Smooth sailing on endless hostile sea

What is History? and other Essays
April 8, 2005

Those who object to the suggestion that Michael Oakeshott was the greatest English philosopher of the 20th century do so because they dislike his suggestion that philosophy is, in the memorable phrase of one of the essays in this volume, a release from the deadliness of doing. For most political philosophers this goes badly against the grain. They are secular Pelagians; whereas Oakeshott was a secular Augustinian. They say, with Marx, that philosophers have formerly merely tried to understand the world and must now change it; while Oakeshott said that the philosophers who think they have changed the world are unlikely to have understood it.

Oakeshott's deflations have not ended with his death, for some admirers of Oakeshott continue to edit and publish his lesser essays and lectures, of which What is History? is the latest collection. These essays remind us that Oakeshott wanted to be understood, not agreed with - a rare quality. He refused to do battle with his enemies. He sailed in the ship of idealism (which he fitted with an English rudder), and negotiated the narrow strait between the Scylla of contingency and the Charybdis of eternity - where his enemies, if they had pursued him that far, usually came to grief. He was frequently tempted to abandon ship himself.

Everything he wrote betrays how struck he was by both the hissing serpent of religion and the whirling eddies of history, but also reveals his Odyssean cleverness in having himself tied to the mast of his ship so he could hear them without coming to harm.

It is appropriate to use maritime imagery when writing of Oakeshott, for one of his most famous passages in his inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics in 1951 used the metaphor of the ship of state: "In political activity, then, man sails 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 friend and enemy; and the seamanship lies in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour to make a friend of every hostile occasion."

This is characteristic of Oakeshott. He was not concerned with destinations - in either politics or in philosophy - the important thing was to sail, avoid shipwreck and perhaps never come to shore again.

The essays in this book do not have a destination. But of the 30, at least ten are masterpieces. They exemplify his rare touch, sureness and ease. And they exemplify his tendency to drift away from politics even while making it one of his major subjects.

Oakeshott was aware that political philosophy is secondary: that it simply concerns the conditions within which man seeks answers to the ultimate questions of existence. "It is something," he says in the sixth essay, "which a society can live without but it is something which, where it exists, makes this society fundamentally different from what it would be without it." Oakeshott's decision to write about a secondary activity was a limitation; but it also constituted his achievement, because, as he saw, he was writing in an age when the sine qua non of writing anything at all was to be aware of the historical contingency and philosophical fragility of modern thought. The consequence was almost the highest achievement of secular intellectuality in the 20th century.

The most important essays concern the history of political thought - about which the arguments are too involved to be more than mentioned here - and the idea of the university. The modern university has become what Pusey warned in the 19th century it should not become - a forcing-house of the intellect - and, even worse, it has become subject to quasi-scientific and quasi-economic beliefs about its technological, financial and social benefits. Oakeshott said that the university was a place where the inheritance of one's own civilisation should be studied for its own sake.

He considered that this was important to Western civilisation and that the influence of the West was making it so in universities abroad. But he also considered that the imperialism of the modern university was encouraging fits of absence of mind about what the purpose of the university properly was.

Anyone concerned with the university or with the great traditions of thought Oakeshott inherited, adorned and bequeathed to us should read this volume of essays. In Oakeshott we have the sublimely suggestive writer of the 20th century. It is always worth understanding him, even when you do not agree with him. And like all great essayists, he leaves you with one or two suggestions you will not forget.

James Alexander is assistant professor in political theory, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.

What is History? and other Essays

Author - Michael Oakeshott
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Pages - 454
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 907845 83 5

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