A Guide to the Classics, or, How to Pick the Derby Winner will surprise readers who know only Michael Oakeshott’s major works of political philosophy. It was first published in 1936 and in revised form in 1947. It is not well known and copies of it until now have been hard to find. I acquired a copy of the first edition when, teaching Oakeshott in an undergraduate class at my college nearly thirty years ago, I remarked in passing that I had never found a copy of the book for purchase; I was frustrated in my quest to acquire copies of all Oakeshott’s works. Shortly after Christmas that year, I received the book in the mail. One of my students was a young Englishwoman who grew up with horses on the Isle of Man. She later told me of a bookshop in London known to all people in the horse business for specializing in horse books. While home for the holidays, she went there and found the book to send me as a present. Since then I have acquired also a copy of the later edition. I am of course ever grateful to her. Amphora Press has now added this to their publication list of books by and about Oakeshott. In his 1944 Presidential Address to the Virgil Society, “What Is A Classic?,” T. S. Eliot referred to the book (his firm, Faber & Faber, had published it) as offering one of the various connotations of “classic.”
Griffith and Oakeshott were colleagues in Cambridge who shared a passion for horse racing which included serious study of how to bet on the races in Britain, especially the Derby: “The Derby, as every schoolboy knows, is a race of about a mile and a half for three-year-olds run at Epsom Downs at 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in late May or early June.” In the 1930s in Cambridge, Oakeshott was known as something of a dandy. Some of his former students would say he had a bohemian streak, and he was known occasionally to skip lecturing when an important race was to take place. The bohemian streak was disciplined, however, by a good deal of technical analysis of how to assess horses in order to reduce the odds in betting, and apparently some readers of the book did in fact succeed in choosing winners. The authors argue for common sense informed by careful study of past experience as opposed to “gossip and superstition,” which are “for the majority of mankind the main apparatus of selection.” The reader was warned against the Scylla of superstition and the Charybdis of abstract systems.
Griffith and Oakeshott show us what it means to be conservative.
The premise for publishing this new edition for a general readership is that, regardless of how passionate one is or is not about horseracing, Griffith and Oakeshott show us what it means to be conservative. Peter Oborne’s foreword makes the point that, for Oakeshott, to be conservative is not about politics but about enjoying the possibilities of life outside of politics. This book is not about politics at all, but it does illustrate a certain approach to life which connects it to Oakeshott’s well-known essay “On Being Conservative,” of 1956. “Conservatives don’t think that politics is that important,” says Oborne.
We know from Oakeshott’s better known writings that politics is a “necessary evil” neither to be despised nor overrated, that its task is to keep the ship afloat in a hostile sea with no safe harbor, that artists, poets, and philosophers have a vocation which precludes pursuing politics, and so on. The enthusiasm for horse racing in this book shows what for Griffith and Oakeshott might be far more important than politics. They are unapologetic about investing with high seriousness and some humor an activity which has no point beyond itself. They say:
A surprising number of people choose their newspapers to suit their politics, although hardly anybody in England is really interested in politics, except politicians. . . . We, personally, do not care twopence what The Times thinks about Geneva or Jerusalem; it is The Times’s Racing Correspondent who makes The Times worth twopence to us.
This will shock and challenge the prevailing sentiment of today’s intelligentsia (as it was intended to shock the intelligentsia of the 1930s), who believe that everything is political, that meaning in life is to be found only in politics. Activist or movement conservatives are troubled by the implicit accusation that they are playing the game of the liberals and socialists rather than renewing the resources of a life not burdened by guilt about the past and anxiety about the future—a life, as Oakeshott sometimes put it, of poetic adventure, the life of homo ludens. Oborne describes this sort of conservatism:
Their little book had all the Conservative qualities. It took the abstraction out of the Derby. It exploded the systems which had been developed by generations of form experts. It exposed theoretical solutions as fraudulent. It turned its back on the flowery, abstract language used by the racing intelligentsia.
Instead it applied intelligence and hard-headed empirical analysis. It was intelligent, but not intellectual. It relied on facts. It used the past as a guide to the future. It was the result of close historical study. It was beautifully written.
Moreover, the book reveals Oakeshott’s complex combination of the libertarian with the traditionalist: “Racing exists only for its own sake, not for some larger purpose. It is self-governing, with complex regulations . . . . Horseracing . . . centres around only one purpose: racehorses and human enjoyment of their beauty and excitement.” In 1947, Oakeshott produced his celebrated essay “Rationalism in Politics,” the philosophical version of the Guide, wherein he referred to horseracing, like all important activities, as a pursuit requiring more than technical knowledge since method is always abstracted from a larger complex of experience, of know-how. His critique of modern rationalism showed that reliance on technique or method alone must inevitably fail to consider the full range of factors, relying on a textbook or manual without the guidance of know-how gained from past experience, or respect for life as lived by ordinary people. (One could add Oakeshott’s amusing defense of “bloomers” as “rational dress” for bike-riding women in the 1880s in the essay “Rational Conduct.”)
Sean Magee’s preface provides well-informed insights into the world of horseracing as it was then and as it has changed since, suggesting that the book can no longer guide our picks as it might have eighty years ago. Its merit now is to add insight into Oakeshott’s thinking, what it means to have a conservative disposition; it is a satire on the world of getting and spending, the world of “existential threats” and perpetual emergencies, where every day the world is coming to an end (a prospect which, as Hilaire Belloc reportedly suggested, is too good to be true). Magee concludes: “A Guide to the Classics remains a book to be relished for its ingenuity, its style, and, most of all, its humour.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 62
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