Who now reads Michael Oakeshott? Until recently, very few people indeed. His first book, Experience and its Modes (1933), took thirty years to sell out its initial print run of 1,000 copies.
Nor was its author well known even towards the end of his life. The possibly apocryphal story goes that after her election in 1979 Mrs Thatcher was keen to celebrate the conservative intellectuals who, as she saw it, had helped make victory possible. “Let’s give that man Oakeshott a title!”, she cried. A knighthood was duly produced… but for Walter Oakeshott, the (no less deserving) former Vice Chancellor of Oxford and specialist in mediaeval literature.
It is unlikely that his distant cousin Michael will have minded. He was by all accounts the most unassuming of men. The young Peregrine Worsthorne, a future Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, found himself sharing a tent for six months with another recruit to Phantom, a special reconnaissance unit in the Second World War. Having recently won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Worsthorne lost no time in favouring his new companion with his wide-ranging views on politics, history, philosophy and other topics. One can hardly imagine his embarrassment, on arriving at Cambridge, to attend the university’s lectures on European Political Thought and discover the same tent-mate delivering them.
Yet at this death in 1990, aged 89, Michael Oakeshott did not lack public recognition.
Since then, the conversation has continued to grow. Indeed, there is now a rapidly burgeoning field of “Oakeshott studies”. Virtually everything he ever wrote has been published or is in course of publication, and the same is true of his lectures and broadcasts—with the exception (so far) of A Guide to the Classics (1936), his co-authored book on horse racing. The great university presses of Oxford, Cambridge and Yale have taken him up. He has been the subject, or perhaps the victim, of numerous studies, Companion volumes and collections of essays, including five since 2012 alone.
In Experience and its Modes, Oakeshott had written:
Philosophy, the effort in thought to begin at the beginning and press to the end, stands to lose more by professionalism and its impedimenta than any other study. And it is perhaps more important that we should keep ourselves unencumbered with merely parasitic opinion than that we should be aware of all, or even the best, that has been thought and said. For a philosophy if it is to stand at all must stand absolutely upon its own two feet and anything which tends to obscure this fact must be regarded with suspicion.
As these Notebooks show, Oakeshott managed to keep himself almost entirely free of “merely parasitic opinion” for his entire working life, over more than sixty years. More than that: they show how deeply he was himself imbued in “the best that has been thought and said”. They are profound, provocative, moving and endlessly quotable. And they cast further extraordinary light on Oakeshott’s life and thought, and indeed on the human predicament.
On the face of it, the body of intellectual work published during Oakeshott’s long lifetime is a slender one: two monographs separated by some forty years, and two rather more accessible collections of essays on politics and history. Most of his readers come to him via the first of those collections, Rationalism in Politics (1962). This set out a vigorous but elegant philosophical attack on the post-war consensus in favour of planning and technical expertise within government. In a preferred metaphor of the time, politicians were seen as officers on the deck of the ship of state, steering the vessel under expert guidance, and yanking civil service levers to increase or reduce speed.
Oakeshott shows how such an enterprise is fated to end on the rocks. As a philosopher, he takes aim at the deepest point: not at specific plans and schemes but at the assumptions underlying them, and in particular the belief that skilled activities such as that of governing can be reduced to a set of explicit rules or instructions. The effect of this view, one might note, is to denigrate political understanding and exalt youth and inexperience, for its implication is that the tacit, inarticulable knowledge built up over time by the craftsman has no place in politics.
To the contrary, however, Oakeshott suggests that “In political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea… there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.” A modest and fastidious aspiration it is, and quite out of keeping even at the time with the post-war drive for jobs, homes and prosperity. And yet that modesty and fastidiousness feel strangely liberating today, when we have seen the rationalistic excesses of totalitarian societies; as politicians are forced to acknowledge both their own limitations in power and those of the state; and while Western societies wrestle with the social effects of our present highly materialistic and narrowly economic cultures.
As political reflection, this vision owes more to Edmund Burke than Oakeshott himself was perhaps prepared to acknowledge. But Oakeshott himself was undoubtedly a more purely philosophical thinker, who joined a Humean scepticism with a desire to interrogate the deepest aspects of human activity and experience in the tradition of Spinoza and Hegel. Oakeshott’s eye is always a conditionalising one: for him philosophy has no absolutes, except that all human experience is corban to its presuppositions. Only through an awareness of this can philosophy “stand on its own feet”. It follows that the modern yearning for objectivity, for a suppositionless authority underwriting human action through clams of science or religion or national identity, is as intellectually spurious as it is disastrous in practice.
The idea of rationalism is itself thus one expression of a much deeper analysis by Oakeshott of human experience into different “modes”, or organising conceptual frameworks through which we encounter the world; it is what occurs when the quantitative categories of science are confused with the very different categories to be found within history and practice. But these modes are marked by their internal consistency, and more than this, they develop an institutional basis within society: indeed, over time Oakeshott came to see them as distinct voices, and the interplay between then as constitutive of culture and civilisation, the “life inter homines”. For him, then, education is not a technocratic process of creating future workers, or even the simple transfer of knowledge from one person to another. It is an adventure, an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind”. It is how we learn to be human.
But this modal analysis was itself revised and refined over time. The result was Oakeshott’s late masterpiece, On Human Conduct (1974). On Human Conduct is a highly unusual work, in several ways. Gone is the seductive smoothness of the essays. The style is dense and intricate, and Oakeshott does not shy from creating a somewhat formidable technical vocabulary in his search for the utmost clarity of expression. Moreover, the book moves from philosophy to history, as he recasts and generalises an understanding of human practice, uses that understanding to explore the classical idea of civil association, and then locates that idea within the ambiguous emergence of the modern European state.
The result is philosophically profound in at least three ways. It gives new depth to the idea of civil association, as the association of equals not bound by any governing enterprise or purpose. It allows Oakeshott logical scope to extend his thought to embrace the rule of law, conceived modally in its own right, as he did in his final work, On History (1981). And it enables him to bring these two strands together in a rigorous and original philosophical grounding for modern ideas of limited government, personal freedom and the basic legitimacy of the state. It is in this sense that Oakeshott is, ultimately, a “conservative” philosopher.
So far, so solid, so massive and marmoreal. To those who have gazed in wonder at this immense and complex intellectual edifice, it is a profound shock to turn the corner and discover something very, very different.
We have seen Oakeshott as a thinker from another age, who delights in metaphor and disdains the modern fashion for –isms, and the minutiose and argumentative logic-chopping by which so much current academic philosophy talks past itself. He only has one subject, and it is the subject: human experience itself, in all its pain and joy and glory. This is, in its own way, subversive enough. Yet, as the Notebooks show, it is precisely for this reason that what ultimately mattered to Oakeshott was not work but life, and specifically love. Philosophy was, it seems, an antidote.
The present volume has been culled from a vast array of notebooks 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”, and 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.”
As these snippets hint, the Notebooks place Oakeshott in a European aphoristic tradition ranging from Martial to La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche. They confirm his deep engagement with Plato and Aristotle, with personal heroes such as Spinoza, Cervantes, Montaigne and Pascal, and with the novels of Tolstoy, Turgenev, James and Conrad among many others. Again and again he returns to the themes of death and life, the enchantment and purported salvations of religion and poetry, and above all love.
For the truth is, as his current biographer Robert Grant has described in a recent Companion to Michael Oakeshott, that Oakeshott was not merely an Apollonian, but a Dionysian. He was married three times and possessed an extensive but often unsuccessful and rackety love life. A man of enormous personal charm, brilliant conversation and few pretensions, he genuinely admired and respected many women, yet had periods of what seems to this writer to be great cruelty to those who loved and depended on him.
The Notebooks include an remarkable sequence from 1928-34 named after “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Keats, in which the thirty-something Oakeshott veers from profound observations on love and loss to obsessional grumbling about his principal girlfriend Celine—according to Grant, 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.”
In a man just married with a young child this is not pretty, to say the least. But it is compelling to read, and its counterpart—his supposed antidote to love, composed at the same time—was Experience and its Modes, and the first formation of his philosophical worldview. Oakeshott rejected philosophy as a guide to human conduct, and tried at times to compartmentalise the two sides of his own character, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but he never disavowed them, or their unity in him. His ideal was always that of the self-chosen life, the life lived in the full expression of one’s individuality. About that there could be no compromise, whatever the consequences—for him or others.