The 20th century produced a staggering array of intellectual giants. A spate of literature has continuously been produced interpreting and reinterpreting various thinkers’ intellectual contributions within their historical context or in terms of the thinker’s oeuvre. One recent publication, around which the classical liberal journal Cosmos + Taxis organized a symposium, was David McIlwain’s Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss: The Politics of Renaissance and Enlightenment. The work provides a close reading of two thinkers often associated with “conservative” politics, although their philosophies are far richer than what can be captured by partisan categories.
F. A. Hayek too – his famous rejection of the label “conservative” notwithstanding – has also been aligned with a more conservative politics. In fact, it was the opinion of Marxist historian Perry Anderson that Hayek, Oakeshott, Strauss, and Carl Schmitt were the katechon.
In his contribution to the Cosmos + Taxis symposium, “Middle Voices: F. A. Hayek”, Scott B. Nelson opts to bring out Hayek’s voice, turning McIlwain’s Oakeshott-Strauss duet into a trio. Playfully written, he begins by investigating the three thinkers’ criticisms of democracy, maintaining that their criticisms are not to be understood as arguments in favour of non-democratic regimes. One can and should be in favour of democracy and yet still honest enough to be critical of it. Of the three, Nelson argues that Hayek went furthest in providing a blueprint for the structural reforms that could be taken in order to defend political philosophy and strengthen the liberal democratic regime.
All three were critical of the excessive application of Enlightenment rationalism to politics, although Hayek parts ways with the other two in his unwillingness to locate the modernistic hubris within the Enlightenment itself. Instead, what we see in Hayek is a powerful thinker caught between progress and tradition, antiquity and modernity. Hayek descends from the empyrean heights of Oakeshott’s and Strauss’ philosophies and entertains rather “mundane economic concerns”. Mundane to the philosopher they may be, but they are of great importance to the common man. In so doing, Hayek also arguably played the most consequential role of the three in the politics of the 20th century.
The trio, each in his own way, provides a defense of civilization at a time when it is most needed. And in Hayek especially we are witness to all of the splendors – and ambiguities – of the liberal tradition.
Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.