Review of “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” by Michael Oakeshott

I’ve been running behind on the book reviews – hopefully I’ll have time to post some soon.

I reviewed the title essay this book already (sort of) here.

The book is divided into essays that cover: 1) rationalism; 2) Thomas Hobbes; 3) modern politics; and 4) miscellany (e.g. thoughts on poetry).

For the rationalist, politics is about solving problems. All problems can be "solved." Moreover, they can be solved by sitting quietly and reasoning to the solution. Most people today think this way. Most of us have been educated to believe this. It’s very hard to get out of this mindset.

The rationalist further believes that all knowledge is technical knowledge. Taken to the extreme, this means that all of us could be Michelangelo if we practiced painting enough.

As I said in my earlier post:

It may seem that libertarianism is fighting this tide of planning, but libertarianism is also infected with rationalism. "This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom – not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics."

Of course, this cannot end well: "it is important only to observe that, with every step [rationalism] has taken away from the true sources of its inspiration, the rationalist character has become cruder and more vulgar."

As Oakeshott puts it:

The rationalist has rejected in advance the only external inspiration capable of correcting his error; he does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which would save him, he begins by destroying it. . . . All the rationalist can do when left to himself is to replace one rationalist project in which he has failed by another in which he hopes to succeed.

He has an excellent section on the silliness of modern historians, which is unfortunately not easily excerpt-able. Here’s a shot:

Briefly, the notion [of the modern historian] appears to be this: the activity of being an historian is that of understanding the past; but, since the the current manner of doing this leaves the past incompletely intelligible, the must (in principle) be another manner of understanding the past, which because it is free from this defect, may be regarded as the consummation to which ‘history’ in its present condition points. And, although there may be others yet unproposed, the most favoured candidate has, for some time, been an inquiry designed to make past events intelligible by revealing them as example of general laws. I do not myself understand how this line of thought could lead to profitable conclusions . . .

On Hobbes:

The Sovereign [for Hobbes] is absolute in tow respects only, and neither of them is destructive of individuality; first, the surrender of natural right to him is absolute and his authorization is permanent and exclusive; and secondly, there is no appeal from the legitimacy of his command. . . . But to surrender an absolute right to do something on all occasions, is not to give up the right of doing it on any occasion. For the rest, Hobbes conceives the Sovereign as a law-maker and his rule, not arbitrary, but the rule of law. And we have already seen that law as the command of the Sovereign holds within itself a freedom absent from law as Reason or custom: it is Reason, not Authority, that is destructive of individuality. And, of course, the silence of the law is a further freedom; when the law does not speak the individual is sovereign over himself.

. . .

For Hobbes, the salvation of man, the true resolution of his predicament, is neither religious nor intellectual, but emotional. Man above all things else is a creature of passion, and his salvation lies, not in the denial of his character, but in its fulfillment. And this is to be found, not in pleasure . . . but in Felicity, a transitory perfection, having no finality and offering no repose.

. . .

It is a negative gift, merely making not impossible that which is sought. Here, in civil association, is neither fulfillment nor wisdom to discern fulfillment, but peace, the only condition of human life that can be permanently established.

On modern democracy:

Thus . . . was generated a new art of politics: the art, not of ‘ruling’ . . . nor even of maintaining the support of a majority of individuals in a ‘parliamentary’ assembly, but of knowing what offer will collect most votes and making it in such a manner that it appears to come from ‘the people’; the art, in short, of ‘leading’ in the moder idiom. Moreover, it is known in advance what offer will collect the most votes: the character of the ‘mass man’ is such that he will be moved only by the offer of release from the burden of making choices for himself, the offer of ‘salvation.’ And anyone who makes this offer may confidently demand unlimited power; it will be given him.

I wish I had written that.

On being conservative:

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. . . . It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. . . . Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, who attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.


4 Responses to Review of “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” by Michael Oakeshott

  1. […] far as rationalism goes, Ridley specifically opposes the rationalist way of governing described by Michael Oakeshott. Ridley doesn’t define or discuss "rationalism" at all in the book, so I […]

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