The Last Great English Romantic

Reviewing Oakeshott’s recently published Notebooks, John Gray sketches a charming portrait of the idiosyncratic philosopher:

When I knew him towards the end of his life, the impression he made was of a Twenties oakeshottoutsidecaius.jpgfigure, 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.

Previous Dish on Oakeshott’s notebooks here and here.