Michael Oakeshott: The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism

HomeArticlesMichael Oakeshott: The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism

[It is] in The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (Brit. sp.) that we see the full extent of [Michael] Oakeshott’s transposed Augustinianism and his religious objections to the Pelagian character of modern politics.The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism implicitly recalls Oakeshott’s 1929 essay “Religion and the World,” in which he presents a choice between “worldly” and “religious” ways of living. In the book he presents a similar pairing: faith and skepticism. Here, however, the two alternatives are not presented as styles of government that might be explicitly chosen by an individual or a society. Instead, Oake­shott calls them the “poles” of an activity (politics), an activity that may at times swing from one extreme to the other but generally ends up somewhere in between.

Faith and skepticism are thus necessarily “ideal” types and alternative visions of what politics might look like. Neither of these is a style of politics, per se, but rather, in Oakeshott’s words, they are “logical opposites.”12 In reality, politics partakes of each type, and neither can exist without the other. Faith and skepticism sprang up together over the past five hundred years as a result of specifically modern conditions that Oakeshott describes over the course of the work. It is important to be quite clear at the outset about exactly what faith and skepticism mean to Oakeshott. For at first glance, faith might appear to point toward a less-worldly conception of politics, while skepticism, if taken to an extreme, could potentially undermine all existing political arrangements.

But these are not the terms in which Oakeshott describes faith and skepticism. He is quite critical in his assessment of the politics of faith, which he perceives as the “politics of perfection.” Faith, in this context, is thus “virtually the opposite of traditional religious faith.” In this style of government, man is thought to be capable of achieving Utopia on earth. There are no inherent limitations to human progress, and political activity therefore directs the progress toward perfection. Government becomes huge as it strains to direct the activities of its citi­zens in politics and in all other spheres of life. It is the “chief inspirer and sole director” of the improvement that is supposed to lead to perfection.13 Faith means, in short, faith in human capabilities.

The politics of skepticism, on the other hand, makes no such claims. It has much in common with Oakeshott’s idea of civil association, in which government is an umpire, ensuring that minimal rules are obeyed and that the rule of law is not jeopardized. As its name suggests, skepticism is profoundly dubious about undertakings that pursue mundane perfec­tion. Far from the activist government promoted by the politics of faith, in skeptical politics governing is primarily a judicial activity that leaves human beings free to pursue their own purposes.

It is well worth examining these two types in greater detail, because it is here that the religious underpinnings of Oakeshott’s thought are most evident. [Observing that] Oakeshott’s cri­tique of modern politics is grounded in a religious view does not mean that Oakeshott himself may be counted among the orthodox religious. Nevertheless, his critiques of the politics of faith and of “Rationalism” are so firmly rooted in religious ideas that to overlook these is to miss a vital part of his thought. Oakeshott takes a notably Augustinian position toward what he sees as modern-day [Pelagianism]. Moreover, his view of politics more generally — both of what it can achieve and its rather significant limits — is also directly in line with Augustine’s views. 

Oakeshott explicitly states that a kind of “Pelagianism” lies behind all versions of the politics of faith. In using this term Oakeshott recalls the famous heretic Pelagius, with whom Augustine argued over the doc­trines of free will and original sin in the years following 411. Pelagius be­lieved that moral perfection was possible for man; indeed, it was obligatory. Against a fatalistic view of original sin, Pelagius spoke to those who wished to reform their lives and “make a change for the better.” He be­lieved that man “was responsible for his every action” and that every sin “could only be a deliberate act of contempt for God.” He had little pa­tience for the weakness and failings of human beings, which could be remedied, he thought, through a determined exercise of will. He dis­dained what he perceived as the moral weakness in Augustine’s Confessions, which seemed to him “merely to popularize the tendency toward a languid piety.” 14

Perfectibility, according to Pelagius, was therefore not only possible for human beings, but its pursuit was a duty that “rested with man ‘accord­ing to his merits’.” Moreover, Pelagius considered himself capable of of­fering individuals “absolute certainty through absolute obedience [to God].” This desire for certainty is the constant companion of the impulse to perfectionism. But for Oakeshott, like Augustine, both perfectionism and the compulsive desire for certainty are hostile to the doctrine of providence and to the idea that the universe is a perfect creation. If Pelagius and his followers “seemed determined . . . to reform the whole Christian church,” Oakeshott’s Rationalism, likewise, seems determined to reform modern politics in its own image. 15

Augustine differed from Pelagius on virtually all his assumptions and, consequently, also on his conclusions. What seems to have galled him most about Pelagian doctrine was its insistence on moral perfectionism. The idea that human beings, by mere exercise of will, could become perfect even as God is perfect struck Augustine as manifestly false and prideful. Writing against the teachings of Pelagius, he emphasized the degree to which human virtue, such as it is, depends upon God.

For we assert that the human will is so far assisted by divine aid in the ac­complishment of justice that, over and above the fact that man is created with the power of voluntary self-determination, over and above the teaching from which he derives precepts as to how he ought to live, he also receives the Holy Spirit, whereby there is engendered (fiat) in his mind the love for and delight in that supreme and immutable good which is God, even now while he still walks by faith and not yet by sight; that, this being given to him as a free offering (munus gratuitum), he may be in­flamed with desire to approach to participation in that true light.

Oakeshott, of course, would not write in such explicitly religious terms as these, but against modern-day Pelagians he makes a similar point. Those who (wisely) doubt the desirability of the politics of faith do so because they understand the limitations of their own abilities. This hu­mility springs from recognizing that the world is given to mankind not merely to be exploited, but to be “contemplated” and “enjoyed.” What distinguishes skepticism from faith is the skeptic’s “sense of mortality, that amicitia rerum mortalium, which detracts from the allure of the gilded fu­ture foreseen in the vision of faith.”16

Like Augustine, Oakeshott found the modern impulse to perfection­ism inherently objectionable. A strong warning against perfectionism is, of course, also the moral of Oakeshott’s retelling of the Tower of Babel story. It might be said, then, that a religious idea lies at the heart of Oakeshott’s critique of a certain kind of politics. This idea is Pelagianism, or, in modern terms, moral and political perfectionism. This is evident in “Rationalism in Politics,” where he describes the two general characteristics of Rationalism as the “politics of perfection” and the “politics of uniformity” and contends that Rationalism is indeed the combination of both: “the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.”17 But Oakeshott is even more explicit about the Pelagianism of modern politics in The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism.

The Politics of Faith

In The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism Oakeshott observes that the fundamental characteristic of the politics of faith is a conception of government as being “in the service of the perfection of mankind.” To achieve human perfection one need not “depend upon the working of divine providence for . . . salvation.” On the contrary, it may be achieved “by human effort, and confidence in the evanescence of imperfection springs here from faith in human power and not from trust in divine providence.” The politics of faith is “the politics of immortality, building for eternity.”18 It is the attempt to remedy once and for all the unsatis­factory character of the world and the human condition. It is precisely what the Babelians attempt as they build their tower.

This view of perfection is partnered with three other principles, the first two of which are closely related. First, the perfection longed for may be achieved in this world: “man is redeemable in history.” This doctrine does not hold that any perfection available to man will occur only through faith, in a world to come. Second, this perfection is mundane and understood “to be a condition of human circumstances.” It depends, therefore, upon organizing political affairs so that they encourage human beings in their pursuit of perfection. The third principle follows, then: that government itself must be the chief agent of this improvement. It must organize the resources of mankind into a comprehensive plan pri­oritizing efficiency and singleness of purpose. Government does not merely assist in the project of moving toward perfection; it is the “chief inspirer and sole director of the pursuit.”19 Thus it takes upon itself the duty of directing action from a comprehensive perspective and becomes omnicompetent, radically limiting the spheres in which subjects may ex­press themselves.

Such is the politics of faith. Human life is understood to be a condi­tion in which people strive for a mundane perfection not merely indi­vidually, but as a society. In this striving they are oriented and organized by a government that steps in to enforce a plan. Dissent is discouraged, for who could doubt the goodness of transforming the human condition from one of manifest ills to one of perfection? The great virtue of this style of politics — and indeed, its great vice, from Oakeshott’s perspective — is that it pursues perfection in one direction. It posits a “single road” and is “content with the certainty that perfection lies wherever it leads.” The politics of faith presumes not only that “human power is suf­ficient . . . to procure salvation,” but that perfection denotes a “single, comprehensive condition of human circumstances.”20 Clearly, this view is diametrically opposed to Oakeshott’s view of politics, in which self-determined agents pursue a variety of chosen purposes within the framework of a settled rule of law. If the politics of faith is about the spiritual conquest of the world, the politics of skepticism studiously avoids such grandiose posturing.

Oakeshott does not, however, make his argument about the politics of faith solely in abstract, theoretical terms. As I have argued, his objections to certain political tendencies are grounded in his views about the char­acter of human beings, views that are religious and aesthetic. Like all le­gitimate theories of politics or of human conduct, they have concrete manifestations in the world, and as valid theories they depend on a clear ­sighted assessment of human beings. Oakeshott therefore brings his the­ory decisively to bear on the contemporary political arrangements of modern Europe. He analyzes modern forms of government in light of their approximation to the politics of faith, on the one hand, or to the politics of skepticism, on the other.

Oakeshott argues in the introduction to The Social and Political Doc­trines of Contemporary Europe (1939) that the differences between various doctrines — Liberalism, Catholicism, Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism — are not so much between those that offer “spiritual” or “ma­terial” ideals, but between those “which hand over to the arbitrary will of a society’s self-appointed leaders the planning of its entire life, and those which not only refuse to hand over the destiny of a society to any set of officials but also consider the whole notion of planning the destiny of a society to be both stupid and immoral.”

Oakeshott observes that on one side there are “the three modern authoritarian doctrines, Commu­nism, Fascism and National Socialism; on the other Catholicism and Liberalism. To the Liberal and the Catholic mind alike the notion that men can authoritatively plan and impose a way of life upon a society ap­pears to be a piece of pretentious ignorance; it can be entertained only by men who have no respect for human beings and are willing to make them the means to the realization of their own ambitions.”21 Once again, the fundamental difference is between those governments that have “faith” in their ability to direct the activities of human beings and those that are “skeptical” about this endeavor.

The Politics of Individuality

In a series of lectures Oakeshott gave at Harvard in 1958, now published as Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, he casts the faith/skepticism dis­tinction in the terms of collectivism versus individuality, even going so far as to call these categories (as he does faith and skepticism) “the poles of the modern European political character.” Collectivism postulates a common good that is chosen by government for the individuals who compose a society. This good is “preferred above all other possible con­ditions of human circumstance” and is believed “to be at least the em­blem of a ‘perfect’ manner of human existence.”22 In other words, it is the politics of faith.

The politics of individuality, on the other hand, springs from an en­tirely different conception of the role of government. Indeed, it has no “vision of another, different and better, world,” but takes its bearings from observation of “the self-government practiced . . . by men of pas­sion in the conduct of their enterprises.” It calls not for great concentra­tions of power, but for an authoritative “ritual” that can minimize the chances for great collisions between individuals. The government is thus merely “custodian” of this ritual, called “law.” Government’s functions, on this reading, are to minimize circumstances in which violent colli­sions of interest are likely to occur. It provides redress for those who have been wronged, maintains sufficient power to carry out its functions, and protects itself and its subjects from foreign threat.23 But unlike collec­tivism, the government of individuality is not in the business of generat­ing grand visions that would guide an entire people.

In Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, Oakeshott brings the some­what abstract conceptions of collectivism and faith into sharper relief by giving examples from political history. He identifies three distinct ver­sions of collectivism and describes the kinds of “perfection” they pursue: religious, productivist, and distributionist. The religious version, he be­lieves, was exemplified in Calvin’s Geneva, in which government’s purpose was to channel every human activity into the pursuit of “righteousness.” Calvin’s design was to “impose upon the citizens of Geneva an exclusive and comprehensive pattern of activities from which no divergence was to be allowed.” Moreover, government was oriented toward achievement of a substantive purpose: to guard the glory and honor of God and “to be the execution of God’s will as displayed in the Scriptures.”24

Oakeshott’s discussion of Calvinism as the quintessential example of the “politics of faith” is well worth reading in full. But the most striking part of the discussion in these pages is his analysis of Marxian politics as part of this same religious idiom. Oakeshott also locates Marx’s politics in other versions of collectivism, but the essential features of Marxism seem to stem from a religious origin. It is worth quoting Oakeshott’s analysis at length to see how a supposedly secular theory can be inter­preted as fundamentally religious:

“Like the millenarian sectaries of the seventeenth century, the Marxist be­lieves that a new age is emerging (a third epoch in world history) in which the dominion of “earthly” (that is, ‘capitalist’) governments will be superseded by the rules of the Saints (the proletariat) over the Repro­bate (the bourgeoisie), who have no rights save the rights to be ruled and who cannot be ‘saved’ because they are not among the Elect. . . . [The Elect] must claim the right to propagate their beliefs (“the truth”) with­out hindrance, and they will absolve themselves from all promises, con­tracts, engagements, treaties, oaths and debts. . . . [Soon] a “perfect” condition of human circumstance [will arise] about which little is known except that there will be no place in it for governing as a specific activity and that it cannot be established anywhere with certainty until it is estab­lished everywhere. In short, there is scarcely anything in the mythology and the anthropology of Marxism which does not have its counterpart in the writings of the seventeenth-century Puritan sectaries. The religious version of the politics of collectivism, the first version to appear in mod­ern Europe, has survived almost unchanged . . . into our contemporary world in the political theory of Marxism.”

It is worth noting that this analysis has much in common with Eric Voegelin’s analysis of Marx’s political theory. In Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Voegelin makes a similar case for Marx as a gnostic who wished to replace the true constitution of being with a “world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action.”25 Indeed, Voegelin and Oakeshott agree that Marx’s political theory, with its focus on the mundane search for perfection, is a distortion of religious impulses.

However, the “religious” version is only one type of collectivism. And the other two types Oakeshott identifies have assumed a dominant place in Western political thought over the past several centuries. The second kind of collectivism he considers is “productivist,” which is a particular understanding of human purpose and association that emerged in the sixteenth century and finds its clearest expression in the writings of Francis Bacon. In brief, this is a view in which government directs its citizens not toward salvation (as in the religious version of collectivism), but toward economic prosperity. Work is the “preeminently proper oc­cupation of mankind,” and all other activities should be subordinated to it. Government thus ought to aim at maximizing productivity: it ought “to promote research, to supervise industry and trade, to regulate prices and consumption, to distribute wealth where it might be most usefully employed,” and so on.26

The third version of collectivism is “distributionist.” Here the focus has shifted from economic prosperity to a vision of perfection that is dis­tinguished by its emphasis on the ideas of “security” and “welfare.” Its desired state of perfection is one in which every person is fundamentally equal to everyone else, in which the immense quantity of goods and wealth that “productivism” yields are required to be divided up fairly among all people. The desired outcome is not merely legal equality, but a “real” equality, that is, equality of condition.27 This version of collec­tivism emerged in the nineteenth century in those countries (such as France and England) that had the most wealth to distribute.

These three types of collectivism are illustrations of what Oakeshott meant when he described the politics of faith. As I have emphasized above, the politics of faith posits a uniform condition of mundane per­fection, as well as a government that leads the way to achieving it. In the religious version of collectivism the desired perfection is salvation that is to be worked out in the world. In the productivist version it is economic progress. And in the distributionist version it is equality of condition. In each of these a “single road” to perfection is chosen by government and imposed on a society. But each kind of perfection is a kind of idolatry, a Tower of Babel in which individual choice is stamped out in favor of what is supposed to be a greater good. As in the Tower of Babel story, dissent and disobedience are punished “not as troublesome conduct, but as ‘error’ and ‘sin’. Lack of enthusiasm will be considered a crime, to be prevented by education and to be punished as treason.”28

But perhaps the greatest irony of all, given that these political systems aim at achieving human perfection, is that they produce not happiness, but a creeping dissatisfaction that cannot be remedied. For the promised perfection — religious, productivist, distributionist — lies always in the fu­ture and thus always out of reach. The politics of faith is preoccupied, in­deed obsessed, with the future. The imbalance of contemporary politics, Oakeshott remarks, “springs from the preoccupation with the future which has been pressed upon it by the politics of faith.”

Just as Nimrod attempts to pacify his subjects in Babel, who are becoming impatient for their great reward, so governments of faith say to their subjects, “The pursuit of perfection is an arduous undertaking. You must not only ex­pect to forego delights which those who will come after will enjoy, you must also expect to suffer the pains and deprivations inseparable from the enterprise.” Present happiness is sacrificed to promises of even greater future happiness; but this, as Oakeshott makes clear throughout his work, is a fundamental misunderstanding of morality translated into a misun­derstanding of politics. For Oakeshott believed that fulfillment in life comes only in living, so far as possible, in the present. If we postpone ful­fillment to the future, when we expect finally to have accomplished our greatest works, most likely “death or disease will rob us of our harvest, and we shall have lived in vain.”29 The future, as Oakeshott is wont to re­mind us, is remarkably uncertain.

To sum up, Oakeshott’s three related formulations of a particular kind of politics (Rationalism, “faith,” and collectivism) all express a certain view of moral character and the kind of government appropri­ate to this moral character. The morality they presuppose is Oakeshott’s least favored type, which I characterized in the previous chapter as “servile” rather than creative or “liberal.” It is morality as the reflective application of ideals or rules. Just as servile morality imagines that it can achieve goodness by following rules, or “cribs,” so the Rationalist in politics imagines that he can achieve political excellence by adhering to an ideology, and by sticking to principles. Servile morality is oriented toward ideals, and thus toward an ever-receding future; governments in the style of “faith” imagine that they can postulate a state of perfection for their societies, and this too is an endeavor that looks explicitly to­ward the future.

To put it plainly, Rationalism, “faith,” and collectivism spring from a faulty understanding of the character of human beings. These views of politics depend on the “servile” morality I have identified as dissatisfied, faithless, future-oriented, proud, and overconfident. It is the morality of the impatient and irritable, of those who are oriented solely toward ac­complishment, and of those who do not value things as ends in them­selves.



12. Michael Oakeshott. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, Ed. Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 30.

13. Timothy Fuller, Introduction to Michael Oakeshott, Religion, Politics and the Moral life. Ed. Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, xi; PFPS, 25.

14. PFPS, 80; Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo. London: Faber and Faber, 1967, 343, 351, 343.

15. Charles Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940,452; Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 347; PFPS, 23; Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 348.

16. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 453; Augustine, De Spiritu et Littera, v, quoted in Cochrane; PFPS, 76.

17.”Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Ed. Timothy Fuller. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991, 9-10.

18. PFPS, 23,114.

19. Ibid.,23, 24,25.

20. Ibid., 26.

21.Michael Oakeshott. The Social and Political doctrines of Contemporary Europe. New York: Cambaridge University Press, 1953, xxii.

22. Michael Oakeshott. Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, Ed. S. R. Letwin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 110, 91.

23. Ibid., 49, 50.

24. Ibid., 93.

25. Ibid., 96—97; Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, in Modernity without Restraint, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 5. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000, 262 ff.

26. Morality and Politics in Modern Europe, 103.

27. Ibid., 107, 108.

28. Michael Oakeshott. The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism, Ed. Timothy Fuller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 29.

29. Ibid., 86 (see also his discussion on p. 96), 98;”Religion and the World,” in  Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Ed. Timothy Fuller. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991, 32.


This excerpt is from Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics (University of Missouri Press, 2006)

Elizabeth Campbell Corey

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Elizabeth Campbell Corey is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. She is author of Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics (Missouri, 2006).