If you want to read one brief essay on the work of Michael Oakeshott, my old friend Jesse Norman offers the best short account I’ve ever read. It’s gorgeously written and betrays, with light erudition, a profound understanding of the most original political thinker of the last century. Its only flaw is a somewhat too-brief summary of something quite astounding in the exploding area of Oakeshott studies: the publication of Oakeshott’s decades of private writing, Notebooks, 1922-1986:
The present volume has been culled from a vast array of journals written by Oakeshott between 1922 and 1986. These include his own reflections, quotations and passages transcribed from other writers, as well as mini-essays and purely personal cris de coeur. They were not written for publication, and have not now been assembled into anything remotely resembling a single line of thought (how could they be? Oakeshott described them as “a Zibaldone – a written chaos”). Their editor, Luke O’Sullivan, has worked wonders to bring them to book.
The result is a treasury of apothegm, ideas and wisdom. Nearly every one of its more than 500 pages contains some pungent and arresting thought: “Citizenship is a spiritual experience, not a legal relationship.” “To lose youth, vitality, power, love, a friend – all are deaths & they are felt & suffered as deaths . . . these lesser deaths, the mortal material of our life – are the worst.” “In love is our existence made intelligible. For in love are all contraries reconciled.” And, no less in character, “In pretty girls moral qualities are not so awfully relevant.”
Olive Letwin finds that while the journals don’t offer any revelations about Oakeshott’s philosophy, they do “reveal quite a lot about the man”:
Oakeshott’s philosophical eccentricity was matched by eccentricity in many other aspects of his life. He played mah-jong with enthusiasm but refused the winds (or was it the dragons?) because he idiosyncratically conceived them to be inferior. In the same vein, he refused all honours (including the very highest) on the grounds that honours should be awarded to those who want them most. He was as shrewd as the shrewdest street-trader when it came to things like running his beloved department at the LSE; but his private life was notably quixotic. In short, much of his charm lay in his capacity for unexpected romance.
The Notebooks bring out this quality, letting us into some of the smouldering passions that lay behind the extreme delicacy of his conversational manner. There is much reflection on God, and on the history of man’s relation to the numinous in nature. In 1923, we find Oakeshott pondering (over successive days) on the ‘experience of the Red Sea in the history of the Jews’ and on the sea as the symbol of the ‘mightiness of God’. ‘The stars have lost much of their mystery — but who would dare to say that he had discovered the secret of the sea?’
I just bought the Kindle edition of the book – and recommend it to anyone with a curious and open mind who is interested in a conservative thinker far removed from the deranged ideology of the American right.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on his thought, Intimations Pursued, in 1989, it was only the second dissertation ever written about him. The philosophical work – in particular his bookend masterpieces, Experience And Its Modes, and On Human Conduct – is so rigorous, unique and penetrating that it sometimes obscures those moments of aphorism, wit, asides and humor that punctuate them. I learned to examine all the footnotes, if only because they took my breath away with their aphoristic, almost Nietzschean, surprise and wit. But they also hinted at a brilliant conversationalist, with a chaotic but always serendipitous life of love and loss and adventure, whose unscripted thoughts might be even more revelatory than the exquisitely composed published work.
I spent one long winter’s afternoon with him months before he died and all that wit and humor and gentleness and mischief was undimmed in his late eighties. But I always knew that for him, life was as important as thought, love far surpassing philosophy in making life worth living, and sex an endlessly fascinating series of adventures and exploits and passions and love. Yes, this was a conservative committed to eros. He was pathological about love. Jesse Norman again:
For the truth is that Oakeshott was not merely an Apollonian, but a Dionysian. He was married three times and had an extensive but often unsuccessful and rackety love life. A man of enormous charm, brilliant conversation and few pretensions, he admired and respected many women, yet had periods in which he behaved with great cruelty to those who loved and depended on him.
The Notebooks include a remarkable sequence, dating from 1928-34, named after “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Keats, in which the thirtysomething Oakeshott veers from profound observations on love and loss to obsessional grumbling about his principal girlfriend, Céline (his diaries attest to an interest then in at least nine further women), interspersed with melodramatic screams of sexual frustration. He said of himself, “I am like the River Jordan, my course has ended in a Dead Sea.” And of his first wife, “To know is to lose.”
No wonder the theocons and the neocons regard this Don Juan of a deep thinker with such deep suspicion. But he towers above all of them – in work and in life.
(Photo of Oakeshott lecturing in 1964 via the archives of the London School of Economics)