Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Michael Oakeshott, a distinguished British philosopher who is usually referred to as a conservative, wrote On Human Conduct in order to summarize a half century of theorizing about government and political activity. Interested in “an engagement in understanding,” Oakeshott attempts to construct a general theory of political life, and he insists that he is not attempting to advance a particular ideology or political agenda. Oakeshott’s values, however, have a great impact upon the conclusions of the book. With his strong commitment to individual freedom, he expresses a distrust of all forms of political power, and to the extent possible he wants the individual to be able to choose his or her own substantive purposes without government intrusion. Readers who are committed to socialism, modern liberalism, and the welfare state will disagree with many of Oakeshott’s assumptions and generalizations.

On Human Conduct is composed of three related essays. The first essay is devoted to “the theoretical understanding of human conduct,” with an emphasis on the perennial question of human freedom versus determinism. The second essay attempts to clarify the nature of “the civil condition” by examining the differences between “civil associations,” which mandate laws for public order, and “enterprise associations,” which are joined by voluntary consent. The third essay, “Character of a Modern European State,” summarizes the historical evolution of how national states have...

(The entire section is 619 words.)