Working through my accumulated papers, sorting, filing, reading essays I wrote so long ago I had forgotten them, I have been struck by the contrast between the natural arc of the life cycle, from youth through maturity to old age, and the timeless present of the Internet, in which there is neither memory nor wisdom, but merely novelty. As I re-read essays forty years old, I am reminded of where I sat as I wrote them, how old my sons were then, whether I was in Northampton or Belmont, or Pelham. The essays are for me not fevered responses to the news of the moment but strata in the riverbed of my mind, laid down and then preserved by the passage of time.
I am accustomed to ask, when I read a great philosophical text, Is this an early or a middle Platonic Dialogue; are these the words of the young or the mature Marx; was this written by Kant before or after he encountered Hume’s critique of causal inference? When I pick up my viola to play my part of a Haydn quartet, my first thought is always, is this one of the opus 33’s or is this a late quartet? I love them all, but there is a difference, especially of course in how demanding the viola part will be. But none of this, it seems, pertains to the Internet, which paradoxically preserves everything forever in the cloud but cares only for the most recent post.
My experience these past few days calls to mind a lovely passage from the writings of Michael Oakeshott, in my view the finest English conservative thinker since Burke. In the title essay of Oakeshott’s collection Rationalism in Politics, he says of the Rationalist, “With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.”
These thoughts are prompted by the fact that I am eighty-four, not forty-eight or twenty-four, and quite irrespective of the world’s judgment, I feel a need to shape, preserve, and reflect upon the unfolding of my mind these past sixty-five years and more.
When I was in my early sixties, I spent a good deal of time transcribing, organizing, and thus preserving the letters written in the first decades of the twentieth century by my grandfather and grandmother. There I found the evidences of my grandparents’ devotion to the cause of socialism and to one another, a devotion captured exquisitely in a line from one of my grandmother’s letters: “I would have loved you even if you were no socialist,” she wrote to my grandfather.
Perhaps in half a century, when my two grandchildren are as old as I was then, they will find in my carefully assembled and organized papers some words to inspire them as I have been by the words of my grandparents.