He was a self-confident thinker who did not search for others’ approval. He had an impressive career but somehow outside the mainstream, was remembered by friends (like Ken Minogue) as a splendid friend who cared about friendship deeply, eschewed honors, and was happy to retire in Dorset and lead a county life. In a beautiful article on Oakeshott, Gertrude Himmelfarb commented that he was “the political philosopher who has so modest a view of the task of political philosophy, the intellectual who is so reluctant a producer of intellectual goods, the master who does so little to acquire or cultivate disciples” and then all of these features perfectly fit in his character.
Oakeshott strongly influenced my view of conservatism, as you will see if you read any of the many posts in which I quote him or refer to his expositions of conservatism and critiques of rationalism. I drew heavily on Oakeshott’s analysis of rationalism in my prescient post of ten years ago about same-sex “marriage” and the destruction of civilizing social norms. Here is the post in its entirety, followed by my retrospective commentary (in italics):
Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarnenegger, which manufactures a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, smacks of Rationalism. Judge Walker distorts and sweeps aside millennia of history when he writes:
The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.
Judge Walker thereby secures his place in the Rationalist tradition. A Rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,
stands … for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligations to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious; he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration…. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself….
…And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)
At the heart of Rationalism is the view that “a problem” can be analyzed and “solved” as if it were separate and apart from the fabric of life. On this point, I turn to John Kekes:
Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. (“The Idea of Conservatism“)
Edward Feser puts it this way:
Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)
Same-sex marriage will have consequences that most libertarians and “liberals” are unwilling to consider. Although it is true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — pursuant to Judge Walker’s decision — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate.
Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.
In Morse’s words:
The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm. (“Marriage and the Limits of Contract“)
The state’s signals are drowning out the signals that used to be transmitted primarily by voluntary social institutions: family, friendship, community, church, and club. Accordingly, I do not find it a coincidence that loud, loutish, crude, inconsiderate, rude, and foul behaviors have become increasingly prominent features of “social” life in America. Such behaviors have risen in parallel with the retreat of most authority figures in the face of organized violence by “protestors” and looters; with the rise of political correctness; with the perpetuation of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society; with the erosion of swift and sure justice in favor of “rehabilitation” and “respect for life” (but not for potential victims of crime); and with the legal enshrinement of infanticide and buggery as acceptable (and even desirable) practices.
Thomas Sowell puts it this way:
One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important….
Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.
Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)
And so it will go — barring a sharp, conclusive reversal of Judge Walker and the movement he champions.
There was no sharp or conclusive reversal — quite the contrary, in fact. And the forces of rationalism have only grown stronger in the past decade. Witness the broadly supported movement to renounce America’s history for the sake of virtue-signaling, to blame “racism” for the government-inflicted and self-inflicted failings of blacks, to suppress religion, to undermine the economy in the name of a pseudo-science (“climate science”), and to destroy the social and economic lives of tens of millions of Americans by responding hysterically to the ever-changing and often unfounded findings of “science”.