Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Why Did Oakeshott Quote Chuang-tzu?

I don’t own a microwave or a dishwasher. My friend has a microwave, but it’s 25 years old. He has a thirty-year-old overcoat worth nothing. He will do anything necessary to keep it with us. He and I are sentimental; we don’t want things to change. I like the life in which one does the dishes. I don’t like the large square machine. It’s not everything that makes me misty. Only some old things do, the ones that somehow announce the past, represent it well, with the flair it deserves, the beauty with which I remember it. An old Penguin paperback from the 1950s does the trick. But somebody fifty years hence will get misty over things new today, things that leave me cold because I prefer not to change. Is there no sense in this? Is this pleasurable melancholy called “being sentimental” irrational?

Suppose you love yourself in the sense that you take deep pleasure and pride in the course of events that has made up your life. This entails loving the world in which these events took place. The accoutrement, the things, the props in that world (even the ways, such as the hand washing of dishes) are endearing in their particularity. It is this life that you have loved, and so many specific things are necessary to it and therefore beloved. It could not be reasonably said of any poem that one loves this poem but none of the turns of phrase in it. Even things that weren’t actually part of your life - the 1950s Penguin paperback was printed before I was born - can endear because they can be thought of as representing a life lived well. An old, worn-out knife from the late 19th C. can be imagined to have been an element in a life dearly loved. The sentimental are thus prone to melancholy and longing for another’s life, as long as it was an object of its owner’s melancholy and longing. For the sentimental are not narcissistic but rather in love with good lives anywhere they are had. There is always this human experience of joy at life and world, and it keeps the mind turning back in recollection of the past. Moving forward has nothing to do with it. Ideas of progress never arise. To contemplate progress would merely distract from the adoration of a good life that is almost entirely in the past.

But there must be more, because Michael Oakeshott quoted Chuang-tzu. Chuang-tzu was no traditionalist. He held no traditional values dear. He was a mystic and quite radical in his dismissal of the importance of traditional culture. He cared little for how well a life was led according to normal standards, thinking on the contrary that a life was led badly only if it was made to aspire to fulfill values. Chuang-tzu’s point was that just to be, in whatever circumstance, affords deep fulfillment. Aspiration of any kind distracts from this and ruins lives. Chuang-tzu was nihilistic about all traditionally cherished moral values and virtues. Why did Oakeshott quote him? Because the conservative shares with him the idea of a life lived in a way such that the parts of your life come together in a beautiful harmony, such that you have no need to attain anything further. A life led perpetually in need of attaining some improvement, meeting some standard, cannot be good. Chuang-tzu failed to see that it may still be the case that a good life cannot be had without including in its early stages earnest effort to attain to traditional values about how to live a good life. He merely advised that one drop out and tune in. The conservative, the sentimental, doesn’t make this mistake. He knows that orchestration is created, not absorbed by ne’er do well in a mystic trance.

Not only aspiration for change, but change itself interrupts a radiant stillness that envelopes a good life. This is the reason not to cave in and buy a new coat. It isn’t irrational if that’s what stillness requires. Moreover, it’s a sign of health, as Nietzsche would have rightly said.