Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922–86 by Luke O’Sullivan (ed) - review by John Gray

John Gray

Last of the Idealists

Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922–86


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Michael Oakeshott was what in his youth would have been called a card. He was also one of the most original philosophers of his time. Throughout his long life – he died in 1990 in his ninetieth year – his tastes veered in directions not nowadays commonly associated with philosophy: he had an enduring preoccupation with religion and liked betting on horses. Unlike many academics he did not crave respectability, intellectual or otherwise; even by today’s standards, his private life might be thought a bit rackety. But the life Oakeshott lived was not an unexamined one; it expressed an idea of individuality he found in the philosophers he most admired. As Luke O’Sullivan writes in his introduction to this immensely rich and superbly edited volume of the philosopher’s notebooks, ‘Oakeshott certainly seems to have done his best to live a life of radical moral individualism himself, though not, it must be said, without imposing considerable costs on some of those around him, particularly the women in his life.’

In one of the last of these notebooks, Oakeshott writes, ‘This is a sort of Zibaldone: a written chaos.’ There is something in the comparison. Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘hodge-podge’ of personal reflections, philosophical analysis and aphoristic cultural commentary contains a powerful critique of modern life. The early-19th-century Italian poet possessed a

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