The Sad and Noble Music of
Michael Oakeshott


Peter Coleman

From The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics, Quadrant Books, 2010

Like most people I am more or less happy when being praised, and not very uncomfortable when being abused, but I have moments of embarrassment when being explained.
— Michael Oakeshott

Nobody can hope to understand the politics of modern Europe who is not prepared to probe the darkness of the first four centuries of the Christian era.
— Michael Oakeshott

Call me Mickey.
— Michael Oakeshott (in New York)

THE BOOM in Michael Oakeshott studies — all those books, PhDs, seminars (and a Special Symposium at Macquarie University the other day) — owes much of its impetus to the Michael Oakeshott Association in London, which maintains a busy website (, organises international conferences every couple of years (next year in New Orleans) and acts as a conduit to publishers of key books. No one would now challenge Ian Tregenza’s statement in one of these new books, Michael Oakeshott on Hobbes, that Oakeshott was “one of the most significant political philosophers of the twentieth century”.

Yet despite all these debates Oakeshott remains an enigmatic figure not yet finally located in his intellectual and political tradition. He is, for example, regularly acclaimed as a conservative thinker. But he was not conservative in ordinary usage. He was certainly no British doctrinal conservative, looking to God, natural law, loyalty and duty. (Consider, say, Quintin Hogg’s disdain for Oakeshott’s ideas.) Nor was he an Americanising neo-conservative, relying on economic growth, a moderate welfare state, and liberal imperialism with a dash of Zionism. (The neo-conservative Irving Kristol, when editor of Encounter, rejected Oakeshott’s famous paper “On Being a Conservative” as too sceptical, and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s essay “The Conservative Imagination” is an influential neo-conservative critique of Oakeshott’s quietism.)

It must also have some relevance that Oakeshott, the professor of political science, had a low view of politicians, including those of the British Conservative Party. He found the shouting, the righteousness, the seediness and the implacable urge to win “tiresome”, and when a Conservative Prime Minister suggested she recommend an honour — a CH — he declined her offer.

But if he saw politics as a second-rate activity, this was at least partly because he found many activities and much of life second-rate. The point of religion, he used to say, was to reconcile us to the hollowness, the futility, the nothingness of life. It may be that he saw the point of conservatism as offering some temporary barrier to the nothingness of political life. (For their part politicians assumed Oakeshott had no serious interest in politics.)

There is always something elusive about a thinker who celebrates politics without ideology, religion without doctrine, history without use, and poetry without meaning — elusive but still comprehensible. The greater problem may be his style. Whether incantatory, lyrical, or ironic, it often confounds understanding. So cool an observer as Bruce Miller of Canberra said Oakeshott reminded him of Mozart (especially The Magic Flute); the English journalist Henry Fairlie thought of Handel (especially the organ concertos). For my part I think of Elgar (the sad and noble Second Symphony, not the marches). But however we think of Oakeshott’s music, its splendour conceals a terri¬ble sense of emptiness and despair which troubles so many of his readers (including me).

We are bound to get more information when Robert Grant publishes his forthcoming biography. Grant has already written one of the best short studies — Oakeshott (1991) — and he is sensitive to the mysteries of Oakeshott’s life (“shot through and through with paradox”). However rigidly we separate a thinker’s work and his life, there remains an inescapable link, and in the right hands (a Ray Monk on Wittgenstein), a biography will be illuminating. Grant belongs to that company.

Take for example Oakeshott and women. In his paper (“On Writing Michael Oakeshott’s Biography”) to the Oakeshott Conference in Colorado last year, Grant suggested that Oakeshott was obliged to keep his life in sepa-rate compartments because of his “romantic life style” that inevitably created obligations, some continuing and “willingly shouldered”, which left him more or less penniless.

His archive at the London School of Economics includes huge files of the letters which dozens of women wrote to Oakeshott over forty years. Some are only a few pages. Many deal with the small change of daily life among friends. Others are huge and intimate. The letters of his second, divorced wife form a pile five feet high. Much of the archive will be of more interest to a biographer than to a philosopher. For example, the details of Iris Murdoch’s role in drafting the Latin dedication in The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (“Patriciae, feliciter repertae. Amanti animo. M.”) may be of some interest to a biographer but will contribute nothing to our understanding of the book. The archive has very few of Oakeshott’s own letters in reply to his correspondents. (An aggrieved husband occasionally offered a brief word.)

But even if personal records will not explain philosophic ideas, there remain nagging questions. Grant has noted a parallel of the compartmentalisation of Oakeshott’s life with his early modal (or compartmentalising) philosophy according to which history, science and practice have no common ground and no authority over each other. Others may ask whether his “romantic bohemianism” has some bearing on his conviction that there is no inconsistency in being conservative in politics and radical in all other activities, including morality or art.

But Grant is right to warn against biographical reductionism. What light can Oakeshott’s biography shed on his account, for example, of the origins of our moral predicaments in the first four centuries of the Christian era? Does anyone believe that his appearance fifty years ago in the Dorset Quarter Sessions on a charge of nude bathing on Chesil Beach helps us understand his philosophy of jurisprudence?
Yet the plain fact remains that Oakeshott thought this large personal archive was important enough to conserve, classify and bequeath to the LSE. He surely had a biographer in mind. To complicate matters a little more, he himself questioned the value of biographies of philosophers; they were, he thought, better subjects for character studies than life stories. But the late Shirley Letwin was also right that Oakeshott’s life with his intermittent reinventions of himself would make an exemplary story of the intellectual history of the twentieth century.

These are among the issues that Grant may explore. As a foretaste his Colorado paper has left us with this intriguing conundrum: For Oakeshott ideas and ideals were famously a precipitate of practice, not guides to action, but: “there is much to suggest that, so far from his ideas being a rationalization of the life he chose to live, the life he lived was the consequence of a principled and far from cost-free attempt to put them into practice”. Grant thinks he may be able to square this circle. It will be fascinating to see.

MEANWHILE WE HAVE the new books by or on Oakeshott. They include two Australian studies, one of which by Glenn Worthington of Canberra (The Religious and Poetic Experience in the Thought of Michael Oakeshott) is about to be published. The other, Michael Oakeshott on Hobbes, by Ian Tregenza of Sydney, unravels Oakeshott’s engagement with his seventeenth-century alter ego. As its subtitle suggests — A Study in the Renewal of Philosophic Ideas — it is a history of ideas that ranges with formidable learning through Oakeshott’s “great men” from Epicurus and St Augustine to Duns Scotus and Hegel.

Luke O’Sullivan’s What is History? and Other Essays is not a commentary but a selection of Oakeshott’s own papers from the LSE archive. They cover sixty years of reflections, especially on the nature of historical knowledge. Some chapters have been published before. Some are published for the first time (and may have been held back because Oakeshott was not satisfied with them).

This is no “Oakeshott for Beginners” (although O’Sullivan writes a useful Introduction). But these neglected essays revive some fine flourishes of Oakeshottiana. Take this passage from his 1948 paper “The Voice of Conversation in the Education of Mankind”:

“A certain disillusion is perhaps necessary for the practice of conversation: it is the art of the thriftless genius, appropriate to the brilliant failure, the genius manqué, and the inebriate. In that sweet decadence of Athens, when Rome had destroyed its political power and wisdom its political ambition, when the philosophers had been called away and the Muses had returned to Olympus, the art that remained was the art of conversation. It was this that distinguished the Greek from the barbarian; and it is this art that always distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian.”

There is also a 1948 observation on the difficulty of getting women to enter into a conversation:
“Women have many of the qualities required in conversation; they are gaily inconsequent and have little attachment to the truth, but what often disqualifies them is the feminine passion for management and for wanting to know where they are being taken before they get there.”

Here is Oakeshott welcoming first-year students to the university in the still free days of 1961, before the revolution:

“Although it is over forty years ago, I have never forgotten my first day at university. Waking up on that first, brilliant October morning free, and with all the world in front of me. I felt like a newly liberated slave must have felt; or like one of those boys in the fairy-tale who pull on their boots, kiss their mothers goodbye and set out to seek their fortunes... I have a piece of good news for you: you are actually meant to enjoy yourselves here... there is no desperate urgency about anything; and you can make a good many mistakes without having to pay very much for them. The only general principle I know — and that is not always true — is that one regrets less the things one does than the things one does not do.”

One of the papers is exceptional in its bitterness — his 1943 polemic “On Peace with Germany”. The evil in Germany is not National Socialism or Prussianism but the German character, its instability, its malignant egocentricrity and its lack of self-knowledge. From Luther (who blamed the Catholics) to Hitler (the Jews), the German will blame anyone but himself for his problems. (Oakeshott also refers cryptically to German necrophilia and “the profound sexual unrest that has seized this people”.)

All this is the more unexpected in a scholar who had immersed himself in German philosophy and poetry. The impatient tone is also rare in Oakeshott. He was more likely to show his irritation in irony than in denunciation (as in his devastating put-down of Isaiah Berlin when formally introducing him as a Comte Lecturer at the LSE: “this Paganini of ideas”. Berlin never forgave him.)

The essay must be read in the context of Hitler’s attack on civilisation:

“The contemporary cant about Germany being a great nation with a valuable gift for the world is ridiculous. Neither Germany, nor any other nation, has anything to give the world that can compare with what Germany has taken away.”

Its interest today is in the light it sheds on Oakeshott’s style of politics, its early and raw expression of his idea of national tradition (“character”), and in his deep scepticism about reform. Germany does not need re-education, he writes, but education. The Allies cannot do it: “No one but himself, and that with great pain and difficulty, can rescue the German from his dream world.” It will take generations. Meanwhile Oakeshott seems to stand with those who called for the de-industrialisation and pastoralisation of Germany: “we must make certain that this people is given no opportunity to rebuild its power”. It is no surprise that he did not publish this paper.

There are many other themes in O’Sullivan’s collection — on philosophy, politics and education. There is also more Oakeshottiana to be recovered from the archives, not only from the LSE’s. A collection of the best of his many short and wide-ranging book reviews, beginning from the same early Cambridge years that O’Sullivan begins his selection, would make a sprightly volume of table-talk. His poetry, including the poems from his travels as a young man in Albania and Poland, also has its place in his development.

Even romantic juvenilia has its unexpected interest in the case of an independent and creative thinker like Oakeshott: for example, his “Shylock the Jew” of 1921 presents Shylock’s horrific humiliation as a sort of triumph. It is only in tragic defeat, the young Oakeshott concluded, that the divine voice may make itself heard. He was still a practising Anglican in 1921, perhaps contemplating holy orders. But much of his later work is an elaboration of this aperçu. There is no substitute for youth. 

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