industry, or Trade Union negotiation. (p. 56)

The only cogent reason to be advanced for the technical ‘enfranchisement’ of women was that in all or most other important respects they had already been enfranchised. Arguments drawn from abstract natural right, from ‘justice,’ or from some general concept of feminine personality, must be regarded as either irrelevant, or as unfortunately disguised forms of the one valid argument; namely, that there was an incoherence in the arrangements of the society which pressed convincingly for remedy. (p 57)

[T]he abridgment itself never, in fact, provides the whole of the knowledge used in political activity. [p. 58]

Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity, and what makes it a possible object of knowledge is the fact that all its parts do not change at the same time and that the changes it undergoes are potential within it. Its principle is a principle of continuity: authority is diffused between past, present, and future; between the old, the new, and what is to come. It is steady because, though it moves, it is never wholly in motion; and though it is tranquil, it is never wholly at rest. (p. 61)

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. (p. 61)

Everything is temporary, but nothing is arbitrary. (p. 62)

Though the [political] knowledge we seek is municipal, not universal, there is no shortcut to it. Moreover, political education is not merely a matter of coming to understand a tradition, it is learning how to participate in a conversation: it is at once initiation into an inheritance in which we have a life interest, and the exploration of its intimations. (p. 62)

Political philosophy cannot be expected to increase our ability to be successful in political activity. It will not help us to distinguish between good and bad political projects; it has no power to guide or to direct us in the enterprise of pursuing the intimations of our tradition… we may hope only to be less often cheated by ambiguous statement and irrelevant argument…. The more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us, the less likely we shall be to embrace the illusions which wait for the ignorant and the unwary: the illusion that in politics we can get on without a tradition of behaviour, the illusion that the abridgment of a tradition is itself a sufficient guide, and the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress. (pp. 65-66)

Posted by Colin Welch at 8:07 PM
Edited on: Monday, November 08, 2010 7:26 PM


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