Sunday, February 10, 2019

'I Read Histories of the Past and Live in Them'

After delivering one of his lectures, Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s future in the European Union. The philosopher is said to have replied, “I don’t see that I am required to have an opinion on that.” Don’t mistake this for cowardice or absence of thought. The ego is an opinion-generating mechanism, one that calls into question the impossibility of perpetual motion. A man without opinions, or who is at least prudent about imposing them on the world, is well on his way to sainthood. In conversation, if I find myself sharing space with an industrious opinion-maker, especially if the topic du jour is politics, please don’t block my egress.

I thought of Oakeshott’s remark when I came across this observation in a letter Charles Lamb wrote to his friend Thomas Manning on March 1, 1800: “Public affairs—except as they touch upon me, and so turn into private,—I cannot whip up my mind to feel any interest in . . . I cannot make these present times present to me. I read histories of the past and live in them; although, to abstract sense, they are far less momentous than the noises which keep Europe awake.”

Charles Lamb, a foolish and profoundly wise little man, was born on this date, Feb. 10, in 1775.

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