Michael Oakeshott is usually described as a conservative thinker. According to Perry Anderson, his work influenced John Major’s style of politics; he named him in the London Review of Books in 1992 as one of four ‘outstanding European theorists of the intransigent Right’. Luke O’Sullivan, who edited this collection of notebooks, has often said that he considers such descriptions limiting. O’Sullivan is clearly enthusiastic about Oakeshott’s work and strove to enable these notebooks, spanning a period of over sixty years, to be published.
For those interested in Oakeshott, this book will be valuable. As O’Sullivan tells us in the introduction, the philosopher frequently mentioned the notebooks and kept each series of them in a numbered sequence. As such, they were probably meant to be published, or at least pored over by students and followers. The book’s layout is clear, with each notebook presented separately and each note numbered. These can range from one line to a couple of pages in length. The book offers an interesting corollary to the thinker’s published work, giving us a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into his mind.
O’Sullivan’s introduction gives us an idea of how useful and sometimes surprising these notebooks are. For instance, while Michael Oakeshott’s published work discussed Hobbes a lot, using his ideas to build a theory of the state, the notebooks refer little to him. O’Sullivan explains that Oakeshott probably used loose papers and annotated the books he was working on. Conversely, the notebooks demonstrate that their writer had an interest in Nietzsche, interest which is not mirrored in his published work.
This hardback is obviously aimed at admirers of Oakeshott’s work, and for them the book will be of definite interest. Now what of those who don’t know or like him? For many such readers, the first hurdle would be getting over the instantly repelling title of ‘conservative thinker.’ Curiosity may compel readers to pick up the book, as well as an urge to reach out beyond one’s political views and be as widely read as possible. And the notebooks are a pleasant and informative read. Oakeshott taught at the LSE for nearly twenty years and has much of interest to say on the subject of philosophy, history, politics, literature and art.
This can lead to surprisingly different takes. From Oakeshott’s point of view, Voltaire as historian was prejudiced in his view of the church, a ‘“barbarous” absolutism.’ The common stance is usually to applaud Voltaire’s clear-headed dislike for what was then a repressive institution.
Similarly, a one-liner goes: ‘Hardy clearly preferred his women dead.’ The double-take occasioned by such comments can be refreshing, the equivalent for the brain of swapping Pilates for yoga and stretching one’s muscles in an unexpected and slightly painful new direction.
Intriguing too are the ‘Belle Dame’ notebooks. In them, a young Oakeshott speaks of women he is in love with and discusses the various aspects of love and attraction. In October 1931, we find an elegant description of post-coital gloom: after an encounter in London with a woman called Elizabeth, he laments ‘the inherent impossibility of satisfaction, the impossibility of penetrating another self, & the foolishness & the misery of attempting.’
Oakeshott was a prolific creator of aphorisms and there are many here that will entertain and inform. Some offer us witty perspectives on the philosopher’s role: ‘It is the fortune of the philosopher to be an outcast, useless to men of business and troublesome to those of pleasure.’ Others are simply beautiful: ‘Decadence, Venice as it is now, is not a defect, it is the fruit of which power & glory were only the flower.’ Yet others, like the stark ‘The woman whom love & youth have deserted takes offence at everything’ will shock by their narrow-mindedness.
Religion is a recurrent theme. Oakeshott takes a sometimes dispassionate view yet lauds the importance of religion in society. He compares primitive Christianity with the times he is living in and its different beliefs. There is often a functional edge to his notes on religion’s role and in notebook 10 he reflects on Kant’s and Schleiermacher’s thought about religion, concluding with Durkheim for whom ‘society is the primary object of religious devotion.’ In notebook 15, he says: ‘God is not a being or a person, it is a way of thinking about human life.’
Oakeshott himself comes across as iconoclastic and his writing is stylish. One to buy for those who can afford it. For the others, it is well worth borrowing.