The Reading Room

Oakeshott and Weaver: Two Types of Conservatism

Among the ways in which to classify different species of conservatism, one might consider how different kinds of conservatives seem to be less zealous and ideological than are others. When considered in this light, conservatism has two general types, and these are exemplified by Michael Oakeshott and Richard Weaver.
Some conservatives keep always close at hand the conviction that the old is not to be preserved without consideration for the present.  These conservatives’ pessimism chastens any hint of idealism, preventing him from trying to achieve something substantially better than that which the present offers.  Such a conservatism is in some measure dispositional.  Consider Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative” from Rationalism in Politics, in which he argued that conservatism is a disposition to prefer the familiar to the unknown.  But it is a disposition that often comes only by effort, and the young – as of yet too little acquainted with life to be overly calculating about what can be lost – tend not to have it.  The disposition to be conservative is the same one that explains the capacity for friendship and the capacity to enjoy any given thing irrespective of some profit it might entail.
 Richard Weaver exemplified another flavor of conservatism in his classic Ideas Have Consequences.  His thesis was that the present modern world is hopelessly decadent, having been set on a disastrous trajectory not by modern progressivism but by William of Occam, whose medieval arguments contra logical realism and pro nominalism “banish[ed] the reality that is perceived by the intellect” in favor of that which is perceived by the senses.  From this ancient error, civilization began to crumble, humanity having realized that “if words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words.”  In his telling, language no longer serves as the means to signify to others what is true but instead acts as the tool by which to tear down the moral superstructure in which civilization consists. 
 Weaver’s book was an unusually thoughtful one, and it deserves its place in the library of American conservative classics, and yet one cannot help but see that it is quite different from other seminal books in that genre.  Weaver’s work seems paradoxical: with his jeremiads against modern society and his elegies and encomia for a lost medieval past, he at times gave the impression that he would not have hesitated to dispense with the modern world in toto.  
And yet with the power and the beauty of his argument, the reader is led to think that maybe he would have been right to do so.  A recurring theme in Ideas Have Consequences was a concern with social fragmentation; no longer able to penetrate the noumenal, man struggles to agree on ultimate ends, and from this philosophical fragmentation comes social fragmentation.   Weaver would have us ask how people are to live together in the same political community if they do not agree on ultimate ends - on what the world is for?
 That’s a very good question.  It seems obvious that life together under those circumstances will not be easy, and yet one can find at least some answers to the question in Oakeshott’s political thought, which suggests that a political order must be diligent to preserve the means rather than run headstrong into a zealous crusade for ultimate ends.  In his Politics of Faith, Politics of Skepticism, Oakeshott argued that political orders must preserve the means – law, procedural norms, institutions – to our preferred ends, for ends vary among individuals, and that is true even in more homogenous communities.
It is this which the revolutionary left and those who are on the zealous right too often forget.  Oakeshott rooted conservatism in a disposition to prefer the familiar, but Weaver looked at the familiar and scoffed, perhaps in part because he was wont to compare it to an idealized past, in the process sounding like something of a fanatic himself.  “Civilization must be saved,” Weaver wrote, “from some who profess to be its chief lights and glories.”  And what does civilization look like?  Weaver reminds us that it consists in the preservation of those ideas and customs, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination – things like manners, verbal customs like honorifics, and a respect for tradition.  It consists in a commitment to see in language a tool by which to understand something of the real.  But Weaver at times hinted that civilization was exemplified in a past that some suspect never existed or that was hopelessly flawed: in the “social organization” of the antebellum American south and in a pre-Occam medieval Europe in which everyone allegedly agreed on ultimate ends.
What Weaver seemed to overlook, and what Oakeshott appreciated, was that it was by preserving means (and not just fighting for ends) that one can at least pursue ultimate ends in one’s communities – neighborhoods, churches, other associations.  But if for the purpose of defending of civilization a conservative in the name of conserving removes the conditions that makes these kinds of communities possible, then what have we gained?