Life after Life

Jonathan Rée

The motor vessel Aclinous left Birkenhead on 22 October 1938. It was an ordinary Dutch cargo ship making a routine journey to what was then the Dutch East Indies, and on this occasion it was also carrying a sick and lonely passenger: an experienced amateur sailor who was hoping that a sea voyage and a few months sailing around the Malay Archipelago would help restore his health and peace of mind. For as well as being trapped in ‘complicated private and professional entanglements’, as one acquaintance put it, he had recently suffered two severe strokes. The first, as he explained in a letter to a friend, deprived him of the use of his left arm and left leg, and the second took away his speech as well, though within a few months he felt able to speak again, ‘well enough for the purpose of my profession’.

It was a profession he did not like. He was a philosopher by trade, but despite having a covetable job as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, Robin Collingwood disliked college life and despised academic forms of thought and writing, especially in philosophy. If the responsibilities attached to his job were performed expeditiously, it was only because he refused to give them a moment’s more attention than they needed. Even the more trusted among his philosophical colleagues complained that he ‘had little time for attending discussion clubs or fulfilling social engagements’, and when he bothered to discuss philosophy with them, ‘one was nearly always defeated but very often not convinced.’ There were also mutterings about an excessive ‘fondness for the society of young women’, and allegations that he had foresaken Oxfordian conservatism and turned ‘sharply to the left’.

Just before leaving for his curative sea voyage Collingwood had submitted his Autobiography to the Oxford University Press. He had always got on well with Press staff, who knew him as a prompt and reliable assessor of manuscripts and an exemplary author, whose books sold rather well and who invariably submitted his work in perfect order and immaculately prepared for the printer. But Collingwood knew that the brief narrative of his own intellectual life was going to cause them problems, for it set out to annoy almost everyone in Oxford and in the British philosophical world. He must have had a thrill of mischievous glee every time he thought of the gyp he would be giving the pettifogging Delegates of the Press while he was off adventuring in the South China Sea.

The first parts of the Autobiography were harmless enough, indeed serene. They described a bohemian childhood in the Lake District in the closing years of the 19th century, financially constrained but glowing with artistic and ethical significance. Collingwood’s mother was an accomplished pianist, his father an archaeologist and Ruskin’s secretary and biographer; and both of them were painters and friends of painters. (‘So that I learned,’ Collingwood wrote, ‘to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the admiration of virtuosi, but as the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting’.) Most mornings his father gave him lessons in Latin and Greek for an hour or two, but otherwise the boy was left to himself: he could read whatever he liked in his father’s library, go away with him on archaeological digs, work at drawing and carpentry (‘I was a neat-fingered boy’), or simply wander off on his own, cycling round the lakes, climbing the fells, or rowing and sailing on Coniston Water.

He was 13 when he first went to school, his place at Rugby paid for by a would-be benefactor. When he got there he was baffled to discover that he knew and understood far more than those who had had the benefit of an expensive formal education. And he was appalled to find most of the masters incapable of teaching anything except ‘that pose of boredom towards learning and everything connected with it which is notoriously part of the English public school man’s character’.

The Autobiography showed that Collingwood had never learned the meaning of academic fear. When he went to study philosophy at Oxford, he at first tried to follow the example of his masters, grimly obsessed with burying the corpse of something they called Idealism or Hegelianism, and then digging it up again, sniffing it all over, and burying it once more. But he found himself drawn to the supposedly obsolete social liberalism of T.H. Green, which he associated with Ruskinian political radicalism in its idealisation of active ‘citizenship’ within a comprehensively caring State, and he had the nerve to suspect that there was more life in the old Idealist corpse than in all its ‘realist’ grave-diggers.

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