Oakeshott the Aphorist

 

Michael Oakeshott was born 120 years ago today. I posted last year on the 30th anniversary of his death, providing some links hopefully useful for those who are not familiar with his work. The question asked by the title of that post (“Michael Oakeshott: A Hero for Whom?”) is perhaps all the more pertinent these days, with “conservatism” becoming “nationalism” and often furiously in favor of bigger government (see, on that, this report on a recent ISI conference by James Patterson. A very good piece but quite a depressing read, at least to me).

For this anniversary, I would like to point to a true jewel among Oakeshott’s works, though a not particularly well known one. I am referring to the selection from his Notebooks published in 2014, edited and with a beautiful Introduction by Luke O’Sullivan. Oakeshott himself compared his notebooks to “a sort of Zibaldone: a written chaos”. The selection O’Sullivan edited and published is quite that; it emphasizes Oakeshott’s literary sensibility and presents his notes on thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, but also Montaigne and Schopenhauer. That would be quite something on its own merit. But Oakeshott also wrote a large number of aphorisms, which are, most of them, simply magnificent. The topics range from the nature of politics to love (and women), from the “balance” between the bohemian and the bourgeois, to the character of literary men. They are, evidently, notes taken during a life of reflections, scintillating thoughts which flashed in his mind and he put on paper. Some of them are little sentences you could spend hours in pondering. Others are formidable bon mots. Some give you a glimpse into his wider thinking. Others just make you crack up laughing.

Here are a few (in no particular order). If you want to make yourself a nice Christmas present, buy the book and dig into it, from time to time.

Curious as a concierge.

The awful spectacle of the contempt of small minds for those a little smaller!

Human fulfillment is not another state, following upon the conduct of life, as wages follow work.

To treat each day as it were our life and not a prologue.

The bourgeois holds the world together for the poet.

Power makes men stupid. It corrupts because it intoxicates.

Fear his its own father and a most prolific self-propagator.

The real grievances of mankind are incurable; politics consists in manufacturing curable grievances.

Revolutions design to demolish cathedrals, but like earthquakes, they are apt also to fracture the main drain.

To have a head so full of ideas that there is no room for sense.

Perhaps the greatest principle in politics is that people love to be frightened.