These are the `very full notes' from which Michael Oakeshott delivered his lectures at to undergraduates at the London School of Economics in the late 1960s: the notes were complete sentences, but were set out, as here, in often very short paragraphs, with bullet points, numbered points and numbered sections, and frequent repetitions to drive an idea home - all techniques which are successfully employed by many lecturers. We are told in the Editors' Introduction that Oakeshott was a hugely popular speaker, remembered for his `vivid presentation', greeted with a storm of applause even before he began, and that he `knew that lectures are performances'. This atmosphere does not, I think, survive on the printed pages: they make for rather staccato, undramatic and sometimes even stodgy reading.
The Editors tell us that, in his early years at the LSE Oakeshott had given lectures on the great thinkers from Plato to T.H.Green, of such magnetism that they were `more or less the centre of gravity in that vast school' But the lectures printed here represent a shift of focus: they were `a study of ideas in relation to their contexts, not a study of texts'. And, of course, while important political ideas have a resonance which reverberate well beyond the periods in which they were written, the top priority in studying them should always be the awareness that they were framed in response to particular historical situations and experiences. In this series, therefore, Oakeshott gave several complete lectures in which the historical background is described before we would come, in a following week, to those dealing with the political thinking to which they gave rise.
In my opinion, the institutional background is treated in rather more detail than I think is strictly necessary. If I had been a student in his audience (and especially if I had been new to the subject), I might have become more than a little impatient and would have wanted him to get on rather more quickly with the political thought to which the title of the lectures referred. Even when Oakeshott does get there, I might have thought the minuteness with which he dissects the connotations of the political vocabulary at times somewhat excessive and even pedantic. Quite often I might have nodded off. And I would have been disappointed by being offered so many aerial perspectives, so much classification, and so little meat about all but four individual political thinkers: Aristotle and Plato (in that order), Augustine and Aquinas (very good on these two), each of whom have entire lectures devoted to them.
But, with these four exceptions, Oakeshott is primarily concerned with the political concepts and vocabularies that were widely current in the societies of a given period (though, having found certain distinctions in the Roman political vocabulary - between potestas and potentia or between jurisdictio and gubernaculum, for instance - , he continues to apply these Latin words in his analysis of modern political thought). He analyzes TYPES of ideas, and illustrates them for the most part by only scanty references to the philosophers who so memorably propounded them.
The analysis varies from the dry and (when you come to think of it, often rather obvious), to his excellent discussion of what we mean or could mean by such terms as `state' or `nation' in Lectures 26 and 27, which should dispel some woolly thinking about these concepts. He is illuminating when in Lecture 29 he points to a family likeness between the knowledge-based élitist theories of government to be found in Plato, Gnosticism, Calvinism, the Enlightened Despots, Comte, Marx and Pareto. And in the last two lectures he makes an distinction between the belief that the functions of government are teleocratic and the belief that they are nomocratic. (A search on Google suggests that he coined these words, which have since then entered the political vocabulary with the meaning that he gave to them.) Belief in the former rests on the view that governments are entitled to impose on their citizens goals formulated by the government, which may range from the goal of mobilizing the resources of the state for war, through trying to make a state God-fearing and through Enlightened Despotism, to the goal of redistributing wealth in order to deal with the problem of the poor. Nomocratic governments have the function to preside over existing laws, to adjust them from time to time without altering their basic nature, to respect the autonomy of the citizen to choose his own ends, but to prevent him from doing injury to others. He is at pains to say that this is NOT the same as laissez=faire `which belongs only to the lunatic fringe of modern European political thought'. (This is an example of the occasional robustness with which he describes some ideas as `nonsense').
So there are many good raisins in this pudding.