I have many times remarked that I am, this semester, teaching two courses: a course on Plato's REPUBLIC in a learning-in-retirement program at Duke University, and a graduate seminar at UNC Chapel Hill on "Normative Dimensions of Public Policy." My weekly preparation for these courses, which I confess is more taxing than I anticipated, is to re-read the materials I have assigned for the week. This morning, I finished reading the portion of the REPUBLIC in which Plato advances the controversial proposal that women and men should be trained for and serve equally as Guardians in the ideal state. It is mildly amusing to reflect that America has finally gotten around to a point of view that Plato arrived at twenty-four hundred years ago. Oh well.
Then, having completed my preparation for Monday's Duke class, I turned to this week's reading for the wednesday UNC seminar -- two famous essays by the British Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. I have expressed before on this blog my admiration for Oakeshott's writing, but I am compelled to say a few words about it again, because after re-reading only the first nine pages of the first of the essays, "Rationalism in Politics," I am enraptured by the brilliance, the elegance, and the penetration of it. For those who do not know the essay [and I urge you all to get a copy of the volume in which it appears, also called RATIONALISM IN POLITICS, and read it immediately], it is a deadly accurate description, anatomization, and ridicule of people like me.
I shan't succumb to the temptation to type into this blog long passages from the essay, and from the second essay I have assigned, "Rational Conduct." You must bestir yourselves to seek the essays out and read them for yourselves. Oakeshott is the ego ideal of people like David Brook and Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat and countless other conservative commentators. I suppose he bears to them roughly the relation that Marx bears to me, although, interestingly enough, I think there is a good deal in Marx that is compatible with, and resembles, what Oakeshott has to say. Marx, after all, was himself scornful of the deracinated rationalism of those he labeled Utopian Socialists.
What does it say about me that I admire Oakeshott's writing so? I hope it says that I am a big enough person to recognize and freely acknowledge brilliance even in my opponents. But some will suggest that it reveals a secret ambivalence in me, a shameful lust for tradition that has heretofore found expression in my respect for the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and shows that I am not, for all my protestations, the philosophical anarchist I claim to be. So be it. I feel when I read Oakeshott, the way I feel when I listen to Bach. Johann Sebastian and I could never have been drinking buddies, what with his religiosity and all, but that does not diminish my love for his music.