During the dozen or so years in which I knew and talked with Oakeshott he rarely mentioned “the founder of modern conservatism” and never with approval. He disliked Burke’s Whiggish faith in progress and much preferred the cool scepticism of David Hume. But Oakeshott’s idea of tradition has many of the difficulties of Burke’s defence of what he described as “just prejudice”. Both of them preferred the tacit knowledge embodied in practices to the abstractions of rationalist intellectuals. They passed over the fact that tacit knowledge often consists of fossilised remnants of fashionable ideas.
The experience of the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) may be worth recalling. At the start of the 19th century he was sent to Russia as a diplomat. An ardent opponent of the philosophes of the Enlightenment, he hoped to visit a country that had not been “scribbled on” by intellectuals. What he found was aristocratic elites babbling about Voltaire and Diderot. Then as now, there was no traditional wisdom to which a conservative could default.
Ennoblement through degeneration. History teaches us that that part of a people maintains itself best whose members generally share a vital public spirit, due to the similarity of their long-standing, incontrovertible principles, that is, of their common faith. In their case, good, sound custom strengthens them; they are taught to subordinate the individual, and their character is given solidity, at first innately and later through education. The danger in these strong communities, founded on similar, steadfast individual members, is an increasing, inherited stupidity, which follows all stability like a shadow. In such communities, spiritual progress depends on those individuals who are less bound, much less certain, and morally weaker; they are men who try new things, and many different things. Because of their weakness, countless such men are destroyed without having much visible effect; but in general, especially if they have descendants, they loosen things up, and, from time to time, deliver a wound to the stable element of a community. Precisely at this wounded, weakened place, the common body is inoculated, so to speak, with something new; however, the community’s overall strength has to be great enough to take this new thing into its bloodstream and assimilate it. Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it.
— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human