books Philosophy

The Dogmatic Politics of “Rationalism”: Michael Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays”

Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays is probably his most famous collection of essays on topics ranging from politics and law to Thomas Hobbes and the human condition. Oakeshott was one of the greatest political and cultural essayists of the 20th century, and this collection testifies to it. In it are some of his most consequential and profound works: “Rationalism in Politics,” “On Being Conservative,” and “The Political Economy of Freedom.”

I would urge readers to also buy On History and Other Essays, only because I believe the collection of essays in that compendium help to compliment the essays in this anthology.

In short, Oakeshott can be understood as a critic and deconstructionist of modernity—the modern project that we have been enslaved to since the “Enlightenment.” In “Rationalism and Politics,” the essay that gives the collection its title, Oakeshott examines the phenomenon of “rationalism” as the goal-oriented (ideological) direction of politics that has arisen in the modern West since the time of Machiavelli, Bacon, and Descartes. Essentially, the end result of rationalist politics is the destruction of hearth and home, of practical knowledge and the humanities, in the pursuit of a homogenous universal ideal guided by “The Book” (whether it be Machiavelli’s Prince or Marx’s Das Kapital). The rationalist is a mechanist who believes all things are like machines needing to be fine-tuned and solved. The ultimate tyranny of rationalism is the totalitarianism of the deracinated becoming the ideological puppet. In short, the rationalist subjects himself to the tyranny of the “The Book.” Everything that is opposite of “The Book” must be destroyed for the consummation of the ideal! (Oakeshott, here, puns on the concept of “rationalism” as really being irrational.)

“The Political Economy of Freedom” is, in my opinion, his most profound essay in this collection. It is shorter than most, but packs a punch that strikes at the heart of our modern and liberal sensibilities and shows them to be fraudulent. “Conservatives,” especially, will take a punch in the gut when reading Oakeshott’s essay here. Oakeshott dialectically contrasts freedom which he says as being hierarchally and progressively grown from 1) free association (the highest manifestation of freedom); 2) private property; 3) free speech; 4) virtuous law opposed to any and all forms of monopoly. As he says (much to the chagrin of free speech conservatives and libertarians), “For most men, to be deprived of the right of voluntary association or of private property would be a far greater and more deeply felt loss of liberty than to be deprived of the right to speak freely. And it is important that this should be said just now in England because, under the influence of misguided journalists and cunning tyrants, we are too ready to believe that so long as our freedom to speak is not impaired we have lost nothing of importance—which is not so!” Oakeshott basically says here that the way collectivist societies impose themselves over free societies is to slowly begin restricting free association and deprive people of property rights, but keep the veil of “free speech” and, as long as that veil is kept up, people illusorily believe themselves living in a free society until it is too late! The governing spirit of collectivism, Oakeshott also says, is war! “Nor is this surprising, for the real spring of collectivism is not love of liberty but war. The anticipation of war is the great incentive, and the conduct of war is the greatest collectivizing process.” This is so prophetic. How often do we hear of a “war” to “save democracy” or “save liberty.” How ironic. In the name of “saving democracy” or “liberty,” the collectivists enforce more and more draconian measures over society giving them totalizing control over society.

The many other essays in this collection are superb. Any student of philosophy and “the enlightenment” will learn much just from Oakeshott’s essays on Thomas Hobbes. (Oakeshott was regarded as a fine contributor to Hobbesian scholarship.) His final essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” are wonderful psychological probes of the human soul and condition.

Those who wish to have their minds enlightened, confronted, and personal beliefs challenged (or confirmed with erudite eloquence), should pick up this collection. Oakeshott has been a moderate influence over me and my thoughts, and as I grow a little bit older every year and visit Oakeshott more and more, he exerts ever more influence on me. The essays in this collection show Oakeshott at the top of his game and as an incredibly deep, profound, and even prophetic thinker.

Michael Oakeshott
Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991; 582pp.

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