Click to enlarge

"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Gray

Last of the Idealists

Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922-86
Edited by Luke O'Sullivan (Imprint Academic 585pp 50)
'I have wasted a lot of time living.'

Michael Oakeshott was what in his youth would have been called a card. He was also one of the most original philosophers of his time. Throughout his long life - he died in 1990 in his ninetieth year - his tastes veered in directions not nowadays commonly associated with philosophy: he had an enduring preoccupation with religion and liked betting on horses. Unlike many academics he did not crave respectability, intellectual or otherwise; even by today's standards, his private life might be thought a bit rackety. But the life Oakeshott lived was not an unexamined one; it expressed an idea of individuality he found in the philosophers he most admired. As Luke O'Sullivan writes in his introduction to this immensely rich and superbly edited volume of the philosopher's notebooks, 'Oakeshott certainly seems to have done his best to live a life of radical moral individualism himself, though not, it must be said, without imposing considerable costs on some of those around him, particularly the women in his life.'

In one of the last of these notebooks, Oakeshott writes, 'This is a sort of Zibaldone: a written chaos.' There is something in the comparison. Giacomo Leopardi's 'hodge-podge' of personal reflections, philosophical analysis and aphoristic cultural commentary contains a powerful critique of modern life. The early-19th-century Italian poet possessed a distinctively modern mind; but he viewed the idea that modern life represented an improvement on the past with disdain. Oakeshott's attitude was not dissimilar. As O'Sullivan notes, he 'disliked more or less everything that he judged to be distinctively modern'. Yet he was a long way from sharing Leopardi's melancholy or despair. His response to the modern world was to cultivate an Epicurean gaiety and independence. (He rebuffed politely an approach by Margaret Thatcher, who had it in mind to recommend him as a Companion of Honour.) It was a style of life that combined seemingly antagonistic attitudes: a highly developed aesthetic sensitivity with a tolerance of everyday routine (he was punctilious when acting as chair of his LSE department); a capacity for intense romantic engagement with deep detachment.

Applying today's standards of correctness, many of the thoughts recorded here might be judged reactionary - which is to say they express truths that have become unfashionable. 'Perhaps the greatest principle in politics,' Oakeshott writes, 'is that people love to be frightened.' Or: 'The phenomenon of love, perhaps, more than anything else, shows the secondary place of justice and morality in human life.' Or: 'The "unbeliever" went with the "free-thinker" - that most prejudiced of beings.' There are hundreds of similarly arresting observations. A selection from forty-four notebooks composed over a period of more than sixty years, this book is a treasure-trove of thoughts, collected from a lifetime's intellectual wandering. For anyone interested in Oakeshott the man, or the development of his work, it will be invaluable.

Whether Oakeshott produced anything like a coherent system of ideas is doubtful. He disparaged ideology and favoured a return to practice and tradition. But as the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre discovered when, at the start of the 19th century, he visited Russia hoping to find a people that had not been 'scribbled on' by rationalistic philosophes, only to discover a country besotted with the Enlightenment, there is no uncorrupted text to which to return: the life of practice is a palimpsest of modish and forgotten theories. Oakeshott rejected modern creeds of human improvement in favour of what he called a 'politics of mortality', an outlook he found expressed in the writings of Montaigne and Pascal. But to shed empty hopes of the future, as Oakeshott might have liked, would require a radical change in attitudes - not so much a return to tradition as a revolutionary shift in the way modern life is lived. What is the point of envisioning such an impossible transformation? As Oakeshott writes in a note made in December 1934, 'The world - the Western world, for example, has already settled its way of living, its standards, its values - of what use is it to propose another; of what use to any save oneself? None.'

That Oakeshott's thought does not in the end hang together may not be very important. What system of philosophy does? But the fact is ironic given his intellectual antecedents. He was one of the last of the British Idealists, who, as opponents of empiricism, understood truth not as meaning correspondence with any kind of external reality but as a form of internal coherence in our thinking. This was the central message of Oakeshott's first book, Experience and Its Modes (1933). It was reviewed poorly by the philosophical luminaries of the day and made little impact. He liked to joke - and maybe boast - that the first print run of a thousand copies took over thirty years to sell out. In terms of coming trends in philosophy he had backed a loser. At Cambridge he read history and later lectured on the history of political thought, and much of his early work focused on the philosophy of history - then, as now, a neglected area of study. Philosophers from the analytical school that emerged after the war viewed his work as scarcely philosophy at all: Freddie Ayer used to dismiss it as a rehash of Edmund Burke - an obtuse misjudgement, since Oakeshott's scepticism was at the furthest possible remove from Burke's whiggish pieties.

An influence on his thinking more formative than that of Idealist philosophy may have been the literary culture of his early adulthood. When I knew him towards the end of his life, the impression he made was of a Twenties figure, whose values and attitudes - notably an uncompromising commitment to personal authenticity - echoed those of D H Lawrence, so I was interested to find a number of references to Lawrence in the notebooks. O'Sullivan comments that Oakeshott 'was really the last great representative not only of British Idealism but also of English Romanticism'. It is a shrewd observation. Where he differed from Lawrence was in not expecting, or wanting, any wide acceptance of his view of things. Here Oakeshott's aestheticism may have been important: if he praised and defended conventional morality, one reason could have been that he enjoyed contemplating a world composed of people unlike himself.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a figure like Oakeshott in academic life at the present time. For one thing, he had a wider experience of the world than most academics nowadays. Joining the army on the fall of France and being rejected for SOE because he looked too unmistakably English to be parachuted into Germany, he ended up serving in Phantom, a reconnaissance unit that, among other tasks, supplied information to the SAS. For a time his work involved using pigeons, whose behaviour he studied assiduously: when the birds were released, he once told me with a smile, many of them 'just flew off and got lost'. Finding comedy, even an element of absurdity, in the most earnest business, it was a remark characteristic of the man. He would have found the industrial-style intellectual labour that has entrenched itself in much of academic life over the past twenty-odd years impossible to take seriously. He wrote for himself and anyone else who might be interested; it is unlikely that anyone working in a university today could find the freedom or leisure that are needed to produce a volume such as this. Writing in 1967, Oakeshott laments, 'I have wasted a lot of time living.' Perhaps so, but as this absorbing selection demonstrates, he still managed to fit in a great deal of thinking.

Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!

John Gray's most recent book is The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (Penguin).

John Murray

Royal Literary Fund