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Michael Oakeshott On Religion, Aesthetics, And Politics by Elizabeth Campbell Corey
Robert Cheeks finds Elizabeth Campbell Corey’s analysis of Oakeshott’s philosophy to be all present and correct.
“I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensees (1670)
What is so fascinating about the writings of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott is his “continual protest” against modernity’s perception of man as amenable to a mechanical rather than a moral interpretation, his consequent view of the negation of man as an agent of truth, and his definition of the modern, therapeutic, managerial state as the ultimate sovereign (‘Leviathan’). Oakeshott directly challenges the doctrines of modernity, even critiquing the efficacy of its central tenet, ‘progress’. In his criticism one detects a religious component – a component that accedes to the idea of man as a material and spiritual creature capable of knowing a transcendent God. He also acknowledges the pre-political societies of family, church, and community and also the yearning for a political society “established by a determination of the noble, the good, and the just, which is expressed and then desired in reason.”
Elizabeth Campbell Corey is a lecturer in the Great Texts Department and Interdisciplinary Core Program at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Her efforts in her book encompass Oakeshott’s wide corpus, including his recently published notes. She is a splendid thinker and an easy writer, whose exertions indicate a concern for those lay readers who share an interest in Oakeshott. Yet in rendering the work suitable for the non-academic she does not avoid the complicated, complex ideas that make Oakeshott a most delightful mystery at times.
Oakeshott’s numerous books and essays, published over seven decades of work – his corpus – reflect an answer to the question he posited as a youth (1924): “What is it to be a human being?” This is inherently a moral query, and it launched his philosophical quest.
Oakeshott wrote frequently on religion in the 1920s, and in his first major publication Experience and Its Modes (1933); but it would be forty-two years before he would again directly broach the subject, commenting somewhat enigmatically upon “the difficulty of saying anything of value on the most important questions.” Little has been written about Oakeshott’s religious perspective until recently, when several academics examined his religious character and his interest in salvation, including this new book by Ms. Corey.
Ms. Corey argues that Oakeshott’s religious sensibilities are both explicit and implicit: explicit in certain essays found in Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, and in two of his major works, Experience and Its Modes, and On Human Conduct; and implicit in his general resolve to “enjoy rather than exploit the created world” – his call to spend at least some time in the present and to avoid constantly agitating one’s self over the future; and also in his warnings about the dangers of “excessive human pride”.
To her credit the author does not proclaim some new philosophic revelation; rather she acknowledges the work of established authorities such as the British publishing house Imprint Academic, as well as those that have “influenced [her] views about the breadth and depth of Oakeshott’s thought…” Emulating the late philosopher, the author has chosen to follow his sage advice and not allow pride to interfere with her intellectual inquiries.
She argues that the key to understanding Oakeshott’s philosophy is to grasp the significance of his search for ‘other worldliness’. Oakeshott defined the practical life as one of the modes of human experience – along with history, science, and later he added poetry. It is a life of action, always doing something, and always looking to the future. It is the mode we exist in when engaged in business, family, and moral activity; it is “the world of cause and effect.” And while this modal experience occurs now, in the present, “it always looks to a future.”
The author provides another quote from Pascal to allow us to better understand Oakeshott’s criticism of the practical mode by examining what happens when man comes to rest. “Nothing,” Pascal wrote, “is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversions.” Ms. Corey explains, “Man then feels his ‘nothingness’, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness.” We should understand that the man the author has in mind is contemporary man, material man, he who lives to acquire or to seek his own gratification and pleasure – the Benthamite.
But the practical mode also demands a constant, never-ending effort to modify the future. This is a Sisyphean task that leaves us dissatisfied, always pushing reality “into the future, into something new and to be made.” Perhaps Oakeshott’s most brilliant insight was that “the practical world can never be wholly transformed” – that human existence is transitory, fleeting, a moment in eternity where man is imprisoned within the practical and its on-going demands.
Oakeshott’s antithesis and antidote to the practical is called ‘presentness’ by Ms. Corey. It is essentially a spiritual exercise, a living in the moment. Oakeshott writes; “The goal of life is not, for us, distant, it is always here and now in the achievement of a personal sensibility.” Presentness, then, is the choice to focus on an understanding of self (not to be confused with self-centeredness), to exclude the world, to “find meaning in the actual conscious living of one’s own life.” Here Oakeshott rejects modernity’s view that human life should mirror the workings of a machine, where “all actions and inputs [are] calculated to result in certain future outputs.” He expands this criticism to state that the goal of the practical life is achievement, and describes the concept of achievement as “diabolical” (a wonderfully accurate word), in that it reduces “human experience to investment and explicitly denies the value of [presentness].”
Oakeshott’s dichotomy between the practical and presentness, as Ms. Corey tells us, is the most significant insight in Oakeshottian philosophy because it is within this context that he developed his realization of religious consciousness that allows the possibility of ‘losing ourselves in God’. Presentness gives man the choice to reject modernity and accept the opportunity to “cultivate a personal sensibility” that may (or may not) place him in a proper relationship with God. It is that moment in time and being which German theologian Robert Spaemman defines as the ‘heart’, and Mgsr. Robert Sokolowski describes as the “impulse for or against truth, the inclination that makes a person to be what he is.” The moment of the heart and Oakeshott’s sensibilities of the present, while they are not the same experience, manage both to provide a nexus between reason and revelation. This is the ‘movement towards truth’, and ultimately can lift man out of the miasma of modernity and allow him to become an ‘agent of truth’.
I have dwelt at some length on Ms. Corey’s discourse on Oakeshott’s idea of human sensibilities, on her definition of presentness, because these themes clearly indicate the philosopher’s preference for a morality that lies “within established practices” rather than the morality of ‘rule following’ or ‘the pursuit of ideals’ – what C.S. Lewis referred to as “wearisomely explicit pietism.” Here, spontaneously, through habit, inclination, and experience a person consistently chooses the right over the wrong, truth over lies. But in order for man to engage in this higher morality he must first have the will, moral imagination, and reason to understand that the attainment of such a condition is in effect a spiritual surrender to the will of God, an acceptance and desire to know God’s revealed Word (Logos), and a recognition of the insignificance of man before a transcendent and omniscient God.
In her chapter ‘Oakeshott and Augustine on Human Conduct’, Ms. Corey posits first the proposition that unlike Oakeshott, “Augustine was an ancient, ‘religious’ thinker whose ideas are at a distant remove from our contemporary political situation.” Fortunately she follows this with the comment, “But this would be a naïve reading of both thinkers, for in crucial respects they are remarkably similar.” This indicates a decided intellectual maturity, recognizing the wisdom of Robert Sokolowski’s truism in his essay, ‘The Human Person and Political Life’: “We must avoid thinking that we can only understand philosophers as the products of their historical circumstances, the products of their epoch. We must recover the idea that philosophy is a perennial thing, that there are philosophical truths that persist throughout all the periods and ages, and that there is a truth about human nature and about political life that has been there all along.” The author’s examination of the similarities in the thinking of Oakeshott and Augustine confirms this thesis.
Ms. Corey has a special ability to stimulate the reader’s mind. Her thoughtful disquisition on Oakeshott’s brilliantly rendered essay, ‘The Tower of Babel’, and her chapters dealing with Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism, faith and skepticism, and civil associations, are erudite, well-crafted, and reveal a decided acuity. However her penultimate chapter, ‘Rationalism and Gnosticism: Oakeshott and Voegelin’ is so well presented that it alone is worth the price of the book.
In this chapter Ms. Corey illustrates the striking similarities between Rationalism and Gnosticism. Both conjure a vision of man as an agent able to “change and control (his) circumstances and largely discount the mystery of existence.” The perceived need for this ‘controlling’ worldview is predicated on the inherent anxiety in man when he realizes that “All human accomplishment is an unfinished search within a horizon of divine mystery.” Thus modern Rationalists and Gnostics address the disorder and tensions of modern life by rejecting the transcendent order of the universe in favor of “arranging all of experience into logical, ‘rational’ categories.” It is their intense dissatisfaction with the world which manifests the desire to correct its perceived disorder and imperfections, while providing the added benefit of engaging in a perverse, diabolical, self-salvation. This desire for control is displacement of the Christian God, and the elevation of man as the final arbiter of the world.
In the hands of the Rationalists and Gnostics technology and technique give a profound boost to the power of modernity in its domination of the mind of man and the erosion of his spirit. Technology and technique are the high sacraments of the moderns, allowing the activity of consumption, production, and progress to inhibit contemplation, prayer, love of God and man, and friendship. It is Oakeshott’s practical mode consuming Ms. Corey’s presentness: it is the victory of economic man over moral man.
I have but one criticism of Ms. Corey’s delightful book, and that lies with her discussion of Voegelin’s agreement with Aristotle that “ethics starts from the purposes of action and explores the order of human life in terms of the ordination of all actions toward a highest purpose, the summum bonum.”
Oakeshott, like Hobbes, Ms. Corey points out, does not share Voegelin’s insistence that when the summum bonum [ie conception of the greatest good] is removed the community declines into disorder. Voegelin argued that man requires a ‘community of spirit’ in which to exist, a ‘common good’ or basis for a moral tradition, experienced and understood by all. Ms. Corey agrees with Hobbes and Oakeshott that there is no requirement for a communal ‘end’ for society, but rather that it is sufficient that we agree on the rules or laws that govern us “so that individuals might be free to pursue their self-chosen purposes.”
The fly in the proverbial ointment lies with the nature of contemporary law, and as Bard College professor Roger Berkowitz has brilliantly illustrated in his seminal study The Gift of Science (Harvard Press, 2005), “Beyond the waxing and waning of the felt actuality of justice that persists through history, modern society is witnessing the silent, unacknowledged extinction of justice… Within the rarefied world of the academy, the increasingly normalized divorce of law from justice is given the name positive law.” Therefore law, like many of the pursuits of modern man, has become little more than what Leviathan’s (the state’s) nomeclatura say it is. Modern law is not “a moral agreement in which the actors acknowledge that they will abide by the ‘rules of the game.’” Rather, it is the abandonment of a most important agent of the summum bonum, natural law, in favour of “a purely formal and technical legal apparatus that is distinguished by its serviceability to any and all ends.”
Ms. Corey’s delightful disquisition on Oakeshott’s thought inclines me to believe that while he was nonsectarian in his faith – however he chose to live it – he understood the domination of evil in the world, and perhaps the personification of evil. His use of the word ‘diabolical’ is most intriguing. Nevertheless, as Ms. Corey points out, “Oakeshott was a philosopher through and through, someone concerned with wondering, marveling, and delighting in the world around him.” And included among his many inquiries was an intense interest in “the life of the spirit.”
“I do not know,” Ms. Corey writes almost wistfully, “whether Oakeshott retained some kind of faith even as he moved away from his early orthodox views.” Whether Michael Oakeshott knew God is a question that may never be answered – but without a doubt God knew him.
© Robert C. Cheeks 2006
Bob Cheeks is the book review and literary editor for the website intellectualconservative.com, and a freelance writer.
Michael Oakeshott On Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics by Elizabeth Campbell Corey, University of Missouri Press, 2006, 253 pps. ISBN 0826216404.