Bertrand Russell 1921-1970 V2by Ray Monk
In the second half of his life, Bertrand Russell transformed himself from a major philosopher, whose work was intelligible to a small elite, into a political activist and popular writer, known to millions throughout the world. Yet his life is the tragic story of a man who believed in a modern, rational approach to life and who, though his ideas guided popular
In the second half of his life, Bertrand Russell transformed himself from a major philosopher, whose work was intelligible to a small elite, into a political activist and popular writer, known to millions throughout the world. Yet his life is the tragic story of a man who believed in a modern, rational approach to life and who, though his ideas guided popular opinion throughout the twentieth century, lost everything.
Russell's views on marriage, religion, education, and politics attracted legions of devoted followers and, at the same time, provoked harsh attacks from every direction. On the one hand, he was stripped of his post at New York's City College because he was thought to be a bad influence on his students, and on the other, he was awarded the Order of Merit, the Nobel Prize in literature, and a lifetime Fellowship of Trinity College, Cambridge. He lived to be ninety-seven, and as he became older he became increasingly controversial. Monk quotes Russell's telegrams to Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, an influence that Russell and his followers believed tipped the balance toward peace. Russell devoted his last years to a campaign organized by his secretary to lend support to Che Guevara's call for a globally coordinated revolutionary struggle against "U.S. imperialism." Until now, this last campaign has been misunderstood as a perhaps misguided, but nevertheless innocent plea for world peace. Monk reveals it was no such thing.
Drawing on thousands of documents collected at the Russell archives in Canada, Monk steers through the turbulence of Russell's public activities, scrutinizing his sometimes paradoxical and often outrageous pronouncements. Monk's focus, however, is on the tragedy of Russell's personal life, and in revealing this inner drama Monk has relied heavily on the cooperation of Russell's surviving relatives and access to previously unexamined legal and private correspondence. A central player in Russell's life was his first son, John. Russell applied the methods of the new science of child psychology in his parenting, believing that a new generation of children could be reared to be "independent, fearless, and free." But instead of being a model of this new generation, John became anxious, withdrawn, and eventually schizophrenic. Nor was John's daughter Lucy (who was Russell's favorite grandchild) to be a model of the new generation; gradually she grew so emotionally disturbed that, at the age of twenty-six, she took her own life.
The Ghost of Madness completes the most searching examination yet published of Bertrand Russell's unique life and work. Together with Ray Monk's highly praised first volume of the biography, The Spirit of Solitude, this is the classic account of an extraordinary man who championed the great ideas of the twentieth century and was all but destroyed by them. It is a portrait of the mind of a century.
Times Literary Supplement
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Chapter One: Fallen Angel: Russell At Forty-Nine
'My brain is not what it was. I'm past my best & therefore, of course, I am now celebrated.'
As Russell approached his fiftieth birthday, this was the kind of wittily self-deprecating remark he was prone to make. On this occasion he was speaking to Virginia Woolf, next to whom he found himself sitting on 3 December 1921 at a dinner party in Chelsea given by his old Cambridge friend (now a successful and wealthy barrister) Charles Sanger. Sitting among such friends, Russell could not help but be deeply conscious of the fact that he had changed a great deal since the days when he and Sanger had been mathematics students together thirty years earlier, and, under Virginia Woolf's gentle but persistent prompting ('Bertie is a fervid egoist,' Woolf wrote that night in her diary, 'which helps matters'), he began to reflect on these changes. He still regarded mathematics as 'the most exalted form of art', he told her, but it was not an art that he himself expected ever to practise again: 'The brain becomes rigid at 50 & I shall be 50 in a month or two' (actually, he would be fifty the following May). He might write more philosophy, he said, but 'I have to make money', and so most of his writing would henceforth be paid journalism. The days when he could devote himself solely to serious intellectual work were over. Between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-eight, he told Woolf, he had 'lived in a cellar & worked', but then 'my passions got hold of me'. Now, he had come to terms with himself, and 'I don't expect any more emotional experiences. I don't think any longer that something is going to happen when I meet a new person.'
Virginia Woolf recorded all this in her diary without judgment or comment, but other friends noted the changes in Russell with dismay. At a dinner party two months later at the Webbs' home in Grosvenor Road, Russell was described by Beatrice Webb as 'cynical and witty', 'brilliantly intellectual' and yet 'not at peace either with himself or the world'. From a political point of view, she was inclined to regard him as a lightweight: 'He never seems serious, and his economic and political views follow on his temperamental likes and dislikes...He is too indolent or impatient to work out the problems of maximising freedom by deliberate social action.' All in all, she considered, he had gone downhill:
His present role of a fallen angel with Mephistophelian wit, and his brilliantly analytic and scoffing intellect, makes him stimulating company. All the same, I look back on this vision of an old friend with sadness. He may be successful as a littérateur; I doubt whether he will be of value as a thinker, and I am pretty well certain he will not attain happiness of love given and taken and the peacefulness of constructive work. When one remembers the Bertrand Russell of twenty years ago, with his intense concentration on abstract thought, his virile body and chivalrous ways, his comradeship and pleasant kindly humour, the perfect personal dignity with a touch of puritanism, it is melancholy to look at this rather frowsy, unhealthy and cynical personage, prematurely old, linked to a...girl of light character and materialist philosophy whom he does not and cannot reverence.
Beatrice Webb had always been a perceptive chronicler of Russell's changing personality, and this is an especially acute portrait, distorted to some extent, perhaps, by her loyalty to Alys, Russell's first wife, and her consequent dismissal of his second wife, Dora ('a singularly unattractive little person'), who, though half Alys's age, was, at twenty-seven, a little old to be called a 'girl'.
What is striking about these glimpses of Russell from the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Beatrice Webb is the sense they give of Russell's old friends needing in 1921 to catch up with the changes in his life and personality. Much had happened to him since the outbreak of war in 1914 that they had not been part of, and, since the end of the war, he had been out of the country for much of the time, first in Soviet Russia and then in China. Now he was back in their midst with a new wife, a new career as a journalist and public speaker and, in some fundamental respects, a new attitude to life. It is therefore no wonder that he seems to have spent much of his time with his friends reflecting on these changes, trying to explain what had happened to the Bertrand Russell they had known in the 1890s, the earnest, priggish young man, whose chief passion was the contemplation of the abstract truths of logic and mathematics.
Russell liked to say that his life before 1910 and his life after 1914 were as sharply separated as Faust's life before and after he met Mephistopheles. The First World War, he said, 'changed everything' for him, leaving him with a completely different, and much darker, view of human nature: 'I became convinced that most human beings are possessed by a profound unhappiness venting itself in destructive rages...I learned an understanding of instinctive processes which I had not possessed before.' But, as Russell himself often emphasised, in teaching him about the power of 'instinctive processes', the war had merely continued a transformation in his outlook and personality that had begun several years earlier with the release of his own instincts, triggered by his passionate love for Ottoline Morrell. Many of the changes in Russell noticed and lamented by Beatrice Webb were already apparent before the war started. The Russell who, in the spring Of 1914, inspired T. S. Eliot's 'Mr Apollinax' (reminding Eliot of 'Priapus in the shrubbery/Gaping at the lady in the swing'), would have been as unfamiliar a figure to Russell's friends of the 18gos as the 'fallen angel' described by Beatrice Webb in 1921.
By the early 1920s, the Russell described by Webb the cynical and witty littérateur, who had opinions on everything without ever thinking seriously about anything had become almost a stock figure in fiction. One recognises him as Mr Scogan in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, Melian Stokes in Gilbert Cannan's Pugs and Peacocks, Joshua Malleson in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and again as Bertie Reid in Lawrence's short story, 'The Blind Man'. What these caricatures (all written by people who knew Russell personally) have in common is their portrayal of a man who, though extraordinarily intelligent, had somehow lost his way; a fallen character who, having lost his faith in everything God, ideas, people had lost, too, any serious sense of purpose. Russell considered himself to have found, first in his love for Ottoline and then in his work for peace during the war, a higher, nobler purpose than that which had inspired his great work in mathematics, but this is not how it was perceived by others, who could not take him quite seriously, either as a lover or as a political reformer. In both roles he appeared incongruous and therefore a trivial, diminished figure compared to the intense, august and incontestably great author of The Principles of Mathematics and Principia Mathematica. Gilbert Cannan, for example, describes Melian Stokes as having, in his youth, 'achieved that obscure but illustrious fame which is given to mathematicians and men of science', and having then turned to politics, where the very qualities that made him a great mathematician and philosopher prove to be his undoing. It falls to his wise old aunt to tell him:
You are the same Melian with the difference only that you are working at a subject which the rest of us can reach, and the philosophic method in politics is, to say the least, alarming. You see, in politics, there is nothing to be proved. It is purely a matter of falling dexterously out of one muddle into another, and, my dear, you have no practice in falling. At a time like this, how can you be either witty or logical? And if you are neither where is Melian?
Echoes of these sentiments can be heard again and again in the words of Russell's friends, most brutally, perhaps, in the oft-repeated saying of G. M. Trevelyan, who knew Russell well when they were undergraduates together in the 1890s: 'He [Russell] may be a genius in mathematics as to that I am no judge; but about politics he is a perfect goose.'
As a philosopher of mathematics, Russell had achieved rare greatness; as a journalist and political commentator, he was to produce a staggering amount of second-rate writing. The problem, as many of his friends identified, was partly that he approached politics with the logician's desire for absolute clarity, and thus, impatient with the messy realities of political life, was inclined to oversimplify every issue. But partly, also, it was, as Beatrice Webb saw, that he did not bring to politics the qualities that made him a great philosopher and logician. His best philosophical writing is subtle, nuanced and unafraid of complexity. He supports his views with rigorous and sophisticated arguments, and deals with objections carefully and respectfully. In most of the journalism and political writing that he produced in the second half of his life, however, these qualities are absent, replaced with empty rhetoric, blind dogmatism and a cavalier refusal to take the views of his opponents seriously. The gulf in quality between Russell's writings on logic and his writings on politics is cavernous. The question that must be raised, therefore, is why he abandoned a subject of which he was one of the greatest practitioners since Aristotle in favour of one to which he had very little of any value to contribute.
There is a story that on one of his lecture tours of America, Russell found himself at dinner sitting next to the principal of a respectable girls' college, who asked him: 'Why did you give up philosophy?' To which he is supposed to have replied: 'Because I discovered I preferred fucking.' The story is probably apocryphal, though it chimes with many things that Russell did say, including his remark to Virginia Woolf that his devotion to serious intellectual work came to an end when 'my passions got hold of me'. There is no doubt that Russell's love for Ottoline, and his subsequent romantic adventures, helped to weaken the hold on him of his absorption in the philosophy of mathematics. What finally killed his interest in mathematics, however, as he himself acknowledged, was the impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which, as Russell was to write in My Philosophical Development, 'came in two waves'.
The first wave came in the summer Of 1913, when Wittgenstein temporarily destroyed Russell's philosophical self-confidence through his devastating attack on Russell's theory of judgment. The second wave came in 1919, after Russell had to some extent rebuilt his self-confidence, when he read Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and became convinced by it that the view of logic that had motivated his own work on the philosophy of mathematics was fundamentally wrong. Up until his reading of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Russell took a more or less Platonist view of logic, regarding it as the study of objective and eternal truths. After reading Wittgenstein, Russell became convinced that, on the contrary, logic was purely linguistic, so-called 'logical truths' being nothing more than tautologies. Though this might sound a fairly recondite matter, it is almost impossible to exaggerate its effect on Russell's life. Russell's great work on the philosophy of mathematics was inspired by the dream of arriving at truths that were demonstrable, incorrigible and known with absolute certainty. Logic, he thought, was such a body of truth, and his ambition of proving that mathematics was but a branch of logic was driven by his desire to show that a substantial body of knowledge, namely mathematics, was impervious to sceptical doubt. If logic was not a body of truth, but merely as Russell put it immediately after his conversion to a Wittgensteinian view a matter of giving 'different ways of saying the same thing', then this dream vanished and with it the hope of arriving at any absolutely certain knowledge. Neither logic nor mathematics had the philosophical interest that Russell had attributed to them, and that, fundamentally, was why he abandoned the philosophy of mathematics.
But why should he turn his attention instead to hack journalism and political writing? Partly for the reason he gave to Virginia Woolf: that, with a wife and child to support, he needed to earn money. As the child of an aristocratic family, he had inherited enough to live on without an earnt income, but he had given this inheritance away, some of it to the London School of Economics and some of it to T. S. Eliot. He had also rejected the offer of a lectureship from Trinity College, Cambridge, apparently believing that, having been divorced by his first wife for adultery, he was no longer respectable enough to survive in academic life (though it seems likely that his diminished interest in academic philosophy also had something to do with it). In any case, he believed, rightly, that he could earn more money from freelance writing than he could as a university lecturer. He had also come to believe that he could do more good as a political commentator writing for a wide audience than as an academic writing for the very few who understood mathematical logic. It was perhaps in this respect that the war had its most profound and far-reaching effect upon him.
After the war, Russell was famous, not for his philosophy but for his politics. His passionate and brave stand against the war, and particularly against conscription, had made him a hero among the younger generation, and the series of public lectures that he gave in 1915, published as Principles of Social Reconstruction, had established him as someone who might provide intellectual leadership to the Socialist and pacifist movements. His second wife, Dora, was one of many who came to admire him as a political leader rather than as a philosopher, and she encouraged him in his belief that he had something important and relevant to contribute to political life, a belief that was reinforced during their year in China when he lectured on political subjects more often than on logic and was hailed, somewhat ludicrously, as 'the greatest social philosopher of [the] world'.
Russell knew, of course, that this was nonsense, but if the world (outside the circle of his more discerning friends) was prepared to regard his hastily written lectures and articles as great social and political thought, and if, by supplying the seemingly inexhaustible demand for this material, he was able to provide well for his wife and son, then he was prepared to keep producing it at an ever more prolific rate. In his more self-critical moments, he might reflect that he was being celebrated for work that was manifestly and incomparably inferior to his writing on logic, but, for the most part, he was happy to make light of this irony. As his fiftieth birthday loomed, he knew that he was past his best as a serious thinker, but, for the moment, this mattered less to him than the fact that he had, at last, achieved his most heartfelt ambition: he had become a father.
Copyright © 2000 by Ray Monk
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