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Michael Oakeshott

Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks are an astonishing work, which must force an enlargement of his already very high reputation. I cannot remember reading a more exhilarating counterblast to the shoddy utilitarianism which disfigures so much scholarship.

Oakeshott is best known as the author of brilliant essays in which he describes what it is to be a conservative.

In Rationalism in Politics (1947) he exposed the predicament of the modernist who has cut himself off from every traditional source of understanding: “Like a man whose only language is Esperanto, he has no means of knowing that the world did not begin in the 20th century.”

Oakeshott does, admittedly, remark in another essay that “it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity” (On being conservative, 1956). But we have had to wait for the Notebooks to discover quite how true this was of Oakeshott himself.

He lived from 1901 to 1990, and the thoughts recorded here cover the period 1922 to 1986. In the eleven Belle Dame Notebooks composed between 1928 and 1934, he discusses love with a passionate romantic intensity that puts one in mind of Rousseau:

“All my life there has been this distrust of intimacy – at home, parents, brothers, friends. No frankness, openness. But all inside, seething & alone. I have always been alone. And when most alone I have wanted intimacy; when I have most distrusted it I have desired it. No freedom: only death and frustration.”

Or again: “What is the bliss of love? It is the bliss of annihilation – love is a foretaste of death.”

Or yet again: “There is something wild in me to which my life gives no answer. One can fob it off by buying cars, spending money – spending more than one has – sleeping in the garden, climbing mountains, taking holidays – but not for ever, not for long. But what life will answer it? And how, now that I have committed myself to this life, can I free myself from my obligations.”

Robert Grant, in A Companion to Michael Oakeshott, gives an account of the philosopher’s “Pursuit of Intimacy”, which was for many years uninhibited, and left sorrow in its wake. In the words of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, who served with Oakeshott during the war, met him again at Cambridge and for a time accommodated him as a lodger at Cardinal’s Wharf, a rat-infested house on the other side of the Thames from St Paul’s: “Oakeshott’s style was enchanting. Here was a man who taught my generation how Conservatism could be combined with Bohemianism, convention with eccentricity, orderliness with wild abandon, pleasure with responsibility.”

Open the 550 pages of this new book anywhere, and you will come across something arresting about life, love, liberty, politics, poetry, philosophy, history, morals, education, aesthetics and many other subjects. One notebook is devoted to Horatio Nelson, others to Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza. Many of the notes are only a line or two long.

Here one finds unwritten books: and books perhaps better unwritten: for how much more suggestive a single phrase can be than a fully worked out plan: not that Oakeshott ever fell into the trap of an artificial and sterile completeness: we accompany him on his working out, which never ends.

The whole has been transcribed with care and fidelity by the editor of Oakeshott’s Selected Writings, Luke O’Sullivan: this is the sixth of a projected eight volumes. O’Sullivan has had, regrettably, to leave out Oakeshott’s transcriptions from other writers, but we are told who these were.

In a short introduction, O’Sullivan places Oakeshott in the European aphoristic tradition whose most celebrated representatives include Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche and Leopardi. And he gives us some instances of Oakeshott the aphorist. For example:

“Prejudice is knowing the answer to a question without knowing that it is a question.”

But what we need now is an editor who will give us a short volume of Oakeshott’s aphorisms. It is no objection to say that these would lose their context: even in this volume, some of the context has had to go.

Here are a few aphorisms to be going on with:

“One of the remarkable things about courage is that it can be communicated so easily. One can almost procure courage from a courageous man.”

“The human race reduced to a race of ants hurrying obediently from school to work, from work to pension, so painless a living that they will not know when they are dead.”

“Politics the art of the possible – but is this not true of all practical conduct whatever? And the possible is not given; it is made.”

“Nothing comes of nothing; but the best comes of very little, & the worst of too much.”

“Asceticism is not denial, it is release from distraction.”

“To be loved is to be remade – that is why it may be resented.”

“Thomas Hardy clearly preferred his women dead.”

“A lie can tell the truth about the speaker.”

“Delight increased by rareness & by precariousness: a life surrounded by death, a mortal life, has delights that an immortal life could never possess.”

“The ‘complacency’ of the perpetually self-critical is the worst.”

“The ‘best’ undergraduates, even the cleverest and the most serious, seem only to be concerned with learning what it will be useful for them to know.”

“The enjoyment of what is best is, in some cases, impossible because the majority seizing the best makes it unenjoyable. In these cases the rule is never to have the best, but only the second best.”

Notebooks, 1922-86, by Michael Oakeshott, edited by Luke O’Sullivan, are published by Imprint Academic, Exeter EX5 5HY, tel 01392 851550 (£50).

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