True to his commitment to moderation, Oakeshott sought to put politics and political participation in their right place, neither too high nor too low. Our first business, he argued, is to live, the second is to understand life properly, and only after that comes changing the world, to the extent to which that might be possible. Often times, he believed, “It is the failure to think out & have clearly before us a view of life & a view of how such a life is to be achieved which stands in our way.” Hence the primary importance he ascribed to achieving self-knowledge.
…“If I wrote it to persuade others,” he admitted, “I should be guilty of self-contradiction: I write it to persuade myself, & because no man can be said to be master of himself until he has made himself clear to himself.” Oakeshott was not just an academic who reads only in order to write for a small audience. He read first and foremost to educate himself and to find the meaning of the good life. “It is not my ambition to dictate to the future the way of life it shall follow,” he wrote in September 1928, when he was 27 years old. “All I have wished is to think out for myself a way of life, to make it clear to myself, so that I must follow it.”
For anyone reading these notebooks it is evident that much of what Oakeshott read and took interest in had to do with his restless romantic temperament and represented an effort to discover himself. To discover oneself, he believed, is to find “true” freedom, and “until this discovery is made all freedom is frivolity.”
…In times of crisis, when societies are in danger of destruction, politics tends to become prominent, but then it is important to remember that its main task is not to endow life with splendor and greatness like literature, philosophy, and the arts, but more modestly, to provide the framework for the gradual readjustment of human relationships by fallible men. In normal times, it is literature, philosophy, and the arts rather than politics that should be the outlets of superior intellects called to create the values of their communities.
As Notebooks suggests, Oakeshott rejected the all-consuming obsession with productivity, and deemed shallow that conception of the good life that claims that there is nothing worth pursuing beyond the enjoyment of material goods. He admitted with sadness that almost all forms of politics today have become rationalist, or near-rationalist, and lamented that the rationalist disposition has pervaded our political thought and practice. At the heart of rationalism he identified the belief that all human activity should be guided by unhindered reason, taken to be a sovereign, authoritative, and infallible guide in political activity. Greatness, Oakeshott believed, cannot be derived from the philistinism, intellectual mediocrity, conformity, and complacency that characterize, in his opinion, the rationalist spirit.
This was a position that Oakeshott shared with others, who were equally opposed to the technocratic outlook imbued with the belief in the superiority of expert knowledge. And he viewed ideologies as radical expressions of the rationalism he criticized. The proponents of ideological politics think they possess an infallible measuring-rod, and tend to evaluate all proposals for social and political change “against a single, unambiguous, universally valid measure,” which is given the status of axiom. In so doing, they seek to emancipate politics from opinion and conjecture, conducting themselves as they do according to the “iron laws” of history.
Aurelian Craiutu, “Of Love and Politics“: