“Citizenship is a spiritual experience”

The most insightful and curious article I have read in the weekend papers is by Paul Kelly of The Australian. Kelly has written a piece that appears to be part of a journey of discovery. His recent castigations of the political class and the Australian people for spurning sensible economic reform, and acting like a spoiled and petulant child have given way to reflection on the deeper roots of political identity and the more chthonic origins of political drama.

The occasion of the piece is criticism of Turnbull for not attending war commemoration events in Fromelles and Pozieres. But his deeper point is that mantras about economic plans fail to define any “emotional, moral, or spiritual quest on behalf of the nation.” Economics, law and planning is not enough.

In support of his argument Kelly quotes Michael Oakeshott: “Citizenship is a spiritual experience, not a legal relationship.”

Turning to Oakeshott now, in our troubled times, when democratic publics are in revolt against elites, plans and reform and in fear of terror, religious fervour, and fissuring and hissing cultural identities. The abandonment of cultural order and liberation of this chaos are the great betrayals of those who govern us today.

And Oakeshott is the great critic of rationalism in politics, who understood that the conduct of governing, this distinct experience, could not be reduced to rational ideas, nor the plans of intellectuals. The craft, the experience, the ordinary virtues of this form of human conduct had to be respected, and the nature of the task was not the promulgation of an idea, the declaration of an edict or the planning of an enterprise. Rather, Oakeshott writes:

 “In political activity . . . men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”

The aphorism quoted by Kelly comes, I read, from the recently published collection of Oakeshott’s Notebooks. He published little, stood against the spirit of the times, strove always to sound the deepest caves of human thought, and aspired to be part of an aphoristic tradition. He is one of the enduring sources of traditions of thought that can lead us on our frail bark away from these dark and troubled waters.

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